Cumbia: The Music That Moves Latin America

Nov 10, 2013
Originally published on November 10, 2013 2:19 pm

Alt.Latino hosts Felix Contreras and Jasmine Garsd are back on Weekend Edition Sunday to talk about cumbia, a style of music and dance that you can find almost anywhere in the Americas — at the southern tip of Argentina, passing through Chile and all the way up to the U.S. Hear their conversation with host Rachel Martin at the audio link. For a more detailed look at the history of cumbia, check out Alt Latino's full episode on the style featuring Eduardo Diaz, director of the Smithsonian Latino Center.

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UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing in foreign language)


That slow, sultry sound you hear, it's called cumbia and it is taking over the world. OK, maybe not the world. But it's taking over Latin America. Here to tell us how that is taking shape, Felix Contreras and Jasmine Garsd from NPR's Alt.Latino. It's a weekly podcast about Latin alternative music.

Hey, you guys.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Good morning. How are you?

MARTIN: Doing well. So cumbia, tell me about this music.

CONTRERAS: Well, you know, we started with a song because we wanted to start with that tradition and show you how it's made its way around Latin America.

GARSD: It dates back to colonial slavery times in Colombia and it's this beat. Felix, how would we describe this beat?

CONTRERAS: You know, that's short lilting shuffle almost. We're going to play a track now from 1964. This is called "Cumbia del Sol."


CONTRERAS: It's by Carmen Rivero.


CARMEN RIVERO: (Singing in foreign language)

CONTRERAS: There, definitely a Cuban influence from the Cuban mambo and a song that's happening around the second time in the mid '60s - big bands, American big-band, the orchestrations. So all that stuff is having influence and it just takes off like crazy in Mexico in the mid-'60s. And it's been adapted and synchronized with a lot of different cultures. And one of my favorite forms is something that took place in the - let's say the early '70s in Peru. It got mixed in with psychedelic music, with surf guitar, with the Andean influence there. And it became a form called chicha. And we're going to play a track now called "Constelacion," and it's by a really old Peruvian group called Los Destellos. And check out the guitar 'cause this is how you can tell.




MARTIN: I love it.

GARSD: You know, this type of cumbia is born when there is this oil boom in Peru in the '70s, right near the Amazon. These towns just pop up just exclusively for the drilling of oil. And you get all these workers - oil guys from the Southwest and the West, you know, that are coming down to Peru. So, what happens is you get this very Western guitar twang, like the psychedelia of the surf rock mixing with the cumbia.


DESTELLOS: (Playing)

MARTIN: This is something that's obviously really popular in Latin America. But has it reverberated in other cultures? Is cumbia extended beyond Latin America?

GARSD: Well, in the last couple of years there has been a rediscovery of cumbia in U.S.-based bands. But it's always especially interesting when you see, like bands, you know, non-Hispanic bands based in Brooklyn or - that are just incorporating cumbia.


CONTRERAS: You know, these days it can pop up anywhere, as Jasmine says. And the cool part of it is that they are reclaiming this. They are looking back at on something that was kind of look down upon, 'cause it was so working-class in just about every culture that it was performed in. But it's become cool and hip again and, you know, it's still the soundtrack to my youth. I brought in a clip of something that I heard at the Latin Alternative Music Conference over this summer.


CONTRERAS: I brought in this track because...

GARSD: I love this.

CONTRERAS: ...they started playing and playing this and I recognized the tune, which you will too.


CONTRERAS: But then it switches over to cumbia and blew my mind. Check this one out.




MARTIN: Oh, that's (unintelligible).


MACKLEMORE & RYAN LEWIS FEATURING FITO OLIVARES: (Singing) I'm going to pop some tags, only got $20 in my pocket. I'm-I'm-I'm hunting, looking for a come up. This is...


GARSD: It's so perfect.

CONTRERAS: This is a remix by a guy named Fito Olivares who's from the Southwest - I think he's from Texas. He is a, you know, he's a recording artist that does a lot of different styles of music - tropical music, cumbia and stuff. Finally, he brilliantly mixes these two things. And it just shows how adaptable it is. And it's just like its constantly changing. When you go from colonial days to "Thrift Shop" here, you know, that music is just so vibrant. It just - it has a life that just won't die.

MARTIN: Very cool. Very cool.

Jasmine Garsd, Felix Contreras, they co-host Alt.Latino, it's a weekly podcast that explores the world of Latino arts and culture. Thank you so much, you guys.

CONTRERAS: No problem.

GARSD: Thanks for having us.

CONTRERAS: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: You can find them in NPR Music at


OLIVARES: (Singing) It was 99 cents...

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.