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With genres including salsa, cumbia, rock, champeta, palenque, reggaeton (and more salsa), Colombia is often referred to as the “land of a thousand rhythms.” If you’re at all interested in a country’s musical heritage, Colombia’s is as rich as it gets. Using on-the-ground sources, we’ve put together a list of the songs that best exemplify the Colombian experience. Rather than learning about Colombia through Narcos episodes, let these jams tell you a different side of the Colombian story.
“El Preso” – Fruko y Sus Tesos
When it comes to the all-time pioneers of Colombian salsa music, Fruko y Sus Tesos is the undisputed king. Born and raised in Medellín, Julio Ernesto Estrada (aka Fruko) released this 1975 number that instantly became an international anthem and effectively launched his group into stardom.
Like many songs of the salsa genre, El Preso (“the prisoner”) is a melancholic lament whose lyrics don’t quite match its vibe as a pulsing party song. When it comes on at the Colombian discotecas, everyone starts dancing. Check out this salsa tour of Medellín to get a taste for where Fruko got his start.
“Colombia Tierra Querida” – Lucho Bermúdez
Besides salsa, cumbia is perhaps the most emblematic genre of Colombia. Originating as a courtship dance practiced among the African slave population, cumbia drew its percussive influences from Africa, and eventually, it’s harmonic and melodic influences from European and indigenous cultures too. Cumbia has spread all throughout Latin America and the world, and today you’ll find inventive new remixes (Quantic, in particular, has found a niche blending Colombian Cumbia with electronic music).
Luco Bermúdez’ “Colombia Tierra Querida” seriously competes with the national anthem for the most widely-recognized song in the country. It’s a belting sing-a-long with some catchy horn riffs and the quintessential three-note cumbia drum beat.
“Amarte Mas No Puedo” – Diomedes Diaz
If you spot a streetside tienda with a group of old folks downing their post-work liquor, chances are they’re listening to vallenato. Along with cumbia, vallenato is a traditional folk genre of Colombia — and it’s the go-to drinking music of the older generations. The blaring accordion and the guacharaca (a metal percussion instrument that looks like an oversized cheese grater) are the most prominent tell-tale signs that it’s vallenato.
Although people like Carlos Vives have modernized vallenato in recent years, the Colombian artist most associated with vallenato is Diomedes Diaz. “Amarte Mas No Puedo” is his most popular jam — but don’t worry if it doesn’t immediately resonate with you. Vallenato is a bit like country music for younger generations in the United States.
“La Camisa Negra” – Juanes
Whereas the rock genre may have lost momentum in recent decades in the northern hemisphere, Latin rock is alive and well. Colombia (Bogotá specifically) is full of rock-themed dive bars and jean-jacket subcultures. Many diehard rock fans would scoff at the idea of citing Juanes as a purebred rockstar, but it’s undeniable that he was central to spearheading the Latin pop-rock genre in the ’90s and 2000s. “La Camisa Negra” has a great little gypsy sound that Colombians know all too well.
“La Voladora” – El Sayayin
If twerking, reggaeton, salsa, hip hop, and surf rock all got together and had a baby, it would be called “champeta.” Born in the 1970s on the Caribbean coast of Colombia (around Cartagena and Santa Marta), champeta is a hot, sweaty, bass-heavy dance genre that feels more like a workout than anything else.
Put on “La Voladora” by El Sayayin for a taste of what we’re getting at. The dance involves lots of elbows and knees, but don’t be afraid to clunk around the dancefloor for your first foray. Champeta is still making its way down to Medellín and Bogotá, but the genre is alive and well on the coast. If you’re staying up on the Caribbean coast, consider one of these 5 Historic Hotels.
“X” – J Balvin
To be clear, Reggaeton started in Puerto Rico in the 1990s, but many people say the genre has found a natural home in Colombia in recent years. With international artists like J Balvin, Maluma, and Kevin Roldán exploding onto the scene, Colombia seems to have overtaken the throne.
J Balvin isn’t the prototypical reggaeton artist — rather than aggressive rapping and heavy hitting beats, J Balvin’s singles tend to signal towards the new wave of smooth, melodic singing and a pop-influenced style. Whatever it is, it’s working, and “X” is a catchy jam that completely exploded in 2018 (it received 218 million youtube views in under one month).
“Pies Descalzos, Sueños Blancos” – Shakira
Did you think we were going to have a Colombian music article without mentioning Shakira? Shakira has been by far the most successful musician hailing from Colombia, but her fame began long before “Waka Waka” and “Hips Don’t Lie.” For a Shakira song that’s more Colombian than her English-spoken tunes, direct yourself towards her first album, Pies Descalzos. The eponymous title track is an excellent 90s rock sing-a-long that’s hard to get out of your head.
“Bailar Contigo” – Monsieur Perine
Monsieur Periné often gets pigeonholed into the “pop music” genre, but in truth, this group is one of the most eclectic modern ensembles in Colombia. Drawing on influences from jazz, swing, gypsy, and Latin American rhythms, the Bogotá-based band has won and been nominated for several Grammys and Latin Grammys. In many ways, they’re at the forefront of modern Colombian music that genuinely appeals to everyone.
“En Barranquilla Me Quedo” – Joe Arroyo
Seeing as how salsa music is so prevalent in Colombia, it’s tough to pick just one song. In addition to the aforementioned “El Preso,” Joe Arroyo’s “En Barranquilla Me Quedo” is a close second. Hailing from Cartagena, Joe Arroyo actually performed with Fruko y Sus Tesos for 10 years before splitting off as a solo artist. “En Barranquilla Me Quedo” is another super fun salsa song that gets everyone up on the dancefloor. If you’re looking to “stay in Barranquilla” as Joe Arroyo instructs, head over during Carnival and use Your Barranquilla Carnival 2019 Guide.
“Me Voy” – Andrés Cepeda
Somewhere between a singer-songwriter, a pop star, a jazz-trained musician, and a swoon-worthy romantic lies Andrés Cepeda. He’s tough to pin down, but that’s part of the reason he’s gained such success. After coming up in the Bogotá music scene, Andres Cepeda has become one of the most important voices in Latin American pop music.
All within one show, you’ll find him singing stripped-down songs with only a pianist, and others with a 10-piece entourage of horns, percussion, and strings. Andrés Cepeda is close on the heels of Shakira, Juanes, and Carlos Vives for Colombians with international fame.