Cuuuuuuuuuumbia Digital: Transnational Cumbia, Deejay Culture and Digital Technology

The journey of cumbia, a rhythm from the Caribbean coast of Colombia, across the Americas is an interesting example of the power of Caribbean music to transcend national borders and provide inspiration for the emergence of new music styles. During the second half of the 20th century, cumbia was appropriated and hybridized in Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, and the south of the U.S, giving rise to the cumbia villera, cumbia sonidera, cumbia chicha, techno cumbia, and cumbia andina mexicana, among other variations. In the dawn of the 21st century, within the context of globalization and informatization, a new cumbia style is emerging thanks to the practices of certain deejays around the world that are mixing classic cumbia tunes with other rhythms such as hip-hop, dub, reggaeton, dance-hall, and B-more breakbeats. Because these deejays use digital technology for their music production, performance, and distribution, it seems appropriate to call the new style they are creating cumbia digital.

Researching the Cumbia in the Americas.
The simplicity of the 4/4 cumbia rhythm, its catchy groove -mixture of indigenous high raspy sounds (made with guacharaca or güiro) and steady African drum beats (made with bass and medium drums)- and its repetitive and clear melodies (made first with indigenous gaitas and millo´s flutes, later with European accordions, clarinets, keyboards, and guitars), are the musical characteristics that have made cumbia very popular among dancers and musicians.

The stylizations, appropriations and hybridizations of cumbia in different parts of South, Central, and North America have motivated researchers to study the local adaptations of cumbia and their relationships with the construction of cultural identities and urban subcultures. Martín (2008), De Gori (2005), and Cragnolini (2006) have studied the cumbia villera (shantytown or ghetto cumbia) in Buenos Aires highlighting how the dramatic urban context of violence during the 1990s Argentinean economic crisis surrounded the emergence of this music style. Hurtado (1995) has looked at how the cumbia chicha or psychedelic cumbia from Perú articulates the social identities of the immigrants from the highlands in Lima. Santillán and Ramírez (2004) have researched the production, distribution, and consumption of tecnocumbia in Quito, Ecuador, pointing out the popularization of this music among middle-low classes. The particular appropriation of cumbia in Monterrey, México, where a subculture called “Colombia” emerged among people from marginal and segregated neighborhoods (“cholombianos), has motivated a sociologic study by Blanco Arboleda (2005), a thorough ethnography by Olvera Gudiño (2005), and a fashion photo-essay by Vice Magazine (2011).

Even in its Colombian version, cumbia has been a topic of study for scholars interested in music journeys and cultural identities. Researchers want to understand how a rhythm from the Caribbean coast traveled to the interior of the country and then became the national music serving as a symbol of the mixture of races (mestizaje between indigenous, afro-caribbeans, and whites). In Music, Race, and Nation: Música Tropical in Colombia, Peter Wade (2002) develops a thorough historical, sociological, and anthropological study of how the cumbia, among other rhythms from the Caribbean coast such as the vallenato, played a crucial role in the imagination of Colombia as a multicultural tri-ethnic nation, and helped to articulate the concept of blackness.

There are very few studies that compare the different cumbia styles and try to understand the journey of cumbia with a transnational perspective identifying patterns of adoption and appropriation. Fernández l’Hoeste (2007) is perhaps the only researcher who has described cumbia as a pan-American transnational product associated with the racialized urban poor subcultures and their identities in Argentina, Perú, México, and the US-México border.

The Transnational Appeal of Hybrid Mestizo Music.
Cumbia has been mestizo music since its origins in the Caribbean coast of Colombia in the 18th century. According to one of the legends, African slaves and indigenous Colombians who lived in Cartagena de Indias created the cumbia rhythm and dance for their festivities, for celebrating their sexuality and mixture of races (black men conquer the indigenous women in a circular dance in which they flirt but remain separated).

It is very important to notice that cumbia was marginalized as a local phenomenon of the Caribbean coast of Colombia until the first decades of the 20th century when the Colombian cultural industries started to record this music and successfully commercialized it nationally and internationally. The first Colombian phonographic industries were in fact established in the Caribbean coast. In 1934, Antonio Fuentes created in Cartagena de Indias, what would become the most important record label of Colombian tropical music, Discos Fuentes. Almost ten years later, Emilio Fortou founded Discos Tropical in Barranquilla. Working in association with Colombian radio networks, the phonographic industry was able to create a national market for the cumbia music and other tropical genres (música costeña) from the Colombian northwest coast.

The recorded and produced sound of this cumbia, as Peter Wade has noticed, was influenced by a complex international music exchange that occurred at that time between Europe, Cuba, New York, México, Argentina, and Colombia. Rhythms from other regions such as foxtrot, jazz, rumbas cubanas, boleros, rancheras, tangos, pasodobles, and waltzes were broadcasted on the radio stations, played in the domestic phonographs and reinterpreted by local Colombian Caribbean bands. Hence, the cumbia that was produced, recorded, and commercialized during the first half of the 20th century was at the same time representative of the traditional folk music and of the modern transnational music exchange. Such characteristic reinforced the hybrid and mestizo nature of cumbia and facilitated its commercialization as popular dance music not only inside Colombia but also in other places of the American continent, especially in Mexico and Argentina.

