March 8th, 2008

Critical Distance, Por la Ventana?

¿Qué reflexiones?

Tonight in San Fran, DJ /rupture — never one to let his critical eyelids slack — will be digging thru his kumbia krates alongside the Zizek gang.

Yesterday, Carolina @ Sound Taste framed her excitement around the neo-cumbia thing (coming soon to NYC) by noting that her “critical distance has gone out the window.”

And two days ago, I must have seemed similarly (uncritically) enthusiastic in my response to a fellow ethnomusicologist’s query about joining a panel on cumbia for the annual meeting this fall. I wrote:

Ah. I’m afraid I’m seeing this a little too late — I’m already committed to another panel on a different topic — but this is a subject of increasing interest to me. Not sure how many LAMSEM folk are aware, but there has been a remarkable resurgence of interest in cumbia (/tecnocumbia /nueva cumbia /cumbia crunk /etc.) across the Americas and Europe (via the blogosphere) in the last several months. A lot of this interest is due to a burgeoning scene in Buenos Aires, associated with a club night called Zizek; several of the producers involved in the movement are currently touring the US:

Would have loved to write something about this, but alas, not this time around. Just wanted to share, though.


Shortly thereafter, another colleague on the LAMSEM list (for the uninitiated, that’s the Latin American[ists’] section of the Society for Ethnomusicology), emailed me offlist to provide a reality check (and curb my enthusiasm?) —

Hi Wayne,

This is certainly interesting, but I don’t think it’s really accurate to say
that this marks a “resurgence” of interest in cumbia music. Cumbia never went
anywhere: it’s still massively popular among working-class types from Texas to
Buenos Aires, as it has been for decades, though what are popular are
distinctly blue-collar versions of cumbia that I think are unlikely to be
attractive or interesting to the people in this particular scene. This, to me,
looks more like a resurgence, or maybe “surgence,” of interest on the part of
clubbing uberhipsters (“Zizek”? really?) bent on transforming cumbia in ways
that separate it completely from the mainstream cumbia scene (what we would
call “appropriation” if it were Deep Forest doing it), and which is likely to
remain completely apart from the massive levels of everyday cumbia consumption
going on in peoples’ back yards and parties. Don’t you think?

Here’s what I wrote in response:

Actually, I’ve been thinking “surgence” would have been a better word
since I sent the email. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that cumbia’s
popularity across Latin America has ever really waned. Heck, even
“hipsters” of various stripes (as well as those who disdain stripes)
have had an ongoing romance w/ the genre — e.g., Delfin (a phenom
produced by Chilean h-sters), or in a different way perhaps, Manu
Chao, who was way ahead of the “appropriative” curve.

Still, point taken — I enthused a lil too loosely.

But though I think you’re right to finger the upper/middle class
character of the B.A. scene clustered around Zizek (a jokey name
reflectively referencing the theorist’s Argentinian bride), I think
you rush to judgment and overlook some (additionally) interesting and
significant things about it. For one, although no doubt transforming
the music (and in some innovative ways, I’d note), the source of
inspiration for these guys is precisely the blue-collar stuff, the
cumbia villera of B.A.’s slums. Moreover, the surging interest in
cumbia across the cosmo-urban musiconnoisseurosphere extends beyond
Argentinian remixes to Texan cumbia crunk. And in recent months, this
interest has extended to Colombian champeta in its most, if you will,
plebian form. And it’s worth noting in this context that that
excellent compilation we discussed, The Roots of Chicha, was issued by a
Brooklyn-based record label. Sure, there’s always something that
smacks of “slumming” with this kind of class-crossing interest in
music (and often a bit of racialized exoticism to boot), but in that
way it’s no different than the mainstream embrace of jazz, blues,
hip-hop, salsa, bachata, merengue, soca, reggae, you name it.

And I think that your comparison to Deep Forest is off-base and leads
us to an unfair and facile dismissal rather than a closer engagement
with what is going on in B.A. and the blogosphere. For the most part,
the Zizek artists are not sampling distant sounds for their cosmo
cocktail parties. Rather, they’re synthesizing their own versions of
the music that pervades their local soundscapes (backyard sounds can
carry). In a sense, one could argue that they’re grappling with class
and cultural divisions in B.A. as much as they may be benefiting from
them. It is a fair question to ask whether these scenes (will)
intersect at all. Far as I know, there’s not much crossover between
the neo-cumbia scene and the cumbia villera scene. It would be great,
as has happened with the international and middle-class interest in
funk carioca, to see this (re)surgence of interest in cumbia translate
to new opportunities for the “everyday” “people” with whom you seem,
understandably, concerned.

