Various Artists – The Original Sound of Cumbia: The History of Colombian Cumbia & Porro As Told By The Phonograph 1948 – 79

January 01, 1970

(Soundway)

 

www.soundwayrecords.com

 

Calling British DJ and archivist Will “Quantic” Holland the curator for The Original Sound of Cumbia: The History of
Colombian Cumbia & Porro As Told By The Phonograph 1948 – 79
  (Soundway; www.soundwayrecords.com), 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 Colombian 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 Colombian 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 Colombian 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 sound.

 

DOWNLOAD: Much of it. – JOHN SCHACHT

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