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Carlos Vives Tells the Story of His Musical Roots Through New Album, Cumbiana

Carlos Vives
Carlos Vives
Photo by Andrés Oyuela

The unexplored territories of the indigenous tribes of Colombia have inspired and intrigued many for decades. But for Carlos Vives, who grew up along the Caribbean Sea, they also bring an overflow of memories of his childhood, his family, and a love for music that took root at a very young age.

Last week, Vives released Cumbiana, his 14th studio album. It's a musical project filled with meticulously produced melodies and lyrics that serve as a tribute to the tribes indigenous to his home country and their enduring influence in Colombian music — including the vallenato folk music he loves so much. The album's ten tracks showcase the sounds and rhythms of some of Vives' touchstone instruments, prominent among them drums, accordion, and the gaita, a wind instrument with indigenous origins.

"Cumbiana comes from everything that vallenato has shown me," Vives says from his home in Bogotá. "It stems from the cumbia, which is the mother of many genres, and it was born in an amphibian territory."

With everyone's travel plans canceled for the foreseeable future, Vives had been promoting the album by encouraging fans to apply for a "passport" and travel with him to Cumbiana. On the album's release date last Friday, every applicant with a digital passport to Cumbiana received a link to stream the album and lose themselves in a mix of musical influences from Colombia's rich cultural tapestry. Guest performers Alejandro Sanz, Rubén Blades, Ziggy Marley, and Jessie Reyez all make featured appearances, helping to bring the project to life.

For Vives the music is a vehicle for storytelling. From song to song, he takes the listener through genres, from cumbia to vallenato to porro to salsa and tango, along with more modern styles like reggae and reggaeton.

The lyrics, in turn, take you from place to place in Colombia's Atlantic region. The first cut, "Hechicera" (with Jessie Reyez), introduces the listener to the Magdalena River. "El Hilo" (with Ziggy Marley) invokes the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, his native home. And so on.

"When you look at these territories, you start seeing the influences from those who came and brought their rhythms, whether it's Spaniards, Indians, or Africans," Vives explains. "I discovered in my years of music that the connection between each of these cultures and people brought us one of the most joyous contributions. And by that, I mean the joy of each one connecting with the other. That world I call Cumbiana. But Cumbiana, in reality, is me showing my music. "

Vives says his daughters (Elena, 11, and Lucia, 24) introduced him to the music of Jessie Reyez and that the Toronto-based artist was a natural fit for the album's opener. He says he sent Reyez "Hechicera," encouraging her to have at it. The result features lyrics in English and Spanish laid over a Latin trap- and reggaeton-inspired beat with just a dash of cumbia.

"She completely changed it," Vives marvels. "She took what I gave her and added her own style and completely transformed it."

The admiration is mutual.

The daughter of Colombian immigrants, Reyez recalls her parents listening to Vives' music while she was growing up in Canada.

"In so many interviews, people have asked me who I want to work with or artists that have influenced me, and I always mention him," she tells New Times. "I just feel so much pride. I've been raised in a Colombian home — I owe so much to my parents, and to cumbia and salsa and the boleros [they] played when we were home."

Vives, too, has fond memories of a childhood filled with musical influences. Growing up in Santa Marta, he cultivated those sounds into the musical style that has brought him two Grammys and worldwide recognition.

"The thing is that I love music, and in my family we always loved music," he says. "My mother loved tango, and Santa Marta gave us the opportunity of growing up around vallenatos. So in my grandparents' home, I listened to things such as Carlos Huertas and Luis Enrique Martínez, and those were people whose music I later re-recorded."

Throughout a 27-year career, Vives found success in mixing vallenato and cumbia with pop and rock melodies.

"Many people say that I took vallenato and added pop to it and that I took vallenato and added rock. It's the other way around," Vives insists. "I found the rock within the vallenato. I found the rock within the cumbia."

Cumbiana, though, goes back to his roots. Vives, who will turn 59 in August, hasn't delivered such a deeply folkloric project since 1995, when he released the massively successful La Tierra del Olvido, which cemented his status as Colombia's brightest pop star at the time.

Vives continued to find success in subsequent releases like 1997's Tengo Fe, 1999's El Amor de Mi Tierra, and 2001's Dejame Entrar, which led then-New Times music editor Celeste Fraser Delgado to dub him "Colombian Elvis."

"Signs such as that journalist writing that article showed me that I was on track," Vives says. "She showed me that I was clear on the fact that I wasn't going to do folklore. I wanted to do pop, but I wasn't going to imitate any of the pop artists that were out. I was going to do rock, but I wasn't going to imitate any American rock star nor an English rock star nor an Argentine rock star. I was going to be an Elvis. Elvis took folk-style music from his homeland, and he did his own thing with it."

Cumbiana is proof that Vives continues to bring Colombian culture to the world, and to do it his own way, slaying the stereotypes that dog the country to this day. This time, he's inviting the listener to venture even deeper, into the lesser-known territories of the Magdalena region.

"Cumbiana is one more step," Vives affirms. "It's bringing justice and attention to a forgotten culture that has given us and our music and the blood of our best people something spectacular."

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