Sunday, March 9, 2008


Gavin Burnett wasn’t born early enough to watch Juan Corazón Ramón at the midnight’s Johnny Allon Show, he wasn’t there either to watch Los Cartageneros lip-synch to “Mi corazón no es de piedra ni madera” at Cocucha Efervecente Presenta. Gavin was in California, totally unaware of the existence of a country called Argentina, while down there we experienced (suffered?) the insertion of cumbia into the mainstream –not at all coincidentally- with the arrival of president Menem and his populist paradigm. So he missed it when the first wave of sequins-studded cumbia stars (Ricky Maravilla, Alcides, Miguel Conejito Alejandro, Sebastián and Gladys La Bomba Tucumana, among others) suddenly appeared on every other prime-time TV show and upper-class big city kids started dacing “ironically” to these new ghetto beats at the most snobby night-clubs. Gavin wasn’t even there during the nineties’ proliferation of the boy-band producer-directed format (Comanche, Volcán and all the clones of Los Fantasmas Del Caribe) and the subsequent adoption of cumbia by teenage fan girls.
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.


Disco Shawn said...

I would just like to point out that I'm only "medio gringo". My father was born is Cuba.

nandy said...

Hola! todo bien?
Soy Selectorchico desde Montevideo, Uruguay. Te invito a que escuches algunas de mis mezclas en

Acá recientemente se editó un disco de remezclas de Eduardo Mateo ( grosso de la musica uruguaya )en el que participé junto a varios productores de la escena, se llama Remezclacion y podes escuchar algo aquí:

si te interesa te puedo mandar un link con el promo del disco.

Espero que te guste algo de lo que escucharás , críticas bienvenidas,
felicitaciones por este buen blog y saludos desde el sur.

(arroba gmail es mi correo)

.Panda. said...

hi you can also check,
kindest regards

Sebastian said...

hey! the whole "new cumbia" stuff is really cool. lastima que mucha gente con solo escuchar la palabra cumbia apague el reproductor de audio. creo que ahi muchos conceptos acerca de lo que es la cumbia. por ejemplo, aca en cordoba (el medio del pais. no posta, literalmente) tenemos nuestra version de la cumbia, llamada cuarteto. su historia es mas o menos paralela, empeso como musica romantica con letras bobas y en la devaluacion/crisis las letras, el ambiente y el publico cambio para volverse mas orientado a el crimen. paso de ser musica para el hombre y su mujer de la clase media trabajdora a ser musica para jovenes delincuentes sin hogar. las personas de mediana edad de verdad no le interesa, pero afecto a la gente joven. quedo inpregnada en su cabeza la imagen de los delincuentes. esto lleva a que la musica cuarteto sea identificada como algo "malo" y se dejen atras todos sus aspectos musicales. practicamente como si dejara de ser musica y pasara a ser una clase social. los jovene sno se quieren relacionar con eso (los jovenes de la clase media) y dejan atras todo un panorama musica realmente bueno. atras de las minifaldas y booty shaking, the fake plastic guns and the hooligan clothing theres actually pretty cool music. btw, i love your blog and check out Frikstailes, digital cumbia cordobesa.

Cabeza! said...

Gracias Hermano.

El NEgromoReno