Quimbara: meaning and origin of the best-known salsa

Celia and Johnny LP cover
Celia and Johnny LP cover
Quimbara is an essential salsa track first recorded by Celia Cruz, a popular Cuban singer, and Johnny Pacheco, a prolific Dominican recording artist, for their 1974 joint album Celia & Johnny. Repeated like a constant refrain, the meaningless song title aims to create a distinct rhythm that incorporates a variety of Latin styles including rumba and guaguancó both of which are mentioned in the unpretentious Quimbara lyrics that compare life to dance.
Written by the then little-known Puerto Rican songwriter Junior Cepeda, Quimbara remains to be his best-known song out of the dozen tunes he'd written before his tragic death at the age of 21.
According to the Cuban musician Alexis Méndez, Junior Cepeda offered Quimbara to his idol, Johnny Pacheco, in the hotel lobby. Wanting to quickly get rid of the obsessive guy, Pacheco asked for the score, but Cepeda just sang a melody to him, and they both ended up dancing the salsa right there on the hotel staircase.
Listen to Quimbara by Johnny Pacheco and Celia Cruz:
Compositionally, Quimbara follows the classical tonal theory, combining the Aeolian mode with the harmonic minor scale—a common technique seen in many Latin pop hits. In the harmonic analysis of the verse chord chains, the scale degrees (denoted with Roman numerals) show the following progressions in the key of E minor:
  1. Am–Em–Am–D–G or iv–i–iv–VII–III;
  2. C–F♯m–B or VI–ii–V;
  3. Em–Am–D–G or i–iv–VII–III;
  4. C–F♯m–B–Em or VI–ii–V–i.
The song's only verse is classically written in four musical phrases with the powerful VI–ii–V cadence appearing in lines 2 and 4. Note that the last line ends with the V–i musical turnaround, known as the authentic cadence, while the second line closes with the B major dominant chord which anticipates the Em tonic chord at the beginning of the third line—a technique referred to as a half authentic cadence. Marked in red, the B chord is a manifestation of the harmonic minor scale and does not belong to the Aeolian mode which should contain the minor dominant chord rooted in the fifth scale degree.
Lines 1 and 3 show a typical example of the so-called harmonic sequence where a certain musical turnaround is repeated in a modified form involving different scale degrees. Here the segment of the sequence is formed by two chords i–iv whose roots are spaced from each other by a perfect fourth. This segment is repeated starting from the seventh (VII – III) scale degree involving two major triads of the Aeolian mode.
After the sole verse, the rest of the song progresses alternating the Em tonic chord and the D subtonic chord, while the intro and outro showcase the explicit cadence-type progression Em–C–B–Em or i–VI–V–i.
Discover more songs composed in Aeolian minor mode and check out their harmonic analysis in the following articles:
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