An unashamed slave to Colombia's cumbia

GRANT SMITHIES
Last updated 05:00 02/03/2014

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I could blame the surfeit of evening mojitos. Or perhaps it was the crushing tropical heat. Or it may simply have been the romance of the setting: the old Spanish Colonial quarter of Cartagena, on the northern coast of Colombia.

But whatever the reason, this jaded journalist experienced a musical epiphany. I was walking along the top of an ancient stone wall, built to keep African slaves in and pirates out. Every 10 metres, a rusty medieval cannon jutted through the stonework, facing westwards in symbolic defiance over the Caribbean sea.

And there, on a narrow plaza atop the wall, a tiny band was playing cumbia music. Just three guys, armed with an accordion, conga drums, and a slotted stick, the latter scratched hard to create the style's characteristic "chk- chk- CHK" rhythm.

A large crowd had gathered, chanting and clapping, taking turns leaping into the centre of the circle to jump and spin like primeval break-dancers.

I'd heard cumbia before, but not like this: live in the open air, bashed out fast and rough on minimal equipment, in the very city where the musical style was born more than 200 years ago.

I spent much of the following three weeks in Colombia searching for old vinyl cumbia LPs. I found a few amid some ramshackle stalls at the back of an old church in Usaquen, and celebrated with a milky iced drink made from a gigantic tropical fruit called guanabana, which resembles a thorny football.

In an open-air market outside Bogota's famous gold museum, I found a dozen more, and celebrated with a succession of salt-rimmed, lime-garnished craft ales from the Bogota Beer Company.

But it was in Cartagena that I hit the motherlode. One stifling afternoon, I stumbled across an ant-infested record stall in an alcove beneath the city walls, presided over by a heroically grumpy old senora I came to call "The Trout", who barked a steady stream of abuse at incoming customers, locals and gringos alike.

Eventually, after much haggling, The Trout sold me another 50 LPs. I celebrated with a few too many icy tumblers of the local rum, followed by a covert swim in the decorative pool in the hotel courtyard in my jocks, having forgotten to pack any togs. A week later, I had to buy an extra suitcase to haul all this vinyl booty back to New Zealand, and now my house overflows with mucho muy autentico cumbia albums.

"I'm not surprised you love this music," says Mario Galeano Toro by phone from Bogota. A Colombian university lecturer specialising in Afro-Caribbean music, Toro's band Frente Cumbiero plays Wellington's James Cabaret on March 14 and 15 as part of the New Zealand Festival.

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"Many other types of Latin music feel a little clichéd now, with all the light, spinning rhythms and so on. But cumbia has this huge influence of indigenous Indian music, with a heavy trance-like sound to the drums. It has a deep, mysterious undertone to it somehow. The beat is so addictive and hypnotic - it pulls you down towards the floor rather than making you want to spin like a salsa tune."

Toro's approach to cumbia is anything but traditional. In 2009, Frente Cumbiero took cumbia deep into the echo chamber alongside legendary Guyanese dub producer, Mad Professor. And in 2012, a collaboration with British producer Will "Quantic" Holland yielded Ondatrópica, an album blending contemporary dance styles with traditional Colombian rhythms. The record saw grizzled octogenarian accordionists jamming with rappers and beat-boxers; there was even a spirited cumbia makeover of a Black Sabbath song.

"In Frente Cumbiero, we not only present our own view of what cumbia is, but also what it could be," says Toro.

"This music began 200 years ago as a hybrid, with black African rhythms colliding with Spanish and Colombian Indian melodies.

"Cartegena was a major slave port, and the slaves who escaped from the Spaniards headed inland and formed tribal communities with the native people, and slowly this music took shape.

"Since then the sound has evolved steadily and now you have trumpets, saxophones, electric guitars, drum machines and synthesisers.

"Our band's mission is to bring out cumbia's connections with other musical styles from Africa and the Caribbean, and take this exciting sound into the future.

"The live show we're bringing to Wellington uses electronic instruments alongside more traditional ones. We deliver a heavy-hitting sound for the dance floor, with deep tropical grooves and a psychedelic vibe to the arrangements. I can promise you that people who come to see us will walk away afterwards addicted to cumbia, just like you did."

- Sunday Star Times

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