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World Music in Focus - Colombia

This month marks the start of a series of articles exploring traditional and contemporary music across many different areas of the world.

Percussionists performing at the carnival in Bogota


My name’s Sam, and music is one of my biggest passions - I was a professional piano player and composer for several years, studying jazz at the Birmingham Conservatoire and performing across the UK and Europe. Travel has always been another of my passions, and I went on to work as a tour leader across the world – of course immersing myself in the music of each region as much as possible and discovering fantastic new worlds of music and culture wherever I worked.


For me, and all of us here at Imaginative Traveller, experiencing the music of a region is one of the major highlights of travelling there and encapsulates the atmosphere of every place you go - you’ll find many different soundtracks accompanying your travels throughout the world which we’ll be taking a closer look at. We start this series off with the music of one of our most exciting and beautiful destinations in South America – Colombia


Street musicians perform in Bogota


The stunning country of Colombia is one of the most diverse places in the world that we travel to – that is, diverse in a geographical, ecological, ethnic, and cultural sense. The country is a melting pot of different ethnicities, descended from the native inhabitants, Spanish colonists, Africans originally brought to the country as slaves, and 20th century European and Middle Eastern migrants. Along with strong regional identities forged by the varied landscapes, this has all contributed to a vastly diverse cultural heritage.

Of course, this cultural diversity is reflected in the music of Colombia, and there are many different kinds of music that you’ll encounter in the different regions of the country.


Cumbia and Vallenato

Some of the most famous Colombian music originates from the Caribbean coast in the north of Colombia. Perhaps the most well known form is that of Cumbia, a rhythmic style that evolved from African, Spanish and native cultures on the coast in the 19th century. At first, Cumbia was played with just percussion and vocals, but started to include more instruments (especially brass instruments) throughout the 20th century. From this style evolved the Vallenato form (which has slightly different rhythms and a large use of the accordion), a much beloved traditional form that is still very popular throughout Colombia and is the soundtrack to the Caribbean coast of the country! - Totó la Momposina - Aguacero e Mayo - Aniceto Molina - La Cumbia Cienaguera  - Alfredo Gutierrez - Anelhos - Francisco Zumaqué - El Cuentero

The accordion features heavily in most Vallenato music

The accordion features heavily in most Vallenato music



Also related to Cumbia is the very distinctive style of Porro, which uses Cumbia rhythms with a full jazz big band instrumentation, evoking an old-fashioned feel very similar to Cuban music of the 1930s and 40s. - Lucho Bermúdez - Arroz con Coco - Pacho Galán - Boquita Salá - Mathilde Diaz - Salsipuedes

Porro music features a full jazz big band, including trombones, trumpets and saxophones

Porro music features a full jazz big band, including trombones, trumpets and saxophones



Over on the Pacific coast and the Chocó region on the west side of Colombia, you’ll find the music is very different to that on the Caribbean coast. Here there is a very prominent African influence to the music, and the main style you’ll hear is called Currulao which features a very distinctive use of the marimba (a wooden xylophone-type instrument) and the bass-heavy ‘cunono’ drum, and often much more group-singing than the Caribbean styles. You’ll definitely hear many parallels with some African styles when listening to the music of the Pacific coast. - Grupo Socavón - Quitate a mi Escalera - Grupo Socavón - Homenaje a Justino - Herencia de Timbiquí - Amanecé 

A native Colombian musician plays the marimba, a staple of the African-influenced Currulao style

A native Colombian musician plays the marimba, a staple of the African-influenced Currulao style



Different again is the music of the central highlands and the Andean regions – here the predominant style is that of Bambuco, often known by Colombians as ‘the music of the interior’, which evolved from the songs of the native Muisca people mixing with the instruments of the European settlers in the early 20th-century. The music has a distinctive waltz-like rhythm, and features the use of the ‘tiple’, a type of 12-string guitar (with 4 groups of 3 strings) that sounds much like a mandolin. This style originated in Colombia and has become very popular throughout all of the Andean regions in South America. - Los Carranguerros de Raquira - La China que Yo Tenía

Dancing to the Bambuco music of the Colombian interior

Dancing to the Bambuco music of the Colombian interior - Bambuco dancers will often perform in the white outfits and floral dresses associated with the region



Another distinctive style is the music from the eastern plains on the Venezuelan border. The flat region across both Colombia and Venezuela has a common traditional music known as Joropo, which is led by a type of harp called the ‘arpa llanera’, and also features a waltz-like rhythm. Although originating in Venezuela, it has been very much adopted by the Colombians in the eastern regions, and the style has much in common with other harp-led music from Ecuador and Paraguay. - Alfredo Ortiz - Pajero Campana

An Ecuadorian musician performs on the arpa llanera, the harp used extensively in Joropo music

An Ecuadorian musician performs on the arpa llanera, the harp used extensively in Joropo music



Colombia is also a major producer of popular modern Latin styles. The most common and popular worldwide is undoubtedly that of Salsa, a popular dance style which originated in Puerto Rico and Cuba and spread like wildfire through all of Latin America and the USA from the 1970s. Colombia has produced many incredible Salsa bands, from the pioneers Fruko y Sus Tesos and Joe Arroyo to the recent artists Cristian Del Real, Orquesta Guayacan, and Grupo Niche. You’ll always find plenty of Salsa throughout the bars and nightclubs of Colombia, especially Calí, the Colombian ‘capital of Salsa’. - Fruko y Sus Tesos - Santa Barbara - Fruko y Sus Tesos - El Prenso - Piper ‘Pimienta’ Diaz - A la Memoria del Muerto - Grupo Niche - Cali Pachanguero - Grupo Galé - El Amor de mi Vida "Se Fue”

Salsa music and dancing is widespread throughout Latin America and the USA

Salsa music and dancing is widespread throughout Latin America and the USA



Colombia is also a massive producer of modern Latin pop, rock, indie, and urban music, and many Colombian artists have gone on to worldwide fame and popularity. You’ll constantly hear modern Colombian music playing on the radio and throughout the bars and cafes of the country, from the indie band Sidestepper, the rock groups The Monas and Aterciopelados, and the world-famous pop singers Juanes and Shakira (who records most of her songs in both Spanish and English versions allowing a much wider international following). If you head out to the nightclubs, the music will almost certainly be Reggaeton, a very popular dance style across all of Latin America and the Caribbean that mainly comes from Puerto Rican and Panamanian artists such as Don Omar and Daddy Yankee.  – Sidestepper – Linda Manigua –The Monas – Tu Hogar – Aterciopelados – El Album – Juanes – Juntos – Shakira – Waka Waka (Esto es Africa) – Don Omar – Danza Kuduro

Shakira performing in Texas in 2010

Shakira performing in Texas in 2010


As you can see, the music of Colombia is as varied and diverse as the people, culture and landscapes of the country itself, and no matter where you head to in the country you’ll be sure to have an awesome soundtrack along the way!

Next month we’ll be heading across to the opposite side of the globe to explore the music of Ethiopia!

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