Photo by Juan Felipe Rubio.
Listen to Rompetrinche , a mix by Mario Galeano Toro:
To stumble into Lower Manhattan’s Santos Party House on a Thursday night, when Uproot Andy and Geko Jones host monthly “Que Bajo?!” parties, or into a Queens nightclub where sonidera DJs are blasting a bizarre mix of Colombian-Mexican folk and standard-fare techno, is to peek around some corners of a mushrooming music scene that most New Yorkers have passed without noticing. Not many American hipsters find their way to cumbia parties.
But in the packed clubs of Buenos Aires, young porteños at Zizek Collective parties are rejecting tango’s rigid Eurocentrism and flocking to roots-based electronic cumbia the way American suburbanites embraced hip-hop a generation ago. As with any popular music that rises from poor, rural areas and is later embraced by the middle class, cumbia is a resilient form that has allowed for experimentation without obliterating its sources. At its root, it is both a musical style and a folk dance with origins based in the Colombian coast. Its spread began in the ’50s, and Latin American variants began to crop up in the form of Peruvian chicha, Argentine villera, and Mexican sonidera, among others. With cumbia, context is everything. While a large segment of the South American and Mexican music industry has been un-distinguishing itself by embracing generic Anglicized rock, a few innovative musicians, producers, and DJs have been quietly (yet noisily) firing cumbia shots across the bow of the ongoing debate of what constitutes Latin alternative music.
Ch-ch-CH (as opposed to reggaeton’s THUM-th-thum-thum ) is the signature of the constantly morphing sound of the new cumbia that continues to spread, slowly but definitively. That a genre anchored by the minimal scrape and click from a guacharaca and a woodblock would become the blank canvas for so much new music is surprising, to say the least. The panoply of cumbia forms—the most traditional and folkloric, electronic dance, near-pornographic shantytown villera rap, and dubby remixes are exploding globally and yet still feel satisfyingly underground, up here in the North and also in Colombia.
Mario Galeano Toro, leader of the Bogotá band Frente Cumbiero, is well versed in the variegated history of cumbia, from its Afro-Caribbean origins to its modern electronic manifestations. He is one of a relative handful of producers who are spreading cumbia in multiple geographical directions. Holding tight to a music that many of his compatriots had abandoned in favor of rival forms like vallenato, Galeano has sought to present his own experimental cumbia to diverse audiences in Europe and elsewhere, working with master remixers such as Mad Professor, who was able to collaborate with Frente Cumbiero thanks to a British Council grant. While the alternative music scene in Colombia has re-embraced the form, Galeano hopes that this process ends with a re-popularizing of cumbia among the Colombian general public. An avid collector of (now rare) vintage cumbia on vinyl, he has started a label, Salgaelsol, whose mission is to digitize and reissue recordings that are being rapidly lost from circulation.
Marc Nasdor Let’s start by talking about your first band, Ensamble Polifónico Vallenato. Was that already ten years ago?
Mario Galeano Toro It was. Ensamble Polifónico Vallenato only lasted about a year and a half, but it was a very new approach here in Bogotá. Cumbia is coastal music, from the Caribbean coast, and we are here in the mountains of Bogotá, a very different atmosphere. Towards the end of Ensamble Polifónico Vallenato, new generations of musicians from Bogotá—bands like La Mojarra Eléctrica or Curupira—started reinterpreting Caribbean music. We were like 20 years old, just having fun.
MN I listened to some tracks and it was more experimental than I expected—almost noise.
MG That was the idea; vallenato is a close cousin of cumbia. It’s mostly major keys. In the ’90s there used to be cheesy commercial vallenato that played on all the buses in Bogotá—here we have music on the buses all the time! So we just put it into another context. Sure, we were having fun, but in the end it was a serious proposal.
MN Vallenato is also close to champeta, with the major chords, but champeta can be a lot faster. All the major chords make it a very happy music; it’s very upbeat.
MG Yes, though champeta has a lot of influence from African music—soukous and highlife and mbaqanga—and all of these styles that were huge in the ’80s in Cartagena and Barranquilla. Soukous is the main influence behind it and also sound system music, so it’s really meant to be heard through the sound systems they have on the coast. It’s made for dance.
MN Let’s move on to the subject of cumbia, your specialty. Here in New York, there’s a non-Colombian audience that has definitely become interested in cumbia.
