In the wake of Gabriel García Marquez’s death last year, bandleader, singer, and accordionist Gregorio Uribe told us that the work of the Nobel prize winner and Colombia’s vallenato music were closely related. With personal anecdotes, Uribe explained in detail how one carries the other and vice versa. A similar case can be made about Uribe’s music itself, a blend of music that never sounds like fusion or a mashup, but rather a meeting of sounds and rhythms that are closely intertwined, even if they seemed like separate entities on paper.
Gregorio leads a 16-piece big band in the jazz tradition of the 30s and 40s, playing cumbia, chandé, and vallenato. One need only listen to the opening track of the band’s brand new album Cumbia Universal. In the single “Yo Vengo,” Uribe evokes a salsa vocalist, and clarinet solos worthy of Benny Goodman sprinkle the tropical rhythm with fluid runs. There are many moments on the album that could have been arranged by Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Perez Prado, or Johnny Pacheco; even more names come to mind as the tunes roll out. Those names might read like they have little to do with one another, and in these times where everything gets a new version by combining two forms from the past, the truth is far more organic on Cumbia Universal.
One of the Big Band’s biggest talents emerges from finding common ground between the styles they practice and letting them flow into something highly intoxicating and jubilant. Horns stab as if soldiers were coming home from World War II, then add an extra note or two to bring it back to Barranquilla in the 70s. Traditional cumbia rhythms lead the way, transformed into neighboring genres between songs, while the arrangements remain both ambitious and intoxicating. The songs bridge the difference between orchestras that entertained patrons at big halls in the past and present in North and South America; those styles were borne from similar circumstances and have a similar mission: getting people to have a good time. At its core, Cumbia Universal is almost a part of a musical Genome Project.
Thus we find familiar lyrical topics found in many cumbia, salsa, and vallenato records. There are tales of curious characters like “El Avispao,” feel-good numbers like “Goza Cada Día,” sad narratives like “Por Qué Se Irá Mi Niño,” ties to the salsa tradition via his duet with Rubén Blades on the title track, and much more. Last year, Gregorio told us, “Tolstoy once said: ‘Paint your village and you will paint the whole world.’ These words struck a chord in me as years ago I decided that my palette was a 16-piece orchestra and my village, Colombia. With sincere love I have painted the streets and houses of my village from afar, hoping that others will see in it their own.” His memories are colored with his current experiences and what he sees everyday. It’s a celebration, a chapter in life set in music.
Gregorio adds, “What is cumbia? Is it a rhythm? A genre? A movement? In this album, cumbia is rhythm itself. It is tension and release, ones and zeros, action and reaction, downbeat and upbeat.” Cumbia is all this and more, it’s a language, a way to communicate. It’s here on each song, including a cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together” that sounds far from a novelty and closer to a standard. Like his essay on García Marquez and vallenato, his take on cumbia is immersive and full of personal experience. Uribe is one of the many musicians, beatmakers, and producers nowadays who can tell you that cumbia is a starting point for something else, a root in Latino genes to create something new. Gregorio Uribe picks at the genes without trying, really. In his own words, “It is also future roots and a common past.”