Posted September 5, 2020 by Jeff in Flicks

Carlos Vives Explores Cumbia’s Roots With New Album and Documentary

Carlos Vives by Photo Credit: Andrés Oyuela
Carlos Vives by Photo Credit: Andrés Oyuela

Carlos Vives, a singer, songwriter, actor and activist who received the philanthropy award at the UN and is directly involved with the organization Plastic Oceans, founded the initiative Tras la Perla and supports education through the Latin Grammy Carlos Vives Scholarship, recently released his 14th album, Cumbiana.

The album accompanies a 45-minute documentary that chronicles Vives’ trip to the amphibian universe where cumbia originated. 

Ruben Blades, Jessie Reyes, Ziggy Marley, Alejandro Sanz and Elkin Robinson are special guests on the Cumbiana album and also appear in the documentary.

In a recent email interview, he talks about the album and movie.

When did you first hear cumbia and what did you like about the style of music? 

From very young to my generation, Colombians were given a descriptive table of what our country was, and in the line of music, it said Cumbia. We were raised under the concept that Cumbia is the music of Colombians. It is the sound expression of the people where I was born and with the people who raised me. It is the artists of that culture whom I wanted to emulate. It is more than a rhythm. 

What made you want to discover the roots of the music?

When I understood that modern music was born from the roots, I wanted to look for own rock and pop from traditional music. 

Talk about making the documentary film. What challenges did it present? 

The production of the documentary was interrupted by the pandemic. The challenge was that the audiovisual material was not complete, and we had to manage to tell the story in the best way and be able to impact the hearts of the people.

What was the most rewarding part of making the movie? 

The most gratifying thing about making the film was being able to tell the story of a culture whose descendants still live in the territory and who are at the origin of who we are — and who have been lost in our memory.

What do you hope people get out of the film?

That they learn about the territory where Cumbia is born, and the tragedy of one of the most biodiverse places in the world where we have overlooked all that we are.

You don’t play traditional cumbia on the accompanying album, Cumbiana. Talk about your approach on the album. 

No. There are several songs that are using the Cumbia pattern. Some organically, others with computers, but, of course, it is not a folk album. Cumbia as a rhythm is not only used to make typical songs, but its patterns — and those of all its variants —  are used in urban music, without being labeled as cumbierosor folk patterns.

The opening song with Jessie Reyez has such great energy. Talk about how that collaboration came about. 

I wrote about a sorceress inspired by the women who appear in pre-Hispanic legends and who are spoken of in amphibian cultures and even in the mythological origin of Colombia. Cumbia is a woman, and the only thing I needed was to find a female voice that embodied that character. Thanks to my daughters, I met Jessie Reyez. I discovered a formidable artist with a powerful voice, a lot of creativity and a connection to Colombia from her parents. If the song was already good, it ended even better.

It sounds like you and Alejandro Sanz are having fun on “For Sale.” What was it like to work with him? 

It was incredible, because we really had a lot of fun during the filming of the video, although our characters were opposite poles. I am dramatic, romantic, nostalgic, and he is just a very patient friend [laughs]. I remember that on that day we were told that this pandemic was a reality, and we all went home.

I really like the song you did with Ruben Blades. How did you first meet and what do you like about his music?

I am from a generation that lived and happily enjoyed the music of Fania All Stars and the old school music of Colombia, Panama, Cuba and Puerto Rico, and Rubén was an important symbol. Although it is not exactly Salsa, the music that is in the Colombian-Panamanian spirit was an opportunity for Rubén and for me to unite our styles and bring out those rhythms that unite us historically. Of course, Rubén sounds like Rubén and salsa plays an important role in this song.

Los Consejos del Difunto” has a hip-hop feel to it. What inspired that song? 

Hip-hop has been that connector that awakens the desire to use the arsenal of rhythms that us Colombians have as a result of the union of American and African cultures. It is like what happened in Panama that was the great trigger for all Latin urban trends.

The title track, “Cumbiana,” makes for such a great anthem. Talk about what you wanted that song to represent. 

It’s funny, the other day the production team was laughing at me because all the songs were called Cumbiana at some point. And I really wouldn’t know what to say about that insistence that there be a song called as the album. I think it is the most beautiful love story on the album. Because Cumbiana is a woman and is a territory, and our territory deserves to be loved like this.

The album’s last song, “Zhigonezhi,” is so unique. What’s the story behind it? 

The story is very special, I wanted to invite Ernesto Ocampo, the first guitar player in La Provincia, the pre-Hispanic musical archeology band, to make a song that seeks to explore the pre-Hispanic musical worlds of our America. I wanted to make an ensemble imagining a group of Tayronas playing their “Crisis,” the Colombian bagpipes or flutes, without harmonies, without minor tones — people making music towards the sky, very lively, very happy. Much of the joy that has made Colombian music famous comes from the spirituality of those ancient cultures.

You are involved with several philanthropic organizations. Talk about each of them and how important they are to you?

I have a small interdisciplinary group with whom I work at the Foundation, which we call Tras La Perla alluding to the province of Santa Marta. It is a citizen initiative to join us in solving the most fundamental problems of this city on three fronts: neighborhood, city and region. Music showed me its territory, and it is precisely this territory that I call Cumbiana, the land where we put our efforts and support from the love of the people for our cause. It is the way to return to my land all the muse and all the music that it has given us.

Photo by Andrés Oyuela


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].