MG Yes, that’s been happening over the last two or three years, also in England.
MN Let’s talk about what cumbia is in terms of its rhythm, because it has a very distinctive one that comes from the guacharaca.
MG Cumbia is composed of many different rhythms; I would say around 30. They’re all part of one big family called cumbia, but each has its own groove. The guacharaca with that ch-ch-CH rhythm is really the thing you notice first when you hear cumbia.
MN Sometimes I hear the emphasis on the third note of the triplet, and on other songs I hear the emphasis on the first note.
MG Well, that’s an interesting thing about the internationalization of cumbia. It was exported to Mexico and Argentina, but they couldn’t export the more Afro stuff because there’s only a small black community in Mexico and people find it easier to dance on strong beats instead of upbeats, so they started making sort of a fusion cumbia in the ’60s that removed the heavier, Afro-syncopated rhythms to make it more international, easier to digest.
MN When you say easier to digest, do you mean for dance clubs?
MG Yeah, for the dancers. So in the ’60s, the heavy percussion was taken out from behind, and the thing you notice most now is the guacharaca in front. Nowadays, even though Colombian cumbia has so many different rhythms, the only things that matter are just the guacharaca and the llamador, which is the upbeat.
MN Let’s have a slight digression about chicha music in Peru, which has recently become popular. There’s a band formed by the owners of a wonderful world music club called Barbés in Brooklyn—
MG Chicha Libre, right?
MN Yes, and they also released a compilation in 2007 of ’60s and ’70s stuff called The Roots of Chicha.
MG Yeah, of course, I know about this.
MN Among my Peruvian and Ecuadorian friends, some love it and others say it’s a bastardization. People hear Chicha Libre and think, “Oh, psychedelic cumbia,” but in the chicha of the ’60s this term must be completely out of context.
MG In the ’60s, Peru had one of the biggest rock scenes in Latin America, bands like Los Saicos and Los Belkings. The electric guitar got to be the sound of the country. Lima is right on the Pacific coast, and a lot of Californian surfers started to come in the ’50s looking for beaches. Lima is the first city you find coming from the north after Central America, and surf music got really huge; there are a lot of surf bands from Peru from the ’60s that are super professional and really cool. By the ’70s, things had started changing. Some of the guitarists playing in garage and surf bands in the ’60s were playing cumbia by ’71 or ’72 because they didn’t have any more work as a rock guitarists! So that’s where the electric guitar sound came from, and that’s why people sometimes think cumbia sounds psychedelic. (laughter)
MN And of course the Farfisa organ replacing the accordion.
MG Yeah, the Farfisa sounds quite electric. Some cumbia tunes have a way of using minor keys that sound a bit exotic for some ears, also sort of psychedelic.
MN I’ve been having conversations with a couple musician friends who were saying that this electric cumbia was not about Lima, that it was about the countryside, the poor people; that people from Lima actually didn’t like it.
MG Bands like Juaneco, Los Mirlos—they all come from the Amazon and that’s why the other name of chicha is actually cumbia amazónica. It’s interesting how the relationship between Colombian and Peruvian music evolved together; chicha is like another brother of cumbia.
But back to The Roots of Chicha: a lot of the hipsters in Peru have gotten into it—that’s how things work here; sometimes we need validation from Europe or the US to start paying attention to these things. Narrow-minded people think it’s old-fashioned and cheesy and doesn’t have international value, but when some guy from New York says it’s great, people catch up with it.
MN It’s similar to how, in the late ’70s, the Ramones had to go to England to be validated. (laughter) But let’s get back to the spread of cumbia through Mexico.
MG Okay, well, it happened in the ’60s. There’s this record label called Discos Fuentes, the first and biggest record company of Colombia. Actually, yesterday they were celebrating their 75th anniversary.
MN Yes, I see you posted it on your Facebook page. (laughter) They’re everything, right? From the most commercial to indie and more underground music.
MG Everything. They bought the catalogue of all the smaller labels on the coast, so now they own everything you’d want to find of Caribbean music, tropical music. So these guys started connecting with other labels from Latin America and sharing content. Fuentes was strong with cumbia, porro, puya, merecumbé.
MN Can you define those styles?
