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The Monterrey-Austin cumbia axis

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The Austin Chronicle’s cover story this week is on the outside world’s discovery of the cumbia scene in Monterrey, Mexico, and its reigning star Celso Piña. As gringolandian alternative rockers a few years back rediscovered and relaunched the Man in Black, so have Mexico’s younger exponents of rap and rock en español made a star out of Piña. Cumbia has a characteristic heartbeat rhythm that you’ll know if you’ve ever heard it. Here’s the Chronicle on its origins:

A folkloric music born in Colombia’s Caribbean coastal region, cumbia sabanera and its cousin cumbia vallenata were forged from a fusion of European accordion, native Indian guacharaca (a bamboo scraper), and African rhythms played on the caja, a drum slightly larger than a bongo. Over time, the cumbia lineup supersized, sometimes rivaling salsa bands in its musical girth, incorporating everything from horn sections to keyboards. … As salsa took the rest of Mexico by storm in the Sixties and Seventies, cumbia Colombiana found fertile ground in Monterrey.

Piña is credited as the founder of Monterrey cumbia, which has pretty much been limited to that city’s working-class barrios for the past twenty years. Until, that is, producer and DJ Toy Hernández of the Monterrey rap group Control Machete hit upon the idea of “cumbia dub”. When word spread that Hernández would be producing Piña, the heavy hitters of Mexico’s alternative music scene (and beyond) were quick to sign on, including members of Caf&eacute Tacuba, El Gran Silencio, Santa Sabina, and the New York Latin-rap-ska group King Chango.

The result is said to be a delight for adventurous ears north and south of the border, both on the breakout track “Cumbia Sobre el Río” on the Barrio Bravo CD and on several tracks from his new release Mundo Colombia. I haven’t actually heard these discs yet, but the samples available at Amazon and B&N make me believe it. Besides the dub and rock influences are intriguing ideas like a cumbia cover of the Antonio Carlos Jobim classic “Vivo Sonhando”. Fans of Piña and Hernández’s new sound should be aware, however, that some of the songs are likely to be more in the vein of traditional rough and ready Monterrey-style cumbia.

Meanwhile, the Chronicle naturally puts an Austin angle on the story: Monterrey is “just” seven hours by bus from Austin; a singer whose connection to Piña isn’t explained has spent the summer in Austin recording; Austin’s own eclectic cumbia collective Grupo Fantasma and dub act Echobase are collaborating with Toy Hernández and have plans to play in Monterrey soon. I don’t know whether this really means much; we’ve heard about the Next Big Thing coming from Mexico via Austin for years.

But Grupo Fantasma is great and a listen to their self-titled release may make you agree that cumbia makes other latin styles popular north of the border sound sterile in comparison (e.g., salsa). I hear that Grupo Fantasma has a benefit show coming up to raise funds for their Monterrey trip. So if writing about an Austin-Monterrey axis might help make it happen, more power to the Chronicle.

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About Prentiss Riddle

  • Jeanne

    how do we get vhs videos of Cumbia Sobre el Rio and El Tren?

  • MARTHA

    i love celso pina