I was not raised with Latin music. In fact, I don’t know that I heard any music in Spanish growing up that wasn’t background music at a Mexican restaurant or Gerardo’s “Rico Suave.” That all changed when I was garage sale-ing in the mid ’90s and I came across Big Hits by Prado.
This was an album of stereo re-recordings of earlier Perez Prado hits, none of which I had ever heard before. At the time I was obsessed with forcing myself to listen to both sides of any album I came across, and even though I enjoyed the hits on the first side it was only when I flipped the album and heard his re-recording of “El Ruletero” that I became a huge fan. This led to buying any Latin record that I came across at garage sales. My next was a mono copy of Cosa Nuestra by Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe for fifty cents!
(My personal history of Latin music discoveries is covered in this interview I did with DJ Chilly of KEXP’s El Sonido Show. I also need to shout out Sonia who plied me with all sorts of Latin tapes to help further deepen and expand my knowledge of Latin music as I was first getting into it. And getting me a ticket to a sold-out Tito Puente show shortly before his death which is one of the highlights of my life.)
As I discovered new Latin music genres I retained my love for the punchy forcefulness of the 1950’s Mambo scene, certainly much more than a lot of “Salsa” (I know it’s all Son montuno.) I listened to which seemed much too dainty and polite, with little of the raw power that attracted me to Mambo. This was in my pre-internet era, so my discoveries were limited to the records I could find and afford, and in Portland, Oregon there is very little Latin vinyl compared to say New York, where I started shopping in the aughts. As a result I was never really exposed to Cumbia aside from a few albums on Discos Fuentes I came across, and I honestly don’t think I was savvy enough at the time to realize that these records were Cumbia records. I remember being in a Mexican restaurant at one point in the early aughts (Shout-out to the sadly gone La Fonda!) and hearing some music I loved which they identified as “sonidero,” but I didn’t realize this was Cumbia, and when I went to Latin music stores in Spanish Harlem in NYC that were filled with thousands of CDs all labeled “sonidero” I was too overwhelmed to buy anything.
I first started reading a lot about Cumbia when the ZZK party in Argentina and the associated record label started to get a lot of press in the hipster world. Anjali and I even managed to catch an early ZZK show in NYC where Chancha Via Circuito opened, in addition to several shows they eventually did in Portland. One thing I noticed right away is that despite the fact that I had been playing electronic Latin genres like Reggaeton, Rap en Español and Meren-house for seven years at that point, the hipsters in Portland were super excited about Digital Cumbia in a way I had never seen them be for any other modern genre in Spanish. In fact, I think that was part of it: the Cumbia that was being exported and devoured by white American hipsters had very little if any Spanish in it. It was mostly instrumental, abstract, minimal, spacey and sloooooooooooow. (Pretty much all adjectives that are the opposite of what I am usually drawn to in music.) I bought all the records, I played some of them out, but they did not have the forward momentum of my beloved Reggaeton, and I didn’t understand why hipsters were so drawn to a beat that seemed far less propulsive to me. I remember how employees who worked at Holocene who hated our ATLAS Global Bass night would lose their shit at a ZZK show and I would just sort of scratch my head as to why that was.
I kept listening to the Cumbia Digital releases that would come out, followed the blogs, checked out the tracks online, played the occasional track, but it was never a big thing for me, despite how much other modern Latin electronic genres are, and when a night like Discos Discos started up at Holocene (Shout out to Michael Bruce!) that heavily emphasized Cumbia Digital I remained mystified as to why this modern Latin genre was adored by hipsters above all others. Over the years I slowly discovered more and more tracks in the genre I liked (always with a heavy Latin vibe), but it was never a dominant part of my sound, even though other Latin music was. (Tribal Guarachero did it for me way more upon initial exposure than Cumbia Digital, for example.)
At a certain point in the aughts compilations of traditional Colombian and Peruvian Cumbia started being released. By this time my vinyl buying had seriously slowed down because once I hit 6,000 records I realized I already owned way more records than I had time for, and I would only buy very particular releases as a result. Whenever I would see a comp of old Cumbia I would think, “Well, you have so many hundreds of Latin records you haven’t even listened to yet, why don’t you dig through your own stacks before buying anything else?” I convinced myself I owned a lot of Cumbia vinyl, and it was only recently that I did an exhaustive tally and realized that although I have tons of Latin records, scant few of them are Cumbia releases.
Now I am somewhat cursed in that often I will listen to most of an artist’s work or most of a genre before I hear the album that I needed to hear all along, the one that really does it for me. This year Anjali purchased a double CD called The Original Sound of Cumbia: The History of Colombian Cumbia & Porro As Told By The Phonograph 1948-79.
At a certain point Anjali was playing it and it BLEW MY MIND. This collection was put together by Will Holland AKA Quantic who travelled all over Colombia to gather these sounds. (Ironically we have played with Quantic several times and I have had conversations with Mr. Holland before I ever heard this compilation. If I had heard this compilation first we would have had veeeery different conversations.) This was exactly the Cumbia I always needed to hear. If I had heard this collection first I would have fallen head over heels in love with Cumbia immediately, the same way I did with Mambo and Perez Prado. In fact, digging into the 55 tracks on this release I felt the same raw energy and vitality of those ’50s Mambo recordings in a way I had never felt with any other kind of Latin music since. I became obsessed with this double CD and listened to it every chance I got. I then realized that the compilation had also been released as two limited edition TRIPLE VINYL collections. Well, I had to get my hands on those. Now I firmly believe in supporting local independent record stores, but every once in a while I convince myself I won’t be able to find something unless it is online, for example if it is a limited edition vinyl release that is now three years old and long since sold-out. I found the second of the two vinyl collections online for a steal of a price and I purchased it right away. The first volume was available as well, but for more money and I decided to hold off. Within days the cheapest copy disappeared from the internets leaving only one copy I could find for nearly three times the price and way more than I could ever justify spending. I did the rounds of the local record stores buying traditional Cumbia collections left and right, but no sign of the first triple vinyl collection, now sold out everywhere. Special shout-out to Mississippi Records for stocking so much great stuff in this genre.
I kept listening to Disc 1 of the CD compilation and obsessing about being able to find it and play it on vinyl. This week I went once again to Mississippi Records and lo and behold used copies of both volume 1 and volume 2 on vinyl were in the new arrivals bins. Happy Birthday week to The Incredible Kid! I left volume 2 for some other lucky record buyer and counted my lucky stars that I was able to score volume 1 years after it had long since sold out and for a very reasonable price. Thank you Mississippi Records! (And much love to Karen AKA DJ Cuica.) Now I may never love the super spacey, abstract, minimal, Spanish-less, denatured Cumbia that the hipsters swoon for, but I have discovered that I fucking LOVE Cumbia. Traditional Colombian Cumbia that is.
(Not to diss on Peruvian, Mexican or any other form of Cumbia, just that so far the traditional Colombian Cumbia is what has set my heart aflame.)