MG They’re all sort of relatives. Porro was strong in the ’50s, and that was what caught the attention of the Mexicans. From the ’30s through the ’50s Mexico had a strong cinema industry and they made a lot of musical movies where they are playing cumbia. On YouTube you can find some Mexican movies from the ’50s where they’re just playing live cumbia and porro! It was sort of the opposition to what Cuban music represented, because the Cuban music scene was about the mambo and the cha-cha-cha and all of these other rhythms.
MN In Cuba you had salsa and sol and all the other related forms.
MG And it’s very evident, the difference between the two families of Colombian cumbia and Cuban music. After the ’60s, the middle class became the main consumer of cumbia. Then a lot of tropical bands emerged in Mexico that started playing live cumbia because it’s not so syncopated and it’s easier for the people who haven’t incorporated the upbeat thing to play. By the late ’60s, cumbia was established in the middle class in Mexico City. But north in Monterrey, there’s a quite different story: there the people who liked it were the lower classes.
MN Around which years are you talking about now?
MG This is around ’75 onward. They loved Colombian music; they started to get really into it, to the point that today, all the people who listen to cumbia in Monterrey call themselves Colombians. (laughter) They say the people around them from the higher classes talk down to them, say they’re crazy for being so into the culture. I was doing a residency in Mexico and I went to Monterrey for a month. They have this bizarre conception of what Colombia is: at the bars where they play cumbia, they paint the Colombian flag on the wall and wear the typical hats of the coast. They’re very proud of it; they’re Colombians, Colombians, Colombians! It’s an amazing example of the appropriation of culture.
MN It’s interesting that this would happen in Monterrey, an industrial city in the north, not near the coast.
MG Yeah, only three hours away from the US border. It’s funny, all the gangsters in Bogotá, or in most cities, have this really urban thing happening; they get in touch with hip-hop, right? But in Monterrey—a really big city and super close to the US—they’re not into hip-hop at all. They’re into cumbia and vallenato! That’s just crazy, man.
MN Well, they have good taste. Currently there’s also the coexistence of the relatively newer cumbia of Celso Piña and El Gran Silencio, and, as a Mexican friend suggested, the hipster-attracting music of the Monterrey band Kinky, or other Mexican alternative rock groups.
MG I see two different strands: the underground scene and the commercial scene. They’re very different approaches; sometimes the commercial solution doesn’t touch the essence of what the cumbia culture is in Latin America. I would say most of the things happening in Mexico, Buenos Aires, Colombia, and New York have to do with the underground scene and relate to dance floor stuff—that’s the new generation of cumbia and what is catching the attention of so many people in the world.
MN Yes, but this scene is running parallel to some bands like the former Control Machete or Plastilina Mosh. I’m thinking of those that used hip-hop, like Molotov from Mexico City. Another parallel I’d like to ask you about is rock or even Brit-pop. I’ve noticed in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America bands that are simply imitating American and British indie rock.
MG Yeah, it seems like that’s actually 80% of the music that is done here; you cannot imagine how many fucking bands are singing in English, have English names, and are sounding like the music you’ve heard a thousand times before.
MN Another kind of traditional cumbia is one that I found recently with the group called Los Yes Yes. They’re using a lot of Andino sounds like flutes and Andino pipes. Tell me about the Andean influence in Mexican cumbia.
MG There’s a huge Andean cumbia style in Mexico—really big since the ’80s. It has to do with the sonidero bands.
MN Let’s start by defining cumbia sonidera.
MG It’s really important. Sonidero culture is like sound system culture in Mexico. They have had a huge tradition in this since the ’70s; big outdoor parties with truckloads of equipment that move all around the country. I was recently speaking with one of the first sonideros in Monterrey, Sonido Dueñes. They started their own productions around Mexico City in the early ’80s, doing versions of old Colombian tunes but with synthesizers, just making new versions, a kind of synthetic cumbia. They introduced a whole new way of making cumbia, because here nobody was doing cumbia with synthesizers and drum machines.
MN Before we move on to modern cumbia, let’s talk about Argentina.
MG Argentina is also a very special case. Since the ’60s there was a lot of Colombian music being played there. They preferred cumbia sounds over Cuban sounds, and bands like El Cuarteto Imperial started playing cumbia in Argentina. It was sort of middle class, but then there was the huge economic crisis in Argentina beginning in the late ’90s. Around this time, the poorer people developed their own style of cumbia—cumbia villera—which is basically gangster cumbia.
