At Mexican Sonidero Parties, It's About the Music and the Message

Email a Friend

Recent census data reveals that the Mexican population in New York City has increased by 71 percent in the last decade. That means a lot more cumbia sonidera parties will be happening in community centers and banquet halls across the city's boroughs.

Sonideros are DJs who play cumbia, a sauntering dance rhythm of Colombian origin popular in working class barrios across Mexico. But unlike conventional DJs, sonideros talk over the music while the music plays, speaking into booming microphones and reading notes passed to them by party guests written on small pieces of paper.

The notes contain "salutations," small messages or poems that are a kind of shout out to family or friends in Mexico or elsewhere in the U.S. Each sonidero sells CD copies of the live DJ set, complete with the salutations, to party-goers after the gig. Those CDs are then sent home to Mexico via mail or uploaded onto the Internet. They end up in markets and on relatives' hard drives, allowing families to keep their dedications close. Sonidero parties in Mexico are also recorded and sent to family in the States. It's like a long-distance telephone call, set to the rhythm of cumbia.

"It's just a way of transmitting a message," said Francisco Flores, a.k.a. Sonido Candela, a DJ based in New Jersey who celebrated his 16th anniversary as a sonidero at a party in a rented Korean banquet hall in Flushing, Queens. "It's a way of saying, 'I'm here, I'm having fun, I'm doing well, and I'm sending you a greeting from over here'."

At any given sonidero party, a handful of DJs will perform set after set, and try to attract loyal fans to judge them on the quality of their music selections and their salutation deliveries. Each sonidero stands behind a cabinet full of audio gear, blinking with delay and reverb modules. Event organizers bring in huge stacks of speakers for each event.

"The music is really loud. You can have a loud voice -- whereas that's not happening much in their daily lives," said Cathy Ragland, an ethnomusicologist who has studied cumbia sonidera in New York for over a decade. "I mean, still in New York in the Mexican immigrant population, the numbers are around 80 percent that are still undocumented. That's a large percentage of people unable to live their lives and express themselves as freely as you or I do. I think these dances offer that opportunity."

Rangland says that when she first started attending sonidero parties, there were only four or five sonideros in the whole city. Now, she's told there are almost 100 of them, and multiple events go on every weekend.

"It's just young people finding ways to create communities. It all kind of comes back to that," said Ragland. "And creating space for themselves in a situation that's not always that great, you know?"