What is Cumbia Music?

Los Lobos perform onstage during the 2015 MusiCares Person of The Year
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Cumbia music is a genre of music that is popular in Latin America. Modern cumbia music features a variety musical instruments like piano, bongo drums, and others. The exact sound of cumbia music varies from country to country due to regional differences. 

Cumbia Music History

Cumbia is a musical style that originated in Colombia, probably around the 1820’s during Colombia’s struggle for independence. It started as the musical expression of the national resistance, and was sung and danced in the streets.

In its original form, cumbia was played with tambor drums and large gaita flutes. In the 1920’s Colombian dance bands in Barranquilla and other coastal cities began playing cumbia while adding horns, brass and other instruments to the traditional drum and flutes. In fact, in the 1930s when Colombian bandleaders wanted to perform in New York City, the ensembles had become so large that they couldn’t afford to send all their musicians abroad and had to use local Puerto Rican groups to perform.

Modern Cumbia Music

While cumbia never caught on as well in the U.S. as other Latin musical forms, today it is very popular in South America (with the exception of Brazil), Central America and Mexico.

If you’d like to hear a good introduction to cumbia, listen to Cumbia Cumbia, Vol. 1 and 2 released by World Circuit Records (1983, 1989).

Los Kumbia Kings, a group from Texas that performs cumbia / rap fusion, has been gaining in popularity and will give you an idea of how cumbia is being transformed by today's urban groups.