Across Latin America, Making Cumbia Modern

Uruguayan musician and producer Juan Campodónico records as Campo. (Courtesy of the artist)

Betto Arcos returns once again to weekends on All Things Considered to share what he's been spinning on Global Village, the world music show he hosts on KPFK in Los Angeles. This week, Arcos has brought Guy Raz four 21st-century interpretations of cumbia, a traditional music from Colombia and Panama. But Arcos' contemporary playlist stretches beyond the humid north of South America, featuring garage-rock cumbia from Mexico City, subtropical cumbia from urban Uruguay and more.

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No Pares Hasta Tener Lo Suficiente [Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough]

This is a band that was put together by Will Holland. The English DJ moved to Colombia to explore the roots of Colombian music. Late last year he put together a compilation called The Original Sound of Cumbia, a two-CD set he compiled of nothing but cumbia, going back to the late 1940s. He pretty much compiled the master list of Colombian cumbia music, and he's an Englishman!

He's joined here by a stellar group of musicians. It's a really terrific record, and this song showcases how beautiful the music is and how adaptable it is. We can see that here, as he's taken a Michael Jackson tune and adapted it.

Cumbia Espantamuertos

When you listen to this, you can almost hear a film noir. A theremin comes in in about the middle of the song. It's an instrument that works like so: You put it on a table, it's got a metal bar, and the sound comes out when you move your hand up and down. It creates this mysterious, quasi-scary sound, hence the idea that this tune is to scare the dead.

Sonido Gallo Negro is a project that reinvents cumbia — in Peru called chicha — to establish the difference between the cumbia from Colombia and from other places. This group from Mexico City is trying to reinvent the '70s Peruvian sound with a garage-band sensibility. They add an organ farfisa, like a fuzz guitar sound. The cumbia is very much present here. You can say that there is a slow version of cumbia and a fast one, and here is a slow one.


This is Juan Campodonico, but he goes by Campo, (meaning field), and the idea here is that the project is like an open field. Campo creates a sound called subtropical music because Argentina and Uruguay aren't known for being tropical — they're in the south, where it's cold.

This cumbia really came about in the mid-'90s in the working-class slums of Buenos Aires and Montevideo — cumbia villera, cumbia from las villas. In those countries, when you say you're from las villas, they know automatically that you're working-class. It's poor people's music.

What Campo is doing here is using the rhythm of the cumbia villera and taking it to another level. With the guy who sings here, Martin Rivero, he is in a sense trying to emulate the Brit-pop accent, even though he's from Uruguay. Rivero picked up the accent because he went to a British school, so he's singing like a Brit-pop singer with a cumbia villera behind him. It's a great contrast. It's got dark lyrics, dark vocals, but it's upbeat.

Linda Manana

Ondatropica is filled with older musicians who recorded in the 1960s and '70s, unlike the other artists that we're talking about here. They went back to Discos Fuentes, they brought back the same engineer and they recorded on reel-to-reel — and this is what you hear on this song. What you hear is a big band playing a cumbia. They're not only creating something new, but rec-reating an old sound in the 21st century.



It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music. And today, global music DJ Betto Arcos is back to share some of his favorite new Latin American artists, including this track from Colombia.


RAZ: Betto is a regular on this program and the host of "Global Village" on KPFK in Los Angeles, where he joins us from our studios at NPR West. Betto, thanks so much for being with us.

BETTO ARCOS: Great to be with you, Guy.

RAZ: Great to have you back. This song, Betto, this is Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," right?

ARCOS: That's right.

RAZ: Am I imagining that?

ARCOS: No, no. You're exactly right.

RAZ: Oh, I am, really? It is that song?


ARCOS: Yes. It's a cumbia rendition of that Michael Jackson tune, yeah.

RAZ: Who's the band?

ARCOS: This is a band called Los Miticos del Ritmo. They were brought together by the English DJ Will Holland, who goes by the name of Quantic. He moved to Cali, Colombia, a few years ago to explore the roots of traditional Colombian music. Here, he is playing the accordion himself, if you can believe it, and squeezing that juice out of that amazing instrument to play this fantastic version of "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough."


ARCOS: I just love this idea of this sort of very happy dancing tune by Michael Jackson but turned into a funky cumbia.

