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Music Without Borders: Silicon Valley’s Emergent Latin Bass Scene Merges Cumbia, Punk, Hip-Hop

In Cover, Culture, Music
SO PHILTHY: Mateo Gonzales makes music as Philthy Dronez.

Mateo Gonzales makes music as Philthy Dronez.

Music Migration

Jesus Covarrubias, a Mexican-American studies professor at San Jose State, says it’s inevitable that musicians will seek out new sounds, and those sounds will eventually find new listeners—and the process will repeat to form even newer styles. It’s the invention of migration.

When people leave one home to find another, they bring their instruments and their music. According to Covarrubias, elements of what is today considered traditional Mexican music—the accordions and oom-pah-pah rhythms, for example—come as a result of the intermingling of German-American frontiersmen and Mexicans.

Similarly, cumbia’s rhythm and dance steps are said to have originated on the Caribbean coast of Colombia as a mixture of African and Latin sounds in the 1940s. From there, it spread to the north and the south—morphing as it moved. During the ’70s the music saw a surge in popularity in Peru, where it was fused with surf rock and psychedelia to create a cumbia subgenre known as “chicha.” In the ’80s, as disco gave way to house music and synthesizers became cheaper, cumbia was funneled through drum machines and electronic keyboards to create “technocumbia.” The merger of electronics and the shuffling dance was popular in many countries and circles, and it certainly influenced Selena, who even named one of her own songs “Techno Cumbia.” By the 1990s, social upheaval in Argentina contributed to the birth of cumbia villa. Similar to the new gangster rap sounds emerging from places like Compton and New York around the same time, the subgenre paired cumbia rhythms with tough lyrics about drugs, crime and street life.

As long as the U.S. and Mexico have been neighbors, there has been a cultural exchange, especially in states like Texas and California. Part of that exchange is Chicano music. A movement that came to a head in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Bands like War and band leaders like Carlos Santana drew upon distinctly American musical modes—funk and psychedelia—while folding in their Latin heritage. In the process they invented something new.

“Just as much as you want to be able to respect what other people did, you want to find your own thing,” Covarrubias explains. “We have elements that come from continuity, meaning they don’t go away, what our grandparents listen to, what their grandparents listened to. But then there’s also change and evolution which is important, you want the freedom to be able to say, ‘Now I’m gonna express it so it reflects what I am today.’”

In the face of widespread refugee crises, it’s certain that people will continue to migrate to new lands, and their respective cultures will undoubtedly mesh with and influence new artists all over the world.

“Music knows no borders or boundaries,” Covarrubias says. In the digital age, this has never been truer.

This DJ

“There’s no border here thanks to SoundCloud and Bandcamp,” says Pérez, of Sonido Clash.

He’s referring to two popular music streaming websites that allow for the instantaneous transmission of culture across oceans and continents.

Pérez and Zepeda are of a generation that not only grew up listening to hip-hop and punk—they also are digital natives. For them, digging through crates of second-hand vinyl or stacks of CDs are only two modes to discover music. They also have the ability to flip through YouTube videos and fall down click holes on Facebook, which have led them all the way to Peru.

Through social media, Sonido Clash linked with Dengue Dengue Dengue, a Lima-based cumbia bass duo who have been making waves in the Latin dance world since 2010. Using online networks and old-fashioned interpersonal connections, last year Pérez and company were able to bring the internationally recognized pair to The Continental, while Dengue Dengue Dengue were on their very first U.S. tour.

The group pulls from widely divergent musical traditions—shuffling cumbia rhythms, the psychedelic and surf-influenced “chicha” tradition, and Amazonian tribal drumming—to create a unique and danceable sound. 

