It’s Not All About Cumbias

By: Giovanni Escalera

My first memory as a kid is the murder of John Lennon in 1980. I was only three years old, so I couldn’t understand much, but I remember that my oldest brother, who was 13, was in deep shock. We were living in Mexico City at that time, in a tiny apartment near the airport. Five years later, my father got a job in Guadalajara, Jalisco, where my brother made friends with some guys who loved European music and looked like complete misfits. They used to come to our house to watch videos on our Beta VCR. From my room I heard a sound that was coming from the living room, some kind of crying sad voice singing in English combined with a delayed guitar. I stood up and walked straight to where the sound was coming from. On the TV screen I saw a few guys dressed in black with messy hair and eyeliner playing in a place that resembled an old temple. It was the Cure. They immediately became my favorite band, but more importantly, that day I made a promise to myself: I would become a musician.

I accomplished that in 2002: I formed a band named Sweet Electra. The sound was influenced by artists like Thievery Corporation, Everything but the Girl and Roni Size, and I was part of a collective that tried to create a unique sound by combining house, drum-and-bass, and techno with Latin sounds from the ’50s (cha-cha-cha, danzón, cumbia). In my opinion it was the finest version of those sounds; it sounded global and spread quickly.

Of course, I didn’t grow up surrounded only by the sounds of heavily eyelined British rockers. On the bus, or at the supermarket I would hear cumbia—a rhythm and style that had come to us from Colombia. But at the time, nobody in their 20s would say: “I love cumbia.” It was considered a low-class thing among the people I grew up with.

Fast forward to the present: I live in New York City, where I DJ every weekend at Casa Mezcal, a Mexican restaurant. Guess what songs get the crowd moving? Cumbias. I don’t know exactly how it began, but in the early 00s hipsters thought it would be a good idea to include this genre in their DJ sets, and it caught on. Around 2004, the genre became more and more popular and accepted in trendy parties all over Mexico. Now, cumbia bands like Ángeles Azules open for classic rock bands in Mexico, and people love that because it makes them feel progressive, like they are accepting the “low” parts of their own culture and identifying with them—even if it’s exactly what they used to despise.

When I DJ, like David Byrne, I sometimes ask myself, “How did I get here?” I never liked cumbias.  They seem so far from the dream I had of making a living in New York or London as a musician by playing the music I started discovering after the Cure.  In other words, have I betrayed myself?

Sometimes, the power of nostalgia beats the power of taste, and I feel like I have, in fact, disappointed my younger self. But through the newly discovered hipness of cumbia I discovered amazing songs and learned the lesson that there is beautiful music within each genre. And even when I’m not against a good cumbia (or an electronic remix of one, from Kraftwerk to Grandmaster Flash), I’ve realized that I want to make sure I stay close to my roots. Which happens to be more on the other side of the Atlantic when it comes to music.

Giovanni Escalera is a music producer, writer and DJ based in New York City. He released four albums with his band Sweet Electra, and is currently producing a solo project called Too White to be Mexican in collaboration with other artists from Latin America.