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!