MN Is there a parallel to Brazilian baile funk?
MG Definitely, it’s ghetto music, speaking about poverty, drugs, prostitution, guns. If you see Argentine newspaper articles around 2000 on cumbia villera, they say it’s the worst thing that could ever happen to Argentina. Argentines are really into rock. So it didn’t go over well at all, but then the villera guys started to play with synthesizers and beats, very influenced by the Mexican sonidero sound. A very important turning point had to do with the influence of Dutch artist, Dick El Demasiado. He came to Argentina around 2001 when it was definitely politically incorrect to mention cumbia to higher-class electronic music people, and he came out with a style that he calls “lunatic cumbia.” It’s very experimental stuff, but his being Dutch shook some of the preconceptions people had, and he started a movement in Buenos Aires. All of the things happening in the club Zizek have an origin in what Dick did with the Festicumex.
MN Would you say that Argentines view cumbia as the anti-tango?
MG Yeah, exactly.
MN I’ve been feeling that in my discussions with Argentines in their thirties, forties, fifties. Especially the ones who are fanatical about tango. It’s almost like the classist or racist reactions American rockers had towards hip-hop or disco when they first appeared. Let’s switch to current cumbia. Should we start with Argentina or do you want to start with Colombia?
MG Let’s start with Argentina, and then we can go for Colombia, which is more my field. In Argentina there’s this hype around Zizek that has gotten so huge. It has a lot to do with blogger culture. These guys had extensive contact with blogs worldwide and are getting a lot of visibility. It also had to do with the visibility that people like Diplo or M.I.A. had two or three years ago, playing with exotic urban beats from far-off places. Like kuduro from Angola or baile funk from Brazil. There was a generation that started to look for other kinds of urban music, and Zizek basically appeared at the right time, right place. I went maybe two years ago and there were like 30 people there.
MN This was during the parties that Grant Dull (El G) had? He’s American, right? I met him during the Latin Alternative Music Conference; he seems to be someone who’s doing interesting work in that field as well.
MG He organizes the logistics and contacts behind Zizek. This new generation is tapping into some different styles; the earlier Argentines were more into the cheesy thing, sort of making fun of it and that’s something that nowadays is starting to be reevaluated. At the beginning there were a lot of musicians just trying to sound lower-class. Here in Latin America there are a lot of class issues.
MN Getting into Colombian stuff, the modern cumbia groups that have really made a hit in New York are Monareta and Bomba Estéreo. Bomba Estéreo had that wonderful hit this summer, “Fuego.” Actually, the whole album Blow Up is quite wonderful.
MG The guys from Monareta were living in New York at one point so they got tuned into the New York scene. Actually, Andrés Martínez, the guitarist for the band was playing guitar for the project we just did with the dub producer Mad Professor. We did three days of recordings and recorded eight tracks with him, five composed by me and the other three improvised by all of us in the studio. It was very important to have a big personality like Mad Professor be interested in doing a cumbia project. We’re doing a project called Transnational Cumbia, sponsored by the British Council.
And yeah, Bomba Estéreo is really big right now; I mean, they’re going to play in Japan. They’re probably the most international cumbia act we have.
MN Having seen them live, I’d say they definitely deserve it. There’s such a sense of wonder in the “Fuego” video, when everybody comes out into the street; it’s very democratic, everybody’s equal. From a political standpoint, I think it’s really positive.
Let’s get into your band Frente Cumbiero and how that developed out of Ensamble Polifónico Vallenato.
MG Well, I had started to do things with Colombian music and then I went to study composition in Rotterdam. So I was learning about African and Arabic music, slowly starting to find the connections between all of this stuff. I was learning about other music and playing with musicians from all over the world, doing the scholar thing. Then around 2004, I started to do some cumbia projects in Holland and I got in touch with Dick el Demasiado. At this point there was still really nothing happening with cumbia. In Colombia there was a new generation of people from Bogotá researching and playing the roots side of cumbia, playing gaitas and alegre drums, going to the coast to learn with the masters, and really learning the tradition. I took a different approach—I was more interested in cumbia as a Latin American music style—so I started doing projects with guys from Argentina and from Mexico. Although cumbia is such a huge thing here, nobody knows there is cumbia in Argentina, cumbia in Mexico, that there is cumbia amazónica in Peru, all these different styles.
