Friday, February 1, 2008

Cumbia, all over the continent

Buenos Aires by Night

When the song ends there is a deaf silence. Like in that scene in a war movie, where a bomb explodes next to the hero, and for a moment all he hears is an echoing silence. Then, in a blast, the sounds of the surrounding world return: the amazing, murderous noise that is Buenos Aires.

A late night hot dog joint, late at night. Built under a railway bridge in a shabbier part of the city. One litre bottles of cheap beer circulate around the tables. Out of three fan-light-combos hanging from an exposed tile ceiling two fans and one light are working.

A kid from a table in the darkest corner walks to the huge ancient jukebox. Instructions are shouted after him. Jukebox makes clicking and cracking noises for a while and then the beat rolls in waves over the dim room. The cumbia beat. This is cumbia villera, the sound of the villa miserias - shantytowns - of Buenos Aires, the sound that has taken over the whole city. Kid, dressed like a proper cumbiero, hair dyed blond, sporting a cap dangerously clinging to the back of his scalp, dances back to the table.

Cumbia villera is the dirty Argentinian bastard son of the Colombian cumbia. The sound is cheap, home-made, a ghetto sound. Lyrics bear more resemblance to gangsta rap or proibidão funks of Rio's favelas than to romantic laments of original Colombian cumbia. And of course it has roused a proper controversy in the city, and eventually ended up being hugely popular.

Here are a couple of older tunes from Pibes Chorros, Yerba Brava and Damas Gratis, the old school of the villera sound. Pablo Lescano of Damas Gratis is often recognized as the inventor of cumbia villera, deed that has made him into a something of a working class hero (though he says that it was the record label who tought of the term and insists on calling his music just cumbia).

Pibes Chorros - Las Pibas Quieren Sexo (zShare)
Pibes Chorros - Con Una Nueve (zShare)
Yerba Brava - Los Borrachos (zShare)
Yerba Brava - La Cumbia De Lost Trapos (zShare)
Damas Gratis - Quiero Vitamina (zShare)
Damas Gratis - Se Te Ve La Tanga (Version remix) (zShare)

Websites like Paraeltablon offer news about artists (for an example, yesterday's headlines told about members of certain group getting accused for sexual abuse, "con penetración", of a 17 year girl, and a theft of a cellular phone - not that the band looks much over 17 years either), downloads of cumbia villera-music - and amateur soft porn.

Indeed, there is a dark undercurrent in villeras singing merrily about boozing and smoking marihuana. For an example, one of the Pibes Chorros songs above is about robbing supermarkets. In one interview, Pablo Lescano, now in rehabilitation, describes his serious addiction to drugs. As the case in villas often is, the drugs were of the cheapest and the most dangerous kind: "Paco, crack... Everything. Everything." His home barrio he describes as a disastre - "They'll kill you just to rob your cell phone."

Picture (c) Zizek Urban Beats Club

Niceto-club, Buenos Aires

A club called Zizek at a restaurant called Niceto (Niceto Vega 5510, Palermo Hollywood), in trendy Palermo-district. A DJ called Villa Diamante behind the decks. A man often hailed as the undisputed mash-up king of the city.

Fashionable, artsy crowd is dancing wildly. To that same cumbia beat. But very different sounds. Here we are on the experimental edge of the cumbia sound. Here it merges with - and smashes into - international genres like hip-hop, r'n'b and baltimore. Dubstep or electro-pop. What ever suits you, sir, this is the testbed for weirdest samples and bold ventures into strange new directions. And pretty much one hell of a party, too.

Villa Diamante offers most of his music for free, available for download on his site. For starters, Bailando se entiende la gente contains a whole album of Diamante's bastard pop, giving a good idea about this man's work, tastes and skills.

Villa Diamante: Bailando se entiende la gente (direct link)

Other interesting artists include Oro11 - here remixing Pibes Chorros-song - and Cancha Via Circuito, mashing porteño rap-queen Princesa into cumbia beat. Just to name a few. And we must not forget Dick el Demasiado ("Dick the Too Much"), the grand-father of the experimental scene, probably smiling somewhere in the background while admiring all the strange growth his work has sparked in here. He's a man with incredibly complex background, a fact audible in the wild influences of his cumbias experimentales.

Oro11 - Pibes Chorros vs. DJ Unh: Que Calor (direct link, via Muy Bastard)
Princesa - Con la Misma Moneda (Cancha Via Circuito remix)
(direct link, via What's Up Buenos Aires)
Dick el Demasiado - Rueda de las Unas (zShare)

Also international super-stars like Diplo have performed here at Zizek. Diplo hypes cumbia-sound in Mad Decent-blog and provides us with his own little cumbia-mix.

Got interested? Good resources to find out more include What's Up Buenos Aires and Muy Bastard-blog.

Potosí, Bolivia

A shack selling pirated records by the bus station. Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the South America. There are hardly stores selling original records here. Stacks of collections of Argentinian cumbia villera: Villeras Argentinos, Villeras 2007, Exitos Villera 2008. Three albums for price of one. Just the greatest hits.

Here too that cumbia beat, everywhere, taking turns with occasional reggaeton songs. Where as in Argentina cumbia was always a musical style associated with lower classes, something to be frowned upon, in Bolivia - and of course in Colombia - cumbia seems to be in the blood of the whole nation. Immigrants from these countries once brought the cumbia to Argentina. So maybe this is just the bastard son returning home.

Artists popular on the countless villera-collections here offer a different sound, though. Softer, more romantic, usually to the point of a heavy sugar-overdose. One of the biggest stars is El Polaco. Despite his tough guy-appearances with tattoos and all, his songs mostly deal with various bumps on the road of love, and consequently he is very popular among teenage-girls both here and in Argentina. Here's few of his least annoying songs, just to give an example. Another one is about getting drunk because of heart-aches.

El Polaco - Amanecio (zShare)
El Polaco - Tomaré Para Olvidar (zShare)

Valparaiso, Chile

A street in port of Valparaiso. A quick piece of graffiti thrown on a rusting, weather-beaten metal wall.


Everybody loves cumbia.