Monday, January 26, 2009

UNDERSTANDING THE CUMBIA PHENOMENON

A gringo-friendly guide to new school cumbia by DJ Juan Data (to be read after this first article).

A lot has happened since that D-Day—as we labeled it on this blog that March 9th 2008, right after the first performance of Zizek’s artists on San Francisco’s Mezzanine’s stage.
If 2007 was the year of the cumbia crossover to the Anglo market (thanks in big part to Up, Bustle & Out’s influential “The Mexican Sessions”), 2008 was the year of the consolidation, proliferation and expansion of something like a neo-cumbia scene in the United States. Even though the US movement had its first manifestations in Los Angeles, back in 2005 with neo-cumbia pioneers Chico Sonido and Mexican Dubwiser, in 2008 San Francisco became the new epicenter of the phenomenon that quickly spread coast-to-coast.
Oro11 and Disco Shawn’s record label (Bersa Discos) and monthly parties (Tormenta Tropical) were a huge success and placed them as the two ambassadors of this hybrid genre to a whole new audience: urban American global-music-seeking hipsters. Thanks to their excellent marketing skills they received more media exposure than anybody else in the scene during the year that just passed, and in a matter of months they went from playing underground gigs for their buddies to booking major international acts (Buraka Som Sistema) to perform at their parties.
For a while it seemed that San Francisco was going to transform into the cumbia capital of the nation when all of a sudden everybody and their mothers started promoting monthly or weekly cumbia parties, but (with the exception of the well-established El Superrritmo) Tormenta Tropical was the only one that thrived and consistently grew, even branching out to Los Angeles by the end of ’08.
However it’s my obligation to mention that way before Tormenta Tropical and the arrival of Oro11 to the Bay Area, the San Francisco neo-cumbia scene was already in gestation at the infamous after-hours Mission spot Balazo, recently renamed SubMission. It was there were every weekend night for the last couple of years, adventurous local DJ’s (including myself) started experimenting with the first cumbia mash-ups on a crowded dancefloor that mixed artsy-fartsy gringo hipsters with punkrockers and cosmopolatinos.

Prehistory of neo-cumbia from the real dirty south.
Let’s rewind a little bit and try to go back to the source of the phenomenon. The connection of cumbia and hip-hop culture, fundamental to the birth of neo-cumbia, is actually nothing new. Many parallels between both genres had been traced by music aficionados and pseudo-sociological studies since I have memory. I remember back in the nineties in Argentina when I was the first journalist to focus on the then-barely-emerging hip-hop scene, the comparisons between cumbia and hip-hop were already present in my chats with every other incipient MC.
The thing is, cumbia was the most popular music in the ghettos (shanty towns, projects and marginal working-class suburban neighborhoods) but there wasn’t an underground culture associated with cumbia yet, all cumbia was romantic and commercial (actually closer to teen R&B than rap). So, rappers back then used to joke around about the fact that “the real gangstas here don’t listen to rap, they listen to cumbia” and they amused themselves calling La Mona Jímenez “the Argentine James Brown” (Rodrigo was “the Argentine 2Pac” and Los Auténticos Decadentes were “the Argentine Beastie Boys” according to an article published back then by Pagina/12). But nobody had the guts yet to actually build a bridge between the two genres.
Actually, you know what, scratch that. Way before them, during the first cumbia craze in 1989, right at the start of the Menem’s era, there was a group called Cumbiatronic and a series of compilation CD’s called Tropitronic with proto-neo-cumbia remixes of the cumbia’s first wave hits. However both had little to no actual connection with real hip-hop and were much more influenced by the euro-dance version of hip-house (both names made clear reference to Belgium’s Technotronic) so they lacked of the oh-so-necessary street cred.
Typically, cumbia was an assembly-line type of music, marketed for the masses and controlled by a handful of puppet-masters who left almost no room for any actual artistic expression to the performers, so hip-hoppers (like everybody else in the underground) used to look down on the Colombian import. While hip-hop was aiming upwards from the streets trying in vain to reach a media that never paid them any attention, cumbia was the absolute opposite, coming down from the mass media and marketing offices of monopolistic labels to seize control of the streets.
It wasn’t until the very late 90’s when cumbia actually started getting some street cred with the arrival of the first cumbia villera groups: Guachín and Flor de Piedra. Later in 2000 the visionary Pablo Lescano and his group Damas Gratis stepped into the scene and the cumbia villera revolution officially kicked off. Nothing was ever the same again. Cumbia villera had even more street credibility than most rappers and wannabe gangsters in Argentina ever dreamed of.
When tracing back the roots of the current neo-cumbia movement, it is during that period that we start finding the first intents of merging cumbia and hip-hop. Because the most approximately accurate definition of neo-cumbia could be this: the appropriation and/or reinterpretation of cumbia sounds from a hip-hop (meaning music recycling through cut-and-past of samples and loops) perspective.
Hence, Bajo Palabra was not neo-cumbia yet. Sure, they were respected rappers in the underground hip-hop scene and had street-cred and gangsta reputation, but when they tried to bring rap and cumbia together, they did it with the (wacky) beats provided by a classic cumbia producer, and under the direction of a manipulative classic cumbia manager with dubious artistic accomplishments (and by classic cumbia here I don’t mean traditional Colombian instrumental cumbia but the typical commercial Argentinean cumbia of the 90’s which production relied almost entirely on synth-keyboards).
Neo-cumbia didn’t start in Argentina until after the 2001 crisis, when local DJ’s and producers started sampling cumbia in their PC’s and sequencing them on Fruityloops. Nevertheless, the top producers of that generation, El Hijo De La Cumbia and DJ Negro, both agree on pointing at DJ Taz as the undeniable local pioneer of this hybrid-genre and his classic '99 “La Danza Del Tablón” as the foundational track of Argentine neo-cumbia.

