MIXING, MASHING, SAMPLING, BASTARDIZING: Cumbia Argentina

You don’t have to
understand the words because you can dance to it like mad – all night
long. 

 

BY LEW HERMAN

 

For anyone interested in checking out surprising new sounds,
you should really visit Buenos Aires.

 

And Niceto Club (pronounced nee-say-toe, not “nice, too”) in trendy, hipster
barrio Palermo Soho is ground zero. If you can’t raise airfare, this summer
several Argentine deejays and musicians on Argentina’s
ZZK label are touring North America and Europe as we speak. They
played South by Southwest last year, paving the way for this year’s tours.
Previously they’ve played Summerstage in New York City’s
Central Park as well as big festivals like Coachella in California
and Roskilde in Denmark.

 

I was in Argentina – and Buenos Aires – earlier this year, grooving to the new music; call
it Argentine cumbia, cumbia electronica, psychedelic cumbia. There’s more – folktronic, cumbiatronic, neo-cumbia, even futuristic cumbia.

 

When I arrived in Buenos
Aires, a city of 15 million, my guidebook said,
“Greeting someone with a kiss on the cheek is quite normal” or, “A long siesta
is the norm between 2 and 5PM.” Both were accurate, so when someone said,
“Clubbing begins at around 2AM and continues past dawn,” they meant it.

 

In Buenos Aires
I headed straight to Zizek world headquarters, a house in barrio Villa Crespo,
as most new cumbia is on the Zizek record label. My
contacts at Zizek were deejaying at Club Niceto, so they said, “Come by at
3:30. Asking, “AM or PM?” they laughed and said, “Night!” Turns out, music may
be the only thing that runs on schedule in Argentina.
As my friend Marcela told me, “We Argentines don’t really have a good sense of
time.”

 

ZZK and their accompanying Zizek Urban Beats Club – their
mobile, roving party – is headquarters for the budding international cumbia
cult. Actually, cumbia’s been around for 200 years, since African slaves
brought its loping beat to the shores of Colombia’s
Caribbean coast, mixing African rhythms with indigenous
flutes and pipes. The catchy, hesitating beat is caused, they say, from the way
the slaves had to dance with shackles on their legs. Cumbia’s gone through
quite a few changes since then and this new Zizek phase is the latest. Cumbia
Villera (gangster cumbia) was the previous version and like early hip-hop, originated
in tough urban slums, in this case from the villa miserias or shantytowns
ringing Buenos Aires.
 Like hip-hop, Cumbia Villera had a bad
reputation, with misogynistic tunes about sex, drugs and violence, but the
Zizek folks knew it, studied it, played it. In one peculiarly ironic stroke, I
was told stories about Pablo Lescano of Damas Gratis (Women For Free) – the
Elvis or Bob Dylan of cumbia.

 

But cumbia evolves regularly, so now there’s Zizek. Co-owner/honcho
Grant C. Dull explained, “We call ourselves ZZK in the US, to avoid
copyright problems. “You know, Zizek the (Slovenian) philosopher is kind of a
rock star in the philosophical world.” 

 

Grant C. Dull is one of three label managers at ZZK and a
co-founder of Zizek Club.  He’s a 6-year
adopted citizen & cultural ambassador of Buenos Aires and a transplanted Texan also known as El G. (“I
answer to both English and Spanish pronunciations.”) He’s also a musicologist, editor,
theorist, deejay and internationalist. He runs the ZZK operation with two
others, both deejays and more, Diego Bulacio aka Villa Diamonte, and Guillermo
Canale aka DJ Nim. Grant was leaving soon on his North American/Euro tour, but
Diego stayed behind suggesting proper clubs, musicians and bands. “You’ll like
the band before me. Come early at 2:30 and you’ll catch them.” Fantasma was the
band and they were fantastico.
Accordions are king in Argentina
and Fantasma rocked out as a live band with accordion, reggaeton/rap and a full
throttle sound, heavy on percussion. Villa Diamonte deejayed after and was more
vital and contemporary than most deejays back home, playing cumbia electronica,
oddities, mashups, screeches and bleeps.  

