Colombian music and culture are truly representative of the area's geographic regions. As with many of the countries in the continent of South America, combinations of European, African and indigenous traditions emerged over the centuries, producing a wide variety of music (and dance) styles.
Colombia's Amazonian region includes more than 100 native tribes, such as the Chocó, who still speak their native languages and include music as a part of daily lifefrom magic and ritual to healing. The Andean region shares the wealth of musical traditions going back to the Incan empire as well as many mestizo forms with neighboring Perú and Ecuador. The Pacific coast contains a significant African-derived or Creole population, and is home to the marimbaan instrument widely known throughout Central America and southern Mexico. The interior regions contain several important genres such as the bambuco, and Colombia also shares its cultural as well as geographical border with Venezuela in the música llanera tradition (music of the plains), including the joropo (which is Venezuela's national dance). But perhaps the most vital of Colombian genres has its roots in the Atlantic coast, where Africans and indigenous peoples forged a new race known as Zambos.
The Colombian cumbia originated as a courtship dance during the colonial period, celebrating Zambos along the Atlantic (or Caribbean) coast, and played this style using African-derived drums and Indian flutes and percussion instruments while singing in Spanish. The traditional dance at first mimicked the Spanish colonizers and later evolved into a graceful and sensual couple dance, with the man bringing the woman a candle as a symbol of fertility. As with most folkloric genres, cumbia comprised several styles or variations, and eventually was modernized as its popularity spread to the urban centers, where it had previously been looked down-upon. With the adoption of cumbia by larger, more modern ensembles, the rhythm became homogenized, yet retained its basic up-beat feeling. It spread throughout Central America by the mid-20th-century, and is considered one of the most popular genres for dancing along with salsa and merengue. Several regional Mexican musical ensembles, including bandas and norteño conjuntos, have adopted cumbia as well. Wider recognition for the traditional forms returned recently, as artists such as Totó La Monposina began recording and performing on an international level.
A bit inland from Colombia's northern coast, specifically from the Valledupar region, comes the genre known as vallenato. Emerging in the mid-20th century, with origins in traditional cumbia, vallenato contains several styles. A traditional group contains button accordion (brought to northern Colombia in the early 1800s), caja (a small, single-membrane drum) and the guacharaca (a palm wood scraper). This humble music was discriminated againstas were its creatorsuntil musicians began adapting vallenato into more modern ensembles during the 1950s and 60s. In the 1990s, artists including Gloria Estefan and Carlos Vives helped to popularize the genre. Contemporary vallenato groups may be much larger, but its humble originsand traditional ensembleshave recently become wildly popular among young generations in Colombia today. Rebeca Mauleon