One upon a time in Mexico.

“‘Cumbia sobre el río’ was the song that started it all,” told me Toy Selectah in an interview we did the day after his performance at Tormenta Tropical in San Francisco, along with Chico Sonido. Celso Piña was the biggest name in Mexican cumbia but he hadn’t crossed over to the mainstream until 2001 when the groundbreaking Barrio Bravo was released. It was for that album (which can be found in the jukebox of virtually every taquería) that the traditional accordionist teamed up with Toy and Pato from the pioneering hip-hop group Control Machete and together with Blanquito Man from King Chango recorded “Cumbia sobre el río.” The first cumbia song ever to go on rotation in latin MTV, the song that is to cumbia what Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” was to hip-hop: crossover.
Toy was ahead of his time. I remember I talked to him around that time and he told me about his interest in this connection between hip-hop and cumbia but I didn’t give it much importance at the moment. What came to my mind was Ozomatli’s “Cumbia de los muertos,” a cumbia song that thanks to having Jurassic 5’s MC Chali2Na on it, was played by many strictly-hip-hop DJ’s world wide. “Cumbia sobre el río” went way further, it wasn’t just a cumbia song with a guest rapper dropping sixteen bars, it had a strong hip-hop baseline and a killer beat.
“That was the foundational song of the new cumbia,” explains Toy, “It was a very significant song because it had the roots foundations of traditional cumbia together with hip-hop and reggae. And it was a massive success. Even Pablo (Lescano, from Damas Gratis) says that’s the song that started it all. That was when everybody started adding powerful baselines to cumbia beats.” That song was later included in plenty of those cumbia compilations with girls in bikinis on their covers and also in Babel's soundtrack.
Thanks to "Cumbia Sobre el Río", Sonidero Nacional was born. Sonidero Nacional has been since then a constantly morphing collective headed by Toy Selectah dedicated to deliver powerful cumbia remixes of mainstream pop songs (by the likes of Shakira, Juanes, Julieta Venegas, Don Omar, etc). Toy coined the name "cumbow" (cumbia with a reggaetón dembow beat) to define the style of this mixes that were distributed only to DJ's in MP3 format.
Sonidero Nacional could’ve been the greatest super-group of all the cumbia new school but at the time Toy Selectah was going through major changes in his life: he broke up Control Machete and became A&R of Machete Music, a Universal Records subsidiary originally focus on developing Latino urban music in the US. That same year, 2004, thanks to Pitbull’s “Culo” and Daddy Yankee’s “La Gasolina” reggaetón became the new Latin music mainstream and Toy was right there working with the biggest players in the reggaetón game.