 

***

 

Edgy, tropical cumbia made itself a second home in Argentina and is
presently going global. There was Seattle, New Zealand, Iceland,
Chapel Hill and now maybe Buenos Aires.
As Grant said, “This is maybe the only time in Argentina’s history that this can
happen.” He wasn’t only referring to the music but perhaps to Argentina’s
recent, calamitous history; the collapse of their currency ten years ago and
prior to that, Argentina’s murderous military
dictatorship. Now comes the rising of new music representing a new
alternative in Latin consciousness; a mixing of technology with Andean
cosmology, not just here but in other hotspots like Bogota and Mexico City. Buenos Aires, with its boundless, new artistic energy is
like Weimar Germany
in the ‘20s – or Paris in the ‘60s or New York
in the ‘50s. It’s emerging, hung-over from an extraordinarily horrific state of
affairs – universities closed;  you
couldn’t study sociology, history, psychology or anthropology; the economy
tanked, and worse than Greece today; no one bailed them out; and they defaulted. It
couldn’t get any worse, but it did. There were concentration camps. Their own armed
forces declared war on their own people – called the Dirty War (La Guerra Sucia),
thousands were murdered. So-called subversives were dragged from classrooms, flung
out of planes, babies were snatched from pregnant women who were then murdered
after giving birth, their children given to childless military families. In
terms of numbers, Pinochet’s dictatorship in neighboring Chile
was murder-lite in comparison. The word “disappeared” was synonymous with Argentina, culminating in a war with England
as the last gasp of a dying military dictatorship.  

 

After the Argentine peso collapsed ten years ago, Buenos Aires, once the most expensive city in South America, overnight became its most affordable.
Foreigners, like Grant, investigated the city and the country and liked what
they saw. “I came here (to Argentina)
first maybe ten years ago, after the devaluation, then came back for good in
2005. Before, in the last ten years, I lived in eight countries – China, Spain,
Ghana, Chile. I taught English around the
world, immersed myself in many cultures. I dove into cultures, staying up all
night, jamming with musicians.”

 

So, world traveler, culture surfer Grant picks BA as his
home, builds a website for travelers – people who like to hang out, play music or
listen all night. “Connecting us to the rest of the world and to my own world
view,” is how he describes it. He came up with the bilingual What’s Up Buenos
Aires (http://whatsupbuenosaires.com/wuba2),
and to publicize his project he and his pals threw parties every week “We
wanted to emphasize local producers. After one and half years we decided to
form a record label – ZZK”. Not a big shot label, more a collective, “Now we
have 30 deejays/bands, almost all Argentine. Only exception is Douster, who was
here as a French exchange student and he’s still here. And there’s me.” The dance parties known as Zizek Club, expanded to clubs and
nightspots throughout Argentina.
But the actual club according to Grant, “Is really a state of mind. We have shows
in Niceto, but it’s all over.” In clubs El G – Grant – spins what he calls,
“Mashups, bootlegs, official and unofficial releases plus the newest music from
the ZZK label. Plus, found sounds, B-sides, alternative cuts.”  

 

ZZK is also live music. Grant explains, “Some (on our label)
are traditional with full, live bands and percussion while some are minimalist,
just using a shaker or guacharaca and go electronic. We’re creating something
new.” ZZK infuses cumbia with new sounds – dark, psychedelica, trippy beats,
reggaeton rapping, accordion sounds. Accordion is king in Argentina and
being an accordion player myself, I felt at home. It’s been tango country for
eighty years, and now apparently, it’s cumbia time.

 

Cumbia has a long history and ZZK brings a pleasingly progressive,
cross-pollinating mix of new electronics and Argentina folk/trad. One of the
groups on the current tour, Tremor, uses authentic traditional Andean
instruments like charango, standup drumming and extensively trained musicians.
Another positive for ZZK is having King Coya aboard. “He’s part of our original
Zizek Collective.” His live show is phenomenal as he’s an acknowledged,
multi-dimensional force.” Coya typifies Zizek’s mutant blend of techno-cumbia/Andean
trad recombinants making his music unique, adventurous and listenable.

 

As Grant puts it, “We’re taking cumbia into 2010, 2011, and
12, mixing, mashing, sampling, bastardizing and creating something new.”

