Cumbia – Part 1

In Part 1, I will introduce the basics, history and some how-to videos. For Part 2, I will mainly include videos in order to better understand the style and the sounds.

Cumbia is a Colombian musical style and folk dance that is considered to be representative of Colombia, along with Vallenato. Cumbia originated from the Caribbean coast of Colombia, with folkloric variants in Panama. Cumbia began as a courtship dance practiced among the slave population that was later mixed with European instruments and musical characteristics. It was also used during the Colombian struggle for independence as an expression of resistance against Spain, therefore, most of its songs’ messages were related to freedom or slavery.


Cumbia is believed to be a variant of Guinean cumbé music. Cumbia started in the Caribbean coast of what is now Colombia and Panama, mainly in or around the Magdalena department (more presicely the area of El Banco) during the period of Spanish colonization. Spain used its ports to import African slaves, who tried to preserve their musical traditions and also turned the drumming and dances into a courtship ritual. Cumbia was mainly performed with just drums and claves.

The slaves were later influenced by the sounds of Amerindian instruments from the Kogui and Kuna tribes, who lived between the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Montes de María in Colombia and Kuna Yala in Panama. Millo flutes, Gaita flutes, and güiros were instruments borrowed from these Native American tribes. The interaction between Africans and Amerindians under the Spanish caste system created a mixture from which the gaitero (cumbia interpreter) appeared, with a defined identity by the 1800s. (These gaiteros are not the same as the Venezuelan Zulian gaiteros.) The European guitars and accordions were added later through Spanish influence.

Cumbia as courtship

The slave courtship ritual, which featured dance prominently, was traditionally performed with music played by pairs of men and women and with male and female dancers. Women playfully wave their long skirts while holding a candle, and men dance behind the women with one hand behind their back and the other hand either holding a hat, putting it on, or taking it off. Male dancers also carried a red handkerchief which they either wrapped around their necks, waved in circles in the air, or held out for the women to hold. Until the mid-20th century, cumbia was considered to be an inappropriate dance performed primarily by the lower social classes.

Cumbia today

Today traditional cumbia is preserved and considered representative of the Colombian identity, especially on the northern Caribbean coast. It is associated with the Carnival of Baranquilla. Modern forms of cumbia are also combined with other genres such as vallenato or rock. This mixing of genres is found in the music of modern artists such as Carlos Vives.

Basic Steps

With a Partner


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