The combination of styles blend seamlessly. In fact, cumbia seems to be unusually adaptable to blending with other forms of music. Chulita Vinyl Club is an all-female DJ collective started by Claudia Saenz, who moved to San Jose from Texas. The group, which only spins on vinyl, has grown to create chapters in seven cities across the country. “When I started DJing and messing with some of the mixing programs, they mix super easily (with cumbia),” says Maryela Perez, of  Chulita Vinyl Club. Many cumbia recordings are at a similar tempo as hip-hop songs—somewhere around the 90 beats-per-minute mark. “When you have a cumbia beat and if you put a basic drum beat behind it, like something you would find on an 808. It was like really cool how they go together so well.

Chulita Vinyl Club.

Chulita Vinyl Club.

“It’s really easy to match with hip-hop,” Zepeda agrees, adding that modern production methods are allowing more producers to tinker with the emergent sound. “In Mexico in the mid-2000s, there was a shift,” Zepeda says, recalling what he saw on visits to family. “Kids were able to get computers and download software online and produce their own music. They didn’t have to form a band anymore.”

According to Zepeda, the egalitarian nature of desktop production software and the ability to publish music online fueled the kind of DIY ethos that propels punk rock. “A lot of these kids ended up embracing cumbia,” he says, adding that where he grew up “cumbia was always barrio music”—embraced by the socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods and shunned by the middle- and upper-class, which gravitated toward rock en Español when instruments were involved, and salsa when dancing.

In this way, cumbia-infused sounds have come to represent the underrepresented in the same way that punk and hip-hop have—a musical challenge to authority and the powers that be. 

Sound of the Street

It is perhaps ironic, then, that this sound—the sound of the streets and the disenfranchised—seems on the verge of becoming the next big sound in pop music. Diplo, vilified by many as the great white cultural tourist, is already sniffing around the broader Latin bass scene.

A number of Diplo’s biggest hits—like Major Lazer’s “Watch Out For This (Bumaye)”—fall within the category of “moombahton,” which incorporates Caribbean sounds and textures. And Diplo contemporary Skrillex engineered Justin Bieber’s tropical bass banger “Sorry.”

Regardless of what you think about the likes of Diplo, Skrillex and Bieber, it likely won’t be long before these navigators of pop culture find their way down through the gulf to the mainland of South America. The next “Hotline Bling” could come with a shuffling a güira scratching along in the beat. 

“The whole tropical bass thing is huge right now,” says DJ Cutso, a local DJ and producer who spins regularly at Sonido Clash events and has created some of the best hip-hop beats to come out of San Jose in recent years—in particular, Rey Resurreccion’s “The Hometown.”

The track is an ode to growing up in the 408 area code: “I grew up with my neighbors playing mariachi in the morning,” Rey raps over a triumphant horn sample and slapping beat. It’s one of Rey’s most popular songs on YouTube, verging on 200,000 views—and for good reason. 

This is what life sounds like on the East Side, Custo notes. It’s where he grew up, and even though he and Resurreccion are of Pacific Islander descent, they were shaped by Latino influences. “Us being Filipino, growing up predominantly in San Jose neighborhoods, we would wake up to loud banda music.”

Resurreccion, Cutso says, had a gut feeling about the song. “He knew right when he heard it that it could be a San Jose anthem.”

“The Hometown” is not a cumbia bass song. The song samples a banda track. This genre of Mexican music has more in common with the kinds of brass marching bands that perform at college football games. Still, it underscores a point: in a region saturated with Latino culture, there’s bound to be a cross-cultural exchange of creativity.

To this point, Cutso says, he’s been studying the cumbia bass movement. And he has a front-row seat working with Sonido Clash. “I didn’t start hearing cumbia bass until the last three years, when Sonido Clash started,” he says. “They’re in the front of the whole cumbia bass movement in the Bay Area.”

Though he’s not ready to incorporate any cumbia bass into his own sets—“I don’t want to be caught faking the funk,” he explains—Cutso is still fascinated by the sound. “It’s almost kind of a punk rock movement in a way,” he says, “taking something that is very organic (cumbia) and mechanizing it.”

Cumbia Punks: Corazón Salvaje | Cinco De Mayo Guide

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