Argentina is probably not the country you think of when you think of tropical dance music. While the country might be best known abroad for melancholic tango and Spanish-language rock acts, its cumbia that really rules these days, at least in the interior and in the vast outskirts of Buenos Aires. Cumbia villera, the potty-mouthed electronic sound that blew up around the year 2000 as economic crisis was unfolding in the country, has received a lot of attention recently at home (negative) and abroad (curious). It’s been a focal point for Argentina’s culture wars that have pitted the Euro-centric middle classes against the growing poor that align themselves with South American cultural mores.
But cumbia actually has a much longer history in the country. Pablo Vila, the Argentine popular music expert we consulted for our upcoming program, says that cumbia came to Argentina in the 60s, at the same time it was gaining popularity around the continent, and fit in with a tradition of “festive music” played by groups called orquestas contemporaneas – groups that played comic songs, mostly of Italian and Spanish origin. The first major cumbia group was called Los Wawancó. They were made up of foreign students studying in Buenos Aires from Costa Rica and Colombia, and rose to considerable fame.
This Wawancó song, Villa Cariño has really been sticking with me ever since I first heard it yesterday. The composition is so very different than the stuff coming out of Colombia at the time – from the stylized melody of the vocals, to the pseudo-classical guitar stuff going on and the mandolin-like tremolo. Note the audience composed of lanky blondes who have no idea how to dance:
The next important cumbia hit came from pop singer Chico Navarro. El orangutan was a big hit, and was re-recorded many times abroad. It’s pretty legit sounding, musically, but is also, a very stupid vision of the “tropical” world. It’s about an orangutan and a orangutana (a lady orangutan, for those that don’t habla español). Orangutans don’t even live in the Americas.
Peruvian cumbia came, in the 80s, and was quite popular. Amazonian group Los Mirlos, (see P is for Peru) were really big, and their “La danza de los mirlos” continues to be performed by villera groups, renamed “La danza del pajarito.” At some point, a version of cumbia mixed with the folk rhythm chamame came about, called chamame tropical. Romantic cumbias from Santa Fe province, called cumbia santafesina, dominated the "tropical" scene in the 90s.
Then two things came: Pablo Lescano, and the economic crisis. The later is rather complicated and had to due with neo-liberal policies implanted by Carlos Menem and the collapse of the Argentine peso. The former was a cumbia singer who transformed the genre by singing, in plain (read: extremely vulgar) language, about hard realities of the villas, or shantytowns. His band, Damas Gratis, and the many imitators who came shortly after, sang about sex, drugs, and robberies, supported by a heavy cumbia beat on electronic drum pads and tinny synth patches played on a keytar.
The music has lovers and haters at home and abroad. When I was living in Argentina as a student some years ago, I rarely heard it, shielded as I was by the cumbia-deflecting force field that surrounds central Buenos Aires. Middle-class porteños, for the most part, hate the music with a passion that I have trouble understanding.
If you can get past some of the cheesier synth sounds, I’ve found that cumbia villera is pretty infectious. It’s cheap and dirty and hits hard, and that’s kind of the point. Here’s a few videos:
Damas Gratis - Se Te Ve La Tanga
This is one of the biggest hits from Damas Gratias, the foundational cumbia villera band. This comes from a live TV performance on one of the weekend cumbia shows - a major part of the promotional machine for the genre.
Pibes Chorros - Negro Soy
In terrible sound quality, the Pibes Chorros (thieving kids) express working-class pride, (bizzarely conflated with "blackness" in Argentina), by singing about their predilection for cheap box wine.
Coming next: U is for Uruguay