After having become a popular rhythm and a commercial success, the cumbia rhythm started to be reinterpreted and appropriated by musicians from other Colombian regions and from several parts of Latin America during the second half of the 20th century. The simplicity of the cumbia melodies and catchy beats facilitated the appropriation of this music, the modification of the instruments according to local traditions, and its hybridization with other music genres. For instance, in the late 1960s musicians from the Peruvian Amazon blended the cumbia rhythm with Andean melodies and incorporated the sounds of electric surf guitars and synthesizers in order to create a new hybrid style dubbed cumbia chicha.

However, if in the past radio and phonographic industries, along with certain international migration processes, promoted the spread of cumbia across the Americas, nowadays the digital forms of production, distribution, and consumption have allowed cumbia to reach world wide popularity. Cumbia digital, the newest cumbia hybrid style, emerges in the 21st century from multiple and distant locations simultaneously. Deejays from Buenos Aires (Zizek crew), New York City (DJ Rupture, Que Bajo?!), San Francisco (Dj Juan Data), Monterrey (DJ Toy selector), La Paz (Sonido Martines), Noord-Brabant (Sonido del Principe), and Austin (Peligrosa crew), to name just a few, are leading the development of this new style.

Digital Practices, Deejay Culture
Digital is one of the common adjectives used for describing the computer and telecommunication technologies that social scientists have identified as major forces in the current transformation of society. Desktop computers, laptops, the Internet, MP3 files, mobile phones, DVDs, and software are digital technology. Deejays have become one of the most active participants in the information/network society thanks to their engagement with this kind of electronic technology. Perhaps because deejay culture has always relied in electronics, deejays have transited to the digital very fast.

Analogue electronic technology from the past such as turntables, mixers, equalizers, vinyl records, and cassette tapes, facilitated in the past the development of deejay practices such as the blending of songs and rhythms from different music genres (remixing), the removal of sounds from its original sources (sampling), the creation of music copies for independent distribution (mix tapes), and the building of music collections (libraries). With digital technology, especially with the ubiquity of computers, the popularization of MP3 music files, and the expansion of the Internet, these practices have become more popular and easier to learn, allowing more people to participate in the deejay culture.

DJ Orion, and DJ Manolo Black perform, produce, and distribute cumbia digital. They are members of Peligrosa, a deejay crew from Austin, Texas, which specializes in mixing Latin and modern electronic music. Their monthly parties are very popular among young people (21 to 35 years old) who get together in the dance-floor, independently of their ethnicities, in order to dance to the eclectic music mix. When Dj Orion and DJ Manolo Black are playing, the audience is often surprised by the innovative combinations of classic cumbia tunes (especially Colombian ones) with hip-hop, B-more breakbeats, and even pop music from the 1980s.

For producing and performing, DJ Orion and DJ Manolo Black use MP3 files, computer hardware and software, and the traditional analogue dj-ing tools (turntables, headphones, vinyl records). On the one hand, they produce their final remixes, the ones they distribute in the Internet, at their bedroom studios. For that task they use desktop computers running software such as Ableton Live and Sound Forge. On the other hand, when they perform in front of an audience they use a system called Serato Scratch Live that allows them to play MP3 files from their laptop’s hard-drive using vinyl records as a controller.

For distribution, DJ Orion and DJ Manolo Black use the Internet. Both of them have uploaded their remixes to personal MySpace pages and also have links to them in the collaborative Peligrosa blog. DJ Orion, however, has created more outlets for spreading his cumbia digital creations. He has a personal website where he shares not only his music but also the links to other cumbia related websites. DJ Orion is also very active in his use of social network tools such as Twitter and Facebook for advertising his music and the gigs where he is going to play. Furthermore, DJ Orion has been distributing his new album “Carajo Colombia,” a collection of thirteen cumbia digital remixes, through a specialized publishing platform for musicians called

As other producers of cumbia digital, DJ Orion and DJ Manolo Black use the Internet not only for distribution but also for consumption. They can gather classic cumbia tunes, and new cumbia remixes from peer-to-peer networks, file sharing platforms (especially Rapidshare, and Soundcloud), music blogs such as Africolombia and La Congona New Cumbia, and websites like the one of Zizek. The fact that many of the MP3 music files they download from the web, later become the materials for producing their own music remixes, reinforces the digital quality of the new cumbia style.

After having spread across the Americas and being associated with low class and marginal people during the 20th century, the cumbia, in its latest stylization as cumbia digital, is becoming very popular in the network society, and is conquering dance floors of major American, European, and Asian cities. The remix of old classic cumbia tunes with contemporary electronic dance music has proven to be popular among the cosmopolitan youth who is experiencing the globalization process. The success of the new style can be appreciated not only in the dance clubs where young people from different ethnicities is dancing with the cumbia rhythm but also in the Internet, where cumbia has become the focus of many blogs, file sharing platforms, and online communities. A closer look at the practices of two deejays from the Peligrosa crew (Austin, Texas) reveals that the production, distribution, and consumption of the new cumbia style relies in the use of digital technologies, especially the Internet, MP3 files, and computer hardware/software.

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