Cumbia Music, Originally From Colombia, Takes Many Forms Across US

Jul 27, 2023
6:20 PM

LOS ANGELES — Before Ivan Cantor gets ready to play a gig, he always makes sure to put on his multi-colored mask, a symbol that represents his hometown of Chinantla in the Mexican state of Puebla.

“That mask represents my town, that’s my image when I play,” he told Latino Rebels during a recent interview. With the stage name Ivan Cantor Su Mero Estilo, or “His Own Style,” the DJ uses his mix of cumbias to emanate a New York sound.

His approach to the genre of cumbia is part of an emerging culture across the country, with cumbia appearing in different variations in cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. Just this month Brooklyn had its first cumbia fest, hosted by One Whale’s Tale, a multidisciplinary production company, marking the first gathering of its kind in the New York City borough.

Total retail revenues generated by Latin recorded music in the U.S. surpassed $1 billion in 2022, according to data from the Recording Industry Association of America. And Latino music continues to dominate the mainstream, cumbia is one genre that embraces its tradition while exploring new interpretations.

Though the guacharaca-driven rhythms of cumbia find their origins in Colombia, the versatile genre has dominated Latin America since the 1800s, evolving in countries like Mexico, Argentina and Peru, with each developing its own style.

“We noticed with each different group of people who play cumbia, if you say cumbia, it means something very specific to them,” said Ellpetha Tsivicos, one of the organizers of the Brooklyn Cumbia Fest.

Chicago Scene: ‘It’s Not Monolithic, It’s Complex’

Sandra Treviño, a music journalist and DJ in Chicago, says there are more DJs playing cumbia now than there were five to 10 years ago, and attributes the rise of the genre to a general acceptance of it.

“I think the notion that it isn’t just an underground music scene,” she explained, “people are no longer ashamed of it. Cumbia was not played at parties. Cumbia was not played at any shows. Even ska bands that had a little cumbia were shunned.”

Treviño says that, in Chicago, you can now find all types of cumbia—from dark cumbia to electronic cumbia to cumbia rebajada and more.

Chicago-based acts like Dos Santos embrace the evolving nature of the genre along with other influences. With its members hailing from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Panama and Texas, the band’s psychedelic folk sound is largely informed by these places.

Multi-instrumentalist, singer and lyricist Alex Chavez says their music is largely influenced by their multicultural identity as Latinos from Chicago. “It’s also not just a testament to us, I think it’s very much a testament also to Chicago as a global city. It’s very much a Latino city,” Chavez said.

For Chavez, it’s important to acknowledge the history behind this type of music, often noting its complexities. “This isn’t just party music,” he said. “I think we always sort of present what we do with a certain kind of level of intention and care.”

Welcome to Puebla York

New York, nicknamed “Puebla York” for its vast population from Puebla, has become a mecca for cumbia, with DJs like El Hijo de Puebla York, Marvelito and Soniderablues at the forefront of a new generation of artists. Moreover, other key players like DJ Chihuahua and Ivan Cantor Su Mero Estilo, who produced tracks like “Carnaval en Nueva York,” demonstrate a commitment to this emerging music scene.

Ivan, for example, wants to bring a new type of cumbia to the dancefloor, noting the use of English lyrics in some of his mixes. For him, it’s a unique way to share his Mexican-American identity. 

“I want people to know that I come from Brooklyn. So I put the intro of ‘Empire State’—you know, with Jay Z and Alicia Keys. I put that intro, but just acapella. And then I start with the cumbias,” he recalled about playing a show in California. “People were like, wow, you know? They were so amazed.”

DJ Chihuahua, real name Christian Simon, got his start in cumbia around 2005, becoming fascinated by cumbia rebajada, a “slowed-down” form of cumbia. He started looking into how the tracks were made, eventually becoming a DJ and producer himself. He too has roots in Chinantla, Puebla like Ivan Cantor.

Reflecting on the rise of cumbia in the last few years, he says cumbia is now being embraced in spaces outside sonidero venues, the main spaces where one might find cumbia.

“The types of places where cumbias are being played, that’s changed too—cumbias being played in bars and restaurants,” he said.

The cumbia culture in New York also extends beyond music. Cartoonists like Draizy dedicate themselves to amplifying a visual narrative of the community. With DJs like El Hijo de Puebla York repping “cumbias mezcladas como nunca antes” —“mixed cumbias like never before”— the rising scene illustrates a new character of cumbia and mexicanos in New York City.

Wanting to celebrate the rise and legacy of the genre, the organizers of this year’s first annual Brooklyn Cumbia Fest focused on the idea of presenting traditional cumbia from its origins in Colombia, while also allowing the opportunity to bring groups that embrace its modern forms across the U.S. and Latin America. 

“We wanted to just create a festival where we could celebrate the diversity of it from Columbia to Mexico, to the US to Peru, and everywhere that it exists,” said Camilo Quiroz-Vázquez, one of the organizers.

As a Mexican American who grew up in Los Angeles, Camilo moved to New York 14 years ago and never really heard cumbia. He says there’s been an explosion of the genre across the city in the last five years.

Tsivicos says there are all kinds of styles being played by all kinds of DJs in Brooklyn. As a first-generation American from Cyprus, Tsivicos felt she could identify with cumbia growing up, especially the story of Tejana singer Selena. 

The multi-day festival brought together acts like the Afro-Caribbean soul band Afro Dominicano and the Afro-Indigenous Colombian community drum circle Rueda de Oro. Most important for Camilo and Tsivicos, the festival is about building awareness surrounding the growth of cumbia.

“This is not on the sidelines of American culture. If that’s what you think, you’re blind,” Tsivicos said. “There are venues all over Brooklyn every night packed with people dancing until very, very late listening to cumbia music.”

West Coast Cumbia

For David and Rene Pacheco of Tropa Magica, their early exposure to cumbia had a crucial impact on the music they make.

“I rediscovered it as a young adult, like going to college,” Rene recalled, “It was very easy to grab onto because we were like, hey, this is like very nostalgic of what we grew up with.”

The East Los Angeles group also counts on influences like Kumbia Queers from Argentina or La Chamba, a band from City Terrace in L.A. Tropa Magica strikes a balance between a psychedelic punk sound and the cumbia arrangements they’ve heard since they were little kids.

When asked about how the city’s scene can differ from other places the band has played, Rene said: “New York’s cumbia scene has more of a traditional feel. Out here in L.A. we’re just really taking it apart and putting it together with whatever interests we have at the time.”

Other groups like Spaghetti Cumbia, who also played at the Brooklyn Cumbia Fest, follow a similar philosophy.

“They play like punk, psychedelic, Western cumbia and have a way more contemporary, way more West Coast kind of Chicano style of playing,” said Quiroz-Vázquez.

Reflecting on the future of the cumbia, Tsivicos shared that the festival is only the beginning of a growing community.

“For all of these bands, introducing them to new audiences is also really important as they develop their style,” she said. “They’re so dedicated and they’re so talented, that it’s exciting for both them and the audience.”


Mariana Martínez Barba is a summer correspondent at Futuro Media and is currently studying at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. Twitter: @marianamtzbarba