by Dante Bengoa Terán and Pamela Hartley Pinto
What do we talk about when we talk about Cumbia?
Cumbia is a music genre found throughout Latin America. Its roots originate in Colombia: composed of a hybrid of instruments and rhythms brought by African slaves, music from natives of Northern South America and the influence of Europeans who were living in the territory.
Colombia was the first country to popularize cumbia in the 1940s, but Peru was the country where it was reborn in the 1950s to this day.
To address the topic of cumbia in Peru, we need to begin with huayno, a piece of pre-Hispanic music originating in the Andes. It “represents a whole musical universe, poetic and symbolic, with more than 500 years of history of transformation, fusion, and assimilation (Ferrier 2010).”
Before and after the Spanish colonization, many cultures that lived in the Andes continued sharing different traditions, including music.
Along the Peruvian Andes, we can find music genres such as cachua, carnaval, muliza, yaraví, huaylarsh and of course; huayno. It is important to highlight that sometimes a music genre is conceived differently depending on the city or village where it is performed, one example: “the muliza from the Mantaro’s Valley and Cerro de Pasco is not the same to the muliza from Ancash or Huanuco, the first one use other instruments and has a sorrow tune while the second one is happier and utilizes other instruments (Revista Arariwa).”
Until the beginning of the 20th century, these music genres were exclusively produced and consumed in the Andean region. However, starting in the 1950s up to the 1980s, the Peruvian cultural landscape underwent a big transformation. Big migration shifts from the mountains and Amazon toward the big cities on the coast helped shaped this phenomenon. This wave of migration took place due to the lack of economic opportunity, which at the time — and some would argue, to this day — was centralized in the coastal region and more specifically, in Lima. Migrants arrived at the capital and other major cities bringing with them a myriad of traditions and of course, their music. This variety of music and tunes was renamed to what we now know as huayno.’
In the 1950s, the scale of people migrating was already increasing, and the process of adaptation and inclusion of these new city dwellers showed many complications. Coastal cities, especially Lima, were not prepared to host all the migrants. Unemployment and lack of proper housing were the first problems to arise.
Amidst the difficulties, “music was one of the cultural manifestations that could still express their identity, regional nostalgia, and their resistance to full cultural integration into urban life and values (Romero 2002).” El Jilguero del Huascarán with his hits “Verdades que amargan” and “El viajero,” or the bands Flor Pucarina, Pastorita Huaracina, Picaflor de los Andes, etc. are some remarkable examples of the regional nostalgia expressed in music during this period.
In the 1950’s huayno was the shining star, but one decade later cumbia arrived in Peru, and was quickly popularized throughout the country. Many bands experimented by mixing these traditions, and after a short period, Peruvian cumbia was born.
Peruvian cumbia was the migrants’ anthem, especially for those who were considered second generation migrants — the sons and daughters who were looking for new cultural ways to express their experiences. They found their story and identity in the sound and lyrics of cumbia.
The first great hit was “La Chichera” by Los Demonios Del Mantaro at the end of the 1960s. During the 1960s and 1970s cumbia was at its peak, meanwhile huayno didn’t disappear. Instead, it was gaining renowned momentum originating from a new wave of migrants. It was during this period that huayno and Peruvian cumbia were established as the genres of the working class, the immigrants and the periphery.
In the 1980s cumbia and huayno were revolutionized by a new mixture known as chicha. Bands mixed elements from huayno into cumbia-predominant rhythms and vice versa. Chicha adopts the melody of cumbia and the vocals and performances of huayno. At the beginning of this period, most of chicha songs
were adaptations of huayno into cumbia, charged with nostalgic lyrics talking about the difficulties of migrants living in the city.
This soon changed because of the one and only; Chacalón.
Chicha’s scenario was disrupted by Chacalon’s lyrics and performance. He renewed this music genre with his performances, singing heartbreaking songs such as “Por ella la botella” or “Ven mi amor.” Chacalón created a new kind of chicha concert.
His were concerts where a massive consumption of alcohol, loud singing and longing from broken hearts were crucial parts of the experience.
Chicha was very successful at the beginning of the 1990s, even gaining recognition as a ‘valid art’ form by Peru’s Ministry of Culture.
However, after the death of Chacalón in 1994 and other social transformations in Peru, chicha’s once privileged place on stage was clouded by a renewal within the cumbia genre. This innovative music included electronic instruments, rhythms and lyrics from the Peruvian Amazon with the effort of removing the chicha component that was previously present in cumbia.
Evolution of Cumbia in Peru
Tecnocumbia arrived to conquer the Peruvian artistic scene without regard to the different economic and social classes in Peru.
Tecnocumbia was the first Cumbia genre that was listened to and appreciated across the whole country; transcending social, economic and political divides. The most recognized singer of this era was Rosario Guerra, known as Rossy War, with her greatest hit “Nunca pensé llorar.”
Staying true to the trend of new rhythms, soon technocumbia was eclipsed by a new genre denominated Cumbia Del Norte. Bands like Armonía 10 or Agua Marina were already well established in the north of Peru and they soon became famous nationwide. The principal characteristic of these groups was the introduction of wind instruments and their shift away from the Andean influence. Cumbia Del Norte invaded Lima with many bands that were (and some of them still are) very successful. These bands include Grupo 5, Los Caribeños, Hermanos Yaipén, Tony Rosado, Mallanep and Corazón Serrano, among others.
Finally, alongside Cumbia Del Norte’s boom, additional cumbia projects started to form. In 2006, Barbès Records, a label based in New York, released a very important album for the history of Peruvian cumbia: “Chicha Roots Vol. I.” This compilation regrouped artists of different periods of Peruvian cumbia, most of them from the 1960s and 1970s.
We can find hits from Los Destellos or Los Mirlos. This production of Barbès Records was very successful in North America and Europe, and it helped spread the sounds of Peruvian cumbia. Some years later, in 2010, the same label released the second volume of “Chicha Roots,” equally as successful as the first. Besides this album, other projects have also showcased old Peruvian cumbia, for example, “Chicha Libre.”
More recently, we can talk about the fresh mixes of old cumbia with new music genres. In the 2000s and early stages of 2010, Bareto and La Mente were bands that became famous because of their covers of old cumbia songs, and later the DJs Dengue Dengue Dengue started mixing electronic music with Peruvian cumbia. Currently, new bands are very interested in the past trajectory of cumbia, and they constantly try to renew this genre by mixing it with punk, rock, electro, ska, etc.
Even though cumbia was born in Colombia, every 10 or 15 years it is reborn in Peru.
Today, cumbia can be found in every district of Lima, from the outskirts of San Juan de Lurigancho to the colorful and centric Miraflores, to every region across the country bridging all divides in class, status, gender and age. ¡Qué viva la cumbia por siempre, salud!
Suggested Playlist and Reads
For further reading check out “The ‘Young Towns’ of Lima: Aspects of Urbanization in Peru” (1980) – Peter Lloyd
- Ferrier Claude, El huayno con arpa: estilos globales en la nueva música popular andina, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Instituto de Etnomusicología, Lima, 2010, p.21.
- Revista Arariwa, p.36.
- Romero Raúl, «Popular Music and the Global City. Huayno, Chicha and Techno-Cumbia in Lima », in Walter CLARK (ed.). From Tejano To Tango: Essays in Latin America Popular Music, New York: Routledge, 2002, p.220.