The origins of Colombia’s most popular musical export lie in the early coupling of indigenous and African cultures on the Atlantic coast. The region saw an early influx of slaves from the Port of Cartagena, which served as the largest slave port in Spanish America. Some say that cumbia originated as a courtship dance between native women and African men, while others say the dance came about to mimic the shuffling movement of a slave dancing in shackles. It is certainly true that the formation of cumbia, with its African rhythms and sonorous indigenous flutes such as the gaita, is the astonishing product of an alliance of the two groups who occupied the bottom rung of Spain’s racial hierarchy in the Americas.

Cumbia continued to flourish in the 20th century as the primary musical form of the coastal working class. When orchestral musicians such as Lucho Bermudez and Pacho Galan adapted the style to the popular big band format, the more refined version of what had previously been considered suitable only for the lower classes was rendered palatable for a wide variety of Colombian audiences. By the 1950’s, known as cumbia’s golden age, the nationwide cumbia craze spread throughout Latin America, where it took root, and today it remains one of the most dominant musical genres in the Spanish speaking world.