MN So you’re saying Colombians aren’t really listening to non-Colombian music?
MG Well, they’re listening to rock, but people don’t really know how international cumbia is. Cumbia stopped being commercially recorded in the ’80s. Since then, vallenato took over completely. There’s a big difference between cumbia and vallenato, so the sad outcome is that cumbia in Colombia since the ’80s is associated with Christmas.
MN Christmas! Why?
MG December is when the big parties are, and there’s this nostalgic thing in December; it’s sort of viewed as old-fashioned.
MN But not vallenato?
MG No, vallenato is super current. There are like 500 bands playing vallenato, but there’s not even one band commercially playing cumbia.
MN So how does your band Frente Cumbiero fit into this?
MG I wanted to do a project where cumbia was shown as something that was not old-fashioned, as a current music style. So I’ve done things like DJing and playing vinyl to show people who are into rock that there’s something else. And I started working with other musicians from Latin America.
MN It seems like there are two sides to Frente Cumbiero: one of which is specific to Colombia and the other being its participation in the larger, international cumbia scene.
MG Yes, I’m interested in Colombian rhythmic and melodic phrasing, but, at the same time, I’m interested in being connected with the international cumbia scene. I don’t see myself as a traditionalist. The name of my project, Frente Cumbiero—which means “cumbia front”—is about this community; it’s not the Mario Galeano Project, you know? My main interest is not to put out a really hot record, so all of these years I’ve been strengthening ties with the other cumbia scenes through smaller projects. Nowadays, what I do is starting to get a bit more notoriety, I guess because of the consistency of it!
MN About the expansion of cumbia: the underground parties have been going on for a year in New York—they call them tropical dance parties—which might incorporate reggae and dancehall and other styles like that into cumbia. You weren’t alone in saying how important cumbia is.
MG I’m definitely not alone. When I say Colombians are not listening to cumbia, I mean that the general public isn’t. With a group of musicians and artists, we are having parties where people show up by the hundreds; we’re making our own scene. If you go to a record store in Bogotá, people won’t show you what the good stuff is. So there’s a lost connection with the common people—that’s what I mean when I say that nobody is doing that. Right now it’s definitely an underground scene.
MN Describe Frente Cumbiero’s music.
MG The main things that go into my music are Colombian sounds—the classic sounds from the ’50s and ’60s. For years, I’ve been into the music of Andrés Landero; he’s really key to this whole thing. I tried to reinterpret his music with new tools. I want to have very diverse formats—16 horns, a quartet, just a computer. I’m interested in exploring the cumbia aesthetic of the Colombian coast and giving it my own interpretation. I’m also a big record collector and I’m always looking for old cumbia records. Maybe you know that because of this cumbia hype, English and American guys are coming to buy all the cumbia records they can find in the country, so it’s getting hard to find original vinyl. These guys buy really big lots because they have stores to supply.
MN Is this music that has not been re-mastered and put onto CD?
MG Right, definitely not.
MN Just listening to Frente Cumbiero, the tracks are wildly different from each other. You mentioned how you don’t want to be tied down to one style.
MG I’m not doing something with a commercial approach, so I’m not really forced to stay with a formula. I’m just interested in making projects that touch different places. I don’t think what I’m doing has anything to do with these new trends of the last few years. I’m just paying homage to the music I love the most.
MN So if you were going to make a list describing the typical concert, there would be a number of styles happening in the same evening.
MG Yeah. Lately I do a lot of sets from the computer, with a mini-keyboard and some records, so I’m by myself. I have another format that is with trombone, sax, a percussionist, and a computer. It just depends on the location. But the parties we’ve been doing for the last six months are more just me on the controls, playing some records—stuff from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.
MN So you’re acting as both the DJ and a creative artist at the same time?
MG Yeah, I’m mixing the two.
MN Which styles does Frente Cumbiero encompass?
MG I would find my influences in cumbia with accordion; also the brass bands that are called pelayera bands. These are related styles with different rhythms and phrasings, melodically. I’m restoring these styles. Early vallenato, bullerengue, and gaita styles also come into the mix. But really, all the different cumbias from Latin America are right there. I’m especially interested in how cumbia sonidera, rebajada, villera, amazónica, and lunática can bring new aesthetics into traditional Colombian cumbia.