For one more stab at class matters, allow me to quote Carolina
Gonzalez’s proposal that she likes this neo-cumbia stuff in part b/c
the crisis perversely made Argentines like the rest of us Latin
Americans, jodidos

With your permission, I’d like to post this exchange to my blog. Some
of the Zizek dudes read it occasionally, and I’d be curious to hear
their reactions. Let me know. If you’re not comfortable having your
name on this, I’ll probably just do so anonymously. I’m happy to print
any response you might have too.

Thanks for the thoughts!


So today, since I haven’t received a response yet & want to get this off my chest/inbox and into any readers’ heads who want to turn it over, I’ve gone ahead and posted the convo as is. If I hear back from my dear colleague and he assents, I’ll print any responses below. But at this point, I’m more interested in hearing responses from the readers of this occasionally enthusiastic blog.

I told ya, I’m an unabashed bass booster.

One more thing, though: if we’re gonna call a spade a spade, a much better fit for the Deep Forest indictment would be a certain globe-trotting DJ making a cumbia podcast and editing out the local shoutouts from villera artists.

Or perhaps (and maybe a bit more ambiguous) Salim’s “minimal” techno smash, “Heater,” which has — nonetheless — done a great deal to bring the sounds of cumbia to wider audiences and has (however inadvertently) shined some light on Alberto Pacheco’s “Cumbia Cienaguera.” Moreover, at least Salim, despite apparently going for a laugh-factor, seems to acknowledge where the riff came from (though he could have done better than allowing it to be described as a “legendary folk composition” — even if, sure, it may be — and citing the actual recording he sampled).

Plus, I must admit I have trouble hating on such a fun-filled track and video —

& I’m not really the type to throw rocks, knamean. Indeed, @ Beat Research over the last couple months, I’ve gotten no little mileage out of playing my own mashup of Salim’s track and the Pacheco original, letting the latter dictate the form for a lil poetic justice. Props to both of em for inspired renderings of well-worn source code. In the spirit of “Big Gyptian,” “The Lion Seeps,” “Code of the Beats,” et al., es un homenaje —

w&w, “Heater Cienaguera”

Pues, algunas preguntas: Have I (too) tossed critical distance out the window? What does “critical distance” do for us (or them) in such a case? Why might it be important to have a more cynical take on such things? Why might it be important to resist a cynical interpretation? Can an embrace of (neo-)cumbia support a progressive, responsible stance on musical circulation and cultural representation? Or is such engagement an impediment (in some remote way) to social justice, yet another appropriation with no social value (except to cynical ethnomusicologists)? Do such questions matter only to academics spinning their wheels webs of culture?

I ask some of these only partially rhetorically, and only partially as an academic. I ask them also as a listener, a DJ, a musician.

At any rate —

     ¡viva la cumbia!


  • 1. esseffen  |  March 8th, 2008 at 7:26 pm

    so wayne, for the enlightenment of the non-ethnomusicologically-trained music fan, how does taking music out of the ghetto and enjoying it in a different context exploit that music and the people that created it?

    what difference is there, exploitation-wise, between enjoying cumbia at a cocktail party and writing a dissertation about it?

  • 2. De la neige? at +++++ Ver&hellip  |  March 8th, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    […] Wayne & Wax, tu me changes les idées. Filed under: vidéo […]

  • 3. rupture  |  March 8th, 2008 at 9:33 pm

    the zizek crew is just a small part of any picture of contemporary cumbia — even ‘new cumbia’ — what excites me so much is the.. multipolarity of it. whats going on in BA is one thing, and even that has many sides– encompassing everything from passing hipster flirtation to serious producers for big sonidero groups from LA (El Hijo de La Cumbia, he’ll be releasing an album on my label later this year and has worked with Moises Revilla of Pesadilla fame among others).

    but then there is what’s going on in Texas, LA, NYC, distinct & vivid manifestations in each scene, from ‘romantic’ boy bands to (a personal weakness) crunk cumbias which mix (black) rap vocales w/ classic cumbias and 808 drum machine kick pattern enhancement.

    and then there is the classic compositions emanating outward from Colombia over the years… Sonido Martines, about to release a compilation of Buenos Aires cumbia on Soot just did several youtube segments one one of the classic composers via live footage of him performing in Bogota last month!

    in other words, you can dig in all directions and find gold.

    cumbia is like ‘rock’ — it has escaped any retrospective cage of appropriateness and policing of influence; it is massive, fractal, varied.

    giving originating power to cumbia villera is itself a mistake, insofar as it insulates and isolates a style w/ many influences of which the more classic cumbias colombianas are just one (witness Damas Gratis referencing Haile Selassie, for example, and that’s before we think about the influence of cheap keyboards & thugged out gangsta realism in the lyrics….)

    en resumen, the fact that cumbia old & new in several different countries & regions & scenes of such personal appeal to me means that i for one will work to keep the ‘blogosphere chatter’ more than that, some passing fad, which it isnt for me (& millions others).

    to whit: the Zizek tour isn’t particularly representative of what is popping in BA… , which is a bit of shame, but economics of touring and visa prices and many other factors pressure the situation

  • 4. Boima  |  March 8th, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    Wayne you cook some heated (no pun intended) points man!

