You’ve probably heard of digital cumbia already; its club-friendly beats, culture-infused melodies and tropical bass have been covered by the likes of Thump, The Guardian and other sources of repute. What has piqued my interest in this relatively recent movement is how the artists and figures responsible retain such a strong cultural identity in the face of an increasingly homogenised global electronic scene, with all those catchy hooks, those 4/4 beats and the wearily predictable bass drops.
Latin America has long been a cultural melting pot. Still populated with many indigenous communities who were present way before the Spanish/Portuguese colonial era, the vast region also saw a huge influx of African slaves brought in to work sugar plantations and mines. This pan-global blend of cultures shows itself through progressions in the region’s musical identity – cumbia (as well as digital) being the prime example.
It all started in and around Colombia, with sounds inspired by traditional African courtship dances. Over time, the movement assimilated traditional Amerindian steps and European instrumentation, eventually expanding across the continent. Though the ruling elite originally classed it as low culture, cumbia grew to be an accepted part of the various national identities throughout Latin America – including Argentina and Peru.
Cumbia itself follows a basic 2/4 beat pattern and, at first glance, it seems simplistic – rhythmically similar to a ticking clock. In truth, the sounds are anything but. The intricate African drumbeats drive the music forward; traditional wooden flutes (gaitas) bind accordion, brass and other European elements together. The resulting blend, being highly energetic and danceable, is timeless. As such, the genre is open to new interpretations and this is exactly why the digital cumbia movement has had such traction.
Arguably one of the first “nu-cumbia” tracks was Selena Quintanalla’s Techno Cumbia, released in 1994 – though like many things in that decade, it hasn’t stood the test of time terribly well. There were also a number of artists from Mexico in the 80’s and 90’s who were incorporating electronic instruments into their music (drum pads, keyboards etc.), but they weren’t infusing that Latin sound the way in which digital cumbia artists are today.
A few years after Quintanella’s release came Sidestepper, a Bogota-based collective that included English DJ Richard Blair. Widely seen as the first to attempt a fusion of cumbia and electronic sound, members of the collective went on to form groups such as Bomba Estéreo and pioneer the new sound of ‘Electro-Cumbia. Another forerunner of the movement is psychedelic Latin artist Axel Krygier, his sound fusing jazz, rock, cumbia, electronica, Argentine folklore and experimental sounds.
The digital cumbia we know today emerged a few years later, gaining real traction through nights put on in Buenos Aires during 2006 at Zizek Urban Beats Club. One of the main driving forces behind the movement was ZZK Records, who began life there as a weekly party. Founded by artists El G (Grant C. Dull) and DJ Nim (Guillermo Canale), the night brought laptop artists together who experimented with blending traditional Latin American genres and electronic sound. The label officially formed in 2008 and, since forming partnerships in 2011/12 with U.S. label Waxploitation Records and U.K.’s Kartel Music Management, it has championed the genre to a global audience.
The party atmosphere that gave birth to the movement has defined it ever since, becoming a major part of it’s core ethos. Underground parties are the central source of emergent sounds within the scene, as DJs use them to try new tracks and beats while gauging the reactions of the crowd.
In the same way that cumbia music unified Latin American identity, digital cumbia is doing the same for the current generation. Every DJ has their own unique style, reflective of their experiences, their geographic localities and their social/cultural values. This highlights the important role that diversity has played in the development of Latin American culture through to the modern day.
Take the sounds of Chancha Via Circuito for example, steeped in native culture with a focus on Argentine folklore, a slow and driving tempo and the use of traditional instrumentation through myriad layers of sampled sound. Compare that to fellow Buenos Aires artist El Remolon whose shadowy synth-focused style is a lot heavier and you’ll begin to see what I mean. Then there’s Dengue Dengue Dengue!, a duo based in Lima (Peru) who are at the forefront of its exploding digital cumbia scene along with the likes of Animal Chuki and DJ Sabroso. DDD! create dark, psychedelic and tribal sounds through pounding bass, with strong visual elements during live performance as they appear decked in resplendent neon masks – a facet in line with the party mentality fused with culture.
This only scratches the surface, but serves to illustrate that although each digital cumbia artist deviates from the original sound to a degree, they all have similar stylistic elements and a shared reverence for traditional sound culture within Latin American identity. It eschews the four-on-the-floor standard of ‘western’ electronic music and forges its own path, with sonic appeal that captivates many music enthusiasts in the global sphere. In this way, digital cumbia brings the traditional tempos and timbres heard in Latin American ghettoes half a century ago through to clubs in major cities the world over.
It’s hard to say where the future of digital cumbia lies, especially in a globalised world of accelerating technological change with music evolving just as quickly. To draw parallels with other movements, the likelihood is diversification, hybrids of digital cumbia with existing genres – we’re already seeing dumbia from Damo Naimad, who mixes digital cumbia with dub reggae and trip-hop. It would be interesting to bring the same attitude of cultural veneration to the UK electronic scene, with bass-heavy céilidh nights or morris dancers on the decks – I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
Words by: Sam Haughton
Photo credit: THUMP