The Legacy of Cumbia Sabanera: Carmelo Torres

Among all the variety of cumbias that have traveled across the Americas, the Cumbia Sabanera is one of my favorites. Its tempo, cadence, instruments, and lyrics are deeply connected to the culture of the Colombian Caribbean savanna and are powerful expressions of the sensibility of indigenous and mestizo peoples living in these extensive and warm territories. This is the deep Caribbean, far from the ocean and beaches, and the tourism and modern infrastructure of the urban ports. Surrounded by rivers, small hills (Montes de María), marshlands, and creeks, and with vast flat lands dedicated to cattle raising, this region has been the home of talented juglares and musicians. In what today are the Colombian states (departamentos) of Bolivar, Sucre and Cordoba, is where the traditional cumbia had one of its most famous transformations, adopting the European accordion to replace the sound of the gaitas or indigenous flutes.

Andres Landero, known as the king of cumbia (el rey de la cumbia), is perhaps the most famous musician and performer of Cumbia Sabanera. The melodies he created with his accordion, adapting the sound of this European instrument to the expressiveness of the indigenous flutes (gaitas) and the hundreds of songs he recorded represent the finest expression of this type of cumbia. Although Landero passed away in 2000, his legacy continues to impact many genres of cumbia across the continent, including the cumbia rebajada that originated in Monterrey, México. In Colombia, his influence inspires many musicians from vallenato, merengue, and other tropical rhythms despite the fact that the cumbia sabanera is no longer fashionable and rarely heard in the media. Carmelo Torres, one of his mentees, is the major exponent of the cumbia saabanera that is still alive.

Last march, just before the mandatory lock down and shelter in place policies started in Bogotá, I had the opportunity to meet Carmelo Torres and listen to his live music during a concert at Matik Matik. For the show, Carmelo was accompanied by Los Toscos, a local band dedicated to explore Colombian traditional genres. Together with this band, Carmelo recorded an album in 2015.

The live performance included a repertoire of many of the traditional songs of Cumbia Sabanera, and transported the audience to the deep Caribbean with the lyrics and melodies interpreted by Carmelo Torres. From the beginning of the show, the auditory of Matik Matik rapidly became the scenario of a party, with dancers moving to the cadence of the cumbia sabenera rhythms and singing the chorus and famous verses of the songs. The mix of the accordion and voice of Carmelo Torres with the sounds of Los Toscos was fantastic, a powerful homage to the legacy of cumbia sabanera that reminded us of its endurance.

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