Hispanic Heritage Month, Focus on Colombia

Totó la Momposina
World Music Central‘s celebration of Hispanic Heritage month goes on with the music of Colombia, which is well respected throughout the world. The South American nation has produced international pop stars like Shakira and Juanes, as well as folk musical genres like cumbia and vallenato that have had a tremendous influence in other Latin American countries.

In recent years, international audiences have been exposed to the electronic beats of champeta from Colombia’s Atlantic coastal area, música llanera from the plains, alternative rock and electronica, and marimba-driven Afro-Colombian music from the Pacific Coast. Lastly, Colombia became a salsa powerhouse decades ago, with some of the hottest salsa orchestras in the world.


Vallenato is a well-liked musical genre in Colombia and increasingly popular in other Spanish-speaking countries. Vallenato is the name of those born in the Valle (Valley) of Valledupar. The songs talk about the personal experiences of the writers and the feelings of the mestizo (mixed race) culture that represents most Colombians.

The melodies of these vallenato songs were first performed with the carrizo (millo cane flute) to which the caja (a small drum) was added; and the guacharaca scraper. Accordion was later added and became the principal musical instrument. Vallenato today comes in various forms, ranging from traditional music to chart-topping pop versions. Currently, there are various vallenato festivals, a vallenato school and even a touring children’s group, Los Niños Vallenatos del Turco Gil.

Diomedes Díaz is vallenato’s leading performer, and the top selling vallenato singer in Colombia. He is usually joined by some of the finest accordionists in the country. Recommended albums: Listo Pa’ La Foto, Muchas Gracias, Celebremos Juntos, 30 Grandes Exitos, 30 Grandes Exitos 2.

Carlos Vives is a well-known singer who made the bold move of switching from pop and rock music to modern vallenato. His edgier form of vallenato has attracted new, younger fans to the genre. Recommended albums: La Tierra Del Olvido, El Amor De Mi Tierra, Clásicos de la Provincia, Rock De Mi Pueblo.

Other well-known vallenato acts include Los Hermanos Zuleta, Jorge Celedon, Jimmy Zambrano and Los Diablitos.

More about vallenato at https://worldmusiccentral.org/wp-content/plugins/dokuwiki/vallenato


Cumbia is a mix of indigenous Colombian, Spanish and Afro-Colombian melodies and rhythms. Like vallenato, cumbia appears in various forms, ranging from the traditional form to pop versions. Cumbia even spawned a popular Mexican variation.

Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto is one of the leading cumbia acts. This legendary group was formed in 1940 and they are known for playing the gaita flute. Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto won a Latin Grammy in 2007. Albums: “Un Fuego de Sangre Pura: Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto from Colombia” (A Fire of Pure Blood), released on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Recommended album: Un Fuego De Sangre Pura

Frente Cumbiero is revitalizing traditional cumbia. Its innovations include fusions with other Caribbean sounds such as Jamaican dub. Recommended album: Meets Mad Professor

Lucho Bermúdez (Luis Eduardo Bermúdez), who died in 1994, was a very popular composer and performer of cumbias, porros and other Colombian folk rhythms as well as boleros, with orchestral arrangements. Recommended albums: Maestro: Los Mas Grandes Exitos De Lucho Bermúdez, Ritmos Costeños Favoritos del Maestro

Afro-Colombian Caribbean Beats

Petrona Martinez has been performing cumbia and bullerengue for decades. In recent years she received international recognition with international tours and recordings produced in Spain. Recommended albums: Las Penas Alegres, Colombia: Bullerengue

Totó la Momposina is one the most familiar names to international audiences. Her lively performances include cumbia, bullerengue and other Colombian styles. Recommended albums: La Bodega, Pacanto, Candela Viva, Carmelina

Son Palenque is one of the most influential acts in the Afro-Colombian roots music scene. Founded in 1980 in San Basilio de Palenque, it brought together some of the best musicians in the area to perform musical genres with African roots: cumbia, chalupa, mapalé cumbia , bullerengue, lumbalú , baile e’muerto , and son de negro. Son Palenque also served as a musical school for many musicians and singers. Many of the most successful champeta criolla singers were formed in the band: Viviano Torres, Charles King, Melchor el Cruel, Kassiva Valdez.


