Are we in the midst of a cumbia renaissance? No doubt, folks who’ve been up on this style for years will scoff at the idea that cumbia is suddenly “hot” when it was never “cold” to begin with but at least from my (limited) vantage point, it certainly seems as if there’s been a recent surge in cumbia-related anthologies and compilations being pitched to the same crowds who previously were getting upped on everything from Ethiopian jazz to Panamanian boogaloo.

Yes, cumbia has gone hip(ster) but hey, I’m just as much part of that wave as anyone else and frankly, I’m all for cumbia getting shine no matter what the circumstances.

My first exposure to the magic of cumbia came during one of our many Boogaloo! nights at the Short Stop; it was probably Rani D of Soul in the Park guest-DJing and as he threw in a few cumbia joints in the mix, you could see the dancers viscerally react to it; it’s like you threw some “get hype” switch in their heads.

There’s something marvelously simple about a cumbia rhythm and notice I said “simple” and not “simplistic.” The most distinctive attribute about a cumbia song – no matter old or new or what country it emerges from – is that telltale “two step” rhythm. Listen to a cumbia beat and imagine your head was a metronome and sure enough, you can dip-dip, dip-dip, dip-dip to that rhythm like it was the most natural thing in the world. That plays a huge role in making cumbia such an irresistible force on the dance floor.

It also, I imagine, explains why it’s been such a portable rhythm, emerging out of the coastal regions of Colombia and then traveling across South, Central and North America. That two-step rhythm meshes well with many other music styles, most notably polka, especially once Colombian musicians began to incorporate the accordion into their repertoire.

If you’re a cumbia noob (like me), then you might as well begin with the new Beginner’s Guide to Cumbia, put together by our buddy DJ Bongohead. It’s a 3-CD comp that serves as a decent primer to cumbia styles of the past, present and future. I do wish the liner notes had been more comprehensive – what’s there certainly offers some important historical sweep but compared to the dozens of pages found for the other comps I discuss here, I would have thought a Beginner’s Guide would be more in-depth. What’s notable is that one of other comps I’m writing about, The Afrosound of Colombia is also curated by Bongohead and that’s got a frickin’ encyclopedia of knowledge in there so I’m left to assume that The Beginner’s Guide to Cumbia simply suffered from a limited production budget (the 3-CD comp only costs $14; do the math). In any case, here’s a sampling of various tunes:

Continue reading CUMBIA!


The Bamboos: Ghost
From 4 (Tru Thoughts, 2010)

Kings Go Forth: High On Your Love
From The Outsiders are Back (Also @ Amazon) (Luaka Bop, 2010)

Michael Leonhart & The Avramina 7: Madhouse Mumbai
From Seahorse and the Storyteller (Truth and Soul, 2010)

Flowering Inferno: Dub Y Guanguanco
From Dog With a Rope (forthcoming on Tru Thoughts, 2010)

Rakaa: C.F.P.
From Crown of Thorns (forthcoming on Decon, 2010)

Though public awareness for the Bamboos – the foremost of Australia’s deep funk/retro-soul bands – still lags behind some of their British and American counterparts, they continue to churn out releases at an admirably prodigious paste. While they’re now on their 4th album, Milwaukee’s Minneapolis Kings Go Forth have finally just put out their debut LP after putting out some highly regarded 7″s.

I’ll be straight up – neither one of these albums really are what I’d call “my sound.” Maybe I’ve just moved off the uptempo funk style but while each have their own distinct lane (Bamboos = hard and funky, KGF has a slicker, ’70s feel), both are a bit too speedy for my current tastes. Maybe that’s why the songs I did gravitate to were each artists’ stronger offerings in soul (rather than funk). Especially with “High On Your Love,” Danny Fernandez Black Wolf gets to work out his vocals something nice.

The Michael Leonhart release is an unexpectedly psych rocky/hippy poppy/soul project released by Truth and Soul who seem to be moving in some new sonic direction with this strange but intriguing release. You can find a good deal of this kind of trippy, reverb slathered, Afro-influenced tunes on the album and out of the batch, “Madhouse Mumbai,” with its obvious Ethio-jazz touches, resonated with me the most. Maybe I just like the way Leonhart sings, “shalom.”

Lastly, we have a cut off the upcoming sophomore album by Quantic’s Flowering Inferno. “Dub Y Guanguanco” sounds exactly like what you’d expect – the flirty rhythms of Cuban guanguanco mixed with the heavy bottom of dub; a lovely combo here and one of the best songs off this new album. Will Holland done did it again.

I’m ending with another forthcoming cut, this one off of Rakaa’s solo debut (due out in July). I’m thinking DJ Babu produced this one and I’m really feeling his flip on the Motown classic “Heatwave.” A fun, lively lil’ cut that lets Rakaa unleash his distinctive flow over.