The members of Las Kumbia Queers didn’t start off liking cumbia—punk was their first love. Maybe that’s why this all-female six-piece band from Argentina approaches cumbia as if it were punk rock. Their instrumentation is raw, the energy is intense and they’re totally irreverent, playing covers of Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Madonna and the Cure, just being wild and silly on stage.
In fact, they are punk rockers—at least they were when they formed the band seven years ago. None of them had any experience with cumbia, but they were surprised to find out just how fun it could be.
“We were used to making abrasive music, and when we started doing music that was danceable, everyone starting to have fun,” says singer and charango player, Juana Chang. “Punk rock is really liberating. You shout out your miseries and the things you want to say. When we play cumbia, it’s like, ‘Okay, we are together, let’s have fun and dance it all out.’”
The band was also shocked at how quickly they got popular. Because they were so unfamiliar with the genre, they were unaware that there was a worldwide resurgence of interest in the music. In fact, in 2009, the first time Las Kumbia Queers played the states, Chang recalls seeing 200 people outside of the club in New York waiting to see them.
The whole reason their debut album, Kumbia Nena!, is packed with covers is because they didn’t even know any cumbia songs. The women came from a couple different punk bands, the most popular being Las Ultrasónicas (Mexico) and She Devils (Argentina). They all loved each other’s music, and wanted to work on a new project together, but wanted to do something they’d never done before. On a whim, singer Ali Gua Gua suggested cumbia.
“Our first conversations were, ‘What cumbia songs do we know?’ ‘No, I don’t know any. But I know some Cure songs, maybe we should try doing it as cumbia.’ We picked songs we liked, and we are all rock & roll fans,” Chang says. “The idea was having fun and playing together. There was not another idea.”
They’ve since been writing originals, too, and have mastered traditional cumbia grooves like old pros. Yet, they also have a rawness and aggression atypical to the genre, and even mix in some electronic elements. In Latin America, cumbia is very well respected. Bands typically have a serious, romantic flair, and very slick musicianship, with 14-15 members apiece.
“You can notice in our live shows we are kind of rock. Cumbia is really quiet and slow, and we are really energetic—fast for cumbia,” Chang says.
There are some serious lyrics in Las Kumbia Queers’ songs, mostly about female empowerment, and they’re usually tempered with a healthy dose of humor. However, even if they aren’t overtly attempting to be political, by the very nature of being an all-female cumbia band, they kind of are.
“In cumbia, most of the women’s job is to dance or maybe sing. Women don’t really play instruments. So far, the people we’ve met are really fascinated and open to listen to us,” says Chang.
Back in the ’90s, when the members of Las Kumbia Queers were in their respective all-girl punk bands, fewer people were actually open to listening to them because they were women. All-female rock and punk bands in Latin America at the time were few and far between.
They even named themselves Las Kumbia Queers as a joke for being an unusual all-female cumbia band. It’s a parody of a popular Miami cumbia group called the Kumbia Kings. Rather than do a direct spoof and call themselves the Kumbia Queens, they went with “queer,” to show that they are oddballs—and the name made them laugh.
“We are not really talented musicians, but you can do it yourself. We’re really into this punk rock philosophy. It’s the way we’ve been and the way we are. I think that every musical project that we will have from now on will be this way, too—for fun and for just playing together,” Chang says.
Las Kumbia Queers play Blackbird Tavern on Monday March 17th at 8:30pm. Tickets are $10