Cumbia Loves New York

ArticleMichelle Christina LarsenComment

It's just after 5:00 a.m. on an August morning. Barranco's low lying fog is parting for crowds of tipsy concert-goers, as they pour into the streets of what I affectionately refer to as "Lower East Lima.” Barranco is, in fact, situated on the west side of Peru's capital city, but the vibe is parallel to that of NYC's Lower East Side—a gritty platform for music and art culture. I’ve side-stepped my way out of sweaty, crowded Sargento Pimienta, the CBGBs of Lima, after seeing Peruvian cumbia band Bareto for the third time in a year. The first two occasions? 

Rewind five months and seven hours north by plane to the frigid streets of New York City in March. Bareto is performing for hundreds of grinning fans crammed into Stage 48, a large venue frozen to the skirts of the Hudson River Piers. Concert-goers in their 20s and 30s are frantically waving their arms in the frost, singing along to modern renditions of classic Peruvian cumbia, or chicha, a genre which, until recently, carried a lower class stigma that many Peruvians turned their backs on. I caught Bareto again at B.B. Kings, in both places: ecstatic crowds. Something aside from a twist cone of nostalgia and patriotism was being devoured here. A cumbia explosion was underway. 

A well-placed cumbia track from just about anywhere can ignite a waning dance floor within seconds. A live band performing cumbia—or any of the NYC-cultivated variations of this viral genre—can propel a crowd of straight-faced hipsters into forgetting their egos and shaking their heels right into the ground. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s beautiful. New York’s cumbia roots stretch far and wide, and while the international origins of different sub-genres are fascinating to trace, the more immediate thrill is how cumbia has been adapted and reborn in the melting pot of immigrant culture that is NYC. 

“There are so many different kinds of cumbia that have arrived here and maintain in different hoods,” explains DJ Cristo, a.k.a. Chico Selektah, a resident DJ at Mehanata and drummer for self-branded psycho-tropical punk band Escarioka. “From Colombian cumbia to Mexican Sonidera, Chilean Chilombiana, Argentinean Villera, Peruvian Chicha. There’s even Arabic cumbia. The evolution has more to do with the new electro-cumbia and tropical bass movement, remixed by producers like the Cumba Mela crew, Uproot Andy, Sonido Chichadelico. They’re taking this sound to a new level in New York. My bands, Escarioka and Chicholina Sound Machine, grew up with cumbia. We heard it at every BBQ or Christmas party in our countries, so it’s always been there. When we came to the U.S., it was the obvious genre to play around with and discover new interpretations of.”

A fierce perpetrator of genre-meshing, DJ Cristo threw together a last minute studio session for friends a few years ago, after joking about recording a cumbia version of a Romanian gypsy song on the back porch of a summer house party. Colombian Ska band, Skampida, happened to be hanging out there too, so they joined in. Before long, a collective of friends from the U.S., Russia, Chile, Colombia, and France was sitting in a recording studio with Romanian lyrics scribbled phonetically on a scrap of paper. Experimentation, not end result, is the point, which ties right into the philosophy of the New York cumbia scene. New Yorkers do with cumbia what they do with everything else: make it work for them, make it more exciting, see how far they can push it, whether they can build a new community around it. It’s a little bit of everything, inspired by New York’s fleeting, random, cross-hatched culture. 

 “As far as I know, before the appearance of what you could call ‘new cumbia’ in New York, there was a well-established cumbia scene in the Mexican community in Queens, Brooklyn, and New Jersey,” comments Uproot Andy, a pioneer in NYC’s electro-cumbia and tropical bass movement, and founder of the monthly dance party Que Bajo?! “That was, and still is, a more or less strictly Mexican thing: cumbia sonidera with DJs and live bands playing for, more or less, an all Mexican audience. Artists like Estrellas de la Kumbia came out of this. When we started the Que Bajo?! party there weren’t any other cumbia nights outside of those Mexican communities. At least nothing that brought together the wider world of cumbia from Colombia, Argentina, Peru and so on. The New York scene is super diverse, just like New York itself. I started making cumbia remixes that brought in heavy synthesizer bass and different elements from electronic music. And at the same time artists in all these different countries were interpreting cumbia in all different ways: the more minimal and digital cumbia of ZZK in Argentina; the more rock and hip hop cumbia of Bomba Estereo in Colombia; Toy Selectah in Mexico. I think our party’s role was to create a space in New York to bring all of these iterations together. It was the first night dedicated to the diversity of new Latin electronic dance music.”

