Cumbia — or, as the supersized Mexican sound systems known as sonideras exalt it, CUUUUUUUMBIA!! — originated in Colombia’s Caribbean coastal region and spread throughout Latin America like a benign virus. Arguably the most popular dance music in the world, the varieties of cumbia currently range from tepid by-the-numbers pop to psychedelic jungle music (Peru’s cumbia amazonica); there’s also the deliberately slowed-down cumbia rebajada from Mexico, the bass-heavy Buenos Aires dance party centered around the Zizek club/label, and, my favorite, the yesterday-meets-tomorrow cumbia of the Bogotá, Colombia, bandleaders Mario Galeano Toro and Eblis Javier Álvarez.
At its most basic, traditional cumbia starts with a ch-ch-CH beat played on a güiro scraper (usually in counterpoint to bongos and cowbell) and a loping bass line. But neo-cumbia, nu-cumbia, electro-cumbia, eletro-cumbe, or whatever you wish to call it — although plain old cumbia will do — is a heavily sampled, edited, and echoey blend of old and new. Oddly enough, electronic cumbia’s roots lie in the pioneering tracks of a Dutchman. Dick Verdult, who records as Dick El Demasiado, was born in the Netherlands in 1954 and has been releasing his sample-heavy “lunatic” cumbia from Buenos Aires since the early ’00s. Mario Galeano and Eblis Álvarez fell under his spell, from afar, while playing together in Ensamble Polifónico Vallenato, a group devoted to messing with Colombia’s other primary folk style, vallenato, which usurped cumbia’s popularity in Colombia.
Like El Demasiado, Galeano’s and Alavarez’s cumbia often sounds like a band on a bender or a DJ losing his marbles. Unlike Dick, however, they picked up many of their moves from Rotterdam’s Conservatory of Music and the Danish Institute of Electronic Music, respectively. Which isn’t to impute anything academic to their sounds. The joy and spirit of classic cumbia remains intact no matter how outlandish they take it.
Álvarez released his first cassette as the Meridian Brothers in 1998. His first CD, V: El Advenimiento del Castillo Mujer (The Arrival of the Castle Woman), followed in 2005. Then came three increasingly sophisticated and surreal albums: 2009′s VI: Este Es el Corcel Heroico Que nos Salvará de la Hambruna y Corrupción (This Is the Heroic Horse That Saved Us From Famine and Corruption), 2011′s VII and 2012′s Desesperanza (Hopelessness). Thickly layered electronic art music, vibrant dance beats and witty, sardonic and surreal lyrics all come together in Álvarez’s Meridian Brothers stewpot. The tropical influence emerges fully in VI, and by VII Álvarez, also a fabulously inventive avant-guitarist, is blending amazingly diverse combinations of tropical, rock, champeta (Afro-Colombian roots music), and cumbia with randomly generated samples.
The Meridian Brothers are the proverbial blind man’s elephant: No two listeners will hear this stuff in quite the same way. Tracks like “Soy el Pinchadiscos del Amor” (I Am the DJ of Love), with its avant-pop lyrics and tropical spirit, transcend categories. And Desesperanza, a rhythmically dazzling if sarcastic tribute to salsa’s influence on Colombian music, complete with bonus zombies and UFO’s, is a conceptual tour de force no matter how you slice it.
Álvarez plays processed, looped and prepared guitar in the live version of his amigo Mario Galeano’s main group, Frente Cumbiero (Cumbia Front). Frente Cumbiero Meets Mad Professor is a joyous hybrid of pan-African sounds rooted in old-school cumbia’s more than two dozen rhythmic variations. You can hear echoes of both cumbia legend Andres Landero’s jaunty accordion as well as the marching pelayera brass bands of rural Colombia. Frente Cumbiero’s debut was recorded in 2009 with Guyanese-born dub master Neil Fraser (aka Mad Professor), who returned to England to whip up a dub version of each track. Pop-oriented cumbia upstarts like Bomba Estéreo‘s Liliana Saumet and Alerta Kamarada‘s Javier Fonseca provide guest vocals. While cumbia and reggae share no African roots, Meets Mad Professor makes a compelling case for kinship in loping dance-floor grooves like “Analogica” and “Ariwacumbé.” Clarinets add a peculiar quasi-klezmer kick to both Frente Cumbiero and the Meridian Brothers, too, for that matter.
Released in 2011 and still sounding decades ahead of its time, Los Pirañas’ Toma tu Jabón Kapax (Take Your Soap Kapax) consists of Galeano on basic bass, the remarkable Frente Cumbiero drummer Pedro Ojeda, and Álvarez, who plays some of the most wildly distorted and tonally evocative electric guitar you’ll ever hear. “Champeta de la Corrupción y la Desgana” (Champeta of Corruption and Reluctance) starts with a relatively orthodox champeta beat before spiraling into deeply disturbed polyrhythmic twerkery. A truly astounding live album, Los Pirañas deliver neo-cumbia at its most extreme, consuming cumbia’s corpse while generating a joyous caterwaul of impossible polyrhythms your coastal Colombian grandparents might conceivably cut a rug to.
Old and new cumbia came together especially smoothly and tastefully, however, on 2012′s Ondatrópica. For this historic release, Galeano and Álvarez worked alongside DJ Will “Quantic” Holland and nearly a dozen cumbia journeymen in their 70s to create a tropical fathers-and-sons reunion for the ages. Recorded in the run-down studios of venerable cumbia label Discos Fuentes, Ondatrópica mixed nostalgic Buena Vista Social Club revivalism with modernist moves like a guest appearance by French-Chilean MC Ana Tijoux and “I Ron Man,” a cumbia take on Black Sabbath. Marimba and accordion masters sound newly inspired alongside their younger counterparts, and the enterprise has a breezy passing-of-the-torch flavor that balances old-guard four-track cumbia funk with a curatorial ear. The music is beautiful and balanced, rich and resonant, experimental yet eminently listenable. It’s both cumbia and CUUUUUUUMBIA!! And it’s forever.