The Film
Gaitero Music
The Musicians
Toño Fernández


Cumbia dancers and the Gaiteros



Gaitero music, which has been played for centuries in the Caribbean coast region of Colombia, is the original, folkloric form of cumbia, and the root of all modern cumbia, one of the most popular musical expressions of Latin America today.

Gaitero music, the original, folkloric cumbia, dates back at least to the time of Bolivar, in the early 1800's, and probably further. It is a fusion of indigenous and African influences, played on two flutes (gaitas), and a maraca, both of indigenous origin, and drums of African origin, from the descendents of the many African slaves who passed through this coast. The haunting melodies still heard today among the Cuna and Kogi Indians, are played in counterpoint to each other, and are combined with the steady, hypnotic beat of a small drum, the high-spirited and skillful improvisations of the other two drums, and the elaborate rhythms of the maraca. One of the gaita players holds the gaita in one hand, the maraca in the other, and with amazing agility and rhythm plays the two simultaneously, his lips only leaving the flute to sing.

Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto

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In the past there were many gaiteros playing cumbia throughout the Caribbean coastal region of Colombia. Over the years, the music, cumbia, with words added, evolved further through the addition of the accordion, and later electronic instruments and full orchestration. Modern, orchestrated cumbia is heard throughout South and Central America, and in Mexico, and is listened to by millions of people of Hispanic origin in the United States. Orchestrated cumbia, with its infectious beat, is music for dancing, and is played in dance clubs,and at parties, as well as being listened to every day in millions of homes. Until recently, however, it seemed as though the folkloric gaitero tradition was destined for extinction when the older Gaiteros died, as young people in San Jacinto seemed more interested in other musical forms which they heard on the radio, including salsa, orchestrated cumbia, and rock and roll. Although there were, and are, other gaiteros, the group calling itself The Gaiteros of San Jacinto was without comparison. But Toño Fernández, one of the original members of the group, and the other musicians, lived in poverty in San Jacinto, receiving little recognition, even as their songs were pirated for use by orchestras in the city.

In the last few years there has been a resurgence of interests in this folkloric heritage, and more young people have taken up the gaitas, maraca, and drums, but there are still many people, even within Colombia, who are unaware of the roots of the music they listen to daily. In addition to paying a tribute to the musicians, we hope this film will help preserve this folkloric tradition by educating people about this important part of Latin American musical history, and increasing their respect for this music. We also hope to improve cross-cultural understanding, as the Latin American population in the United States keeps growing. We are interested in showing one aspect of the rich cultural heritage of Latin America, and in particular Colombia. The image of Colombia in the American press is overwhelmingly negative, dominated by news of violence, and we would like to counterbalance this with one example of the enormous richness and complexity of cultural traditions found there.

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Version en Español
Cumbia: El Llanto de Dos Razas en Cautiverio
Copyright 2001-2009.
Photographs by Alvaro Ernesto Ortiz and Ellen Speiser.
For problems or questions regarding this web contact [Juan Ricardo León].
Last updated: August 11, 2009
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