As a teenager, I fell in love with two very different musical genres: punk rock and cumbia — that Caribbean-born music with a contagious two-beat shuffle.
To purists of either, my musical promiscuity might have seemed blasphemous, but to me, it was a logical combination. Cumbia is more punk than punk itself. And many years later, when I discovered Mexican DJ Ali Gua Gua, and her group Kumbia Queers, I was elated with their unique brand of "tropi punk." They got it.
I despised cumbia as a kid. Growing up in Argentina, it blasted from the bus drivers' stereo on the endless, stuffy ride back from school; it was broadcast on public television on mind-numbingly boring Saturday afternoons during which there was little else to watch. It billowed up from my downstairs neighbor's window while I tried to study. Cumbia music was everywhere because cumbia music is everywhere in Latin America. It is the musical backbone of the continent, and in each vertebrae is a piece of our history. Its rhythms are African, its simpler dance steps a product of foot shackles worn by slaves, its entry into Mexico and the U.S. a story of Latin American migration.
There was something else underneath my distaste of cumbia music, something today I find rather embarrassing to admit. I realize now that I disliked cumbia because of its latin-ness. Recently, a Latin record label executive who specializes in rock music talked to me about his secret fascination with cumbia: it's the music that plays at everyone's wedding and birthday party, but that — at least until recently — was scorned and hated with vitriol by certain well-to-do sectors of society. And so much of that anger, we both hypothesized, is thinly veiled racism and classism.
It's not just the music; it's who is playing it. At least in my prepubescent world, in which I was so deeply concerned with what my classmates thought of me, I didn't just hate cumbia: I hated that I had to listen to it on a crowded bus ride back home while my wealthy classmates rode in air conditioned cars. I hated that we didn't have the money to buy cable, and that I instead got stuck having to watch the cumbia talent shows on Saturdays. I hated that I lived in "the kind of neighborhood" where the neighbors blasted it. What those songs they played so loudly said about me was exactly what I wanted to keep quiet.
Things took a dark turn in Argentina during the late 1990s. The country started unraveling very rapidly. And all of a sudden, the pop music from the U.S. that I listened to as a kid to drown out the sounds of my neighborhood ... it didn't make much sense anymore. It was around that time when I walked into a t-shirt store and heard a song that mesmerized me. "What is that?" I asked, fascinated. It was Sex Pistols' "God Save The Queen," and just like that, I was hooked on punk rock.
But, looking back now, my real act of teenage rebellion was to start loving cumbia. I started seeing the beauty in those endless, cramped bus rides. I started loving my neighbors. It was all going to collapse soon, even though I didn't know just how soon (we'd leave the country in a matter of months). In a way, I think I was doing more than falling in love with my country — I was preemptively missing what I would soon have to say goodbye to.
Those days of bubbling violence and a certain amount of hope are what I think of when I think of cumbia. Cumbia is more punk than punk itself, Ali Gua Gua recently told me, and I couldn't agree more. Especially the cumbia villera — or ghetto cumbia — that started surfacing in those late '90s, which talked about violence, poverty, drugs and sexual exploits. If, in the famous words of Public Enemy, rap was black america's CNN, then cumbia was my premier noticiero as a teen.
Many years later, I stumbled across Ali Gua Gua's Kumbia Queers, an outfit of Argentine and Mexican punk roqueras from various groups who had gotten together to play cumbia. They where funny, rude, and brazen enough to sing largely from an LGBT standpoint in an extremely macho genre.
So when Ali Gua Gua invited Alt.Latino and Fusion into her home to listen to her solo project, we jumped at the chance to check it out. I think you're going to like it. An added plus — Miss Bolivia, a fantastic rapper from Argentina, was also crashing at Ali's house, and treated us to a performance of her own. Enjoy.