I don't usually do this, but this is a very special occasion and I decided to make an exception. I combined a record review with an interview. The reason why I did this is because I'm pretty sure this one here is probably the most significant new-cumbia release to touch my hands in 2010, so far. The fact that it's from a new Colombian artist, the fact that it's released in my favorite format (7'' vinyl) by a New York label and also the high quality of the music are signs that this global cumbia fad hasn't gone stale, as some might say, and I'm very optimistic about it.
As you all by now should know, cumbia originated in the Caribbean coast of Colombia (and what's now Panama) hundreds of years ago by the mix of African, Amerindian and Spanish traditions. By the 1950's and 60's it became a popular commercial music genre in Colombia and eventually many Colombian artists started touring, taking cumbia to places like Mexico, Argentina and Perú where cumbia was adopted by the locals who adapted it with their own style. By the end of the century cumbia was the most commercial music genre in the two biggest markets of Latin America, Mexico and Argentina, and eventually that lead to the neo-cumbia phenomenon with the appropriation of the genre by the hip urban youth. However, while all this was happening and cumbia started getting mayor recognition on an international scale, in its hometown, Colombia, cumbia had long lost its popular appeal and was mainly considered traditional carnaval music by the average young people.
In the last couple of years we started getting more and more examples of Colombian new cumbia (Bomba Estéreo being the most successful), a sign that the genre is somehow experimenting a rebirth amongst Colombian youth, and nobody can talk about this phenomenon with more authority than Mario Galeano Toro of Frente Cumbiero. A true neo-cumbia pioneer in all right, Mario has been collecting cumbia records and following closely the migration, dissemination and mutations of cumbia throughout the continent for over a decade, while producing his own sample-based music and traveling the world representing Colombia as a new cumbia ambassador of sorts.
Last year he made a collaboration project with UK dub artist Mad Professor that will hopefully see the light soon. In the meantime he released a couple of tracks in a 45'' for Names You Can Trust, one of my favorite new labels out there. Nothing more appropriate for him. If there's a name you can trust in cumbia, that's Frente Cumbiero's Mario Galeano Toro.
I've been trying to get an interview with him for a while now, and with the excuse of this release I was finally able to catch him on Skype last weekend and pick his brain. He was just coming back from Buenos Aires and Montevideo where he was touring under the sponsorship of the Colombian embassy and this is pretty much a translated transcript of our chat:
- Who is Frente Cumbiero? Is it just you or is it an actual band?
- Right now I was touring with a quartet, we have many formations but that's the current one. Frente Cumbiero is basically myself and an ever-changing entourage of contributors. It can be just me with my computer and my turntables or it can be a live band of up to twelve members depending on the occasion.
- What was the formation for the recording of this release?
- Those songs are made with samples, in the computer, with some live arrangements added. But that’s mostly sampled. That’s not how the band sounds.
- Are the samples exclusively from Colombian cumbia?
- No, there’s different stuff. There’s even Colombian salsa samples and many breaks I’ve been finding... all of them from vinyl.
- Is this your first official release?
- It’s the first one to come out in vinyl. Three month ago we had a track and a remix on a compilation called Cumbia Bestial, released in Berlin by some guys called La Chusma. We have a lot more material waiting to be released soon, like the stuff we did with Mad Professor.
- It’s almost done. I was actually in Buenos Aires finishing the mixing with Manu Schaller, a friend who worked a lot with (neo-cumbia’s pioneer) Dick El Demasiado. There are seven original songs and six dub remixes, so the idea is to release it as a 13-track album. We’re gonna release it ourselves here in Colombia, but at the same time we’re looking for an international release because we can’t manage exportation from Colombia. So, we're talking with different labels about it.
- And with the current cumbia situation, I’d say there’s a bigger market outside Colombia than within Colombia itself.
- Yeah, of course. Publishing that here would be a totally underground move, we’d do it all independently, no record labels.
- Are there vinyl pressers in Colombia still?
- No. As far as I know there are only some left in Brazil. I don’t think Argentina has any either, maybe some small home operation, but all the big ones closed down.
- Going back to Frente Cumbiero, one thing that called my attention was the lack of accordion among the sampled instruments and the accordion sound is almost fundamental in most Colombian cumbia.
- Yeah, however, there’re many styles of cumbia that don’t use accordion. In reality, I’d say accordion-cumbia only represents a small niche of the total recorded cumbia music. But definitely that was the niche that had the most exposure in an international level. We do have some other songs with accordion though, but not these two.
- There are many subgenres in cumbia. Where would you locate these two songs?
- "Ananas Tornillo" I’d say it falls more into the psychedelic 70’s style of Afrosound. It has that type of sound. The other one, is more like a descarga. It’s harder to label because it has influences from Afro-beat, the melody is obviously cumbia but it’s difficult to label it under a particular cumbia style.
- Frente Cumbiero as a band is also all instrumental or you have vocals in some other tracks too?
- Frente Cumbiero is mainly instrumental. We had used some vocal samples and some guest collaborations with singers and rappers (including Bomba Estéreo’s Li Saumet) in the Mad Professor project.
- Now, instrumental cumbia is very common in Peruvian chicha and Mexican cumbia sonidera, but is it common in Colombian cumbia? Because I have the impression that Colombian cumbia was always more song-centered... with obvious exceptions like Afrosound.
