Saturday, January 29, 2011

All the Cumbias: U is for Uruguay

Now it’s time to get into some slightly more obscure corners of the cumbia-verse.

Little Uruguay, sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil and more or less with the population of Brooklyn, is a profoundly musical country despite its size. Besides having one of South America’s most progressive rock scenes, it’s one of the birthplaces of tango (this song was born there, for instance), and home to a whole bunch of unique local music traditions. They range from murga, a kind of politicized musical theater played on drums and harmonized voices during carnival season, to the Afro-Uruguayn mobile drumming tradtion known as candombe, to a rich guitar-based folk tradition. If you don’t know about it, I suggest you educate yourself. Culturally, the place has a lot in common with Argentina (mate, meat, pronouncing the letter “Y” like “SH”), but a lot of its own identity as well, influenced by proximity to Brazil, endless beautiful windswept beaches, and strong Afro-Uruguayan presence.

Like everywhere else in Latin America, cumbia took off in Uruguay, and continues to be the music of choice for people of the rural interior and the so-called planchas – the track-suit wearing, platinum hair-dyed young residents of Montevideo’s outskirts. But unlike in Argentina, the most popular cumbia remains the more feel-good romantic stuff, and the music in general enjoys a wider swath of popularity. It doesn’t draw nearly as much a cultural line between people as it does across the river in Buenos Aires, where you’re either a cumbiero or you’re not. I’ve seen Uruguayans of all sorts dancing cumbia at parties, something you don’t see in the posher spots in BsAs.

The following YouTube videos of Uruguayan cumbia were sent to me by a friend from Montevideo named Federico Pereda, a great rock guitarist. He wrote me a disclaimer, saying “All this music is really commercial and tacky.”

We’ll let you be the judge of that – frankly the richness of Colombian cumbia hasn’t completely translated here – but there’s some groovy stuff nonetheless. The biggest band was called Karibe con K (trans: Karribean with a K), led by a guy named Eduardo Rivero. They were huge pop stars in their day, since which was really the early 90s, thus the presence of that trademark digital synthesizer sound.

This is their “Mi Mundo Tu”:

Another important group was Sonora Borinquen, headed up by Carlos Goberna. This is their “Cometa Blanco”:

What’s interesting to the intrepid musicologist is seeing the degree to which a vision of Caribbean “tropical-ness” is invoked at every turn despite the large distances  both cultural and geographical from the West Indies. (Case in point: The flowing blonde Fabio-esque locks and sequined suits on display above). Sonora Borinquen’s name references the indigenous name for the island of Puerto Rico, a place that has little or anything to do with cumbia, which kind of goes to prove our scholar Hector Fernandez-L’Hoeste’s point when he says that, to cumbia’s vast Latin American audiences, “its origin was irrelevant. What was relevant was that it conveyed this idea of the tropics, and that idea of the tropics could be consumed and it could be adapted to a local context.”

Aside from the more white-washed cumbia pop acts on display above, there’s a great tradition of playing “tropical” dance music within in the strong (and very segregated) Afro-Uruguayan community.This music, often referencing salsa, cumiba, and local candombe all at once, never completely geled into a codified pop form. One  legendary singer was Lagrima Rios, a black Uruguayan woman who first gained fame as a tango singer, but also sang a lot of really amazing candombe-influenced vocal pop. There is a very upsetting lack of her stuff available on the internet. Here’s one video, accompanied by guitars, candombe drums, and images of Uruguayan carnival. Not cumbia but worth watching!

Coming up: V is for Venezuela
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