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Greg Ribot and Cumbia del Norte: The International Conspiracy

The original idea of cross-pollinating Colombian cumbia grooves with jazz belongs to Charles Mingus. His large ensemble experiment Cumbia and Jazz Fusion (Atlantic) shows the imagination of his genius. It’s not known how Mingus heard this South American music but it’s a sound that filtered into North America in the 1950s and flourished along the U.S./Mexico border region and in Latino immigrant communities. With its insatiable hypnotic beat, it’s a popular dancehall sound you can’t miss on Spanish-language radio or streets.

Since that 1977 date, very few jazz musicians have ventured into using the cumbia as an improvisational texture. That is until now, with Greg Ribot and Cumbia del Norte’s The International Conspiracy. What his maverick brother, Marc, did for Arsenio Rodriguez and Cuban son, Greg could do for cumbia. Despite the lackluster English song titles, this all-instrumental excursion is like a musical cruise on the Magdalena River in Colombia that cuts across the heart of the country.

“Hot in the Shade” is indigenous gaita from the Andean region with Marc adding a cool twangy electric guitar and Greg on panpipes and tenor sax. “Last Boat Leaving” showcases the rural melancholy sound of clarinet-driven municipal bands. But it’s the urbanized big bands that flourished in Bogata and Medellin dancehalls in the 1940s, on labels like Discos Fuentes and Sonolux, that inspire the arrangements and that Cumbia del Norte seems to emulate.

“New York Cumbia,” with vibraphonist Bill Ware III, is a light orchestral tapestry with Greg articulating the melodic theme on flute with musical director/guitarist Francisco Navarro adding colorful nylon-string acoustic textures and a full-bellied baritone sax in the horn-section accenting. Throughout, percussionist Vince Cherico keeps the tempos steady with that important behind-the-beat sensibility.

This is a great party record. Kudos to Greg Ribot and Cumbia del Norte for reopening the door to a rich cultural heritage that fits well with jazz.

Originally Published