- Yes, there’s a lot of sung cumbia and that has to do with the buyerengue and tambora traditions. Those are the roots fundations of cumbia and they are sung genres. There’s also a lot of instrumental cumbia too, but yeah, definitely most of them are centered around the vocals.
- What’s the importance for you of releasing this in a 7'' single format?
- Well, for me that’s the best! I’m a crazy vinyl collector. I’ve been collecting records for many years now and for me, seeing my first official solo release in vinyl is amazing. And in 7’’ with a cute design... I think of it as an interesting message for the local scene. There’s very little vinyl culture here in Colombia. Sadly, here people throw their old records in the trash.
- How difficult is for a collector to find cumbia records in Colombia?
- It’s getting harder and harder in recent years because of the huge foreign demand. European and American dealers come to buy records... I’ve been collecting for around 10 years and I noticed that in the last four it’s been getting harder. You go to your usual dealers and they have less than a half of their stock available. Of course, foreigners come with dollars or pounds and they buy large quantities to resale over there... so that’s making it difficult for us. Prices had gone up a lot because with the e-bay trade there’s a lot of speculation on the prices. You go to the local dealers and they want to sell you a classic Fuentes records at $70, because that’s the price they get on e-bay. There’s still some places where you can find records in Colombia, but in mid-size towns. In places like Medellin, Cali, Barranquilla, there’s almost none left.
- What’s the significance of doing this release through a US label?
- Well, that’s a sign of cumbia’s internationalization. I think it’s great that cumbia is finally starting to find its niche, which for many years was lost. Hopefully it’ll go beyond just a fad for the first world and cumbia will be able to establish itself as a recognized genre. So, I’m happy with what’s going on in England and the US and also with the whole Latin American new cumbia scene.
- I think that even if the fad passes by in the first world, the positive thing that we can get out of this is the new acceptance of cumbia by the Latin American youth, ignited by the foreign approval.
- That’s totally right. As soon as you have foreigners interested in your local music, local people start seeing it with different eyes. That’s a long story in all Latin America because we’re always waiting for that first world approval. That’s something that we haven’t been able to outgrow since the colonial times. It’s almost part of the Latin American genetic history.
- The aesthetic values have always been Eurocentric, and that’s especially evident in youth culture and music.
- That’s so truth. We have now here in Colombia certain groups of young urban people that are rediscovering cumbia because they saw it in US-based blogs talking about the phenomenon in New York.
- Do you think Cumbia will ever regain its popularity in Colombia?
- Honestly, I think that'd be very difficult. If it happens, it’s gonna take like 20 years. Nowadays, it doesn’t seem like cumbia could become popular again. Vallenato has completely absorved the market segment that was originally cumbia’s. So in a popular level I don’t see it happen. But there’s a whole underground movement that’s emerging, kids who have this music in their Ipods, they’re starting to collect vinyls, but it’s just a niche.
- Do you have contact with traditional cumbia musicians from the Caribbean coast?
- My main interest has been to get to know cumbia internationally. Obviously, I’ve been in traditional festivals, but I haven’t established connections with the masters of the style. I’m more connected to the young musicians of the local Bogota scene.
- What I’m wondering is if those old-school musicians from the Discos Fuentes' golden age are aware of what’s going on with cumbia internationally right now?
- I don’t think they know. They sure don’t get any royalty money! Only a few of them, who travel abroad, like Totó La Momposina, can probably appreciate the dimension of this boom. Many of the golden age people used to travel a lot to Mexico, Peru and other countries during the 70’s, but since the 80’s the production of commercial cumbia in Colombia has virtually stopped. I think that now they must still be reminiscing of the great times they had decades ago, but they don’t even imagine there’s a new youth movement interested in those sounds abroad.
- Why do you think cumbia lost its commercial relevance in Colombia?
- I think it was because of vallenato. Vallenato came in really strong in the 80’s. There’s also some political implications. The Cesar department, where vallenato came from, was sponsored by some politicians from Bogota, and that had a huge repercussion during the early 80’s. During that time there was a huge money flow from drug trade coming from the US, and the capos were sponsoring vallenato bands as well.
- Why do you think in other Latin American countries cumbia managed to remain as the main commercial popular genre, while it was vanishing from Colombian mainstream?
- Here cumbia was very commercial between the 50's and 80's, but you know how commercial music is very capricious and unpredictable. Same in those other countries, now they have a cumbia peak of popularity but maybe in 15 years it’ll be replaced with other sounds. That’s a normal dynamic in commercial music.
- When it comes to cumbia’s new school, I get the feeling that what’s being produced in Colombia -unlike the cumbia being done in Mexico or Argentina- has a much deeper sense of respect for the genre and it lacks that ironic sense of humor that characterizes most of this new hybrid genre. Do you feel it this way?
- Yes, it’s like that. Because for Colombians, cumbia is part of our national pride. It’s what we identify ourselves with: cumbia is the sound of Colombia. It’s a typical sound that people have been listening for generations. So that irony is not so present. That’s something that happens in Argentina and Mexico, because over there cumbia music is associated to the lower classes and you have all the kitsch culture around it. In Colombia that doesn’t happen at all.