    I love Cumbia, and as a GRINGO my introduction was Ozo Motley, who I believe put out Cumbia de los Muertos before Manu Chao? I remember thinking that it reminded me of Reggae and Highlife (Champeta anyone???) Then as a musician that became a point of mutual interest when I started making music with folks from places like Mexico and Venezuela, who put me on to all kinds of DIFFERENT fusion styles of Cumbia from EVERYWHERE. People get hella mad over other people discovering a music don’t they? That’s how this whole thing works. Exchanges… Changes.

    When I first heard of what was going on in Argentina it was through Diplo when ORO 11 got mentioned on his site. I got excited. There’s hella Cumbia DJ’s around Cali, folks that are still connected to blue collar communities, but bending the traditional sound electronically. I went to a great show in TJ where they played Cumbia D&B Remixes. What up to my Aussie Cumbia heads!!!

    So I’m going to check out the Zizek show tonight in SF. I told a bunch of friends and invited my girlfriend who was born and raised in Bolivia. I went to the Zizek website and showed her a video and she said, “Seguro que es cumbia? Parece medio rave-y no? No quiero ir a un rave, quiero bailar.”

    What can I say… I’m a gringo. See you at the show, I’ll be dancin!

  • 5. wayneandwax  |  March 9th, 2008 at 10:28 am

    Wish I coulda been there, Boima. You’ll have to let me know how u (y tu novia) liked it.

    & thx for the extensive comment, /rupture. I hear you. Allow me to clarify that I wasn’t so much affirming a narrative that centers cumbia villera so much as noting that, for the Zizek guys, cumbia villera is the most familiar/homegrown version of this ubiquitous, sprawling genre. But you’re right that there’s a great deal more being, as I put it, “synthesized” in the various neo-cumbias we might be interested in: rap, reggae, tecno, vallenato, huayno, you-name-it.

    And I totally applaud yours (& others’) efforts not to let cumbia become “the new” “baile funk” (i know, i know, that’s kuduro) — and to maintain a serious engagement with it in its many forms. Muchas gracias.

    Finally, esseffen, I think you hit the nail on the head with your second question. And I think it answers itself. We can argue about whether the “critical” “intellectual work” of a dissertation somehow serves as an “intervention” (so 90s!) against the dominant regimes of representation of cumbia (and hence race, class, and ethnicity across the Americas) and whether that does more “productive” “cultural work” than enjoying some cumbia at a cocktail party, but I don’t know how we’d resolve such an argument. Maybe someone else could write a dissertation about that!

  • 6. wayneandwax  |  March 9th, 2008 at 10:34 am

    Oh yeah: /rupture — where are those Sonido youtubes you mention? Love to see em.

  • 7. rupture  |  March 9th, 2008 at 8:25 pm

    ps. i forgot to mention: ‘critical distance’ is one of my least favorite academic tropes. we need CRITICAL INTIMACY.

    1st installment of Sonido Martines’ footage of prolific composer Adolfo Pacheco:

  • 8. Boima  |  March 9th, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    We had a great time! Thanks Rupture, and Zizek Crew. Definitely recommended when they come to your area.

  • 9. Caro  |  March 10th, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    Hey, I’m just catching up to this post, between classes! which makes it hard for me to digest/respond beyond *blushing* for being the provocation/starting point for the discussion.

    I’m always one foot in journalism, one foot in academia and a (bad analogy) third foot in fandom — it’s what brought me back to music writing after many years away. I meant the “critical distance” in both senses — the journalistic “objectivity” as much as the academic.

    Like Rupture, I’m bored with the idea that I have to somehow separate my enthusiasm with an eddy in the tides and rivers of sonic styles — the fact that cumbias rebajadas make me giggle and groove — from the “significance” I have to pitch when I talk to my editors/producers, one that requires that it not just be a *personal* enthusiasm but one that has a “significant” audience (in mainstream media, this usually translates into, “Do the middle-class whites care about this, or can we frame it in a way that middle-class whites will care about it?”).

