So, what makes an artist, or his music, neo-cumbia instead of just plain cumbia?
The Underground/D.I.Y. Ethics: Traditionally cumbia has always been a music genre for large orchestras signed to a very controlling record label and aiming for massive broadcasting. From assembly-line-type bands with matching outfits created in studio by a producer, to multi-generational large groups that changed members constantly, to interpreters singing other people’s music without giving credit to the authors, to even “artists” who were just a pretty face for the pictures and didn’t even sing or play any instrument, cumbia had very little underground credibility. When this new generation adopted cumbia as a genre, they did it from an opposite perspective, most of them are do-it-yourself bedroom producers working on a laptop and very few of them have a record deal, they have complete creative control over their music and they aim for a selective sophisticated audience rather than commercial radio play.
Find it in: Almost everybody mentioned in this article.
DJ Culture: There is no doubt that neo-cumbia as a genre owes most of its success to DJs, but DJs have been part of cumbia music since way before the neo-cumbia phenomenon started, from the mobile sound-systems in northern Colombia (“picós”), to the Mexican “sonideros”, to the DJs in Argentine “bailantas”. The main difference is that the new breed of cumbia DJs bring their knowledge and skills from other DJ-oriented music genres like hip-hop or electronica, so they have more of a focus on mixing techniques: blending, beat-matching, scratching, etc plus the digger mentality and a preference for the vinyl format. Traditional cumbia DJs spun mainly CDs and had very basic mixing skills if any, in fact, the average dancer at a sonidero party or bailanta would not expect the beats to be synchronized and the songs blended into one another; knowing when to press stop and play on a CD player were all the skills most DJ’s needed when mixing.
The Hipster Factor: Keeping up with the newest coolest fashions and trends was never a cumbia thing. Cumbia, like most other world-beats, thrived in its own underworld unaware of the hipster fads and hipsters were too busy listening to indie-pop o avant-gard electronica. But then M.I.A. and Diplo came out as the new hip messiahs of the dacade and made global-ghettotech music the coolest new thing approved for hipster consumption. And cumbia (along with baile funk, kuduro and others) was among that new denomination. All of a sudden, college-age kids wearing fluorescent clothes and plastic sunglasses started dancing to this “new” thing called cumbia and eventually making their own.
The Foreigner's P.O.V.: Dismissed by the locals in Latin America, cumbia was sort of discovered by Americans and Europeans traveling or living abroad. Foreigners had one main advantage for cumbia appreciation that locals lacked: they did not have all that baggage of social preconceptions. They just saw the music for what it was, a great catchy beat. They didn’t worry that it was considered music for maids and bus-drivers, that’s actually what made them like it even better. Plus, once the foreigners took cumbia back home to the first world and it became successful, native Latinos who were embarrassed to show their cumbia experiments in public, got the seal of approval and the encouragement necessary to come out and dance! Nowadays, there are neo-cumbia producers in the most random places like Netherlands or Australia, maybe Japan, and they all share that same unprejudiced vision of cumbia and that’s what makes them so fresh!
The Iron(ic) Men: As I indicated many times in this blog during my record reviews, irony is a fundamental factor in most of new school cumbia and it’s, I think, what distinguish it from previous intents of updating or modernizing the genre. By irony I mean deconstructing and recontextualizing cultural elements previously considered “low-brow” with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor presenting them as “cool” and “hip”. In other words, when cosmopolitan middle-class young people borrow from cultural expressions (like cumbia) that used to be considered to belong exclusively to the undereducated working classes, even when they do actually enjoy the previously-forbidden-to-them music, their approach tends to exalt its kitsch elements... and that’s what makes it fun! The obscure pop-culture reference, the nostalgia of childhood mainstream products, the devotion to corny and tacky icons are all funny ironic elements when taken out of their traditional context, like when Oro11 spins record in front of a Virgen de Guadalupe beach towel while Disco Shawn passes cards with images of popular pseudo-deity Gauchito Gil at the Tormenta Tropical parties.
The Dance Music Approach: Above all other possible definitions, cumbia is basically a dance-oriented music genre. It’s not about the virtuoso musicians doing elaborate solos, is not about profound lyrics with witty rhymes that you need to listen with extra attention to decipher, it’s about making people dance, simple as that, and it manages to do so because its rhythm is quite irresistible. The main reason cumbia has gone from its hometown in Caribbean Colombia and Panamá to become the biggest Panamerican success from Mexico to Argentina and beyond, is its irresistible, catchy and, most importantly, easy to dance to beat (no need to take cumbia lessons!). No wonder electronic dance music producers from all over the world have been trying to grab that catchy beat and import it into the nightclubs dance floors. A lot of these current successful experiments with cumbia/house or cumbia/techno however, came from people who had very little or no connection at all with actual cumbia as a culture or scene, they just liked the beat, sampled it added a four-to-the-floor drum and made it into a track.
