Carlos Vives Talks Colombia, Cumbia and Cárdenas Ahead of Latin Grammys

Gustavo Cabellero / Getty Images / LARAS
– Colombian Crooner
Carlos Vives performs at the 18th Annual Latin Grammy Awards, Nov. 16, 2017, at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena.

A new generation of stars dominate this year’s Latin Grammys nominations – Bad Bunny, Camilo, Karol G, Anuel AA, and Rosalía are all under 30 – but 59-year-old Colombian musician Carlos Vives remains a fixture, both of the awards show and Latin music broadly.

On the strength of his latest album, 2020’s Cumbiana – the first installment in a three-volume series exploring and modernizing Colombian cumbia music – Vives snagged six Latin Grammys nominations, including for Album and Song of the Year. Cumbiana is just the latest entry in a storied career that’s stretched across three decades and nearly 20 albums, as Vives has earned international acclaim (and 11 Latin Grammys) by blending traditional Colombian folk genres such as vallenato and cumbia with modern rock and pop sounds.

Audiences around the world have flocked to Vives’ shows. His 2015 co-headlining tour with Marc Anthony appeared on Pollstar’s year-end worldwide touring chart with $23.3 million grossed, and included sold-out gigs at Houston’s Toyota Center and Atlanta’s State Farm Arena. In 2017 and 2018, Vives sold out Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena, with grosses of $1.2 million and $1.1 million, respectively, and he’s also had live success in Spain, Mexico, Chile and Puerto Rico, among others.

Meanwhile, Vives has used his platform for good. In 2019, he received the Latin Impact Award from the United Nations for “Tras la Perla de América,” his charitable initiative to improve the quality of life in Santa Marta, the northern Colombian city where he was born.

Vives connected with Pollstar to discuss delving into Colombian roots music on Cumbiana, the significance of the Latin Grammys and his enduring relationship with promoter Henry Cárdenas. The conversation, translated by Vives’ adult son Carlos Enrique Vives, has been edited for clarity.

POLLSTAR: Why was it important for you to explore Colombian cumbia music on Cumbiana?
CARLOS VIVES: I chose to work with Colombian music and Colombian roots in 1992. Cumbiana is the result of all these years of choosing that path. At this point in my career, I wanted to release Cumbiana with Colombian influences mixed with universal rhythms that make [the music] applicable to any person or culture. 

What did you learn from doing the project?
Cumbiana is the grand result of discovering all these different amazing things about Colombian music and Colombian culture. Cumbiana was the result of what the music industry wanted to hear [combined with] our fusion of our Colombian culture and our Colombian sound that’s very unique to us.

Why does cumbia music still resonate today?
Cumbia is the synchronization and the union of cultures and sounds in our region. It’s where everybody crosses paths – cumbia is like the blues. It’s new to the world, in a sense, but it’s not new to us. We’ve been making it for many, many years here in South America.

Every era and every generation brings its own instrumentation. The people that inhabited our lands [centuries ago] played ancient instruments [like the guacharaca]. With the coming of the guitar [from Spain] and the accordion from Germany, the music took each of these instruments and adopted them, to interpret what we know today as Colombian music.

These new electronic sounds and electronic instruments that are coming into play right now are one more tool, just like the accordion and just like the guitar were one more tool in a specific time, to make the music that we’ve always made. Cumbiana still has all of the roots and all of the Colombian music folklore in it, but without the old school sounds.

Tell me about Cumbiana’s collaborators: Ziggy Marley, Jessie Reyez, Alejandro Sanz and more.
I’m always trying to find an artist that makes a perfect match for the story we’re trying to tell with the music we’re trying to make. These features are about the relation between artists and between cultures – the affection we share as artists and people. In Ziggy and Elkin Robinson’s case [on “El Hilo”], it was the opportunity to, for the first time, merge two Caribbeans: one more Andean and more indigenous and the other one more Afrocentric. In [Spanish star] Alejandro Sanz’s case [on “For Sale,” nominated for Song of the Year], there has always been a relation and history between Colombian and Spanish music.

How does Cumbiana relate to El mundo perdido de Cumbiana (“The Lost World of Cumbiana”), the documentary you released this year?
When we began making Cumbiana, we needed to go to the territory where these stories were being told. We went to the Magdalena River delta [near Santa Marta in northern Colombia], which is a series of wetlands, streams and waterways that connect salt water with fresh water. It’s a beautiful place.

This territory inspired great writers like Gabriel García Márquez. It’s a territory where the greatest writers, composers and musicians of our music have been born and lived and played. It’s also a territory that historically has suffered social violence, economic violence, poverty… the ecosystem is very, very poor and very, very badly handled and treated. It’s pretty ironic – the territory that gave birth to these great personalities and cultures.

[The documentary] tells the story of a place that hasn’t had a lot of luck with the people that run it. It’s a place that’s filled with great nature, with great abundance, filled with great mountains and great culture. To see it in these conditions makes us want to fight for it, makes us want to tell its stories, talk about its people and become representatives of their land.

This is the fifth time you’ve been nominated for Album of the Year at the Latin Grammys. How significant is that for you?
We’re very happy the Academy always thinks about us. We never go in thinking we’re going to win, because that’s very difficult, but we’re very glad. Being nominated for Latin Grammys brings great joy to the household, because it gives us an opportunity to speak about the subject matter that we like to speak about – the needs of our people, etc. Of course we would love to win all of them, because that would give us more platforms to show people the great lands that we come from and the beautiful aspects of our culture.

How have you seen the American live industry embrace Latin music over the years?
Although they are different markets – one is the Anglo market and the other one is the South American Latin market – they still live and feed off the live performance industry. It’s been a great evolution since my first years, to see the acceptance of more Latin music and more Latin artists and culture. For the industry to notice this and to embrace the fact that Spanish-speaking music is important is obviously a great deal.

You’ve worked extensively over the years with Henry Cárdenas and Cárdenas Marketing Network, including for sellouts at venues like New York’s Radio City Music Hall and Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena. How has the promoter helped your career?
When Henry began doing productions in the United States, I was also beginning my musical career, with my band La Provincia in Colombia. Henry Cárdenas was always a big influencer of Colombian music in the United States. He began doing Colombian-style parties to celebrate the 20th of July, which is our Independence Day. He would invite me at a young time in our careers. I always told him to look for a good venue, to look for a good place to be able to start bringing Colombian music over to the United States.

The first time that I came to New York, I went to Radio City, a very nice and recognizable venue. [The sold-out August 2000 show moved 5,954 tickets and grossed $344,310.] It was how it was supposed to be. From the start, I wanted to do things right. The person who was going to help us get over to the United States had to be somebody that was going to help us do things right – and Henry was one of those people. We’ve done concerts with other companies, but Henry Cárdenas was the first one and he has been always a very good friend of ours in the production world for our concerts.

What’s next for you?
We continue learning. We dream every day of coming back to live concerts. We will continue to reinforce these messages of our territory, of our origins, of our music, of our people, of our culture. These times especially have taught us to come together as one and to realize that we are all the same. My time on this earth won’t be enough to do everything and to try everything we want to try with our music.