The Myspace Effect.
While Toy was too busy with the mainstream, that seed that he planted with “Cumbia sobre el río” started to give fruits all across Latin America and the US. Neo-cumbia was in its primary development stages, there wasn’t a scene, record labels or clubs yet but there was a virtual networking website that captivated teenager and indie artists world wide: myspace.com
“It was when we all started to get deep into myspace,” according to Toy, that this new generation of underground cumbia producers started to pop up and connect between eachother. Sonido Martines and Villa Diamante were the first ones I remember seeing online from Argentina, while Sonido Changorama and Sistema Local where simultaneously pioneering the scene in Mexico.
It was during that period that I did an interview with the Bristol group Up, Bustle & Out who at the time were promoting the release of their album City Breakers. I was a huge fan of UB&O since the Master Sessions albums they made in Cuba and I was always interested in the way they portrayed traditional Latin music from a British DJ perspective. But City Breakers didn’t have almost any Latin music elements in it, it was more focused on Jamaican reggae and dub so I remember asking them if the had plans to do any other experimenting with Latin beats and that’s when I first heard of The Mexican Sessions. They told me they teamed up with Toy Selectah and Sistema Local in Mexico for some amazing cumbia jams. I was shocked and fascinated with the idea and I couldn't wait to hear the results. The album didn’t come out until 2007 and if you ask me, that’s was the first neo-cumbia official full length release.
Before that however, in 2005, Chico Sonido, from Sistema Local moved from Mexico to Los Angeles and that’s the date remember by Toy Selectah, who at the time also lived in LA, of the official birth of the neo-cumbia as an actual scene: when they released in vinyl the first and only Sistema Local record that included cumbia mash-ups of Kelis’ “My Milkshake” and Missy Elliot “Get your Freak On”.
Something else happened in 2005 -besides the Myspace phenomenon- that would reshape music forever: M.I.A.
The London-via-Sri-Lanka petite talented singer brought a whole new paradigm to music globalization making third-world formerly cheesy genres cool for the consumption of first-world young hipsters, thus paving the way for the neo-cumbia invasion. Toy Selectah was in New York for the first show of M.I.A. and it was there, that in the backstage he first met who was her DJ and then boyfriend, Diplo.
Later that night Toy and Diplo met again at M.I.A.’s hotel room and they exchanged some tracks. “I took my whole hard-drive full of instrumentals and acapellas and when he heard that he started e-mailing me like crazy,” says Toy. That was Diplo’s introduction to cumbia.
Next stop: Buenos Aires. “I took Diplo to Zizek,” remembers Toy, in reference to the first neo-cumbia nightclub of the Southern Cone where DJ’s and producers like El Remolón, Chancha Via Circuito and Oro11 (who was still living down there) where starting to make a name for themselves playing mostly for a crowd of curious foreigners visiting the Argentinean capital. Diplo then posted a blog and podcast about cumbia and all of a sudden hipsters and music snobs all over the first world were talking about this “new” Latin thing called cumbia.
In 2008, now long-gone from Machete Music (which mutated into a commercial top-40 crap label), Toy Selectah was formally invited to become part of the Mad Decent family; Diplo’s record label will be releasing Toy’s first solo album sometime in “early” 2009. Meanwhile Bersa Discos is also preparing a release of some Toy’s tracks, and in Mexico Universal Records should be about to drop a compilation CD with the remixes of Sonidero Nacional: the album that potentially will make neo-cumbia a massive thing capable of overthrowing reggaetón after more than four tedious years of tyranny over all Latin music. Amen.

IMPORTANT NOTE: There have been lots of other influential players in the development of cumbia's new school, many of them outside Argentina, Mexico and the USA. Like Sidestepper in Colombia and Señor Coconut in Germany for example. This article does not intent to be an absolute coverage of the scene and its history by any means so I apologize to all those that, due to my negligence and/or ignorance were left out.

MAKANO- Te amo (Machete Music, '08)

