Interview with Carlos Vives: “Much of today's most successful music has the essence of cumbia”, the genre that unites Latin America


For years, the Colombian singer has studied the folklore of the Colombian Caribbean. In , most recent album, , explores cumbia, the iconic rhythm of the country that today is also a symbol of Latin American culture

In the Colombian Caribbean, near the Magdalena river that crosses the country from south to north, the hicotea men live.

The hicoteas are a species of amphibian turtles that live in swampy areas.

Like the hicoteas, the inhabitants of the Magdalena region and its tributaries master techniques to take advantage of the water and land, fishing and agriculture.

As the sociologist Orlando Fals Borda used to tell, they are people who, like the hicoteas, know how to adapt to the difficulties of the weather, be , heavy rainy seasons or severe droughts.

“We suffered a lot, but also we enjoyed“Said Fals Borda recalling , conversations with the inhabitants of this riverside area.

In this amphibian environment cumbia, a rhythmic rhythm that arises from the mixture of the music of the indigenous people and that of the African slaves, and that later is nourished by the European influence.

That cumbia spread and today , is throughout the continent, with slopes in each country. The cumbias sonideras in Mexico; the cumbias villeras of Argentina; or the Amazonian and psychedelic cumbias of Peru.

That, in addition to artists like Selena, Shakira, Rubén Blades, Calle 13, Becky G or Los Ángeles Azules who, each in their own way, have included cumbia in their productions.

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Cumbia is a joyous and lilting genre.

To talk about cumbia, on BBC Mundo we interviewed Colombian singer Carlos Vives, one of the most recognized artists in the country, who these days is releasing , new album Cumbiana, in which , leaves from cumbia to make songs that range from sauce until reggaeton.

For almost 30 years, Carlos Vives has investigated the culture of the Colombian Caribbean and for this new work , focused on that amphibian territory in which cumbia is born.

The following is a synthesis of the telephone conversation we had with Carlos Vives.


Just as the Mississippi River was key to the birth of blues, from which rock arose, the Magdalena River in the Colombian Caribbean was key to the emergence of cumbia. How is that territory?

The Cumbiero territory is a large amphibious territory, which goes beyond the borders of the interior and the coast of Colombia, beyond the borders that we have created to divide ourselves as a country.

, is a great wetland, a network of rivers that were part of the indigenous cultures that inhabited ,. The Colombian Caribbean is incredible because , has one foot in the Andes and the other in the Antilles.

So that amphibian territory where cumbia is born transcends toThe Colombian Caribbean …

If you get up on the map of Colombia you will understand that amphibian system, which has Jamaica as a neighbor and Louisiana as the highest in the United States, which is where García Márquez said that the Caribbean begins.

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Cumbia arises as a mixture of indigenous and African rhythms.

The Mississippi with its blues and the Magdalena with its cumbia are like the same river that seems to come together under the sea.

What is , that makes cumbia spread throughout Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina?

, is a happy, rhythmic and spiritual music. , is a rhythm that goes, that always goes forward. , is something that gets into your soul, pre-Hispanic music was music for deities.

That not only came from Africa, that was already in our American continent. Indigenous cultures gave us the percutory and spiritual powers of our tropical music. Sorry to explain , to you in such a gaseous way, but that's how I feel ,.

In the Chronicles of the Indies , appears as music of the devil, but , was pure spiritual connection, from the heart.

Then cumbia spread across the continent and stayed in the neighborhoods of the most humble people, who are the people closest to the original cultures.

, arrived at the towns of Argentina; arrived in Monterrey in Mexico, where people who listen and dance cumbia are told Colombians.

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Cumbia is the protagonist in the main festivities in Colombia, such as the Barranquilla Carnival.

Cumbia has even influenced the songs of soccer stadiums in Argentina.

Amphibian territory spread throughout the world and created round-trip songs between countries.

