Cumbia de Obama

One night, almost exactly seventeen years ago, if I calculate correctly, I was deejaying at a global freakout of a one-nighter Mark Kamins had going for a while, where he fused Turkish belly-dancing tunes with Amazonian riverboat songs and house beats and who knows what else. In came my late friend Fran Duffy, with this gangly British dude I hadn't met before, Jason Mayall. Duffy and Mayall were fresh off the plane from Cartagena, Colombia, and the Caribbean Music Festival, organized by my buddy Paco. For all I know, he was with them, but I'm fairly certain we hadn't even met yet. Duffy had been filming the festival, and Jason had been buying records, crate-digging in a warren of dusty roll-front shops in the chaos of Cartagena's sprawling outdoor market. Duffy was calling him "the cumbia kid." I was like, "WTF is cumbia?" And Duffy goes, "Nixon, dude, you gotta let him get on the set so you can hear these beats." (They used to call me Nixon, back in the day.)

So Mayall dives into his paper bag of crusty treasures and starts pulling out singles and weird one-off pressings on unheard-of Colombian record labels, slapping them on the turntables and wiping them free of the last gritty sand of the Caribbean's southernmost shores, with my Discwasher. He starts playing shiznit I never heard before: gaitas, named for the bizarre, almost Persian-snake-charmer-sounding cactus-wood flute they feature, and porros, almost maniacally uptempo tunes awash in the sound of a massive metal grater, like the güira of Dominican merengue. The basic rhythm, the cumbia, I recognized from a catchy Nescafé commercial that ran for months in movie theaters when I lived in Paris in the mid-Eighties, but Mayall had countless backwoods versions of this beat, crunchy, raw tunes that, when you heard them, conjured up an image of a bunch of musicians ill-at-ease in the studio, gathered together from working out in the fields somewhere to come stand in front of a microphone, probably barefoot. Thus began my love affair with the cumbia.

The author, filling in for Steve Blush at the legendary Lite Lounge at Carmelita's, circa 1988. Forensic analysis reveals that I'm rocking an original 12" of "Good Times," by Chic. (Not a cumbia). If you look very closely (click image to enlarge) you'll note that I am wearing a 'dookie rope chain,' albeit a teensy one. Photographer unknown, possibly Alison Mayer, aka Ali177, or AK718.

In the intervening generation, (yes, I'm old enough now that I can actually speak in all seriousness of an 'intervening generation') the cumbia, always a music of the lower classes, the impoverished and the marginalized, has spread far afield from its Colombian roots. The infectious rhythm first seems to have taken Mexico by storm, where it became fundamental to the booming Mexi-sound-system music known as Sonidero, easily heard by anyone taking a stroll down Fifth Avenue (in Sunset Park, Brooklyn), where it booms out of cars and shops alike. Peru developed its own tradition.

Only recently, however, has cumbia crossed over from the Sunset Park world of its humble but faithful immigrant clientele into the realm of hipsterdom. I'm going out a limb here, since I scarcely go out to nightclubs any more, but at least to judge by the corner of the world-wide-web sandbox I've found myself playing in lately, cumbia has suddenly become the hottest thing on the international club scene. Deejays from San Franciso are bringing back Argentine dub-plates to rock dancefloors in the Bay Area, and the hottest one-nighter in the world right now is a weekly electro-cumbia jam in Buenos Aires, Zizek, named after the uber-hip Slovenian cultural critic, Slavoj Zizek, who happens to be married to an Argentine supermodel-turned-philosopher. (It doesn't seem to be there today, but a recent google search for Zizek yielded a sponsored link to Cabinet Magazine.) At Zizek, the one-nighter, cumbias are slowed down, remixed, mashed up with hit rap records, tortured with dub effects, fused with reggaeton, and otherwise integrated into the deejay repertory.

This being the internet, however, you don't have to imagine what this music sounds like from my tortured descriptions. A brilliant example of the mash-up genre is "El Bombon en el Club," featuring Mr. Fiddy Cent himself being given the maximum cumbia treatment. Listen online, or download. If that doesn't give you enough to go on, download one-time Mark Kamins girlfriend and Danceteria coatcheck girl Madonna singing about music bringing together the rebels and the bourgeoisie over accordion rhythms laid down by the supreme maestro, godfather of the cumbia, the late Andres Landero, from San Jacinto pueblo in Colombia's coastal littoral, here. (Links Dead.) I've met them both, but you'd be more likely to find Landero sitting next to you at my fantasy dinner party. The bottom line in this post-post-modern, post-global music is that any sort of source material is fair game for remixation into a nova-Cumbia. Even footage of Barack Obama:

First spotted at Negrophonic, to whom I say "big up!," this is one of the most spectacular pieces of political propaganda to have yet emerged from the presidential race. Put on your dancing shoes and get out your Spanish-English dictionary.

UPDATE: If you are reading this before 10PM on March 17th, 2008, get on over to SOB's on Varick St. in New York City, where Zizek, the globetrotting party, not the Slovenian philosopher, is putting on their mobile show for one night only.


Andrian said...

Carmelita's! Good times indeed. Hard to believe that Mark Kamins' protegee is turning 50 this year, still going strong. Well, so are we. And yes, I'm reading this on the 17th before 10PM. Unfortunately I'm geographically challenged these days.

Anonymous said...

Great article, thanks for the hook in to Negrophonic...
got me all fired up listening to Roots of chica and
wanting to recreate those Carmelita days....

Juan Duque said...

Greetings from the land of Cumbia. Well, ok, not technically. I ain't in the coast, I is in Medellín. I found this very good post whilst looking up info on Joe Strummer's own love affair with cumbia and Jason Mayall's role in his introduction to it. Anyway, the 50 cent cumbia is priceless. It works way better than the madonna one, methinks.

Anyhoo. Great blog!!

Anonymous said...

Great Blog. Love the pic w/ you on the wheels of steel. I asked Al "who is this guy who calls her AK 714 or what?
It's you. And I hear you are expecting so "Good Luck" to you and the very beautiful Mrs. Nixon. Now that you have travelled with your heart around the world you're ready to have your heart travel outside yourself and by your side. Someday this idea will be les mots justes perhaps. Love, SF, Woodstock, NY