    Much more to say, about intent, audience, unintended (and salutary) consequences in reception, industry, transmission, race/class, but I have to xerox some poems, will return later today. Very very stimulating.

  • 10. Caro  |  March 10th, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    OK, entrando por la puerta o la ventana o via the side alley or the porch:

    Lots to discuss/digest here, and very helpful too, as I’m ruminating a paper for the EMP Pop conference on the traditional/modern dialectic.

    To esseffen’s questions, is it more/less exploitative to write a dissertation (or, in my case, to write a “trend” story in a newspaper or a radio segment) than it is for a DJ to sample? I think a lot of this ends up going back to what Rupture suggested, about what kinds of relationships are embedded/implied in those acts. Are you strictly cool-hunting, or are you in a non-virtual relationship to other producers (who you see as equals and not just as creators of the “raw” to be “cooked” by the whiter, richer or otherwise more mobile)? Are you a participant in the audience (does your booty shake in a non-ironic fashion)? To go back to punk rock DYI terms (my roots), are you a part of the scene, or a Madonna-like popularizer?

    These contexts (the depth to the surface of sound/image) are never apparent from reading a blog post, listening to an mp3 or linking to a video on YouTube. I was thinking about this when grooving on baile funk and other mesmerizing dance videos. What exactly do I know about the musicians/dancers by YouTubing? But isn’t there also something to be said for the uses of a more visceral connection, one that might be followed by “critical intimacy”? I’m a fan of how “productive” random connections and false genealogies can be (e.g. a YouTube video that posits Thriller-era Michael Jackson as a proto-kuduro dancer).

    Boima, the kinds of mixes that Ozomatli does owe as much to the shape of cultural and political communities of SoCal (they started out as house band in a community center, and I’d see them at every brown lefty event in SF) as they do to the possibilities that Mano Negra (Manu Chao’s early band) opened up, collaborating with musicians around Latin America as much as sampling.

    And I’m not even getting into the whole “cumbia yesterday, cumbia today, cumbia forever” side of this — that alone is a couple of dissertations!

  • 11. curm  |  March 10th, 2008 at 8:12 pm

    Context is everything. If Wayne is interested in the more programmed beat/techno form of cumbia that’s fine as long as he makes that clear. I love reading this blog and have learned alot from it, but I don’t think Wayne in this case acknowledged, initially, at least the more traditional and still active forms of cumbia.

    So in one of my local Spanish language papers I saw an ad that I believe said SuperMerka2 were gonna be at a local Alexandria, Virginia club, 15 minutes outside of Washington D.C. I unfortunately missed the event, can anyone school me more on this group and where they fit in?

    And regarding Colombian champeta, the Colombian embassy recently brought 60 something Petrona Martinez to the US (at least I saw her in DC). I saw this fine bullerengue singer do a chalupa-champeta or two with her impressive percussionists, daughter/background singer, and maraca and gaita players. Maybe too folkloric for some but I thought her approach was pretty vital.

  • 12. wayneandwax  |  March 10th, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    whose context, curm? do you mean to say that i’m supposed to inform you of everything i listen to before i write about some partic branch of the tree? would a personal discography be in order? where do i ever begin?

