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Cumbia: How Colombia made Selena a star

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When I heard someone on NPR say cumbia was “the musical backbone of Latin America,” I almost crashed my car into a light post.

“You wish!” I thought. Then, after veering out of trouble and cooling off, I realized the host was absolutely right. No other musical genre has taken stronger root in every single corner of the three Americas. There’s cumbia in its birthplace, Colombia, but there’s also cumbia everywhere else, and I’m not just talking about the “influence” of cumbia—I mean solidly established scenes that rearranged their regional musical landscapes, each version with its own distinctive local flavors added to it.

To name all the genres and subgenres of cumbia would take half of the magazine, but you can’t talk about cumbia without mentioning original cumbia, the 2/4 rhythm born on Colombia’s Atlantic coast during slavery with its mix of African, Spanish and indigenous roots; Mexico cumbia (and that includes alternative mixes with rock, led by accordionist Celso Piña in Monterrey); Peruvian cumbia (both its own style and psychedelic chicha from the ’60s); Panamanian cumbia; cumbia-rock; Argentina’s cumbia villera (shantytown cumbia, a now-mainstream rudimentary style born in the ’90s with lyrics mainly dealing with sex, crime and drugs); and, of course, cumbia tejana.

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