Baila La Cumbia; Devizes Arts Festival Brings Columbia to the Corn Exchange

Well, Devizes Arts Festival pulled it out of the bag at the Corn Exchange last night with something entirely new and different from usual musical offerings in Devizes……

If Ry Cooder popularised the Cuban styles of son and bolero in the nineties with the Buena Vista Social Club project, since English New Yorker Will Holland, aka Quantic, spent twelve years in Colombia, he’s doing similar with cumbia.

But if Quantic’s Flowering Inferno was my avenue into this infectious genre, via fusions of dub and global beats, I never imagined I’d be listening to cumbia at Devizes’ Corn Exchange!

It was an unmissable rare opportunity, provided by Devizes Arts Festival, absolutely sparkling their opening weekend. A six-piece version of Bristol-based Baila La Cumbia expertly transported the Ceres Hall to South America last night with the colourful sounds of a more traditional cumbia.

The hall was adequately filled, many I’d imagine curious of what they were to hear, others perhaps lucky enough to have travelled. Salsa Club dancers immediately took to dancefloor, yet this is a completely different rhythm. Something I’m merely teetering on the edge of.

Though contagiously danceable, this contemporary sound of Columbia is a blend of traditional Latino, Afro and native American folk, and Baila La Cumbia export it as gospel, not deviating from the style. In a word, it was gorgeous.

Folkloric, and spreading to neighbouring countries since recorded sound in the 1940s, the African influence of cumbia is a subject often open to debate. Baila La Cumbia though, used double drummers, with a selection of caja, used like djembes, and a set of metal snares, to keep a consistent percussion. I quizzed the frontman and electric guitarist afterwards, suggesting I thought they’d up the tempo, as common in Caribbean styles. But a Colombian himself, the reply was interesting, that the Afro-American slaves working on the railroads worked consistently to a steady pace, the music stridden to suit, so he clearly cited the African influence.

And that’s how it was, not frenzied, rising or falling, more comparable in western fashion to trance than samba and salsa, in so much as it was a hypnotic sound, as completely absorbing as African drumming. And akin to modern dance music, vocals were sparse, some more single word shout-outs, while other songs adopted some Latino narrative. In fact, the spread of cumbia to Mexico has seen a contemporary subgenre, tecnocumbia, rise, using electronica, though tonight felt strictly traditional Colombian.

Yet more conventional by our expectations, instruments such as trumpet (by Joe Longridge), keys and double-bass were heavily involved, providing a sound wholly original to our untrained ears, almost jazz, tropical flavoured, and it made for a memorably disparate evening; you don’t hear much world music on our local circuit, cumbia, erm, ever!

I imagine these were original compositions, perhaps I’m wrong and they played traditional songs, it was one question I forgot to ask, being spellbound by the moment, and maybe the odd cider!

So, a massive thank you and congratulations go to Devizes Arts Festival, for putting on such a rarity around these parts, it was a most infectious musical experience. Though we’re only the edge of the fortnight of an amazing array of diversity; the Arts Festival have more up their sleeve. Most prominently this coming week, musically speaking, is Tuesday night when groovy Soho heavy rock and New Orleans swing fusion Tankus the Henge stop by on their way to Glastonbury. But check their website for details of the amazingly diverse programme of talks, country-rock, saxophone quartets, comedy, jazz and swing, lots more.


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