Often called the “Land of 1,000 Rhythms,” Colombia is one of the most musically rich nations on earth. The combination of geographic features and influences of indigenous, African, and European cultures have resulted in the full spectrum of musical expression. While many international visitors might already be familiar with Shakira and salsa, even quick visits will expose other layers of the country’s musical portfolio.
One of the most popular musical genres in Colombia is cumbia, a combination of indigenous, Spanish, and African musical styles that originated on the Caribbean coast. In cumbia’s original form, performed by African slaves and their descendants, only percussion instruments and vocals are used, and the accompanying dance evokes the shackles once worn by slaves. The modern form of cumbia began to appear in the 1940s and [‘]50s, when it moved from the countryside into urban areas. It was then that brass instruments and keyboards were integrated into the cumbia sound. This more big band strand of cumbia is now called porro.
Gabriel García Márquez once claimed that his prize-winning novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, was just a 350-page vallenato, a musical genre that developed on the Caribbean coast. The style dates back more than 200 years and songs are mini-epics, with poetic stories and characters. It’s said that the genre grew out of oral tradition, carrying news from village to village. Vallenato is played on three instruments: the caja (drum), guacharaca (scratcher), and accordion. In 1993, musician Carlos Vives released Clásicos de la Provincia, a modern vallenato album that brought the genre a brief moment of international attention.
Champeta grew out of various African, Colombian, and Caribbean styles in coastal cities like Cartagena and Barranquilla in the early 1980s. Electric guitars, synthesizers, and picós (speakers) were added in the 1990s, while recent years have seen influence from reggaetón. On the Pacific, curralao is most representative of African rhythms. It’s played by groups of four musicians, one of whom who plays the Colombian marimba, a wooden xylophone resembling the African balafon.
While salsa was created in New York City by Puerto Ricans and Cubans, it quickly spread to Colombia, where it developed more Caribbean-esque rhythms. The fine footwork of Colombian salsa dancers regularly puts them at the top of world competitions. In the 1980s, an abundance of cash from the cocaine trade helped fuel new salsa clubs and a new wave of salsa orchestras in Cali, paving the way for it become the world capital of salsa. Influential artists include Orquestra Guayacán, Grupo Niche, La-33, and Jairo Varela.
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