Few songs inspire as much national pride as the Colombian classic, La pollera colora (The Red Skirt). This folk song sings the praises of a beautiful woman who dances to the beat of cumbia, a musical style from the country’s Atlantic coast. Since the time of the Spanish conquest, cumbia has united instruments and sounds from Colombia’s mixed African, indigenous and European cultures.
But the rhythm also has spread across Latin America over the past 50 years, and Miami will get a chance to hear several iterations at concerts in the upcoming weeks.
The music’s history has inspired Tony de la Salas, the 45-year-old leader of the Miami-based band Barrio Abajo, which was named for a neighborhood in de la Salas’ Colombian hometown of Barranquilla. Barrio Abajo performs across the United States and appears in all the Colombian music festivals held in Miami. This week the Rhythm Foundation presents the group in a free concert at the North Miami Beach Band Shell.
“We play cumbia from the heart,” de la Salas says, “to pass on our folklore to the youth of today.”
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De la Salas taught himself to play percussion as a child and has performed with some of the region’s biggest stars, including salsero Joe Arroyo and folk singer Cheo Acosta.
Cumbia incorporates the deep pulse of the African tambora drum, swirling indigenous flute melodies and, in more recent times, guitar riffs and exuberant accordion.
For the past three years, de la Salas and his band mates have been preparing a special concert to survey the history of cumbia and other folklore from Colombia, which they will present later this month at Little Havana’s Manuel Artime Theater. Called Va rio abajo (or From the River Up), the concert’s title is a play on the sound of the band’s name, while also describing the region in northern Colombia where cumbia was born.
We want to promote Colombian folklore so that our roots don’t die.
Tony de las Salas, Barrio Abajo
“We’re going to start on the banks of the Magdalena River and play songs from each town or state,” de la Salas explains. “Then we’ll keep moving north, from one town to the next, until we get to Barranquilla and the music of carnival.”
Dance troupe Puerta de Oro will perform the dances that traditionally accompany each rhythm. Like Barrio Abajo, Puerta de Oro is based in Miami, but its name refers to Barranquilla’s colonial status as the “golden door” to the Americas. The audience will see and hear the region’s history in musical form.
“We want to promote Colombian folklore,” explains de la Salas, “so that our roots don’t die.”
Cumbia’s roots may be in Colombia, but the style now also thrives in Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico and Peru, where it has fused with local and international styles, from mambo and salsa to rock and techno. In Peru in the 1960s, cumbia combined with Andean folk music and psychedelic rock to make Peruvian cumbia that nation’s most popular music.
“We have rescued the classic cumbia,” insists Lucho Carillo, 73, lead singer of the Cumbia All Stars, a Peruvian super group coming to Miami this week courtesy of MDC Live Arts. But Carillo is not talking about the cumbia that sprang up around Colombia’s Magadelena River. He is referring to the style of music he played in the 1960s as a member of Los Diablos Rojos (The Red Devils), one of the pioneers of Peruvian cumbia.
Carillo remembers how his old friend, Enrique Delgado Montes, remade Colombian-style cumbia in 1968.
“He was a rocker,” Carillo recalls. “He added a little rock and some huayno,” a form of Andean folk music from Peru.
But, Carillo adds, “the guitar was the most important.”
And not just any guitar. Classic Peruvian cumbia is distinguished by trippy ’60s guitar licks ranging from surf to psychedelic. It became so strongly associated with the country that it earned its own name, chicha, after the fermented corn beer brewed in the region. Over the decades, younger musicians have added newer elements, so that Carillo finds contemporary Peruvian cumbia almost unrecognizable compared to the music he once played.
That’s why the singer was thrilled when he was invited to tour again with seven of his peers by a French promoter some 30 years his junior. Lionel Igersheim, who organizes an annual music festival in Peru, saw the potential in bringing back the original stars of Peruvian cumbia.
“The idea of Cumbia All Stars is to rescue songs that no longer exist,” Carillo explains. “The tracks we made were really good, but they have disappeared.”
But if Carillo is eager to rescue his hits, he is not planning to turn his Miami appearance into a history lesson. When the Cumbia All Stars play, he promises, “We are going to make the audience dance on their heads!”
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If you go:
What: Cumbia All Stars.
Where: Koubek Center, 2705 SW Third St., Miami.
When: 8 p.m. Friday.
Cost: $10 (free for children under 12).
Information: 305-237-3010 or mdclivearts.org.
What: Barrio Abajo.
Where: North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; Manuel Artime Theater, 900 SW First St., Miami.
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 8 (North Beach), 8 p.m. Oct. 10 (Artime).
Cost: Free at North Beach, $20 at Artime.