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Cumbia & Jazz Fusion


In 1978, American bassist, bandleader and composer Charles Mingus (1922 - 1979), one of the most influential jazz musicians of all times, released the album Cumbia & Jazz Fusion. The album includes a suite of the same name, in which Mingus recreated his perceptions about Colombia’s main musical genre. Right up to the present day, this work serves as an example of the possibilities that both cumbia and jazz have as vehicles of cultural exchange and social communication.


Commemorating the 40th anniversary of the release of the suite Cumbia & Jazz Fusion, an ensemble of musicians from Barranquilla, Colombia, directed by drummer and producer Einar Escaf and pianist and arranger Leonardo Donado, recreates in a new format the work in which Charles Mingus approached Colombian tropical music in 1978. Alongside Escaff and Donado are Melisa Baena playing the trombone and lead vocals, Michel Lopez on bass, Ailan Wong and Leang Manjarrés in the gaitas, Joaquín Pérez in flauta de millo, Edwin Viloria on the trumpet and both Julio Frías and Roberto Camargo on percussion. 


This ensemble is joined by one of the protagonists of said emblematic project: saxophonist Justo Almario from Sincelejo, Colombia. Almario, a legend of Colombian jazz, was the album's creative advisor; and the person responsible for Mingus approaching and falling in love with the sound of Colombian cumbia. At a very young age, Almario settled in the United States, where he received a scholarship to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. He later became the bandleader for conga player Mongo Santamaria, and worked with such other world class jazz players as Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Burrell and Roy Ayers. As a soloist he has recorded eleven albums. He stands out for his mastery of soprano and tenor sax and, as well as the clarinet and flute. He is currently a faculty member of the Jazz Studies program at UCLA.


This new incarnation of the Cumbia & Jazz Fusion project was performed for the first time at the Jazz al Parque (Jazz at the Park) festival in Bogotá, in September 2018, eliciting a great response from the audience as well as national and international media. That was the first time that Cumbia & Jazz Fusion was performed with traditional Colombian instruments such as gaitas, flauta de millo, tambor alegre and llamador. During Mingus’ original recording, these instruments had to be imitated with oboes, bassoons and congas. It is also the first time that Justo Almario participated in the performance of said piece, because in spite of having been the original creative advisor of the project, a previous commitment to tour with Mongo Santamaria’s band in May 1977 prevented him from participating in the original recording. In this way, two musical languages come together to commemorate the anniversary of a fundamental album in the development of contemporary Colombian jazz, with the added value of the presence of Justo Almario and the inclusion of the Colombian musical instruments. Undoubtedly, Charles Mingus’ dream has come true.   


After the show in Jazz Al Parque, on Monday, September 24th, a panel discussion and conference was held at Universidad Nacional de Colombia with Justo Almario, Daniella Cura and Jaime Andres Monsalve. The latter is musical director of the Colombian National Radio and author of the chronicle “Los Años Cumbieros de Mingus” (Mingus’ Cumbia Years); his research turned reportage was the starting point for the entire project. Monsalve, a journalist and music researcher, recreated the reasons and events that led to the creation the Cumbia & Jazz Fusion album, as well as Mingus’ impressions about Colombian music, the environment in the rehearsals and recording studio, and the subsequent repercussions of the project. These were all based on bibliographic sources, journalistic archives and interviews with people close to Mingus at the time such as his wife Sue Mingus, Almario and the three Colombians that participated in the 1978 recording, one of whom never appeared in the record credits for reasons exposed in the chronicle.


Beyond being a band, the Cumbia & Jazz Fusion project is a musical collective that re-evaluates the vision of Charles Mingus, in order to further the dialogue between the musical cultures of the United States and the Colombian Caribbean coast. The project also seeks to highlight the contribution of musicians, both Colombian and American, who participated in the original recording of 1978, and also those who continue to make contributions with their music in order to maintain Mingus’ vision.