So Gavin didn’t have any of the negative preconceptions towards cumbia that all the young hip urban kids his age in Buenos Aires had. Keep in mind we are not talking about tropical Latin America here. We are talking about the snobbiest capital of a country that proudly considers itself the most European (hence classier, more modern and sophisticated and... whiter) of the Southern Cone, where urban kids grow up listening exclusively to whatever is cool in the Anglo-speaking half of the world and looking down on local traditional dance rhythms produced in neighbor countries (cumbia is a folk genre original of Colombia).
In December 2001 Argentina suffered a huge economical and political crisis resulting on a devaluation of the local currency that hurt mainly the middle class. Among the many effects resulting of this crisis was the eventual arrival of first world young hip tourists to the city that suddenly became cool-but-cheap. Gavin was probably one of the first American college students to arrive at Ezeiza’s airport only days after the crisis exploded. A Bay Area native, Gavin became a Buenos Aires resident for the next six years and eventually adopted the alter-ego of Oro11, in reference to Once (eleven in Spanish) one of the most cumbia-friendly neighborhoods in the big city where Gavin said, he could find gold (oro in Spanish) digging in the filthy crates of tacky record stores.
Another unexpected effect of the devaluation was the sudden realization of many Argentines that, “oh well, we do belong to Latin America after all;” which resulted in many upcoming local DJ’s and producers, formerly from the electronica, reggae and hip-hop camps to turn their ears to what was happening in their own backyards instead of caring so much about what’s in at the London or New York night-clubs.
Just a couple of years before the crisis a new style of cumbia had infected the airwaves and dancefloors of Buenos Aires, they called it cumbia villera (shanty town cumbia). Lead by groups like Damas Gratis and Los Pibes Chorros, this new generation of cumbiancheros were to the traditional romantic boy-band cumbia what N.W.A. and the West-Coast Gangsta Rap were to old school naive rap. These were the real ghetto kids that grew up during the Menem era listening to cumbia in the outskirts of Buenos Aires and embraced the genre as their own so when they decided to play it, they change the silly funny love lyrics for dark tales of the slums and they incorporated deep bass and distortion to the cumbia sound (similar to Mexican cumbia sonidera). For the first time cumbia was starting to get props and street cred from the underground scene.
One Saturday afternoon in Buenos Aires Gavin was visiting a friend when he spotted on TV a cumbia show where bands lip-synch while girls dance in colorful miniskirts with tiny thongs and the camera shots them from floor level. Gavin was captivated, not by the shameless display of bubble-butts (or maybe that too) but by the sound and looks of Los Pibes Chorros (long gone were the sequins and tight white pants, replaced by the archetype soccer hooligan wardrobe). He instantly fell in love with cumbia villera and started investigating more about this totally unfamiliar sound that had such a catchy rhythm but for some reason was despised by the majority of local tastemakers and trendsetters.
Being a hip-hop DJ he figured that while in Argentina he should spin more of the local parallel to the American urban ghetto music and he started doing mash-ups of both styles finding them strangely compatible (about the same BPM’s in a four-by-four loop structure). But he wasn’t alone, he eventually found out that a handful of other DJ’s like Villa Diamante and Sonido Martines where doing the same.
By 2007 this neo-cumbia had enough representatives and followers to have their own established club, Zizek, in the ultra-hip neighborhood of Palermo, starting a whole new underground scene that was still ignored by most locals but eagerly embraced by first-world expats living in Buenos Aires. The next step was obvious, neo-cumbia started being exported to the US where it was welcomed by cosmopolitan hipsters, always in search of the newest third-world dance beat, last season it was the Brazilian Favela Funk, now it’s cumbia!
In December 2007, Oro11, back in the Bay Area and in association with DiscoShawn (another gringo DJ who spent time in Buenos Aires in the post-devaluation era) started throwing the monthly parties Tormenta Tropical (tropical storm) in San Francisco, CA and together they founded Bersa Discos, a record label dedicated to releasing in vinyl the newest avant-guard experimental cumbia productions of many Argentine artists like El Remolón and DJ Negro.
March 8th 2008 will remain for history as the official D-Day for the cumbia craze in San Francisco. Mezzanine was the stage where many Zizek big names, including the amazing Frikstailers and El Trip Selector, coming all the way from Argentina got to perform along with DJ Rupture (incorporating cumbia to his eclectic set) and the residents Oro11 and DiscoShawn.
Now, similarly to what happened in Buenos Aires, this new style of cumbia, while embraced by gringo hipsters, is generally still eclipsed by old cumbia hits by the likes of Ráfaga within the South American immigrant community... but things are starting to change. As soon as South American DJ's find out about these gringos dancing to cumbias abroad, they will start to jump on the train the same way it happened with tango a few years ago when it was rediscovered and remixed by european DJ's.
Sometimes, sadly, we Latinos rely on the foreign pre-approval of our culture to realize our inner-coolness.