Until recently, cumbia has been anything but cool in Buenos Aires. For decades Argentinian trendsetters wanted no part of this traditional folk-dance music of Colombian origin. With its repetitive percussion, cheesy keyboards, and trite lyrics, cumbia was often dismissed as music for the lower classes and the rural areas outside of Buenos Aires.
That perception was only strengthened by the emergence of cumbia villera, a harder-edged style that emerged from the villas of Buenos Aires in the midst of the economic crisis that began in 1998 and peaked in 2002. The lyrics horrified mainstream Argentinians with lurid tales of crime, drug use, and cheap women.
Despite the unfriendly climate, a new crop of Buenos Aires cumbia DJs and producers has recently emerged with a different perspective. Growing up in a country where traditional cumbia was banished to family parties and kiddie dances, musicians are now mixing cumbia rhythms with modern hip-hop and electronic sounds. Cobbling together tracks on crappy PCs with pirated music software, these bedroom artists operate in a world where CD-Rs constitute an official release and producers scour open-air bootleg markets in search of new sampling material. Dubbed new-school cumbia, cumbia beat, electro cumbia, and cumbiatronica, their work is being embraced by the hipster set.
Local dubstep/grime wizard Daleduro cites something he calls the “M.I.A. phenomenon” as being responsible for the style’s emergence, and explains: “In 2005, there was a global movement to look to the third world for new kinds of beats. In Buenos Aires that manifested [itself] as people taking a look at cumbia.”
Daleduro fuses cumbia rhythms into his bass-heavy beats, and he’s not alone. Northern California transplant Oro11, who first discovered cumbia on a garish Saturday-afternoon television variety show, crafts a unique mix of cumbia with hip-hop and dancehall. More experimental offerings come from producer El Remolón, who puts the genre into an IDM framework, while fusing cumbia with minimal techno is the preferred formula for Marcelo Fabian, who also happens to be producing the new album from local reggaeton/dancehall MC Princesa.
Last year these artists found a home with the launch of Zizek, a weekly urban beats club that now takes place at the venerable Niceto Club in the city’s ultra-trendy Palermo neighborhood. Serving as the city’s unofficial cumbia clubhouse, Zizek is one of the few places to escape punchi punchi, the omnipresent Euro-dance music that dominates the Buenos Aires club scene.
Zizek cofounder Grant Dull, who also runs bilingual website WhatsUpBuenosAires, states that the club is “a platform for a new generation of Buenos Aires clubbers to hear cumbia.” When asked why the music is making such strides, he answers, “Cumbia is taking shape as post-crisis Buenos Aires realizes that it’s actually part of Latin America.”