So much so that there is Who does not known that cumbia is of origin Colombian…

Much of today's most successful music has the essence of cumbia, all of which becomes the origin of reggaeton and modern sounds.

Everything Cuba has given us is incredible, Cuba has always been a great lighthouse, Puerto Rico not to mention, but we have always underestimated ours.

When I started in music I came to an industry where figures like Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Cachao were in force. I had the opportunity to share with them and thank them for the mambo, for the guaguancó. And they said to me “the most beautiful music in the world is Colombian”, imagine those figures saying that.

You say cumbia is the happiest genre in the world, but , can also be very nostalgic

Of course , is nostalgia, , carries the burden of slavery, the black and the Indian unite their destiny in our America.

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The Mexican Celso Piña, who died in 2019 and known as “The rebel of the accordion”, was one of the greatest exponents of modern cumbia.

Cumbia is a lost world that belongs to us, but the complexes with Europe and with the world made us believe the cliché that our indigenous music was very sad because the Indian was very poor.

But when you work on this and investigate, you begin to realize that , is just the opposite, and that is the power that cumbia has.

On my next album comes a cumbia of terrible sadness, but , is also the happiest song on the album.

Cumbia arises as a mixture of indigenous music with that of African slaves, but Europe also makes its contribution with singing and later with the accordion, how is that fusion?

Cumbia is a Native American story that reaches Africa and Europe.

The accordion was called “the piano of the poor”. In towns where there was no money for an orchestra or a pianist, a lady with an accordion solved everything.

When a Creole cumbiero like Juancho Polo Valencia took an accordion, Europe came into , hands and the polkas, the mazurkas felt …

In Colombia we are many pieces of the world, , is not that I make mergers in my music, , is that we are mergers by nature, that sometimes is difficult for us to understand, but the music clearly shows , to you.

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The inhabitants of the Magdalena riverbank have an amphibious culture.

In recent years cumbia has had a boom in musicto urban, thanks to artists who mix , with more modern rhythms. Do you think that helps maintain folklore?

There are people who tell me that in order for the folklore not to disappear, many cumbia or vallenato records must be made.

No, so that the folklore does not disappear we have to take care of the river, we have to take care of the peasant, if there is violence in our field there are no peasants, if there are no peasants there are no vallenatos. If there are no rivers, no fishing, no myths and people become impoverished, there are no cumbias.

The dancer and folklorist Delia Zapata Olivella told me “you don't love what you don't know.” What do our young people know about the tragedies experienced by river towns when winter arrives or when drought arrives? About the damage caused by those who divert the waters or damage the swamps?

We have to fix the territory of the cumbia that has given us so many joys, that the salt water mixes again with the fresh water, that the birds return to the swamps.

In other words, saving those territories is saving stories …

Only with the stories of the characters of the cumbiero territory we could have a Disney, , is an inexhaustible source of stories of humanity, of tenderness.

I would like us to give a cinematographic dimension to our myths, to the stories of our rivers.

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Carlos Vives' music is based on indigenous Colombian rhythms.

I work with people from the entertainment industry in other countries and see what they need. Then I look inside and realize so many stories that we have not told, so many worlds of adventure, we are unquestionably a creative reservoir of fantastic imagery, of much adventure, of much madness.

Is the environment in which cumbia arises at risk?

You are at risk, I send a total SOS. , is in total abandonment. The poverty of our peoples, not only economic, but also of education, of pride.

Since the river stopped being important, now we only passed over , in a plane and we never looked at those towns again.

I do not see conscience in the leadership to really value that territory in the biodiverse, in the protection of the environment. We do not take care of our species, our people.

Historically we have not had that sense of care, because we did not love each other, we did not know each other.

The territory of the cumbia is a great wetland, the importance of wetlands in times of climate change is tremendous.

Art will always be an effective way to reconnect with nature. Sooner or later we will have to understand why we were born in this territory.

We have to be guardians of something that is very powerful not only for us, but for the world. That does not belong to us, , belongs to the planet.


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