“Traditional Colombian music has lacked almost any kind of representation in the “World Music” scene of New York and the United States,” grumbles the blurb inside the CD case, and they’re not talking about cumbia—certainly not the popular urban cumbia that turns up in the usual, recommended compilations: Cumbia Cumbia, Cumbia Cumbia 2 and The Rough Guide to Cumbia. This is rural music, played on instruments that are, for the most part, rustic, or rustic-inspired, so that the whole album has a roughened, woody edge to it. It moves with the rhythm of a trot, seeming to lean forward with an eager little lurch every couple of beats. This is the sort of music that Toto la Momposina was referring to when she wrote of music “which has emerged from our very roots and which should be recognised as danceable and popular.”
Momposina’s name is the largest one hidden behind the cagey “almost any” in La Cumbiamba eNeYé‘s blurb. She’s Colombia’s internationally best-known roots musician. Her stated mission, like eNeYé‘s, is to hunt down those genres of Colombian music that have hidden away on the farms and villages, behind mountains and forests and other natural obstacles, away from the cities, and then perform and record them, to make them endure, and to show that they matter. This is what the album is about. It is about showing that they—the rural Colombians—matter. They matter, not only in their home towns, tucked away on Colombia’s two coastlines, but also in “New York and the United States,” where the founding members of La Cumbiamba eNeYé have set up their migrated homes. Well, and so they should.
Momposina tends to emphasise the African aspects of the music, but La Cumbiamba eNeYé is more inclusive. One of the ways in which this band stands out from other Colombian groups (the not-roots ones) is in their prominent use of the indigenous gaita, a flute that makes a rounded, hollow, tooting sound which sits somewhere between sweet and spooky. This flute takes a simple tune like “No Lo Mates” and surrounds it with an air of mournfulness. The gaita follows along after the deep-voiced bombo and alegre drum percussion and the sniffling maracas (another contribution from the native Indians), and leaves smudgy imprints under the singer’s voice, which seems darkened by the competition. The flute comes in on the next song as well, “El Indio”, with less of the spookiness and more birdlike trilling. “No Lo Mates” is weird and powerful.
The African roots come through on a song like “Marimbita ‘e Chonta”. Martín Vejarano’s haunted flute drifts away and Diego Obregón gets decisive all over his marimba. The other continent is there, loud and clear, in the title track, which moves to a beat that is unmistakably African, a sort of tripping shuffle. About three-quarters of the way through the song the percussion goes off on its own and starts freestyling with only the maracas for company. Our Colombian-trad is having a jazz moment.
Marioneta begins with a declaration of horns and singing that might fool you into thinking that this is going to be a straight Latin American party album, but as one song follows another it becomes evident that we’re in for something more various and less hit-fixated than that. The last song comes as a surprise because it’s not by the group at all. “Pango” is a field recording that Martín Vejarano made in Guapi, on Colombia’s Pacific coast, where he went to find the three musicians who appear on this track: Genaro, Jayer, and Pacho Torres. These three farmers are part of a local dynasty of musicians that goes back for several generations. Vejarano refers to their playing as shamanistic. It has the kind of hypnotic monotony that gets its hooks into a person, and the song is flooded with marimbas.
It’s not normal for a band to end its debut CD with an amateur recording of someone else. There’s something of the lecturer about this gesture—oh you shall listen to genuine rural Colombian music and no excuses—and something of the fan as well, the bright-eyed and passionate enthusiast who pushes a CD under your nose and tells you that “you have to hear this, it’s important, it will change your life.” It looks as if they’ve got a real commitment to what they do, the members of La Cumbiamba eNeYé. The only thing missing—the thing that would lift them out of the realm of the merely very skilled and make people sit up and say, “Oooh”—is a Toto la Momposina of their own, a personality, a showpiece with a standout voice or dazzling instrumental flourishes. But even without that, this is an impressive ensemble, tight and talented.