For some, a country’s music is simply one element of understanding its culture and people. Music for me, however, was far more than just one element; it was what originally inspired me to come to Colombia. It is something I am only just beginning to understand, and with each new discovery I am finding that there is more to explore.
Where I’m from, Colombia’s multi-layered rhythms can be obtained in only certain places – specialist record shops, world music festivals or some obscure DJ mixes or compilations. It is characterized as one of the many ‘world music’ forms – mainly under an umbrella term like cumbia or tropical. It should be acknowledged however that Colombian music consists of so much more, composed of hundreds of different rhythms from the mix of African, Indigenous and Spanish roots. From bullerengue and champeta on the Atlantic coast, to chirimía chocoana and currulao on the Pacific, to Cali’s adoption of salsa and everything in between; it is clear that Colombia possesses something very special.
Perhaps the reason why Colombia’s music has remained defined by region is because of its geography. The Andean cordilleras have played their part, separating musical traditions and therefore maintaining them as pure forms. This geography, in addition to Colombia’s ethnic diversity, has allowed for a significant disparity between, for example, the musical styles found in the two coastal regions of Colombia.
The first time I came across music from the Pacific coast was a revelation, and what better way to be introduced to it than at Festival Petronio Álvarez. This event seems to unite almost all types of people from Cali – no matter what musical preferences they have. What seems like the whole city arrives at the Plaza de Toros ready to embrace some of the most harmonically poignant and melancholic singing from currulao and bunde choruses (as well as sharing a few bottles of viche along the way!).
Apart from this unique festival, salsa still dominates the dance floors in Cali. This city’s favorite dance and music style seems like a world within itself and holds within it a broad history of Latin people worldwide. Despite its disputed origin, the way in which salsa has been adopted and folded into caleña culture is overwhelming. When dancing, the way in which Caleños feel every rhythmical note is enough to impress any foreigner on a night out.
The Atlantic coast, far away from Cali, offers so many more rhythmic delights too. After I gained some understanding through percussion lessons, I learnt that Afro-Colombian coastal music varies greatly depending on the interpretation of the musicians. Even in neighbouring villages rhythms differ, with each community holding on to their own robust history and tradition.
Especially as someone who comes from a country without such a strong folkloric musical tradition, Colombia’s music seems all the more interesting to me. This, however, does not devalue the fact that the rhythms and harmonies have the ability to transcend geographic, cultural and ethnographic constraints to have a profound effect on so many Colombians and foreigners.