Cumbia Mexicana: A Brief History

Leonel dives into the rich history of the Cumbia music scene in Mexico and the countless regional scenes that it's gone on to inspire.
By    May 2, 2023

Album cover via Grupo Frontera/Instagram

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Mexican music never sleeps, and neither does Leonel.

How did a rhythmic pattern originating from the Caribbean coast of Colombia during their long struggle for independence end up shaping the very conception of what popular music is for an entire continent? From the rodeo-discos and ballrooms of East Texas, to the rough, immigrant-built villas miserias way below the tropic of Capricorn, the skipping cadence of cumbia has been the backbone of the entire musical cosmovision of Latinidad.

Through the past two centuries, every sovereign state in the Latino community has adapted these rhythms to all types of local and regional flavors, reshaping our understanding of dance music in the process. The Bolivians introduced their indigenous woodwinds and the exhilarating tones of the charango; the Panamanians doubled down on the accordion flourishes and re-baptized it as música típica; in the rock & roll era, the Peruvians went through a psychedelic haze and eschewed accordions and horns completely, taking the electric guitar as the weapon of choice.

But this phenomenon was never as evident, as prolific, as complex and as regionally diverse as what happened in Mexico. A country known for being a melting pot of cultures, peoples and ideas, Mexico’s musical history has been shaped by two main factors: colonialism and regional divisions. The nation’s vast geography encompasses over 70 surviving indigenous ethnic groups and diasporas from over 80 countries, which, along with a complicated Spanish legacy, contributed to the creation of myriad music styles: corridos in the Northern border states; Música ranchera in the Jalisco highlands and the Bajío; Huapango in the multi-state region of La Huasteca; Son Jarocho around the port of Veracruz; jarana mestiza in the Yucatán — all of which have played a foundational role in the Mexican identity.

Then why, with such a rich tapestry of sonic sensibilities and instrument configurations, was it a foreign-born beat that ended up uniting the whole country through its diversity?

Well, I’d argue that it did because it was foreign. Since it wasn’t attached to one particular region, it became el ritmo de todos.

When Cumbia came to Mexico via a wave of Colombian expats – a lot of them already respected musicians at home – in the 30s-40s, the musical fashions had already warmed up to other rhythms that hailed from the Caribbean islands through Veracruz. It was the time of mambo, rumba and guaguancó, Cuban beats that, along with the Dominican merengue de guitarra, caused shockwaves in the cities thanks in large part to Mexico’s then bustling film industry, where it was sung and danced in blockbusters and known collectively as música tropical.

Nevertheless, cumbia won over the crowds, due to visionaries like Luis Carlos Meyer, who, upon arrival, started playing their music in the barrios and brought local musicians and instruments, such as marimba player Rafael de Paz. People embraced it fully; it was amazing party music, the dance moves were easy to pull off, and the rhythm is catchy as all f*ck.

Musicians loved it as well. It’s accessible to play, and infinitely malleable. You can take any song ever, put a Cumbia beat underneath and it’ll sound great.

While this was happening in Mexico City and the Metro Area, cumbia experienced something exciting: it became regional, basically in the same way American rap became regional, or even more so.

In Mexico City, big-band-like ensembles playing música tropical (mambo, rumba, and other Afro-Caribbean styles) called sonoras, quickly adopted cumbia to their repertoire. The bands experienced a certain shift somewhere in the late 50’s-early 60’s, as the Colombian songbook started being recorded by legendary labels like Discos Fuentes, including the continent-wide success of Juan Madera and Wilson Choperena’s “La Pollera Colorá,” perhaps the most influential cumbia of all time.

The records started pouring in, and in the barrios, where bands and instruments were always hard to come by, a group of adventurous collectors created the sonideros, Mexico’s own form of Soundsystem culture — pretty much at the same time as Jamaica.

Up north, more specifically in Nuevo León and Tamaulipas, three different movements emerged. On the one hand, la onda chicana, a wave of groups in the border states that, converted by the religion of rock & roll, were bringing electric guitars and basses down south and set the stage for cumbia-rock. However, it was the rock drum set that gave it its sonic identity, as musicians like Jalisco-born guitar hero Mike Laure incorporated it into their ensembles, sometimes replacing bongos and congas altogether, and using hi-hats to play the guacharaca pattern.

On that note, we should definitely talk about Rigo Tovar. Born in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, he increased the role of electric guitars and gave the genre its first rockstar. To this day, he remains an Elvis-like icon, and songs like “El Sirenito” and “Quítate la máscara” became anthems that broke the regional barriers.

On the other hand, the Norteño musicians that had played with accordions for decades in the corrido tradition, started taking in the cumbia drum beat and fused it with bajosexto and electric bass, as they innovated the way drums were played (they started playing the pattern backwards). This was the genesis of Cumbia Norteña and Cumbia Tejana.

In the working-class neighborhoods of Monterrey, another movement was brewing, miles apart from cumbia norteña and Tejano, both aesthetically and musically. During a large part of the second half of the 20th Century, hundreds of Colombians that were looking to get into the United States but had their dreams frustrated, moved into these barrios and brought the original cumbia and vallenato sounds. Soon enough, a Colombian cumbia revival took off, 2500 miles from the homeland, as Colombian cumbia intermixed with Cholo culture and created a sui generis urban tribe known as Cholombianos.

It didn’t take long before a handful of visionaries took the Colombian tradition to the next level fusing it with local and global sounds, and the avanzada regia, an alternative rock movement, served as the perfect backdrop for a certain cumbia veteran to write the next chapter of Cumbia Mexicana. Enter the Celso Piña era.

My home state of Veracruz went through a similar process; Veracruz has always been the place where Afro-Caribbean music is more culturally influential, so groups took rumba, son, merengue and all sorts of things to create incredible sounds. Groups like Los Privers, Los Flamers, and most recently, Los Súper Caracoles, took the jarocho musical legacy and infused it with glam rock aesthetics and a rap-like hustler attitude.

By far, the most fascinating of the regional off-shoots of Mexican cumbia happened along the Yucatán peninsula and the Tehuantepec Isthmus. There, the beat was faster, the lyrics were more repetitive (and dirtier), and best of all, they embraced synths and drum machines in an effort to replace the locally omnipresent marimba chiapaneca. Locally, this form of super-fast cumbia with synths is called chunchaca.

But if there is a figure that embodies the Southern Mexican flavor of cumbia and tropical is the innovator himself, Chico Ché. The Tabascoan star fused cumbia, tropical, punta hondureña, jarana, even rock and latin funk, for a style that everyone tried to emulate, but never could quite imitate. The man died in the late 80s, but his group La Crisis is still playing today, now with Chico Ché’s son.

Nowadays, the urbano/reggaetón revolution has taken cumbia under its wing, as the guacharaca pattern blends with the tumpa tumpa for some of today’s most interesting bangers. But in Mexico. cumbia remains sovereign, finding space for its new wave of stars on its own.

Since its arrival in the Mexican territory, cumbia has captured hearts, united regions, and most importantly, got millions of people to the dancefloors. That impossibly contagious, easy to follow rhythmic pattern will continue to be adapted into everything we can set our minds to, and even in the face of uncertainty and doom, there will still be Mexicans dancing to “Suavecito” on a Saturday night wedding reception.

So when you ask Mexicans about Cumbia, from the Western Sierra Madre to the Island of Cozumel, Mexico can’t be pinned down as one single thing; there are 7 or 8 different Mexicos, each willing to tell its own story through cumbia.

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