The Rise of Ñu-Cumbia
by Juan Data | November 12, 2012
Our first guest columnist for Rhapsody Latin Week 2012 is Juan Data, an Oakland-based Argentine freelance journalist, blogger and DJ who writes for remezcla.com and latinbutcool.blogspot.com. He also produced his own cumbia-inspired music as Bondi Blaster and hosts the weekly talk podcast Flea Market Finds.
I didn't grow up listening to cumbia. It was there, playing always in the background at quinceañera parties and on the school bus, but I never paid any real attention to it, either as a consumer/listener or during the first half of my 15 years as a DJ and music critic. For most of the '90s, I was fascinated with New York hip-hop and the latest trends in European electronic dance music. Like many other kids of my generation who were growing up in Latin America's big cosmopolitan cities (in my case Buenos Aires), I had my ears pointed outward, and I completely disregarded our own Latin music traditions, which I considered corny, campy and hick.
Originally an Afro-Colombian rhythm from the Caribbean coast, cumbia had travelled up and down the Andes during the '60s and '70s, and by the '80s, it was the most popular genre of tropical Latin music among the working classes in such geographically distant places as Mexico, Peru and Argentina. Unlike its popular distant cousin salsa, cumbia has a constant guiro-based rhythm that's easier both to play and to dance to, which was instrumental in its continental expansion and its adoption by the less sophisticated masses.
So, for us kids from the big Latin American cities raised on a steady diet of MTV-approved rock, rap and pop, cumbia was utterly uncool. But things started to change around the dawn of the new millennia, when an unprecedented paradigm shift took place. Suddenly, DJs, producers, remixers, avant-guard artists and tastemakers in general started to turn around and look to their Latin American roots -- and those previously disregarded low-brow cultural expressions -- as a new source for samples (sometimes respectfully, most of the time ironically).
At the same time, first-world hipsters, crate-diggers and clubgoers became more amenable to imported third-world dance trends. Together with Brazilian favela funk, Balkan brass music and Angolan kuduro, cumbia experienced a renaissance of sorts, reaching a whole new audience outside the Latino working class and world-music niche types. This foreign interest, in turn, helped legitimize the movement for homegrown Latino artists, who saw this as a green light to experiment, all of which coalesced into a whole new global scene that I call ñu-cumbia.
Here are 10 songs that changed my mind and turned me into a cumbia believer.
1. Ozomatli, "Cumbia de los Muertos" (USA, 1998) It was thanks to throwback-rap crew Jurassic 5's shared members with L.A. Latin-fusion icons Ozomatli (Chali 2na and Cut Chemist) that this one managed to sneak into the hip-hop record crates and onto my radar. There had been some failed experiments blending cumbia with rap before this, but this was the first time I saw true hip-hop artists on a cumbia track, and that opened the doors to other possibilities.
2. Celso Piña, "Cumbia Sobre El Río" (Mexico, 2001) For his groundbreaking album Barrio Bravo, Mexican cumbia legend Celso Piña hooked up with local hip-hop pioneers Control Machete, resulting in the biggest hit of his career and definitely one of the most popular modern cumbia tracks. Combining Colombian and Mexican sonidero styles mixed with bass-heavy reggae and hip-hop grooves, "Cumbia Sobre El Río" laid the foundations for pretty much all ñu-cumbia, and was one of the first examples to cross over to the Latin mainstream and reach the MTV generation. Control Machete's DJ Toy Selectah would soon be widely regarded as ñu-cumbia's top pioneer.
3. Sidestepper "In the Beats We Trust" (UK/Colombia, 2003) In a sense, a big part of cumbia's renaissance has to be blamed on foreigners who travelled to Latin America and discovered the genre's untapped potential. Free from social prejudices, they were able to value cumbia for what it was: an irresistible, catchy rhythm that was easy to dance to and suitable for blending with other familiar styles of the African diaspora, in this case reggae and dub. Sidestepper's Richard Blair was one of the first gringos to explore this route -- and definitely not the last.
4. Ska Cubano, "Cumbia en Do Menor" (UK/Cuba, 2006) It took me a while to understand how a Colombian-style cumbia could fit in the repertoire of a band named Ska Cubano, but as I started investigating the African roots of cumbia, the similarities with Jamaican ska became a lot more evident. To this day, "Cumbia en Do Menor" remains one of the best instrumental cumbias ever recorded by a non-Colombian.
5. Up, Bustle & Out, "Cumbion Mountain" (UK/Mexico, 2007) After two albums recorded during trips to Cuba, the Bristol trip-hop collective visited Mexico and met with ñu-cumbia producers Toy Selectah and Chico Sonido, with whom they recorded this, one of the genre's masterpieces, which finally launched cumbia as a new genre for international dancefloors.
6. Calle 13, "La Cumbia de Los Aburridos" (Puerto Rico, 2007) At the initial peak of ñu-cumbia fever, many Latin artists from a variety of genres -- rock, folk, hip-hop -- started adding a cumbia or two to their repertoire. Reggaeton/alt-rap superstars Calle 13 came from Puerto Rico, where cumbia was never really popular, but that never stopped them from exploring the Afro-Colombian genre. In fact, their massive debut hit, "Atrevete-te-te," had also included cumbia samples, but in a more subtle way.
7. El Hijo De La Cumbia, "La Mara Tomaza" (Argentina, 2008) Featured in seminal label ZZK Records' first Cumbia Digital compilation, which introduced Argentina's take on ñu-cumbia to the rest of the world, this track became one of the genre's inevitable anthems. Still one of my all-time favorites, it takes elements from Argentina's cumbia villera (the most hardcore gangsta derivative of cumbia) and Mexico's sonidera (the cumbia equivalent of Jamaican street sound-system dub culture), and reinterprets them through the prism of cut-and-paste sampledelia.
8. Samim, "Heater" (Switzerland, 2008) Eventually, European house and techno producers started looking to the genre as a sample source for dancefloor-igniting heavy-hitters. Revamping the accordion of the Colombian standard "La Cumbia Cienaguera," Samim's "Heater" became a massive summer hit in 2008. It wasn't the only one: Mastiksoul, Michel Cleis, Juan Magan, and Harry "Choo Choo" Romero are among the many dance sorcerers who would explore cumbia in the next few years.
9. Bomba Estéreo, "Fuego" (Colombia, 2009) The first ñu-cumbia track to hit big among both the Latino and international crowds, and it came straight outta cumbia's birthplace, Colombia. Bomba singer Li Saumet came out of nowhere and was instantly crowned queen of a scene that desperately needed a feminine touch.
10. Campo, "Cumbio" (Uruguay, 2011) By the time this one came out, I was already fully converted to cumbia, but "Cumbio" raised the standards and took the genre to its next evolutionary level. With Gustavo Santaolalla's majestic production, this stands out in a scene that in just a couple years got oversaturated with homemade-sounding tracks and plenty of clichés. If this is what cumbia's future sounds like, I'm sticking to it and eagerly waiting for more.