There was way too much love lately in this blog so I wanted to go back to my original goal: hating on wacky music. The thing is, making fun of reggaetón artists is so fucking easy it became a cliché. This people are so ridiculous that it's almost as if they were making fun of themselves, if only they knew the meaning of irony.
For example this Panamanian dude who calls himself Makano. I wouldn't dare listen to the CD, it's been on my garbage pile for over three months already and every time I run into it the cover makes me laugh so much and I think, "I should be making fun of this on my blog" but then I change my mind and move on because he's such an easy target, I almost feel sorry for him.
So I will not play it. But look at the priceless CD cover! First red flag: naming an album "Te Amo" WTF? Could a title be more unoriginal, boring and cheesy at the same time? First track of the album is obviously also called "Te Amo" and the last one is "Te Quiero" (I'm not making this up, I swear!).
My guess is that during the composition process of these elaborate lyrics he was dating this one boy (or girl, let's give him the beneffit of the doubt) and he was very in love in the beginning but then, you know how it goes, things get boring and oh well, routine...
The eleven songs in between "Te Amo" and "Te Quiero" must ALL be about the different phases that relationship went through (hey! maybe this is the first ever reggaetón "concept album" and I'm totally sleeping on it for being such a snob!), for example: "Déjame Entrar" (about the first time he wanted to do the thing), "Te Va A Doler" (about the first time he wanted to do the thing through the backdoor), "No Quise Hacerte Daño" (about the time when he got him/her the clap), "Lo Prefieres A El" (about the time they had a threesome with another boy and he/she was sucking on the other boy's cock with much more enthusiasm than when he/she did Makano's cock), etc.
Yeah I have a vivid imagination and I worked too many years in the porn industry. Anyway, we all know this is booring-ass irony-free PG radio-friendly music for virgin teenage girls who grew up in a small town of a banana republic and their biggest goal in life is to audition for the local franchise of American Idol. So I won't listen to it because, like I said, making fun of it would be way too easy. If you want to do me the favor, let me know and I mail it to you for free.

Friday, January 23, 2009

OMG, Check Diz Out!


"Boom Bap" (Mood-Fu y Niña Dioz) from Esteban Azuela on Vimeo.
New(est) school hip-hop coming out form Mexico, of all places. Can you believe this shit? It's insane! Where can I download this track, PLEASE?!

NOVALIMA-Coba Coba (Cumbancha, '08)

I have to admit I'm not versed in Peruvian music. I mean, I know Peruvian cumbia like Los Mirlos and stuff and classic afro-Peruvian music like Susana Baca but that's pretty much it. Like most of the rest of the world, I've never heard of any new, modern, young, current music coming out of Peru (with the only exception of the punk band Aeropajitas whose music I never actually heard but I remember reading about them in punk zines back in the mid-nineties).
Anyway if your knowledge of Peruvian music was limited to the Pandemic double episode of South Park, Novalima might be exactly the medicine you need. It's refreshing, full of up-beat rhythms, DJ-friendly and most importantly, 100% pan-flute-free!!!
Even though they play a traditional afro music style none of the founding members of the group are black, in fact they are all white bourgeois who grew up in the capital turning their backs to all those hick folk sounds and listening to whatever was cool in the northern hemisphere.
Later on they found themselves living abroad in the first world and as it usually happens, through the lens of nostalgia, they discovered the inner-coolness of their local roots and decided to explore the afro-Peruvian sound from an electronica's perspective.
The results were similar to what Gotan Project did in France for Argentinean tango: they showed the local young hip crowd that they didn't need to rely on Mtv to dictate what's cool and what's not, sometimes you can't see the coolest stuff when it's right in front of your eyes. Now Novalima is the most successful Peruvian music export, with two great albums available (there is a third one before those two but I haven't been able to find it anywhere) and while they teach the rest of the world that Peruvian music is a lot more than guys playing pan-flutes outside the shopping mall of your town, they also teach the young peruvians to appreciate their own music.
For DJing I recommend tracks "Tumbala" and "Kumaná" from this album and "Machete" and "Mayoral" from their previous.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

FRIKSTAILERS-Baile Frik (Revolt Into Style, '09)

I'm pretty sure I mentioned these guys before here and if I didn't I apologize for my negligence. I first found out about them when they came to SF last year during the first Zizek Tour, actually only one of them came in representation of the group because of problems with the visas. I met him after the show and he gave me a couple of demos. One of their songs, "Onda Miercolera" was a great electro-cumbia and I mixed it into one of my early neo-cumbia sets. Later on that same track was included in Zizek's breakthrough compilation Cumbia Digital Vol. 1 (I can't wait for a Vol. 2!).
Now, even though they came as part of the Zizek collective, Frikstailers are not specifically neo-cumbieros because they incorporate a much more extended palette of eclectic sounds and go way beyond the remixed cumbia. On this track here, for example, they play around with a favela funk rhythm and the results are pretty amazing. "Baile Frik" is the title track from their debut EP, released in vinyl (for all you true DJ's out there) by a new record label based in England along with a handful of other tracks and remixes equally impressive. An older version of "Baile Frik" was included in their self-released demo so you probably think that you don't need to download this one because you already have it. Wrong, this is the mastered version and it sounds way better.
Anyhow, the guys from Revolt Into Style are selling the digital EP through Juno and they were so cool that they gave us this link for all you to download the main track for free, so if you like it, go ahead and buy the rest of them or pick up the 12" vinyl which artwork is fucking lovely. Stay tuned because for the future this new British label is promising a release by neo-cumbia's ambassador Marcelo Fabian!

