The transnational soundscapes of cumbia – born in Latin American as testimony of exploitation, perseverance, and intersection during the african slave trade in Colombia and Panama – reverberates through the dance halls of Mexico City and Los Angeles, where people of many languages vibe and dance to music fused together by delicious melodic and rhythmic arrangements.
To dance and play cumbia in any of these two cities is to participate in a translocal musical and corporal dialogue of sorts – mingled among the crowd there are folks who have known cumbia for generations, a rhythm which seems to have informed their corporal movement since time immemorial.
At first it is difficult to write about cumbia because it is difficult to transmit with words the seductive beats and melodic arrangements that entrance souls and bodies into movement, as if palabras are unfit to capture the essence of the music and context in which I’ve experienced this Latin American and always innovative sound. The rhythms, varieties and sensations inspired are difficult to communicate because I approach cumbia, like I approach everything else – transnationally.
My first introduction to cumbia was at a young age at family parties in Los Angeles, Califas – the tex-mex and cumbias norteñas of Selena Quintanilla and Los Relámpagos del Norte would blast from stereos and would inspire a humble dance crowd, where tios and tias would twirl and side step to the flirtatious beats of Suavecito. As child of Duranguense, Sonoran, and Jalisciense predecessors, this was my first encounter with one of more than twelve cumbia varieties.
Through countless hours of thrifting for cumbia sounds, it is hard to miss that many producers make note of its transnational nature; in the introduction to the Danza de Los Simpsons by the Chicha Libre – a cumbia chicha revival band born out of Brooklyn, NY – dice: “se baila así en Colombia, Chile, México, Argentina, Panama y también se baila así, en Peru” – It is danced all over Latin America, and increasingly, all over the world.
My second and most intensive primer on cumbia was in one of the most creatively resplendent and musically innovative cumbia capitals of the world, la Ciudad de México. Mexico City is home to the quintessentially chilango cumbia rhythms of sonidera culture, where cumbia meets public space. Strolling through el Centro Histórico, downtown Mexico City, on a Sunday afternoon you could find dozens of couples of all ages twirling and meneando to the classic guaracha tunes by the dozens in Parque Alameda. And an overview of any YouTube video and many-a-chilango testimonies illustrate the mythical cumbia gatherings in Tepito, a barrio famous for its boxers, Santa Muerte, and cumbia sonidera. But Mexico City is also an incubator of psychedelic cumbias and kumbia queers.
It is in this great city that I was introduced to chicha, a cumbia melodic masterpiece born in the Peruvian Amazon in the 60s, via the quintessentially chilango band, Sonido Gallo Negro. Chicha was born in Peru from Columbian cumbian influences, Andean melodies and Cuban guajiras but with a psychedelic injection. Bastioned by bands like Los Mirlos and Los Destellos, chicha quickly spread to Lima and congealed with the musical likeliness of rock, Andean folklore and Peruvian creole music – and it was radically popular in Peru. With time many of these bands become relegated to the nostalgia of dancers of decades past but recently this 9-piece, instrumental band from east Mexico City took on a project to recuperate the chicha sound but with a chilango flair.
In many ways, dancing to cumbia psicodélica in Mexico City is a ritualistic and spiritual experience; the sweat of a venue filled with the spirits of cumbia psicodélica of the past and the sensual and licentious energies emanating from bodies persuaded by the timbales, congas, güiro and electric convocation of Sonido Gallo Negro in Multiforo Alicia is one of my most cherished and hazed memories.
I recently attended a cumbia gathering in La Cita, a bar once frequented by sombrero wearing and tecate sipping dones in Los Angeles, where I danced to the music of La Chamba Chicha – a resident Los Angeles band – along with a few cumbia loving friends. To the rhythm of sonideras and chichas I was twirled by a querida amiga, where through giggles and smiles we innocently bumped into our neighbors, perhaps over extending our spins and footwork when we heard Guaracha Sabrosona come on.
But within this transnational soundscape in which cumbia rules, there is no room for timidity. La cumbia se baile, y se baila sabroso.