Pernett & The Caribbean Ravers - "Huele A Mariacachafa" (Arriba La Cumbia!)
The signature sound of cumbia is a loose, bouncy groove. Accordion, drums, percussion and bass lay down the support for light-hearted lyrics about dancing, partying and having a good time. The tempo tends to be relaxed, although faster cumbia jams have been known to dislocate joints and loosen teeth. The hybrid roots of cumbia – European, African and indigenous – fuse continents and confound distinctions between traditional and modern sounds.
Despite its perpetual association with Colombia, cumbia even resists being bound to a single location. Throughout the 20th century, it kept mutating, especially when electric instruments and hi-fi recording came into the picture. Although it developed from older musical styles (including a wide variety of Afro-Colombian traditions), cumbia has always been modern and traditional, always more folk (music for dancing) than art (music for listening). It migrated from its birthplace along the coast of Colombia, spawning variations in Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and Argentina. Now, cumbia hits blast out of Spanish-language radio from Toronto to Buenos Aires, and the style continues to evolve.
The liner notes for Arriba La Cumbia! by mixer/compiler Russ Jones declare his mix on Crammed Discs as "the nu-tropical, urban, latino dance party music that is about to explode." All hype aside, though, cumbia is not a hip new style. (Pop star and former <1>novela actor Carlos Vives took Colombia’s vallenato and cumbia styles international in a big, polished, and very commercial way in the early ’90s.) And strictly speaking, only about half of the 14 tracks here are really cumbia at all. Some of the tracks are straight-up traditional, a couple are fusions, and a couple more have almost no trace of what a colombiana/o would call cumbia. So, what is the "cumbia-ness" that really holds this mix together as a concept and earns the album’s title? Jones suggests the original DNA is present on all tracks. If you meet him halfway, Arriba La Cumbia! can be a broad-minded mix of fresh, cumbia-flavored grooves. The skeptic likely will find it disjointed, flavor-of-the-month exotica. Either way, it’s hard not to feel like "cumbia" is being used as a generic, fashionable cultural marker – more like a brand name to be bought, sold, and discarded than part of a cultural identity worn for life.
In the commercial sphere, cumbia tends to share an international orbit with salsa, merengue, and reggaeton—styles that evoke a generic sense of tropical Latin America sensuality for some and a home-grown sense of local identity for others.Recently, the accordion-driven sound of cumbia has gained a weird traction with a hip, cosmopolitan DJ crowd. Wayne Marshall (wayneandwax.com) might call this Global Ghettotech – a hipster fascination with exotic, groove-driven sounds from poor, violent places. (DJ Rupture’s Mudd Up! blog at negrophonic.com and a new cumbia blog at lacongona.com are relevant here, often deeply insightful, and packed with information.)
Back to the point, though, which is dancing. Within the narrow spectrum of dance music, Arriba La Cumbia! is a clever mix. Shifts between acoustic bands and electronic productions can be abrupt, but they hold the listener’s attention. Mo’ Horizons’ "Tu Fiesta Personal" gets remixed by Chico Sound and Toy Selectah, and its driving funk riffs and percussion sound an awful lot like Miami’s venerable Spam Allstars - an urban, international Latin melting pot that fuses funky drummer, the Fania Allstars, and hip hop. "Tabaco Mascao" by Combo Los Galleros has a folkloric sound and a nice, round groove that’s simple, happy and catchy. The lyrics are about a grandfather’s cigar going out – a fine sexual innuendo reminding us that sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar. It also sounds a lot like calypso or mento, a musical reminder that the coast of Colombia is part of the Caribbean.
The electronic "big beats" element reaches its high point – or low point, depending on your taste – with Basement Jaxx’s "Shake Up." It’s the duo’s usual sound with a couple of cumbia loops and guest vocalist Johan Adrian Salcedo Ortiz doing his thing in Spanish. Calle 13’s "Cumbia De Los Aburridos" has a groove that manages to alternate between cumbia and reggaeton ("cumbiaton"?), and its hilarious rhymes in Spanish are the comp’s lyrical high point.
Arriba La Cumbia! makes for a fine audition of cumbia, but for those looking to get acquainted with its past instead of its future, it’s worth digging deeper into other releases like the stellar cumbia primer "Colombia!: The Golden Age of Discos Fuentes" on Soundway and "Un Fuego de Sangre Pura: Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto" on Smithsonian Folkways, which provides a heavy dose of Columbian country funk that some consider the roots of cumbia.