By Eric Althoff
D.C. is far away from Colombia, the South American country from where the members of local dance and music ensemble La Marvela come. The local ensemble performs cumbia, a style of music that blends the influences of Indigenous, Spanish, and African culture—all of which melded in Latin America to fashion something entirely new.
Marly Perez, one of the founders of La Marvela, describes cumbia as an artform that centers around good times—and even its name derives from an African word, “cumbé,” which means celebration or party.
“It dates back to slavery times, when the African slaves and the Indigenous native people got together and [partied] at night,” Perez said recently. “The music sort of represents that mixing because we have drums, the Indigenous flute, and the maracas, which are used for spiritual events.”
The women wear elaborate costumes and tropical flowers during their performances, in addition to traditional African headpieces and Indigenous accessories to honor the music’s roots on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Cumbia is a mixing of all that—the culture, the music, and racial and ethnic backgrounds,” Perez, who is based in Clinton, Maryland, said.
A few years ago, Perez was in another similar musical act with Alison Caro, with whom she would co-found La Marvela, which means “miracle” or “marvel.” They soon recruited Velu Ochoa, a fellow Colombian who lived in the capital region, as a third co-founder. They rounded out their ensemble with other DC area artists, Amy Vitro, Luisa Millan, and Laura Perez.
The women of La Marvela play traditional instruments such as tambor alegre, llamador and tambora alongside the more recognizable guitar and maracas. Their shows also entail dancing and a positive vibe meant to both entertain and uplift.
Perez, as percussionist and instrumentalist, also serves as the group’s musical director. She and the rest of the group have lived in various places around the United States and Colombia, and their experiences in those places inform the songs they bring to La Marvela.
“I have ideas for the band and I pitch to them along with Alison,” Perez said. “Some songs are originals and some are sort of our interpretations of some popular songs—because I don’t necessarily want to [perform] them the same way.”
This includes reaching out to ensembles in Colombia who might not be well known in the United States. Perez gets permission to perform their songs in D.C., while putting the unique La Marvela stamp on those compositions.
“Then folkloric or cultural songs, we do them in our own way,” Perez said.
In addition to sharing cumbia music, part of La Marvela’s mission is to provide a supportive space for women who have been victims of domestic violence or sexual assault.
“A lot of us have been affected directly by that type of domestic violence, some more directly than others,” Perez said. “We have always been outspoken about that support.”
This also ties back to Colombia’s own recent history, where a long and brutal civil war only ended—tentatively—in a deal between the government and the FARC rebel group in 2016. Nowadays, FARC members serve in the legislature, but those old wounds continue to fester.
“Colombia has a big history of displacement and missing” persons, Perez said.
As part of their evangel, La Marvela also performs bullerengue music, which has an especially lengthy female-centered history. La Marvela marries a message of tolerance and respect for women with the energetic strains of bullerengue—all while pounding on those drums.
“We say the only skin that should be beat is the skin of the drum,” Perez said, adding this has become somewhat of a rallying cry back in Colombia. “We like to bring awareness, and women playing drums is also a manner of resistance.”
In future performances, the group aims to collect donations to support victims of domestic and sexual abuse. Perez said La Marvela is also looking to fashion a multimedia workshop to bring greater awareness to the issue.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring, La Marvela swiveled to outdoor yard rehearsals. This pleased many of their neighbors, who were able to enjoy some live music at a time when it had been postponed seemingly indefinitely.
The ensemble has performed publicly only once in August and three times in September. Perez says they hope to soon record more music and perform more during Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.
“It’s been very interesting because people have been craving music, and we’ve been getting a lot of people showing up and then requesting us for another show,” Perez said. “Our goals in the next few months will be to keep doing that and see how things go with the pandemic.”
Furthermore, she hopes to continue honoring the group’s Colombian ancestry—artistic as well as cultural—in their adopted home.
“I feel very lucky to have found this group of women that all work together. They let me lead them musically, and I take a lot from them too,” Perez said.
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
A songwriter by the age of 15, Karla Bonhoff has been entertaining audiences for decades. Native to Southern California, she came up in the L.A. circuit of the hippie era, where artists such as Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and so many others were continuously floating in and out of one another’s orbits. Bonoff and singer/songwriter Livingston Taylor will jointly perform at the Birchmere in Alexandria Dec. 11. Together, they will tackle new and established variations on Christmas favorites, as well as toss in their original tunes.
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