MN How much does ska or reggae influence Colombian music? The reason I mention ska is because you spoke about playing with horns in your band; I suppose it’s a cycle. Ska began in Jamaica in the early ’60s, disappeared, came back as British ska, disappeared, and came back as California ska punk. The Russian band Leningrad was gangster ska!
MG It’s not so much an influence as a coincidence. Ska was not much of an influence on Colombian music. You find some really old porro tunes that are exactly like ’60s ska from Jamaica, but they’re from the ’50s; it has to do with the coincidences of the structure of both musics. As with reggae and ska, the bassists are always on the strong beats, and the horn accents are on the upbeats, so there’s a syncopation. (mimics a beat) We have our own huge tradition of horn music: pelayera. They play porro and fandango, and both are 100% horn music.
MN Has the Balkan-Latin connection that you encountered in Europe influenced Frente Cumbiero?
MG I love gypsy music from the Balkans, and I can really identify where the two traditions meet. It’s also interesting to see how there might be more than just a casual connection. I’ve come up with a theory that has to do with how banda pelayera culture started around the late 19th century on the coast. There were these big landowners who, in the late 19th century, were trying to prove their power to the other landowners, so they decided to import loads of brass instruments. The peasants there were mainly mixed ethnicities—Indians and blacks—and they didn’t know how to play the brass instruments. They played their native flutes, not these European brass instruments. So the landowners brought some teachers from the south of Spain, where already a fusion between gypsy and Spanish music had happened, for example in pasodoble: brass music with gypsy influence and Spanish influence. I believe you can find a lot of that phrasing in pelayera bands.
MN Was there a gypsy—Roma—community in Colombia?
MG Yes, there are three families here in Colombia. They’re even recognized by the government as one of the ethnic groups in Colombia.
MN Are they musically active?
MG No, it’s a shame. Now you see them singing Roma anthems, but they really lost their musical backgrounds.
MN Does Frente Cumbiero incorporate some Roma influence?
MG Yeah, right now I’m setting up a new set with two horns that taps into it. And some of the accordion riffs I use are influenced by the Balkan accordion tradition. A continuation of the Transnational Cumbia project I mentioned before will involve a collaboration with a British gypsy horn section, to unite both styles. We would like to take them to the Porro Festival in San Pelayo, which is like our version of Serbia’s Guča Festival: brass band madness!
MN Yes, there are some collaborations going on in England now—Drunken Balordi, which seems to mix Balkan and Irish, like Irish rock with gypsy horn styles. And the DJ Max Pashm takes Jewish klezmer music and gypsy music and does remixes and a live performance.
MG Do you know this historical figure in Afro-Colombian music, Totó la Momposina? When she goes on tour, she takes the Israeli bombardino horn player Rafi Malkiel, and it just fits like you cannot imagine. The bombardino is sort of smaller tuba, like a euphonium.
MN Totó performed in New York a couple of months ago. Also, in New York they have concerts in the parks in the summer, and they fund the world music by selling expensive tickets for American indie rock bands playing the same venues. But we do have a number of world music spaces, too. Does Frente Cumbiero have plans to come to the US?
MG I’m waiting for things to develop organically. Right now I’d like to finish the tracks we did with Mad Professor, start doing promotion, and hopefully go play some shows next year. I’m also planning to do a remix album where we’re going to have guests from all over the world remixing classic Colombian tunes; that’s also a project for next year. We have a nice connection with an organization in Manchester called Un-Convention, and we’re going to have an Un-Convention next June in Medellín. In Bogotá around April we’re going to have a small cumbia festival where I’ll be the representative of Colombia, Sistema Sonoro Macaco will represent Mexico, and probably El Hijo de la Cumbia will represent Argentina. I like what’s happening with cumbia in the first world, but I’m equally interested in strengthening connections with Latin America, because we don’t have so many bridges to link us. I’m just really proud and happy that these things are happening in other places. There are a lot of purists who say that the internationalization of cumbia is the worst thing that can happen, that it creates a bastard music. But how can they say that if for the last 20 years nothing has happened with cumbia in Colombia? We are the ones making the style develop!