On a Thursday, at twilight, the intersection is quiet. Few cars go by. A spotless arepa stand offers Colombian corncakes on one corner, a tiny grocery store sells soda and candy on the next, and tangerine-colored houses occupy the other two. It would be easy to ignore the simple white banner stretched from one telephone pole to the other. Blink and you’d miss a two-meter round stage, cobbled from scrap wood that sits on the sidewalk. But ignoring these clues would be a mistake. Tomorrow night, the corner of 52nd and 50th streets in Barranquilla’s Barrio Abajo will be the site of the best block party in Colombia’s capital of music. No salsa, no champeta, no merengue. Nothing but the folkloric cumbia and its closest cousins. At 11 p.m. on Fridays, this intersection becomes a tropical mosh pit—that is, one with rhythm. If they sold tickets, it would be the hottest show in town.
The cumbia is Colombia’s proudest export, a propulsive four-four beat that emerged from the rural areas surrounding the Magdalena River, Colombia’s Mississippi. Barranquilla, located at its mouth, is the country’s New Orleans, and the cumbia is its jazz, its zydeco and its rhythm and blues rolled into one.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the sound traveled from the coast of Colombia to the recording studios inland in Medellin, where stars like the composer Lucho Bermudez added ecstatic woodwinds and an orchestra to the rhythm’s rustic beginnings. The cumbia went national, and then international. Today, there are Mexican cumbias, Argentine cumbias, even technocumbias, which have as little in common with their ancestor as Justin Bieber does with Robert Johnson.
But while the popularity of its permutations grows around the world, in the cradle of cumbia there’s been a resurgence of interest in its most elemental form: three drums—the tall tambor alegre (happy drum), responsible for the melody; the little llamador (caller), which marks the rhythm, and the tambora, played from the side with thick drumsticks, which provides the deep tone that punctuates the end of every second bar—and a reed flute, custom made to fit the space between its player’s fingers.
This resurrection is why on Thursday, Marta Marin, who lives in the single story orange house next to the intersection, stacks plastic chairs and crates of Aguila beer in her living room in preparation for the sidewalk bar that materializes along with the neighborhood’s weekly Rueda de Cumbia.
Ruedas de Cumbia, or wheels of cumbia, have existed in the villages of the region for centuries. A week in advance, the bandleader raised a red flag to alert peasants (or fishermen, depending on the town) that a party was coming. There was no amplification, so the group played in the middle of the plaza, and everybody danced around them, surrounding the sound with concentric circles of men and women getting closer together and pulling apart, but never touching. In modern Barranquilla, a chaotic, vivacious city of two million that Gabriel García Márquez called “Macondo when it grew into a city,” ruedas de cumbia had long been forgotten. The cumbia’s public persona was focused on the dancers in the city’s February carnival parade, following precise choreography in a line along via cuarenta (40th avenue). In this big, brash city, all that remained of the spontaneous village dance was the subtle undulation of the bailarina’s hips and her voluminous, circular pollera skirt.
In 1995, local composer Lisandro Polo decided to return to tradition, and he created a free rueda de cumbia event called the Noche de Tambó (or night of the drum), the night before the official opening of Carnival. The goal was to put music center stage.
“We opened a space to recognize the importance of the musician as the motor of Carnival,” he said.
To Polo, 48, the parade’s structure has dented the cumbia’s spirit: “It’s become something robotic, without spontaneity,” he says. “It’s a performance, instead of something people participate in.”
People clearly want to participate: his Noche de Tambo has become an integral part of the carnival season. In its first year, the event attracted some 500 people. Almost twenty years later, it draws more than 10,000. The day before, Polo puts up a red flag in the plaza, “to declare the territory for the cumbia.”
The Noche de Tambó—which happens just once a year— has inspired others to create ruedas de cumbia more regularly. Ten years ago, Omar Peñaranda, 43, a friend of Polo’s, decided to bring dancing to the streets of his neighborhood, Barrio Abajo, which is known for the many carnival dance troupes, or comparsas, based there.
“Carnival is very rigid and exclusionary,” says Peñaranda, a lawyer by trade and a comedian by disposition. “It’s expensive. Here, you can just show up with your pollera and dance. There are no requirements; everybody’s welcome.”
During official carnival events, musicians stay in the background, but in Barrio Abajo on Friday nights, the raised wooden stage—the hub of the wheel— sits in the middle of the intersection, and the dancers rotate around it.
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