 

Coya – real name, Gaby Kerpel – is an Argentine of eastern
European background. His recordings under his own name like “Carnabailito” on
Nonesuch are exquisite creations, while his ZZK recordings as King Coya are delicious
mixtures of folklore electronica. His Cumbias De Villa Donde is available in the US on Nacional. He performs live
with five drummers and percussionists plus sexy, charismatic vocalist/sorceress
La Yegros. Onstage, Kerpel wields a snake charmer type reed attached to his melodica,
wheezing weird, accordion-ish sounds, blending Buenos Aires hipster sensibilities with
indigenous themes, Arabic trance and Brit trip hop making for a hallucinatory,
spellbinding, experience. Tunes like
“Trocitos De Madera” and “Un Nino Que Llora en los Montes de Mara” are
wigged-out, rhythmic classics.

 

At Niceto, I watched King Coya while sipping bitter fernet
con coke with my friend, Wade, who said repeatedly, “This is great! Greatest
show ever.” Later, he sent me an email saying, “Going to Niceto has really
gotten me excited about Buenos Aires.
I was getting so sick of dancing to suffocating electro and whiny reggaeton.
This cumbia is legit. It’s sexy. You’ve got to look for it and if I’m lucky
enough to find it I will be very happy.” He’s not the only one bored to
tears by endless drum ‘n’ bass and four to the floor house.

 

Other deejays in the ZZK fold besides the previously
mentioned musicians are Fauna, Frikstailers, Chancha Via Circuito, El Trip
Selector, El Remolon and Lagartijeando. We’re not listing everyone, but all represent
the top of the Argentine crop when it comes to the new music explosion. El Remolon’s
“Bolivia”,
is a minimalist mix of new and old. The Frikstailers are a mutant, stoner rap
duo, with post-rock sensibilities. Lagartijeando mixes jungle chants with
charango loops and psychedelica. Tremor mixes Andean flute with digital drum
samples. Chancha Via Circuito is hypnotic, heavy and psychedelic. His ZZK Mixtape Vol. 2 (online) or album Rodante are both superb. All these
groups are innovative, adventurous, moody and trippy. Elements of surprise and
recognition add to the pleasure and fun.

 

Other groups in other places are joining the nu-cumbia fray.
The Kumbia Queers from both Buenos Aires and Mexico City are a group
to be reckoned with. Described by Grant as, “Punk rock lesbians in the
Argentine punk scene, they’re working now with a big producer.” Not on ZZK but
on good terms with the folks at the label, they’ve been touring Europe and are on the verge of bigger things, with their
campy cumbia covers of Nancy Sinatra and Madonna. Uproot Andy from New York
City has an outstanding cut, “Brooklyn Cumbia” on the ZZK’s compilation (also
on Nacional), while Chicha Libre, a group also out of NYC, plays Peruvian
influenced cumbia – more indigenous and less electronic, using cheesier
electronics than ZZK.

 

While label ZZK in Buenos Aires is ground zero for new
cumbia, Nacional in Los Angeles is cherry picking Latin America’s best and the
brightest for American release and distribution – for example ZZK’s compilation
ZZK Sound, Vol. 1 & 2, King
Coya’s Cumbias De Villa Donde and
Colombia’s Bomba Estereo (“Blow Up”). Interestingly, all three have recently
been touring the US.

 

The ZZK World Tour began this past June and goes through August.
Beginning in Europe the tour swerves back to this side of the Atlantic to music
hotspots in North America – Brooklyn, Los Angeles,
San Francisco, Montreal,
Toronto, Chicago,
Seattle. Touring
with El G are Tremor, Chancha Via Circuito and El Remolon. This is the new
sound of South America and is spreading beyond its borders.

 

It’s the real deal, not a buncha poseurs playing crud you
hear all day on the radio or in clubs. This is 21st century cumbia, tripped
out, dressed up. No problem if you don’t understand the words, you can dance to
it like mad – all night long. 

 

 

Pictured above:
Frikstailers. Check out BLURT’s photo gallery of some of the above-mentioned
artists right here.

 

 

ZZK label, club and
tour info: www.zzkrecords.com (Don’t
forget to explore the site – there are some pretty awesome videos and music
samples to be found therein!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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