INTERVIEW: Ecuadorian Cumbia Icon Polibio Mayorga Reflects on the Evolving Sound of Tradition

Courtesy of John Eche at Musicoteca Ecuador.

In 1949, a cataclysmic earthquake rocked Ecuador to its core. Among the vast wreckage, the city of Ambato was among the hardest hit, leaving over 6,000 dead and thousands more in crisis. At a local church, the parish organ had been damaged by debris until a young Polibio Mayorga offered to take the broken instrument off their hands one day. As he began making repairs and tinkering with the organ’s keys, so began the legend of Ecuador’s most influential tropical music composer and sonic experimentalist—a story still unfolding to this day.

Over his nearly six-decade career, Mayorga has been called everything from a genius to a madman. In 1967, he released Ecuador’s first ever registered original cumbia composition, the now classic and infinitely covered “Cumbia Triste” with his ensemble Quinteto Casino. He rose to prominence as a master accordionist and controversially infused traditional sanjuanitos and pasillos with Caribbean percussive techniques, heard on the foundational cut “La Minga.” 

By 1973 he’d introduced the Moog synthesizer into the country’s popular music canon, where hits like “Ponchito de Colores” and “Bien Bailadito” pioneered a psychedelic, space-age sound that still reverberates through continental technocumbia. But despite his reputation as a cavalier rulebreaker and unyielding innovator, Mayorga remains protective of Ecuador’s root sounds.

“I am still very respectful of traditional rhythms, which are quite varied and include sanjuanito, yaraví, danzante, tonada, pasacalle, yumbo, albazo, capishca, and melodies from oriental Ecuador,” the living legend tells Remezcla via email. “I am not an enemy of change–in fact, I invented ‘el bailadito’ [at a time when Ecuadorian popular music was deemed too sad to be danceable]. But I do not accept the degradation of a song, like speeding up a tonada and calling it chicha. Just write new songs.”

Out now via German label Analog Africa, a new compilation of Mayorga’s work titled Ecuatoriana – El Universo Paralelo de Polibio Mayorga 1969 – 1981 provides a fresh gateway into his groundbreaking legacy. Deep cuts like the salsa-inflected “Llorona” with Los Locos del Ritmo and Andean cumbia earworm “Mi Paisa” with saxophonist Olmedo Torres are just some of the gems contained within. 

“I brought a new sound to Ecuadorian music, and it was immediately celebrated,” adds Mayorga, who is currently based in Miami, FL, and has resided in the U.S. since 1985. “I discovered the Moog on a trip to New York and bought it right away. Today, many try to imitate my sound but I’ve never heard anyone achieve it. They don’t investigate or acquire the right tools. I still use the Moog, Mellotron, and Vocoder, which [back then] I combined with the Hammond organ.”

Mayorga helped popularize tropical music in Ecuador not by his compositions alone but also as the head of the seminal label Fadisa. Decades later, indie artists such as Lolabum’s Pedro Bonfim and electronic alchemist Quixosis cite the composer as one of the forefathers of homegrown experimental music. Meanwhile, DJ and collector Jhon Eche of the label Musicoteca Ecuador has helped Mayorga upload much of his archive to the Internet, where a new generation of fans is cutting rugs to little-known originals that have been re-interpreted dozens of times in multiple countries. 

The 79-year-old trailblazer is also quick to tease an upcoming LP of original compositions titled Cumbia Pishcodélica, slated for release this summer. “[The album] compiles experimental sounds with songs from the 1970s and 1980s, produced with Mr. Jhon Eche, with whom I began recording on vinyl once more in 2022,” says Mayorga, signing off. “As simple as that!”

You can purchase Ecuatoriana – El Universo Paralelo de Polibio Mayorga 1969 – 1981 here and listen below.