Around the World

The Cumbia

Drumset Adaptations of a Traditional Colombian/Panamanian Rhythm

by Steve Rucker and Carlomagno Araya

Cumbia is a musical style that comes from Colombia and Panama and has a rich and diverse history. It’s closely connected to some of the social rituals and dances of the people of those countries. Typical of many Latin genres, cumbia represents a synthesis of African and European roots, and there are versions in other countries, including Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, and Chile.

The percussion instruments used in cumbia are African in origin. The primary ones are as follows.

Tambora: A low-pitched, two-headed drum played with sticks on the head and shell. It’s from this drum that we get the primary quarter-note/two-8ths pattern played on the rim or shell, which on the drumset can be transferred to the hi-hat, floor tom rim, or woodblock. The tambora drummer improvises in conjunction with the tambor alegre player.

Tambor alegre: This middle-pitched hand drum is usually played more freely and is the main improviser of the percussion section.

Llamador: A high-pitched drum traditionally played only on the upbeats or on beats 2 and 4.

Maracones: The literal translation is “big maracas.” The open/closed pattern used on the hi-hat in drumset applications is derived from the rhythm of this instrument.

Guache: A variation of the maracones, made of metal in a tubular shape. It plays the same patterns as the maracones.

Traditional Rhythms

Let’s take a look at traditional cumbia drum rhythms. The most dominant pattern is the one played by the tambora.

The llamador plays this simple quarter-note rhythm, with the primary notes being on beats 2 and 4.

Here’s a variation often played by the llamador.

The next two patterns demonstrate what the tambor alegre might play.

The maracones play a short/long pattern. The long notes, which are notated as rolls, are achieved by extending the arm.

Drumset Adaptations

In our drumset adaptations, the underlying closed/open rhythm of the maracones or guache is replicated on the hi-hat with the foot. The closed sound is made with the heel, and the open “splash” is made with the toes.

The quarter/8th tambora rhythm can be played on the floor tom rim or a woodblock. For a more traditional effect, place a towel or fabric over half of the floor tom’s head to drastically dampen the sound.

The llamador rhythm can be played on a smaller tom, using the rim and an open sound.

Next, play the bass drum on beats 3 and 4.

Combine that with the closed/open hi-hat pattern.

Adding the floor tom rhythm, you get a complete cumbia drumset groove.

If you add the llamador rhythm with the left hand on a small tom, you get the following.

Here’s a variation of the previous example.

Now let’s add some embellishments to the tambora rhythm. Patterns like the following can be improvised freely.

Finally, here’s a funk version of cumbia that has the snare added on beat 3 to create a backbeat.

Spend some time listening to traditional cumbia music as you work on these exercises, and then feel free to create your own interpretations and variations. Three cumbia artists that we recommend checking out for ideas are Totó la Momposina, Petrona Martínez, and Estefanía Caicedo.


Steve Rucker is the director of drumset studies at the University of Miami. He has played or recorded with the Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, Paquito D’Rivera, Jaco Pastorius, Joe Sample, Johnny Cash, Gloria Estefan, and Ben Vereen.

Carlomagno Araya is a doctorate student at Miami and has played or recorded with Rubén Blades, Willy Chirino, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Eddie Gomez, Randy Brecker, and others.