Subtitled “The History of Colombian Cumbia & Porro as Told by the Phonograph 1948-1979”, The Original Sound of Cumbia sees Brighton’s ever-exemplary Soundway label outdoing itself with an exhaustive set that comes on two CDs or six pieces of vinyl.
Although it has followed similar paths before, with its essential Colombia! and Cartagena! collections and several other releases, this compilation, put together by Cali resident and collector supremo Will “Quantic” Holland, is on a whole other level. Charting the music from its recorded origins in the 1940s on locally produced but US-manufactured 78s, right through to the late 70s – just before synthesisers and drum machines marked the end of the classic era – it is clearly and delightfully a labour of love.
Originating in the northern coastal area of Colombia, which boasts a reputation for idyllic Caribbean beaches and carries the legacy of the slave trade, cumbia and its close cousin porro are, like so many other musical forms, a meeting between African influence and Western instrumentation. The foundation of scraping percussion and that irresistible loping Latin beat is most frequently led by an accordion and gaitas (cane flutes), often with the addition of clarinet, tuba and other brass, for bands that are aiming more towards the ballroom than the cantina.
Lyrically, it is a remarkably self-referential music, rarely missing a chance to holler an extended “cooooombiaaagh” at opportune moments. However, like its Caribbean cousins rocksteady and reggae, it is frequently the news set to music, with tales of principal players and the state of affairs in Colombia joining love songs and compositions that extoll the beauty of the country, as well as the never-ending charms of the national beauty queens.
As Holland points out in the generous sleeve notes, the legacy of this music is still very much alive, not only among the people of Colombia, but throughout the rest of South America and beyond, where several of these evergreen tunes have been the inspiration for updates and new models of digital cumbia that still lean on the same rhythms and timeless melodies.
Although the music lives on, the original artefacts are disappearing, and in that sense the value of a compilation like this, on which every track is a standout, is incalculable. The 55 tracks go deep enough to avoid most of the obvious and overly compiled selections, allowing this remarkable set to operate as a comprehensive primer, or a further lure for those who have already been bitten by the highly infectious cumbia bug.
THE ORIGINAL SOUND OF CUMBIA, Various Artists (Soundway/Rhythm Method).