  • 13. Brian/djbusca  |  March 11th, 2008 at 12:17 am

    Curm: Don’t know much about SuperMerka2 other than that I believe they’re Argentines and seem to be solidly cumbia villera. Around this time last year their song “Que Calor” was big in Monterrey, MX. It could be heard blasting from CD stands, miscellaneous retail stores, and bars all around the downtown area. The beat is crazy: sparse, heavy, and relatively slow, with a synthesizer providing the melody. The other songs on a CD I bought are similar in style and the lyrics deal with topics like staying up till 6 in the morning and coping with hangovers.
    Boima: A friend pointed me towards your cumbia mix and I want to say it is very nice, the brief, and seamless, excursions into other genres is great.
    The surgence being spoken about here kinda comes across like the experience of meeting a good looking, witty girl, hanging out with her a few times and then telling all your friends how much she means to you (this is a very hypothetical “you”). Due to her undeniable aesthetic attractiveness (that groovy riddim!) and the mental lightbulbs popping left and right (seems to bridge a gap between salsa and reggae, brilliant!), it’s hard for gringos with a bassy musical addiction and platform for spreading ideas to resist. Yet like Rupture said, there are many facets of the music spread among different countries, cultures, eras and scenes. For a rookie to jump in too quickly would be imprudent and will naturally inspire a bit naysaying and second guessing.
    Also, this is not the first English-language media surgence of cumbia. I assume some of you folks have read the Austin Chronicle article from 2002 about the Monterrey scene and the work of Toy Hernandez and Celso Pina. The resonances of that were not as widely felt among us gringos for a variety of speculative reasons (although the article definitely pointed me personally towards rebajadas and the flea market stall of Gabriel Duenez). Quantic has also been spreading the vibes over the past year or so. What I imagine is helping propel the Argentine stuff are the qualities of cumbia crunk remixes/blends mentioned by Rupture: lyrics in English and layered familiar drum machine sounds.
    From the point of view of my personal internet wanderings this has been a speedy and fervid surgence but, as a gringo and relative newcomer to the genre, I can only offer that observation (and the silly pretty girl metaphor) and cannot judge. Building on Wayne’s question, should it be necessary to publish a time- and date-stamped log of a person’s musical experiences so that the public can better judge authenticity and intent?
    It’s important to pay proper respect to the origins of the music and hopefully after things settle in a bit the conversation can move beyond the great music being made now and will focus more on where all this came from. For example, the above mentioned podcast included older tunes at the end and in the written description linked to one of the Argentine producers but had no tracklist. Perhaps a little more respect needs to be paid to the musicians and culture of Colombia that gave rise to all this.
    As a gringo cumbia addict, and sometime DJ, i have been following the surgence with much interest and am more than glad to have new and exciting music to add to the collection. I’ve also had to check my own internal doubts and badmindedness but the ongoing discussion on this and other websites has definitely helped me examine my personal intentions and relation to the music.
    The bottom line: cumbia is great music for listening and dancing which I or my ancestors did not create. All I do is buy the records and try to play them for people and try to learn as much about it as possible. Respect to you folks that are spreading the sound and educating people. Sorry for the long comment.

  • 14. » C&hellip  |  March 12th, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    […] to all for the continuing cumbia convo, esp those who have left comments and/or sent emails (is it telling that not all can be aired […]

  • 15. Grant  |  March 13th, 2008 at 1:06 am

    Hola, aqui Grant from the Zizek tour. I agree, cumbia has never gone anywhere, but the Zizek boys are doing something new and fresh with it, there no denying that.

    Its a shame to see Rupture say that this tour isnt what is popping in BA. Ive brought 6 of the best Zizek cumbia & other electro latin interpretations producers on board, and trust, this pops.

    Were you able to see our gig at SF before you played? Still think it aint poppin? Sure, you are correct when you say visas, costs ect, this was a HUGE factor in who was brought, but really, come dance to Coya/Selector, El Remolon, Oro11, Frikstailers and groove with Tremor and Axel. On top of it, Im DJing all the other producers who couldnt make it, surely your faves, Chancha, Hijo de la Cumbia, Villa Diamante, Daleduro, etc. This tour is Zizek at its finest, though not everybody (our new comp on zzkrecords has 15 producers on it) is here. For the real deal, come to BA! :)

    Anyways, just my 2 cents.

  • 16. rupture  |  March 13th, 2008 at 10:06 am

    Grant – “cumbia has never gone anywhere” — could you clarify what are you saying here?

    What do you make of the fact that more than one of ZZK tour folks said to me directly: “what i do doesn’t have too many cumbia influences, but i hope you like it?”

    & c’mon, can any tour w/o any of the well-known, popular cumbia villera groups claim to be representative of Buenos Aires? ZZK tour is representative of ZZK club, but claiming the tour represents the city is over-reaching, no?

  • 17. Birdseed  |  March 24th, 2008 at 4:53 am

    Two little thoughts, two weeks too late:

    Don’t you guys think the rise of “fan academia” is partly due to similar reasons fan criticism arose in the seventies/eighties, ie. the huge proliferation of tiny fields and the need to justify your own relevance in your research?

    I’ve also got to question the idea that what we write here could have any real impact at all in the studied fields. Baile funk, for instance, doesn’t seem to have been disrupted very much by the (couple of thousand) western fans, who have mostly just pirated the music anyway. If anything, the attentions of the Brazilian middle classes have done helluva more damage, if you think of it as damage.

  • 18. wayneandwax  |  June 19th, 2008 at 11:00 am

    Thanks to Gabriel for the tip on yet another turn in the twisty life of “Cumbia Cienaguera”:

  • 19. » N&hellip  |  September 30th, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    […] by Samim (another interesting node in the circulation of these sounds — in his case, as an agent of cumbia), thanks to the following video produced by Maga Bo, but as his collaborator Teba says in the […]

  • 20. Generation Bass » W&hellip  |  October 7th, 2010 at 8:03 am

    […] time by Samim (another interesting node in the circulation of these sounds — in his case, as an agent of cumbia), thanks to the following video produced by Maga Bo, but as his collaborator Teba says in the […]


I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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