La Cumbiamba eNeYé performed March 15 at Roulette with their full, 11-piece ensemble for the first time in four years, part of the World Music Institute (W.M.I.) series, World to Brooklyn!. The series aims to achieve a higher level of engagement between international musicians and their audience, and La Cumbiamba’s (the name refers to a traditional outdoor dance party in Colombia) performance resulted in a culturally immersive, festive, and impressive experience.
The evening opened with offerings of a traditional Colombian drink, refajo, made with beer and Colombiana, a sweet cream soda flavored with a hint of tamarind. The growing crowd then turned to dance instructors Denis Gonzalez and Lorena Ayub, who taught a basic lesson in the traditional cumbia dance in 2/4 time—despite showcasing many distinct regional styles, much of the concert was played in that meter. “The dance lesson and cocktail hour is a great way to show off [the Colombian community’s] skill and lead the way for people that are not from that tradition,” W.M.I. artistic and executive director Karen Sander said in an interview.
Shortly thereafter, La Cumbiamba took the stage in traditional sombreros vueltiaos, loosely translated as “turned hats,” which are made of fibers woven into black and white geometric patterns. The group is Martin Vejarano on drums, Moris Cañate on auxiliary percussion, Juan Uribe on soprano saxophone, Justin Wood on alto saxophone and clarinet, Tim Vaughn on trombone, John Deutsch on trumpet, Juan Gallego on bass, Sebastian Cruz on guitar, and Vanessa Ascanio and Nilko Andreas on vocals. Projected onto the back of the stage were images of Colombian life and culture, from street festivals to iconic landmarks, by photographer Mauricio Bayona.
The set started with a lively tune that set a festive tone for the rest of their performance. Their brassy big-band format and danceable percussive rhythms were instrumental in emulating the celebrations in Colombia. Ascanio and Andreas sang about Colombian culture, family and social life, and landscapes, all in Spanish. Vejarano, one of the group’s founding members, explained the types of songs they played—starting with music specific to the country’s Pacific coast, and then on to music of the Atlantic coast. After a few songs, the group invited their dance virtuosos, Gonzalez and Ayub, on stage to accompany the currulao song they were playing. That is music native to the Pacific coast, known for a pronounced African influence, and maintained by a 6/8 rhythm. The dancers wore traditional garb—mostly white and loose fitting. As the evening progressed the band moved onto the more contemporary musics of the Atlantic coast, known as champeta and chandé, which infuse elements of indigenous and afro-Colombian cultures and music. The dancers returned to the stage during a champeta in more relaxed attire but performed with equal verve and agility, keeping up with the rhythms of the percussionists and energizing the audience’s own dancing.
As the set came to a close, the audience demanded more. During their encore, La Cumbiamba invited the crowd onstage, and that proved a challenge for guitarist Cruz: he faced a boy not older than four years who tried to play the guitar during Cruz’s solo. With much grace, Cruz was able to finish his gritty solo, and then joined the dancing onstage.
“This group is very important because they represent the perfect balance between coming from very strong roots and authentic qualities, and translating well onto the modern spin,” said Alexa Burneikis, director of marketing and special events at W.M.I. and curator of the World to Brooklyn! series, in an interview. The showcase of regional styles, including vallento, cumbia, and champeta, was a real feat and showed La Cumbiamba’s great passion and expertise—all presented with a modern, popular familiarity. As Verajano said in an interview:
We take the Colombian bands, like the orquesta tropical, as a departing point for the band and keep it as traditional as possible, with harmony and structure of the movement. No jazz or rock. It’s modern in the way we interpret the performance and arranging without changing the actual music.
Both the band and W.M.I. thoroughly realized aspects of Colombian culture. They excited the audience’s ears and feet throughout the show: there was a full house of people dancing. Non-Colombians were fully immersed in the musical culture—visually, aurally, and physically—and native Colombians savored a moment of welcome familiarity.
Along with the unique concert experience of hearing skilled musical performers and seeing virtuosic dancing, the concert stood out by bypassing any hierarchy of taste with the way it engaged across cultures and ages. La Cumbiamba eNeYé are not to be missed.
ANDREA GORDILLO is a writer based in New York City.