The Cumbia of the Poor

Reflections on a maligned genre

All Latin American music genres encounter difficulties attracting American ears, but perhaps none has had it tougher finding mainstream acceptance than cumbia. Which is strange, really: the classical Colombian rhythm is one of the few universal beats of the Latin American diaspora, as likely to blare from the radio at a nuevo Latino restaurant as it would the car of a recent Dominican immigrant. Every self-respecting Mexican regional group includes a cumbia set in its repertoire; Central Americans argue passionately over which of their countries play a better style. Big-name acts Los Ángeles de Charly and Los Askis (along with eight other bands) will perform this Saturday at the Anaheim Convention Center, which hosts a cumbia concert every couple of months, attracting hundreds of fans and stellar performers. Yet most of the U.S. remains oblivious to this music, too busy lapping up the latest Buena Vista Social Club release to pay attention.

Why the cumbia snubbing? Language differences can't be blamed anymore for the rejection of a music style—Spanish-language music is already familiar enough amongst Southern Californians that the übergabachoBalboa Bay Club hosts mariachi concerts and even The Orange County Register reviews Juan Gabriel's yearly Mother's Day show in Anaheim. And cumbia doesn't suffer from the same radio-play problems that vex Latin alternative—in fact, there's a new station, KLLY-FM 97.5 "Oye" (taking over Super Estupid's old frequency) that plays nothing but cumbia and is conquering the Arbitron ratings.

One possible culprit might be the sound of cumbia itself: a dominating bass playing the same three notes over and over and over and over—and little else. Accordions or keyboards fade in and out, and horns make funny cameos that can turn dramatic at the drop of a toot, but cumbia's really all about that cheery, always-corny bass line. It's so simply ridiculous even the people who swear by cumbia ridicule it as infantile. Its critics, meanwhile, assail cumbia for not having the bouncy European strains that banda and conjunto norteño pound out, for not approaching the sensuous swirl of salsa, and for never inspiring the onstage orgies merengue provokes.

But simplistic beats never turned America off to Latin music—right, Gloria Estefan? So perhaps cumbia's cardinal sin is its subject matter. Cumbia culture is notoriously bawdy, using a galaxy of double-entendres and outright vulgarities that would shock Lil' Kim into donning a habit. The most famous cumbia, La Sonora Dinamita's "Mi Cucu" ("My Ass"), just might be history's greatest rejection of anal sex, with the immortal wink-wink plea "No te metas con mi cucu" ("Don't get in my ass") cooed over the same three-note bass line. CD covers continue the raunch: most groups abstain from showing themselves on their releases in favor of women wearing bikinis, pictures of thong-sporting asses, even the occasional catfight or two. Cumbia's racist, too: all black people are negritos ("little blackies"), eternally shuckin' and jivin' like Stepin Fetchit. One particularly popular tune right now, "La Cumbia de la Chinita" ("The Little Chinese Woman's Cumbia"), features a singer pronouncing all his R's as L's while spinning a synthesized Chinese bridge that wouldn't pass muster in a Charlie Chan flick.

Such myopic views plague all of tropical music, however, and yet other forms have taken hold in the States; for chrissake, even our Dictator in Chief salsa-ed at his inauguration bash with Ricky Martin. So the best explanation I can give for cumbia's mainstream shunning is personal.

As a child—even today, for that matter—I remember my parents and elders dismissing cumbia as stupid music listened to by stupid people. Now that I'm older, I can put a sociohistorical perspective to their antagonistic attitude: they berated the music because it was the music of people even poorer than us. Cumbia originated—as most tropical music does—from African slave dances during the 17th century. From there, it spread across Central America, taking root especially in El Salvador and Mexico City. It became popular in the States around the early 1980s, coinciding with the Central American and chilangoexodus to Southern California.

The people who will pack the Convention Center are these people. And that's why this country will never accept cumbia. Americans don't want to listen to what the poor immigrant masses enjoy, especially when it's music anyone can dance to. So the poor have cumbia all to themselves, finding their solace in a three-note bass line that everyone else derides, even if it is the sound of liberation.

Los Ángeles de Charly, Los Askis and many more cumbia bands perform at the Anaheim Convention Center, 800 W. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 835-6391. Sat., 6 p.m. $35. all ages.

 
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