Morgan Greenstreet, drummer and backup vocalist for the high-energy alternative world music band Karikatura, maintains that cumbia in New York is too varied to be gathered up into one hypothetical scene, though it has infiltrated a wide array of new music movements and projects. “Karikatura is part of a music scene that I would tentatively describe as ‘New World Music’ or ‘Alternative World Music’,” Greenstreet elaborates. “It’s full of bands who are ready to smash the musical and cultural stereotypes inherent in the idea of World Music. We are inauthentic, and proud of it. This scene has been very receptive to cumbia, and we’ve been picking up on all the different styles of cumbia that can be heard here, working with the rhythms and the sentiment to create original music.” 

Dima Kay, founder and lead guitarist of Karikatura, agrees: “I think the appeal of Cumbia, for those of us who didn’t grow up listening to it, is that it has so much that is familiar to listeners of ska, reggae, Balkan or Eastern European music. Growing up in a Russian-Jewish household, the sounds of accordions, violins and clarinets were omni-present. So hearing those old Colombian big band cumbias from the 60’s and 70’s connected right away.” 

Swaying in the crowd at a Karikatura show, you’d probably have a hard time figuring out where band members hail from. The mood of the evening quickly transitions from a sultry jazz den to a rabid ska mosh pit, and then—surprise!—an addictive cover of an old Peruvian chicha hit, Colegiala, cleverly renamed Profesora. “When I first put this band together,” says Kay. “I had a few tunes in a flamenco style, but the first drummer I worked with was Peruvian, and he instantly interpreted the rumba-flamenca stroke as a cumbia. And that was our first experience fusing Cumbia with other styles. Where else but NYC would a Russian playing flamenco meet up with a Peruvian and make a rumba cumbia?”

Renzo Ortega is a Lima-born electronic and visual artist who founded R-Tronika, a music project blending cumbia, reggae, and rock with electro sensibilities. For Renzo, cumbia is less about a New York scene, and more about a worldwide phenomenon. “The evolution and success of cumbia in New York and globally is the result of immigration,” Renzo says. “The sonido immigrante or musica mestiza is a bridge between our music background—in my case Peruvian Cumbia—and other people’s music in the cosmopolitan context of cities. In New York, our music scene is open and diverse. For example, Chicha Libre and the Barbes record label from Brooklyn are advocates of promoting Peruvian cumbia Amazonica, the project of a European immigrant. At the same time, I’m Peruvian, and I’m playing cumbia in New York with punk and reggae bands.”

When asked who they favored in terms of globally recognized cumbia, I heard everything from Colombia's Los Corraleros de Majagual and Pacho Galan to Argentina’s Los Palmeras and Chile’s Chico Trujillo. Despite a diverse list of favorites, there was a common thread: everyone is doing their own thing, and collectively giving birth to something completely new. DJ Cristo sums it up nicely: “Cumbia represents Latin Americans and our culture, and it’s a great way to promote our identity here in New York, but the musicians themselves are now the influence, rather than the influence being exclusively roots. We’re constantly exposed to different styles of music. You’ve got Dominicans blasting merengue at the corner deli, the Jamaicans down the street blasting dance hall, or the Indian guy driving my taxi playing bhangra. If you pay attention to what’s going on, you’ll see that the laboratory is out there on the streets.”

Photos by Brennan Cavanaugh and Michelle Christina Larsen.