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The first time I went to Colombia, in 2008, I stayed with my friend Carolina and her family. It was December, and people were already gearing up to celebrate. In daily conversations with friends, the word "rumba" kept coming up over and over again in the context of going out at night, but I could never pin down what it actually meant. “Hay rumba?” “Vamos a rumbear?” Is there a rumba? Are we going to rumba? I tried asking Carolina: -Rumba is like fiesta? -Sort of....-It's going out dancing? -Well, kind of...
What I ended up realizing was that "rumba" is difficult to define in a more general because it is so closely associated with Colombian culture and, more specifically, the Colombian way of socializing and partying. "To rumba"-- rumbear-- is to party, but it definitely involves dancing, and it most likely involves alcohol. But going out to a bar and getting smashed with your friends while you wave your hands in the air to hip hop doesn't count. A proper rumba-- which can be at someone's house, or in the street, or at a club-- most likely involves salsa, merengue, vallenato, a bit of cumbia colombiana and maybe even reggaeton; it involves aguardiente or rum; and it will probably end in eating fried food in the street in the early hours of the morning.
When it comes to music distribution, things will change according to region. In Cali, salsa is heavily emphasized, whereas in Bogota merengue and vallenato is given much more airtime. If you go to the Atlantic coast, you will hear almost purely vallenato, with some reggaeton thrown in for variety. Reading JL Pastor's recent post about Colombian music, I was reminded by how different regional preferences are even within a specific genre like salsa. I know most about Cali, so that's what I'm going to talk about here.
In Cali, the most salsa-oriented city in Colombia, Grupo Niche, El Joe, Fruko y sus Tesos, and Orquesta Guayacan (all classic Colombian salsa groups) are heard a lot, along with salsa from Cuba and Puerto Rico, among other countries. Cali has a lot of local salsa orchestras that are generally very, very good-- they have to be given the amount of competition. Bogota-based salsa groups (like la 33) are generally not held in great regard. Because of its geographical closeness to the Pacific coast (it's about 2 hours away), which has a very large Afro-Colombian community, Afro-Colombian rhythms are widely listened to as well. In recent years, groups like Choquibtown, Saboreo and Bahia have become well known for music that fuses the traditional rhythms using marimbas and other percussion instruments with the inclusion of more modern beats and instruments.
As I said, each region has their own version of a rumba. Cali is known as the city "mas rumbera" in Colombia, which leads me to believe that if you want to experience a true Colombian rumba, Cali´s the place to be. The largest Colombian Pacific festival, the Festival Petronio Alvarez, is held every year this week in August (8/15-8/19). If you can, GO. If you can´t, there´s always the Feria de Cali, the huge salsa festival that takes place every year between December 25-30. Either way, you´ll learn for yourself the meaning of rumba.
This last video is really bizarrely edited. Each year the Feria de Cali has a contest for the theme song, and this song won in 2000. The lyrics say "this house is mine, knock it down, I'm happy, knock it down" all in the name of the rumba.