Known as “The land of a thousand rhythms” Columbia is a musical dream come true for Latin American culture enthusiasts. With about 1,025 folk rhythms and countless number of traditional dances, one could spend a lifetime exploring the sheer diversity of sound that makes up this amazing country.
My personal experience with Columbian cultural influences came when I participated in a Zumba dance class, after having stopped all manner of exercise for quite a long time. What I remember most about that class is how a wide smile was slowly drawn across my face, as the music’s energy lifted my spirits and I found myself becoming immersed in the vibrant energy of the class’s dance routine.
An hour later, I could confidently say that my mood was elevated beyond what I thought possible, and I vowed to make Zumba a regular part of my exercise routine. Created in the 1990s by Columbian dancer Alberto “Beto” Perez, the sport incorporates many elements of various dancing styles such as hip-hop, salsa, meringue, and mambo.
Nevertheless, Zumba dance was not simply a fun way of exercise. Some of the numerous health benefits of Zumba include total body toning, improved coordination, aerobic and anaerobic benefits, and stress and fatigue reduction.
Popular music in Columbia
Digging a little deeper into Columbian music history, it quickly became apparent that Zumba’s diverse dance elements represented a country rich with music and dance traditions and diversity. This assortment of sound is a reflection of divided national spirit, where citizens have a historical tendency towards identifying themselves with the regions they live in, instead of a unified national identity.
Moreover, the very definition of Columbian nationalism found a battleground in the diverse musical genres that came from the country, with national debates arguing whether music styles such as the Bambuco – native to the Andean Region – should include mainly European influences, or local African and Native sounds.
During the 1950s, a new style of music started to emerge from the Tropical Region of Columbia, one that was infused with African and Native sounds and dances. In a traditionally religious society, such influences were seen as immoral, and at worst, enforcing a form of Columbian identity that the elites tried their hardest to subdue over the past decades.
While at first the reception of the Costeno music with the Columbian elite was that of shock and disdain, yet over the following decade’s music from all over Columbia gained not only national appeal but also international statues.
Coming out of the Caribbean Coast, Barranquilla gave birth to a world-renowned festival that has made it to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Barranquilla Carnival is the second largest in the world after Rio, and while it takes place on the coastal region of the country, it represents a celebration of the diverse cultures that make up the Columbian nation.
Carnival is considered a “harmonious merging of different cultures and races that bears no traces of conflict or inequality.” Held four days before Lent, Carnival represents a mixture between Pagan traditions of the spring celebrations and the Catholic Church’s last festivities before the great fast. Celebrations are traditionally presided over by the Momo King and the Carnival queen.
The Momo king is “known as the son of the dream, and of the night” he is the protector of all those who indulged in jollification and the “scandal of vice and excess.” The Carnival Queen is traditionally chosen from among four of the wealthiest families in Columbia, due to the expense incurred in costumes and jewelry, and is usually selected from a panel of judges according to her skill in mastering different kinds of dances.
Pre-Carnival festivities start with the Reading of the Proclamation; a list of do’s and don’ts for the carnival, in which the keys to the city are handed over by the Mayor to the Queen, symbolizing her control over the city for the following days. On a different day, comes the coronation of the new queen by the old queen in the middle of a big dance and music party.
Afterward comes the Gay parade, where members of the LGTB community march the streets in various costumes and dance routines, followed on a different day by the Children parade, where mini-flouters are created for school children to march across the city.
The last of the pre-carnival festivities is La Guacherna, which is a night-time event marking the beginning of the dance event. It is said that this particular event was brought to the city by Esthercita Forero, who wanted to re-create a similar celebration she had seen elsewhere in the country. The main song of the event is the merengue song “La Guacherna,” a composition by Esthercita Forero.
Carnival itself takes place over the course of four days, where floats, costumes, dancing, and parades dominate the scenes. The first event is the war of the flowers, where the queen parades around the city – with dancers in her wake – in a float throwing flowers at the crowd. The second day is characterized by various displays of folklore groups, performing their popular dance routines.
The third day includes the Great Fantasy Parade, where dancers display their costumes and dance routines using elements from national and international cultures. The last day is comprised of a four-hour parade through the city with the figurative burial of Joselito Carnaval, symbolizing the end of the festivities.
Carnival not only represents a celebration of diverse cultures and traditions, but it also has a direct economic benefit on the city where according to some estimates, the annual event generates upwards of 32,000 jobs, directly and indirectly. This showcases the vital contribution arts and culture events could have on a nation’s well-being and international statues. Carnival is not simply a big party. It is a celebration of the very traditions that make-up the Columbian nation, and a reflection of the regions diverse historical cultures.