RAZ: It's awesome. That's the Colombian band Los Miticos del Ritmo. Betto, I was told before you arrived in the studio that all of the artists that you brought us today share one thing in common: they are all playing traditional Colombian dance music, cumbia.

ARCOS: That's right. Cumbia has become the coolest and the hippest dance music all over Latin America and in the U.S. too. You know, the music comes from Colombia. And bands from all over the continent are reinterpreting this style in their own way. Now, we're going to hear from a band in Mexico called Sonido Gallo Negro. And they take a style of cumbia from Peru, which is called chicha, not to be confused with Chicha the drink...

RAZ: Of course.

ARCOS: ...this is a corn drink. This is chicha the music. And they fuse it with other sounds to create a completely new sound. Let's check it out.


ARCOS: This song is called "Cumbia Espantamuertos," which translates as cumbia to scare the dead.


ARCOS: When you hear the music, you can almost hear the score of a film noir, don't you think?

RAZ: Yeah, very noir.

ARCOS: It's largely due to that, you know that instrument called the theremin?

RAZ: Oh, the theremin, yeah. Yeah. I've heard of that. Yeah.

ARCOS: They use that in here. In the background, you can hear it a little bit. This theremin creates a kind of mysterious, quasi-scary sound, which really, you know, it really brings home that idea that this is a tune to scare the dead.


RAZ: OK. Betto, let's move on to this next artist we're hearing. This is the Uruguayan artist named Campo, I understand, right? I'm hearing clearly a major shift here from what we've just heard.

ARCOS: That's right. This is Campo. It's a project of producer/guitarist Juan Campodonico. But he goes just by the name of Campo. Now, campo means field. And the idea here is that it's an open field where he creates all kinds of music. And this is a field of cumbia, where he brings together this idea of the cumbia villera, which is the cumbia that flourished in the mid-'90s in the working class areas of Uruguay and Argentina. And he mixes it with this kind of Brit pop sound with this great singer Martin Rivero on vocals.


MARTIN RIVERO: (Singing) What was I looking for? Something's in my mind, something's in my mind, something's in my mind.

RAZ: Betto, I was expecting to hear him sing in Spanish. He is actually singing in English like a Brit pop singer. Like, he sounds British.

ARCOS: That's right. Because it turns out that he was educated in a British school in Uruguay. But it's a great kind of contrast of this sort of working-class sound with this sort of dark Brit pop, don't you think?

RAZ: Yeah, absolutely.


CAMPO AND MARTIN RIVERO: (Singing) Do you wanna get tangled up? You wanna confess? Do you wanna get tangled up? You wanna confess? What was I looking for?


RAZ: Betto, I'm hearing our last song. This is, unfortunately - sadly, we have time for just one more. What I'm hearing now sounds a lot more traditional than the last couple of tracks.

ARCOS: Yeah. We're going to go back to Colombia on this track and back to Quantic, the first artist we've heard from. This is a band called Ondatropica. It's an all-star collective of Colombian musicians that Mario Galeano of the band Frente Cumbiero - I don't know if you remember. We talked about him before.

RAZ: Oh yeah, I remember.

ARCOS: And Quantic have brought together these old cats to record with younger musicians. And the result is absolutely fantastic. Listen to this big band cumbia.


ARCOS: The song is called "Linda Manana" or "Beautiful Morning." It's an example of the cumbia that you would have heard back in the '60s and '70s, you know, with the big, brassy sound in the heyday, the golden age of cumbia in Colombia. And for this particular recording, they went back to the old Discos Fuentes studios in Medellin, Colombia, the label that put out the best Colombian music back in the day, and they brought back the same engineer that worked on those records, and they recorded on reel to reel. And what you hear, this kind of big band recreating the old sound for the 21st century. Just heavenly stuff.

RAZ: It's fantastic. The band is called Ondatropica, and they're just one of the many artists you can hear on Betto Arcos' show, "Global Village," on KPFK in Los Angeles. Betto, thanks so much for popping by. And we'll talk to you gain in a couple of weeks.

ARCOS: Thank you for having me.


RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes, or go to Tomorrow on the program, why Republicans and Democrats are spending time and money trying to win over the pro-Israel vote. Please join us. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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