Deep in northern Colombia, amid the wetlands where the Magdalena and the Sucre rivers meet, sits the town of El Banco, where peak temperatures soar over 100 degrees and the humidity is inescapable.
It was along those riverbanks where Indigenous and people of African descent met some 200 years ago and began creating the musical rhythms now known as cumbia.
“Cumbia is the result of those cultures meeting and converging on the land,” Colombian singer Carlos Vives writes in a new book. “Cumbia is what brings us together.”
Vives’ book, “Cumbiana,” was published this month with the historian Guillermo Barreto, and issued a short documentary and an album earlier this year under the same name. His goal, he says: to highlight Colombian Indigenous peoples’ essential contributions to folklore and the importance of the rivers past and present.
Vives has long been a pop music fixture since the 1990s in Colombia and much of Latin America, mixing the traditional and exuberant styles of cumbia and vallenato with rock or electronic beats. He has sold more than 20 million copies of his albums worldwide; and in “Cumbiana,” his 16th album, he found renewed success, winning three Latin Grammy Awards last month.
In an interview with The World’s Latin America correspondent, Jorge Valencia, Vives talks about how his environment has shaped his music, and why he hopes the Colombian government will pay better attention to an ongoing disaster along the Magdalena River.
Jorge Valencia: Who are you, and what do you?
Carlos Vives: I’m Carlos Vives, and what do I do? I work in music, theater and identity.
What do you mean by identity?
It means that I do my best so all my work is somehow a representation of who I am and pays tribute to where I’m from.
You live in Colombia, even though it’s common for successful Colombian artists to leave the country. Why have you decided to stay?
I’ve talked about this some, but I don’t want to criticize anyone. My parents separated when I was a child. I was 10 years old, we were living in Santa Marta, and it felt very safe to be living in a simple family environment with the beach nearby. Eventually, I had to move to Bogotá, and that was really difficult for me. What happened was that God saw me in pain and took me to Bogotá, a city I fell in love with and that now I can’t leave.
For me, Bogotá is the capital of music because that’s where we built everything. Sometimes, people tell me that I have to go somewhere else, and I’m like, no, no, no, no, no. I’m going to go back to my place, and work with whomever I find there because I want to keep working in my studio, and I want to go to my house and I want to be with my people. But then I go to Madrid, and sometimes it makes me sad to leave. Or I go to Mexico, and sometimes it makes me sad to leave Mexico. It always makes me sad to let go of things. But, man, when I’m on a plane and I look out the window and I see the high plateau around Bogotá? Or when I’m landing in Santa Marta, and I see the mountains and the wetlands? There is nothing in this life, boss, nothing that fills my soul like that does.
For your new record, you wrote a book in which you go into detail about the Indigenous influence on your music. Why was that important to you?
It’s an act of justice. If there’s a message I’d like to share it’s that we should stop saying that cumbia comes only from Africa. Of course, Afro Antillean music was important. Cuba was a beacon, Puerto Rico was a beacon, and blues music from the Southern United States was a beacon. And, of course, the seed of the tree that cumbia music grew from arrived in the womb of enslaved people from Africa.
But the story hasn’t been well told because amphibious communities, Indigenous communities like the Zenú, Tairona, Chimilas — that’s really the great power of our music and our Caribbean. Our Caribbean is Andean, in other words, it’s Indigenous. That’s what the great musician José Barros used to say. We come from that syncretism.
We can’t be unfair to the Indigenous blood that runs through our people, and that’s the blood of the Chibcha people, the Arhuacos, the Koguis and the Chimilas. Great teachers like the sociologist Orlando Fals Borda have already told that story. Our Caribbean is Andean, and we always felt ashamed for our Indigenous roots. So much so that we didn’t really understand the spiritual power of our cumbias, our porros and our popular music.
In Colombia and Latin America, in general, people say they have a lot of pride in their Indigenous heritage. And yet, Indigenous people are marginalized in all aspects of society, including in popular music. Afro Colombian and Indigenous musicians, despite their contributions, don’t reap the same benefits or recognition as white-mestizo artists. What do you think about the fact that of Colombia’s most famous artists, none of them are Afro Colombian or Indigenous?
Yes, yes. That’s the legacy of an industry that has a little bit of an inferiority complex. But it’s real. We have to make every effort, especially in a country like ours. During the rock period, the Colombian rock bands wanted to be like the Beatles. The same with urban music and hip hop. Musicians in Colombia today, or in Puerto Rico, for example, want to be part of that and dress alike. Trends exist so that we’ll become uniform. Colombia has a lot of success with a lot of its artists, but they’re not the artists who are given the most opportunities because there isn’t enough recognition and there’s the culture of uniformity.
As an artist with a long and successful career, do you think it’s possible for that trend to change?
I wouldn’t be able to tell you. We keep working. Since the beginning, it was clear to me what was folklore and what was industry. When the music industry arrives, what they find is folklore, whether it’s in the Southern United States or in the Caribbean basin. When recording studios arrive to Colombia, what’s there? Traditional cumbia music that wasn’t written to be recorded, but the revolution is here, so let’s record them.
In the end, it’s up to us to keep our culture alive. Taking care of a river or caring for a mountain will be the only way to save folklore. For the farmer to do well so he can plant his crops and ride his horse and sing to the cows, to the birds, to the river, the sunrise and the rain — that’s the only way. It’s not going to be Silvestre Dangond or the Hermanos López or Carlos Vives who are going to save vallenato music or cumbia music. But if the Rio Grande is well, and the fishermen are well, if the person who farms is well, that’s the only way to save the culture. The rest is people who go into a studio to make a recording.
You won three Latin Grammys this year. But you had already received 11 awards in previous years. What does winning a Latin Grammy mean to you at this point?
Well, awards have always been important to people. In winning an award, we feel that we’re receiving recognition and that we’re doing something right. I really value the love the industry has given me because I know we’ve been one of the academy’s favorites. I now understand and use the opportunity to share this type of message, so we can talk about the swamplands. If I win at the Grammys and journalists interview me, I say to you all, “Hey, help me out because right now, the government in the Magdalena region is going to work on a road that connects Barranquilla with the swamplands and Santa Marta, and it turns out we did something terribly wrong to the environment.”
I’m committed to this region because that’s the region that gave us cumbia and the region that I’m connected to and I love. So, please listen to biologists, listen to scientists so we can make the Magdalena River what it once was or so we can at least do something about it. Right now, that’s more important to me than anything else.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.