Cumbia music is fast becoming the most popular music in Latin America, whether traditional ballad or cutting edge electro remix. Ed Stocker unpicks the music’s multifarious social and cultural layers and examines its increasing popularity in Europe.
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Case study Argentina

Cumbia was born in Colombia in the 18th century, a folkloric genre danced as a courting ritual by black slaves. The music has come a long way since, travelling South and Central America, picking up twists and turns along the way. In Argentina, cumbia along with regional folk music is probably the most universally popular music, whether danced to by hordes of sweaty masses in a Buenos Aires boliche (night club) or bringing the village together for a summer fiesta in Jujuy province, bordering Bolivia.

But just as there are numerous genres and sub-genres – and marked differences depending on the province the music originates in – cumbia also occupies a complex social and political space, especially in urban areas. In Buenos Aires, for example, where residents like to see themselves as having a European outlook, cumbia and all its ‘tropical’ baggage is often frowned upon. Music choices in Argentina are influenced by class; as one local bluntly remarked: “It’s the music of poor people.”

For years, cumbia in Argentina’s capital was relegated to a social ghetto. It was the music of the poorest sections of society, living on the margins and often inhabiting the shanty towns around the city’s periphery known as villas. It’s here that cumbia villera sprung up, a music very much rooted in the daily struggle to survive as an outsider. It’s a music that has been associated with crime, violence and drugs – often unfairly or out of context – although its popularity has arguably waned in recent years.

Far from hailing the death of cumbia, more people are listening to it than ever according to radio DJ Lucho Rombolá who hosts a radio programme entitled Cumbia de la Pura (La Tribu FM88.7). “Initially cumbia was the music that represented the poorest sections of society,” he explains. “Today it’s still the least favoured sections of society who fill the dance halls and listen to the songs in their houses. On the other hand, over the last few years with the fluctuations in the economy, the middle classes have been turned on to tropical music. And the upper classes have begun to organise bands to liven up their private parties and play in VIP clubs.” There is a difference, though, he argues: the lower classes find it representative of their struggle, seeking solace in the lyrics, whilst the upper echelons of society see it as perishable party music and not of particularly good quality.

Zizek: cumbia for the middle classes
Since 2006, Zizek nights have been organised around various Buenos Aires nightspots, bringing a new strand of cumbia to the scene known as cumbia electronica or cumbia digital. This new sound is very much rooted in dance music, using computers and sampling machines to add a new dimension to traditional music and attracting a different type of fan.

The Zizek’s club nights, that also spawned a ZZK label in 2008, generally take place in the white neighbourhood of Palermo which has seen their music labelled the “cumbia of the middle classes” by The Argentimes newspaper. In an article on Zizek the paper summed up the sort of clientele that frequent the parties: “The crowd is made up of hip young types who enjoy their cumbia, but perhaps aren’t up for a late night jaunt to Once [a run-down neighbourhood in the capital]. Rubbing shoulders are b-boys dressed head-to-toe in New Era and Nike [and] nice girls who may scowl at you for daring to walk anywhere near them…”

The Argentimes’s assertions are pretty accurate. The people who attend the nights are well-dressed, generally in the 18-to-30 age bracket and from solidly middle class backgrounds. The digital ‘mash up’ that is the trademark of the label isn’t yet mainstream, nor is it underground counter-culture. It occupies a sort of middle space that lures trendy kids from nice backgrounds who’ve heard about it through word of mouth, music magazines or the internet. It has also attracted a fair amount of attention from niche international music media, has toured the United States and become a hit amongst Buenos Aires’ swelling foreign community. Radio DJ Rombolá agrees, saying ZZK’s music is “aimed at a European public”.

The organisers say that around 6,000 people attended the last Zizek party in April and 9,000 in February. ZZK discs – generally sold in independent record stores – sell between 500 and 2,000 copies per album. In one way, Zizek’s sound is very much rooted in our 21st century globalised world. Using digital technology – and the sort of cut’n’paste aesthetic that the internet and social networking sites have helped create – the music might be cumbia, but it taps into a host of different musical genres.

Fans reflect this ‘global local’ outlook. They might not all have travelled outside of Argentina, but they’re open to other music and cultures. Lola Alberti, 27, listens to everything from dubstep, reggae and drum’n’bass to Frank Sinatra. She calls the music of Zizek “music for everyone, from all backgrounds. Anyone can come and enjoy it.” For Milagros de Dios, 21, with a similarly eclectic taste in music, Zizek is a “mix of everything I like”. They generally liked traditional cumbia but some weren’t fans of the villera sort. Interestingly not all the fans consulted were particularly into electronic music, but more the fresh sound and originality that Zizek was seen to embody. All were internet and technology savvy, connected to the world through music downloads, MP3 players, file sharing sites like Flickr, and social networks including Twitter and Facebook.

Cumbia in the UK
Interestingly, once cumbia makes the journey across the Atlantic to the UK and beyond, it loses much of these socio-economic complexities. Audiences are largely unaware of how the music is deemed in its country of origin – and which types of people listen to it. In the UK the music is packaged as danceable exoticism whether it be the ‘vintage classics’ of the 70s or the electronica of Zizek. As Russ Jones, DJ behind the Arriba La Cumbia! compilation explains: “An audience listening outside the cultural , political and social context that the music was created in listens without any prejudice and takes the music at face value. Which, in the case of cumbia, is some of the best music in the world.”

Cumbia is by no means mainstream culture in the UK. It’s still relatively niche. And whilst the music might have lost some of its social stigmas, listeners still tend to be middle class, university-educated and possibly Spanish speakers who have lived overseas.

Cumbia album sales remain small but this is part of a wider global decline in album sales as the internet flexes its musical muscles. What’s certain is there’s huge potential for the music to become better known. Audiences generally receive Latin music well: Spanish is deemed sexy and is generally easier on the ear than some of the more obscure sounds from around the world. To date, Mexican rap (Cartel de Santa) has appeared in a Lynx deodorant ad and tango (Gotan Project) in a Boots spot. Cumbia has gone down well on the live and festival circuit, the latter a market of exponentially growing importance to UK and European labels as more conventional forms of revenue shrink.

According to the Official Charts Company, Buena Vista has shifted half a million units, Manu Chao’s Clandestino has sold 78,000 and electro tango outfit Gotan Project’s La Revancha del Tango has passed the 100,000 mark. Currently, a successful cumbia album in the UK will sell a few thousand, but the potential for crossover Latin album success is certainly there. Whilst remaining popular with musical foragers and Latin America enthusiasts, the music – for now alternative – clearly taps into a market with huge potential.

Insights and opportunities
Whilst traditionally a music of the downtrodden in Latin America, cumbia music has spawned into a thousand and one different varieties. Like West Indian dub music in the UK, the music has been appropriated by the middle classes who dance to Zizek’s mix of cumbia blended with international dance. Close followers of trends and fashion – and largely middle class with a certain amount of expendable income – this is the section of cumbia fans in Latin America that brands need to be watching.