“The drum is at the center of everything. The drum can heal all wounds.”
Speaking over the phone from Colombia, Edgardo Garcés is meditating on the transcendent significance of the drum as a musical instrument, but also as a cultural and spiritual constant throughout human history. “A drum can hypnotize you,” he says. “El ritual del tambor is born out of repetition and trance. It’s about achieving a deeper connection.” That quest for connection is at the core of Ghetto Kumbé, the rapturous electronic-roots fusion group Garcés co-founded with fellow drummers and folklorists Chongo (Juan Carlos Puello) and Doctor Keyta (Andrés Mercado).
The three musicians hail from Colombia’s Caribbean coast; Garcés from La Guajira, Puello from Cartagena, and Mercado from Santa Marta, also sharing extensive resumes in Colombian traditional music. Since the age of 12, Puello has been drumming on stage and in-studio with some of Colombia’s most renowned cantadoras, including the likes of Totó La Momposina, Petrona Martínez, and Martina Camargo. Similarly, Mercado has performed with folkloric dance companies for ages, engaging with generations of West African techniques preserved and proliferated by Colombia’s vibrant Afro-Indigenous community. Garcés also began drumming at a young age and first met Mercado as part of influential electrocumbia collective Sidestepper, where they played together for nine years. As their creative partnership blossomed, Garcés began tinkering with production software, melding organic traditions with the limitless curiosity of Afro-futurism.
At the deepest levels, the members of Ghetto Kumbé are bonded by drumming, a discipline shaping every facet of their conscientious songwriting, riveting performances, and colorful aesthetics. A perfect example of this reverence comes with “Tambó,” the most recent single off their brand new self-titled debut album. “Tambó, Tambó, Tambó, que a lo lejos suena / Tambó, Tambó, Tambó, sacame esta pena,” they chant, oscillating between anguish and euphoria while sending up a prayer of gratitude to the instrument that has given so many a lifeline to their ancestors and blessed others with a tool to pave their future. Immensely cathartic, “Tambó” is also a single flash of vulnerability in an album that throbs like a battle cry across 12-tracks of unrelenting Afro-house and kuduro, loaded with cutting socio-political criticism.
“There is lots of dissatisfaction and anger in the lyrics,” Garcés says, “but also lots of joy because we’ve always tried to carry the message through music and dance. We’re from Colombia’s Caribbean coast, and we were born and raised in violence. I grew up watching armed men walking down the street and people talking about which of our acquaintances had been killed. We grew up in a world where death is normal. So the lyrics echo anger we’ve carried for years, but the album was also being produced at a time of extreme discontent, which led to the massive #21N marches.”
On the album’s lead single “Vamo a Dale Duro,” Ghetto Kumbé eviscerate the hollow lip service of Colombian politicians parroting narratives at odds with the realities of a country struggling with rampant racism, poverty, and violence. Again, on “Está Pillao,” political lies are the target of the group’s acerbic sarcasm, pointedly singing, “Siempre bien pintao / perico colorao / habla de lo que no sabe / tiene a todo el mundo trabao.” The hypnotic Afro-house track astutely conflates deceit and confusion with the smug, smiling faces synonymous with political corruption. The overall sense of conflict and disenchantment with national institutions is an extremely relevant companion piece to Lido Pimienta’s Miss Colombia, another standout 2020 record.
As Garcés suggested, the album is not quite inspired by the #21N protests, but the tension that permeated the country while in production echoes throughout. For over two months, demonstrations that began last year on November 21 pushed back against President Iván Duque Marquéz’s planned austerity measures, exacerbated by the government’s failure to deliver any substantial justice after peace treaties were signed with the FARC militias in Cuba in 2016. This frustration comes to a boiling point on “Cara a Cara,” a confrontational take down of socio-economic inequality and flagrant impunity framed within restless champeta guitars. Anxious urgency is also at the center of “Pila Pila,” a cocktail of soaring drums and buyerengue vocals where a rising chant of “Nadie la saca barata” toes the line between ritual music and primal scream.
Ghetto Kumbé was co-produced with The Busy Twist, expertly showcasing the dizzying breadth of Colombian sounds and traditions. On instrumental tracks “Intro” and “Interludio,” drums remain the group’s rhythmic backbone while evocative gaita becomes a fluttering melodic centerpiece. Then you have “Lengua Ri Suto,” possibly the album’s crowning achievement. Recorded in Palenque, the first freehold established in the late 1600s by escaped enslaved people in the colonial Americas, the song features folkloric hip-hop collective Kombilesa Mi performing in the Palenquero language. Gaitas, booming bass drums, and ferocious raps coalesce into an impassioned call for preservation, where the song’s chorus directly translates to “Here we speak and protect the tongue of Palenque.”
“All they have is their land and their music,” Garcés reflects. “Everyone in Palenque plays some sort of instrument, whether it’s tambor alegre or marimbula, and Kombilesa Mi works with the children to make sure language and other traditions don’t disappear as the outside world becomes increasingly harder to stave off. As pop music and reggaeton grow in popularity in the Palenque community, more young people rather speak Spanish than their mother tongue. So the song is about keeping that tongue and culture alive.”
Whether ancestral or on the bleeding edge of electronic innovation, drums are at the center of the Ghetto Kumbé universe. Across two EPs and now an explosive full-length album, the group continues exploring the many commonalities of traditional and modern dance music without fetishizing hybridity. “I feel like this album is a new beginning for Ghetto Kumbé,” says Garcés. “Despite having influences, we’ve developed a characteristic sound and try not to sound like anyone else. We’re just letting natural ideas flow.”