The infectious sound of cumbia emerged from Colombia in the 1940s as an urbanized take on folkloric rhythms, but the country’s borders couldn’t contain its spread. Indeed, in the decades since the music took root in nearby countries like Mexico and Peru, the sound has proven remarkably elastic and versatile, stretched and reworked in countless new mutations. The US was slow to pick up on its charms, but in recent decades that’s changed. While many practitioners have embraced a traditional approach or melded cumbia with electronic music, Brooklyn’s Combo Chimbita took it somewhere else altogether.
The group’s members have Colombian roots, but from the start they didn’t worry about stylistic purity, injecting their attack with spaced-out psychedelia, technicolor textures, and post-punk rhythms. These days the band’s sound is built around the powerful singing of Carolina Oliveros, a dynamic stage presence whose hectoring intensity lends their performances an almost religious fervor. On its latest album IRÉ the band boldly flexes its muscles, riding deep, shape-shifting grooves laid out by bassist Prince of Queens and drummer Dilemastronauta, while the seriously inventive guitarist Niño Lento es Fuego presides over a rich palette ranging from skittering rhythms that weightlessly dance over the din to rippling atmospherics that caress and cajole Oliveros’ singing. As Pitchfork wrote of the new album, “What is often called psychedelia in Combo Chimbita’s music might more accurately be identified as a conscious and considered approach to innovation. They pull earnestly from deep wells, and the weight of representing all that energy is apparent in their swirling modulations. The future seen from the present seems like a dream. On IRÉ, Combo Chimbita don’t just herald the coming of this future; they usher it into existence, note by electrifying note.”
From the start the group has fervently celebrated its cultural roots while rejecting the sort of nationalism that privileges politics. Their first album was called Alya Yaba, an indigenous name for the stretch of land between northwest Colombia and southeast Panama, and they recorded IRÉ in Puerto Rico in the wake of the racial unrest that tore across the US during the early days of the pandemic. The music is ebullient, but it’s also passionate in its sense of righteous indignation over racist and homophobic forces these crises unleashed.