As a concept, the idea of “roots music” is a complex one, predicated on the idea that current identities can be based in a distant past, in terms of time, place, or both. How deep can we trace our roots? How much weight do we give them in understanding ourselves in the present?
For as many philosophical puzzles as questions of cultural heritage arouse, though, there are multiple connections to be made, and some of the strongest manifest in artistic expressions of the history we believe ourselves to have.
In Latin America, making roots music often means sounds coming together from all over the globe. Colombian folk group Cimarrón understands this plurality well, and on new album Orinoco, the ensemble presents bold, straightforward folk music that brings together the indigenous, African, and European influences that have largely shaped the aesthetics of natively South American traditions like joropo and llanero.
The ensemble’s technique and arrangements are impeccable, but what sets them apart on Orinoco is a sense of embodiment that translates surprisingly well from the Grammy-nominated group’s live shows to their recordings. It almost feels like a live album, so responsive are the various members to each other’s cues. The percussion section features not only instruments from Colombia and its neighbors – maracas, cajón, surdo, and tambora – but stomp dancing, driven forth by the perpetually moving strings of the harp, bass, and guitar-like cuatro.
Mostly unadorned by post-production effects, this is participatory music, voices ringing out with only their natural vibrato as embellishment and every instrument resonant for the lack of add-ons. That is key to how Orinoco fits into the category of roots music: its rustic use of open spaces.
At the same time, it’s unfair to treat the album as stuck in the past, especially listening to exquisite, entrancing “Tonada de la palomita”, where a deer-skull whistle adds more atmosphere to echoing strings and charismatic vocalist Ana Veydó takes a commanding lead. Cimarrón shows with this single that it is as effective in representing modern Colombianness as it is in rendering a more idealized, rural interpretation with its purely acoustic tracks.
With that said, the more acoustic tracks are undoubtedly Cimarrón’s specialty. The music on Orinoco is always moving, even on (slightly) slower tracks like free-flowing harp solo “Arpa del horizonte”, epic Simón Díaz cover “Caballo viejo”, or bottom-heavy “Cuerdas al galope”. This is even more obvious, though, in the abundance of faster numbers, like Independent Music Award-nominated “Zumbajam”, ablaze from start to finish, and dramatic “Parranda quitapesares”. The strings fall into classical flamenco patterns on “Cantar de la tierra mía”.
Orinoco is good both for listeners craving foundational folk music from the album’s namesake valley and those who yearn for the fresh and contemporary. It also serves as a phenomenal sales pitch for seeing Cimarrón live as soon as possible. This is a group that deserves to have the energy feedback loop that only an enthusiastic live audience can provide. And, listening to Orinoco, it’s hard to imagine that an audience could feel any other way about Cimarrón. Even unplugged, this group is electrifying.