"Baile Frik"- Download Here.

Monday, January 12, 2009

PALENKE SOULTRIBE-Oro (Palenke Soultribe 2009)

Isn’t it great to start the year like this? The first CD I got on the mail in 2009 is from my LA friends Palenke Soultribe. This must be a good sign!
I talked about them here before because I’ve been consistently playing a couple of the tracks from their 2007 release Tropic N’ Heaven. I guess you’ll be reading a lot more from them in the future because this new release has many more excellent tracks that will go instantly in high rotation in my sets.
Dance music producers aren’t usually very skilled at song composing, they obviously focus more in the constant search for the perfect beat and they have the DJ in mind when recording a new track, not the average listeners. Well for Oro, this Colombian techno-house aficionados decided to make songs instead of tracks and the results are pretty amazing. I think it helps that they have plenty of experience playing in bands of other music styles like punk rock and shit. It also helps that they are pretty well connected in the scene and they were able to invite a whole lot of talented guests without whom this album would’ve been impossible. Among the many guest they have Kinky’s bass player Cesar Pliego in two songs and all the way from Miami, Locos Por Juana, the ONLY band ever to answer back to one of my hateful reviews on this blog. Good for them, they have balls. And they can also make good songs, as the one included in this CD which happens to by one of the best. The only thing missing in an album name Oro so full of guests is a remix by neo-cumbia mastermind Oro11, right?
Anyway, Oro is the first part of an album-trilogy. The other two are going to be Mar and Sangre. If Oro is closer to the shiny pop, Mar will be the relaxing chillout of downtempo electronica and Sangre will throw us straight into the dancefloor with DJ oriented bouncy tracks. For all of you who haven’t got it yet, yellow, blue and red are the colors of the Colombian flag. Yes, like the French movie trilogy Bleu, Blanc, Rouge. Pretty cool, huh?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Juan Data’s Predictions for 2009

Fuck the 2008 best-of lists, let's see what's in for 2009:


  1. Los Amigos Invisibles will tour your town at least 5 times during 2009.
  2. Due to the Obamization of popular culture, all indy rock bands that used to have a girl playing bass, will replace her with a black guy. Most adventurous bands may incorporate a black girl instead.
  3. Julieta Venegas will appear doing guest vocals in new releases by Carlinhos Brown, The Pinker Tones, Los Pibes Chorros, Kevin Johansen, Hector el Father, Violadores del Verso, Lil’ Wayne, Slayer, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, Mikey Avalon, Arcade Fire, La Sonora Dinamita, Bonde do Tigrão, RDB and Wu-Tang Clan.
  4. At least one of Babasónicos members (most likely Adrián D’argelos) will come out with a solo or side project.
  5. M.I.A. will release a cumbia song. Putumayo will release a cumbia compilation. Cumbia will be big in Japan.
  6. The Regaytón phenomenon: At least one reggaetón performer will be forced to openly admit his gayness when found red-handed by paparazzi at the gym lockers’ room blowing another reggaetón artist (who will claim that he had his eyes closed and was imagining a woman sucking so he’s not completely gay, he only gets his eyebrows done because his manager told him so).
  7. Manu Chao will release a new album where all the songs will be the lyrics of Mano Negra’s Putas Fever sung over the instrumental track of “La Vida Me Da Palo” except the album’s single which instead will use the instrumental of “Me Gustas Tu” with yet another lyric about Maradona.
  8. Sorry but Sonidero Nacional will delay the release of their debut for a whole other year.
  9. Fidel Castro will finally die. Five more movies about him and/or Che will go into production. Due to the yearlong annoying and loud celebrations in Miami, the United States will block and isolate the state of Florida to protect the rest of us from their horrible corny music.
  10. Nine out of ten new laptop-owning DJ’s to come out in 2009 will have never touched a vinyl record in their life. All of them will suck.