CLASS ACT The Original Sound of Cumbia

Doing things the
Quantic way – or, more accurately, diving deep into the archival waters, with
exhilarating results.




Calling British DJ and archivist Will “Quantic” Holland the
curator for The Original Sound of Cumbia (Soundway) – which he undoubtedly is — does this marvelous set and him an
injustice. While not as exhaustive as, say, Buda Musique’s long-running
multi-volume Ethiopiques series
(which ignited world-wide interest in that country’s neglected funk movement),
this two-disc set of Columbian cumbia has the comprehensive feel of a much
bigger package.


Of course, it’s built around the obsessive geekdom
fundamental to any high-quality socio-historical music compendium. But bitten
by the cumbia bug, Holland wasn’t satisfied with cataloguing cumbia from afar
— time-wise or distance-wise, it turns out. So he moved to Colombia for five
years and did his crate-digging for old 78s, 45s and LPs in the flea markets,
cantinas and run-down shops where the music evolved. (The set’s subtitle — “The History of Columbian Cumbia and Porro
as Told by the Phonograph, 1948-1979” – tells all.) While there, Holland also
took up the accordion, cumbia’s central instrument, and formed his own band. He
even opened his own studio.


He was, to put a fine point on it, doing the full immersion
course, and that comes through consistently in this fantastic 55-song set.
Naturally the rollicking strains of cumbia – and its ballad-tempo cousin, porro
– defy any sterile look at the music anyway. But Holland’s fixation provides
the first-hand energy missing from some of the mummified treatises that examine
Third World music as though it were already extinct.


That’s decidedly not the case here. As Holland explains in
his thorough and sparkling liner notes, cumbia’s percussive
“shuck-shucka-shuck” rhythms can still be heard across the Spanish-speaking
Americas, from L.A. to Buenos Aires. Disc 1 traces the music’s origins amidst
the poverty of the Caribbean coast – heard in the 200-run lacquers of acts like
Orquesta Emisora Fuentes and Orquesta A. No. 1 — to its migration to the
country’s mountainous urban centers, where it soon became a national obsession
of the rich and poor alike. Disc 2 follows that evolution through Columbian
giants of the music like Tono Fernandez & Anibal Velasquez, Curro Fuentes
and Albert Pacheco, who helped make cumbia an international music phenomenon.


What strikes the listener is how great a variety there is of
what is such a fundamentally simple formula (of course you can say the same
about rock & roll). But just like looking closely at any genre, the
microscope of fandom reveals an almost endless range of sub-sets and style
differences. As Holland writes, “Cumbia is the fruit borne on a family tree of numerous coastal rhythms, each one
having particular importance in its respective region: puya, paseo, porro, gaita,
baile cantao, tambora, merengue, fandango, bullerengue, son de negro, garabato


Even a casual listen reveals the depth, from the brass
band-flavored carnival stomp of Banda Bajera de San Pelayo’s “Descarga en
Cumbia” to the quick-step tempo and call-and-response choruses of “Sembrando
Café” by Alberto Pacheco Y Su Conjunto, both of which reveal the debt cumbia
owes to its African cradle. Elsewhere, some coastal tracks reveal their close
ties to Jamaican music, like the percussion-and-horns syncopation of “Cumbia de
Todos” by Guillermo Munoz y Conjunto Tipico del Magdalena, which could’ve
emerged from the studios of Trench Town.


It’s the diatonic accordion that came to be identified with
cumbia more than any other instrument, serving the same central role as the
acoustic guitar in Delta blues on simple tracks like the wheeze-and-beats of
Los Alegra de Valle’s “Samaria.” That connection is no accident, though. As
Holland writes, “As with the Delta blues, cumbia‘s
origins are awash in myth, romance and folklore, immersed in the cosmic depths
of South American indigenous culture.”


This being South America, though, the usual stereotypes
about the poor and their “indigenous culture” initially hindered the music –
the coastal regions were looked down upon, literally, by the proper denizens of
Bogotá, Medellín and Cali, the country’s three biggest cities. As Holland
notes, it was widely perceived that the campesinos should be cultivating their land and “not travelling to Medellín and back to
cut records.” In this respect, the earliest cumbia musicians were rebels and
pioneers – no wonder, then, as Holland writes, that “Andrés Landero, at the
time a young drummer in Los Gaiteros, went on to have particular influence on
The Clash’s own rebel, Joe Strummer.”


But just like what happened to the Delta blues once it
migrated, many tracks here reflect the changing times and are far more
elaborate affairs. Take, for example, the boisterous Big Band workout “Me Quedo
con el Viejo” by Cresencio Salcedo, whose chugging rhythms you can just picture
drifting into the steamy night from some packed local hall where Aguardiente
mingles with the sweat of dancers and the promise of flesh-on-flesh intimacies.


That’s the kind of life force that courses through most of
these 55 tracks. Holland writes of the project that it “seemed like I was
catching a last gasp of air from an older, simpler Colombia before the curtains
of modernity swept in,” but that, too, shortchanges what he’s done here. For
through his diligence and love he’s brought this marvelous collection alive for
future generations’ enjoyment and inspiration. That’s why, in the end, this is
a perfect collection for the both veteran and novice lovers of the cumbia


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