Joropo is the music from the Colombian and Venezuelan plains. One of the leading joropo bands, Cimarrón has been touring worldwide. Recommended album: ¡Cimarrón! Joropo Music from the Plains of Colombia


As mentioned earlier, salsa found a comfortable home in Colombia and this Caribbean musical genre has widespread acceptance throughout Colombia.

Some of salsa’s biggest stars come from Colombia. The most important names include the late Joe Arroyo, Fruko y Sus Tesos, Grupo Niche, La Sonora Carruseles, La Sonora Dinamita, Los Nemus Del Pacifico, Gabino Pampini, The Latin Brothers and Los Golden Boys. Recommended albums: Joe Arroyo Live, En Barranquilla Me Quedo, Fruko Power Salsa, La Máquina Del Sabor, Clásicos del Grupo Niche, La Salsa La Traigo Yo, Heavy Salsa

A new band from Bogotá called La-33 has revitalized salsa. Many of its musicians used to play in rock and ska bands. Their intention is to bring back the charm of 1970s salsa, while at the same time they feature socially conscious lyrics. Recommended albums: La-33, Gózalo

Ondatropica is of the latest sensation. The project was conceived by Colombian musician Mario Galeano (Frente Cumbiero), and English producer Will ‘Quantic’ Holland. Ondatrópica brings together an all-star cast representing both the classic and modern styles of Colombian tropical music. Recommended albums: Miticos Del Ritmo, Ondatropica

Legendary bandleader Michi Sarmiento y su Bravos was a popular figure in Colombian dance clubs in the 1960s and 1970s. The Soundway label has released Aqui Los Bravos! The Best of Michi Sarmiento y su Combo Bravo 1967 – 77 (SNDWCD/LP028, 2011), a 16 track collection of the finest guaguancós, descargas and cumbias recorded by Michi Sarmiento y su Bravos on Discos Fuentes between 1967 and 1977. Recommended albums: Aqui Los Bravos, The Best

Alternative Rock

Although the band Aterciopelados is usually categorized as rock en español or alternative rock, their sound is hard to categorize as they cross over into other territories such as vallenato, cumbia, bolero, flamenco, ska and reggae. Recommended albums: Evolución, Gozo Poderoso, Rio, Caribe Atómico, Pipa De La Paz

Afro Sounds of the Pacific

Colombia has a fascinating Afro-Colombian music scene in its Pacific Coast area. Less known than the Caribbean styles, the music is characterized by the sounds of the marimba de chonta (also known as el piano de la selva, the jungle piano) and cununo drums. Styles include currulao, andarele, la juga, etc.

Grupo Gualajo was formed in 1998 by maestro José Antonio Torres, one of the finest performers of the marimba de chonta. Gualajo has performed in Germany, France and Switzerland.

Grupo Bahia is one of the best known contemporary bands in the Pacific music style. It’s led by marimba de chonta player Hugo Candelario González Sevillano from Guapi in the Pacific Coast. Recommended albums: Con el Corazón Cerca de las Raíces, Cantaré, Un Son Pa’ Cali Pura Chonta, Pura Chonta Recargado

Fusions and Hybrids

La Mojarra Eléctrica takes traditional Afro-Colombian music such as bullerenge, chirimia, currulao and mixes it with soukus, ragga, reggae, Cuban timba, funk and jazz. Recommended album: Raza

ChocQuibTown fuses Afro-Colombian music from the Pacific with R&B and hip hop beats. Recommended albums: Eso Es Lo Que Hay, Oro

Colombiafrica blends Afro-Colombian music with the sounds of Africa, specially Afrobeat from Nigeria and Senegalese music. Recommended album: Colombiafrica: Mystic Orchestra Voodoo Love

The increasingly popular Bomba Estéreo combines cumbia and hip-hop with champeta criolla, electro chicha, and chill-wave. Recommended album: Blow Up, Elegancia Tropical.

Multi-Artist Compilations

Read other Hispanic Heritage Month stories: Hispanic Heritage Month, Focus on Mexico; Hispanic Heritage Month, Focus on Puerto Rico; and Hispanic Heritage Month, Focus on Argentina

Special thanks to Maricela Cáceres for her suggestions.

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.


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