The Thirdworldists: Maybe you don’t know this, but historically Latin American big-city youth have disregarded and rejected local folkloric music while closely following the standards of the cool set by the English-speaking world. With just a handful of exceptions, the most influential Latin American musicians among the youth used to be those who could sound in Spanish almost as good as those who sung in English on the radios and Mtv. This phenomenon was more evident than anywhere else in Argentina, the most tragically Eurocentric country in the whole continent, but it manifested itself in most other countries as well. Then in the mid 90’s a huge movement of thirdworldist rockers took by storm the media, commanded by French artist Manu Chao and his band Mano Negra, who in opposition to the Anglo cultural colonization taught the Latin kids to look inward for influences instead of following every trend dictated by London and New York. The revalorization of cumbia as an authentic Latin rhythm among the cool young people started before neo-cumbia, when local rock bands with a thirdworldist view incorporated the genre to their repertoires (Caifanes, Cafe Tatvba, La Bersuit, El Gran Silencio, Fabulosos Cadillacs, etc). Thirdworldists go by the assumption that native cultural expressions are inherently better than those imported by the white colonialists or imitated by the colonized. They embrace anti-globalization and progressive politics and fetichize music and culture of countries like Cuba, Brazil and yes, Colombia. They love cumbia because it’s a mestizo music and they love everything mestizo.
The Mash-Up: If the seventies are remembered as the age of funk and disco, the eighties are remembered as the age of synth-pop and hair metal, the nineties are remembered as the age of grunge and gangsta rap, what will the ‘00 decade be remembered for? If you ask me, the homemade mash-up phenomenon. Mash-ups as such, already existed in previous decades, you can go as far as 1983 and find Double Dee & Steinski doing pretty much what Girl Talk does now. What’s new is the democratization of the mash-up when the tools became widely accessible on line and anybody in his room can download instrumental and acapella versions of virtually any song and blend them on Garage Band. The first cumbia mash-ups appeared in 2004/05 done by people like Chico Sonido and Toy Selectah in Mexico and Villa Diamante in Argentina and they were fundamental in spreading the cumbia beat to other audiences that previously rejected the genre.
The Hip-Hop Aesthetic: In some earlier post on this blog I defined neo-cumbia as the appropriation of cumbia by the hip-hop generation, now I’m expanding my definition with all these branches, but still, I think hip-hop has been fundamental to the development of neo-cumbia. Not only by the many intents of MCs rapping over cumbia beats, but also by the hip-hop production understanding of cumbia as a sampled-loop-based music designed for and by DJs. There have been plenty of people trying to rap over cumbia since the early nineties, most of them lacked absolutely of rhyming skills and hip-hop cred, so the results in general were pretty wack. It wasn’t until Ozomatli came out in ’98 with “La Cumbia De Los Muertos” with respected rapper Chali2Na and DJ Cut Chemist from Jurassic 5 that “real” rappers in Latin America started considering as valid the fusion of both genres. Don’t forget also, that neo-cumbia’s godfather Toy Selectah started as a rap DJ (with Control Machete), and so did many other producers of this genre.
The Jamaican Connection: Being both Caribbean rhythms resulting from the African Diaspora, cumbia and reggae are like brothers from different mothers. The more you go deep into the roots of classic Colombian cumbia and Jamaican Ska, the more evident the connection is. That’s why cumbia is so compatible with dub effects and dance hall toasting (and its bastard cousin reggaetón). This has been known by many for a while now, but it became obvious to the oblivious rest when the UK group Up, Bustle & Out released the revolutionary Mexican Sessions LP, which kinda became the foundation of the current scene.
Find it in: Damas Gratis, Fauna, DJ Chavez, Toy Selectah, Daleduro, DJ Negro, Sidestepper, Up Bustle & Out, Ska Cubano, El Hijo De la Cumbia, King Chango, Fidel Nadal, Alika, Princesa, Bomba Estéreo, Systema Solar, Sargento García, Mexican Dubwiser, Sonidero Nacional, etc.
The Artsy Aspirations: Talk about taking cumbia out of context! Trying to make the underdog of popular music something worthy of snobby modern art museum installations! Is it even possible or is it an oxymoron? These cats don’t care much about making you dance, some have an ironic sense of humor, others take cumbia very seriously, but their intricate remixes and subtle versions are to be enjoyed by the trained ear with close attention on the headphones or while tripping at an after-party. The average cumbia listener won’t get it, they probably won’t even see the cumbia connection, but music nerds, critics and DJs love them.
The Digger Mentality: The average cumbia DJ had to play the top hits of the moment and a handfull of classics... on CD. They were not much into digging through old dusty piles of vinyl searching for obscure oldies. Record-digging became a respected art thanks to cult hip-hop DJs like Shadow and Cut Chemist. Cumbia diggers are always in the search for old LP’s and 7 inches of Colombian or Peruvian classic cumbia and these are very rare records, not easy to find in normal record stores and extremely expensive to buy on Ebay. Paying 12 dollars plus shipping for just a single song, seems like an absurd anachronism in the times of free downloads, but diggers, like all proud DJs, tend to fetichize vinyl maybe a little too much. LP comps with naked chicks on the cover have extra collectible value!