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Chic Cumbia

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By Lucía Baigorrí Haüen

It’s been interesting to search my cultural hard drive for a current token of Argentine pop culture that falls outside the mate-soccer-tango holy trinity. Having spent almost 6 months out of my country, I started feeling slightly unfit for the task. Naturally, I turned to the Internet for help. Going over my Facebook newsfeed, I found people sharing the same video over the span of a couple of days. The subject matter? Two women in their 20s covering cumbia villera songs. “Eureka!” I thought. Let the typing begin.

You might already be familiar with cumbia as one of the many colorful rhythms that hail from South America. In terms of its history, Colombia has been identified as its birthplace. More specifically, the Colombian Caribbean coast is where the fusion of musical artistic expressions produced by African slaves, indigenous people and Spanish colonialists started at least two hundred years ago. During the second half of the 20th century, the genre spread across Latin America and, because of its association with the working class, it was generally viewed with disdain by cultural elites. Cumbia made its entrance onto the Argentinian stage in the 1980s, partly thanks to the waves of immigrants from Peru and Bolivia settling down in the Greater Buenos Aires area. The cocktail of neoliberal policies that led to the devastating economic crisis in 2001 is often seen as the catalyst for a very local cumbia blend, that is, cumbia villera.

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Villa 31, in the northern area of the city of Buenos Aires.

If your brain made some sort of connection between the word “villera” and “villa”, you’re on the right track. However, if you started picturing a country house in Tuscany, you’ll have to stop right there. Argentine villas miseria are the shanty towns whose expansion around large urban settlements has been a constant for at least 20 years. The rapid demographic changes I was referencing earlier took place over a time of great economic and political instability. High unemployment rates accompanied the expansion of villas, which in turn saw an increase in crime, violence and substance abuse. The 2001 crisis came as a blow to everyone, but some were more successful in navigating it than others. In terms of its cultural legacy, it was the lower class’ musical expression that proved to be most controversial.

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Pablo Lescano, considered to be one of the founding fathers of cumbia villera.

Aesthetic considerations aside, cumbia villera is a cultural product of its time and place. As for its musical component, it is characterized by the heavy use of synthesizers and repetitive beats (check out the list of “classics” down below). The lyrics are anything but obscure and make blunt statements about poverty, street crime, incarceration and police brutality. As record labels began to have an interest in this sub-genre, many of the first bands began to replace the original protest tone and shift towards the exaltation of violence (generally towards women), casual sex and drug use. There’s no room for metaphors in these songs and the use (and creation!) of very unique and crude slang fostered a sense of pride and shared identity. It has been hard for the upper and middle classes to relate to the experiences and characters ascribed to this very specific geography. The perceptions of cumbia villera were pretty much set from the beginning: “obscene”, “violent” and “degenerate” were some of the descriptors of choice.While cumbia groups are still alive and kicking, it’s been a while since their music sparked some major controversy. It would be fair to assess that one of the reasons for this is not that the living situation urban slums has improved and people have little to complain about (quite the contrary), but that the market has been taken over by other musical styles like regetón, the local production being quite generic. Most importantly, however, is the fact that we have naturalized inequality and the existence of groups of people whose access to some basic rights is limited. After almost two decades of overexposure to cumbia villera, the initial shock is gone. What tends to happen when a musical composition becomes a commonplace? Covers are made.

Cumbia Nena[1] is the brainchild of Julia Morgado y Milagros D’Augero, two friends who met in college and started making covers of popular songs. With YouTube as a springboard, their initial success led them to put out even more videos, hire a manager and go on tour. The video that has received most views is one in which they provide a re-interpretation of three songs that belong to the cumbia villera canon. The first one features a young man who has found that the solution to his drinking problem is to step up his game by drinking even more and adding some drugs to the mix. The second one is about Mabel, a woman who can no longer hide her addiction to alcohol, marihuana and crack cocaine. The last song tells the story of how “el pibe cantina” betrayed his allegiances by putting on airs and pretending to be someone he is not (thanks to some money he has won).

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Cumbia Nena.

Don’t get me wrong, I always enjoy a good cover. Working with material that has already been processed by others, artists have to activate their creativity and exploit certain aspects of the original composition so that the audience sees it in a new light. Some element of surprise is always expected. However, there’s something about Cumbia Nena’s covers that is just wrong. The first seconds of the video present elements that have traditionally been outside the cumbia villera world: cupcakes, nail polish, an iPhone, an acoustic guitar. As Julia and Milagros introduce themselves and their backgrounds, the fact that their paths have never crossed that world (except for its cultural products) becomes apparent. Halfway through their singing (which is not bad), one of them reaches out for her laptop, for no clear reason.

Some mismatches are pleasantly surprising and inspiring. This one is not. All I see is two privileged people who saw the opportunity to make a profit from presenting violence and suffering in cool, even glamorous way. What I find to be even more troubling is that people seem to be ok with this. A couple of weeks ago, minutes after the official video for Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend” was released, numerous online media outlets in the English-speaking world directed the focus of attention to whether the audiovisual composition was guilty of cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation. What I value is that these discussions are not held exclusively in academic circles, but in relatively more inclusive platforms such as online forums. Sadly, I don’t see this happening in Argentina. I don’t know whether “chic cumbia” will ever become a thing, but if it does, it won’t do much to heal the wounds of an already fragmented society.

Cumbia Villera playlist:

For the sake of comparison, you might want to listen to “La Danza de los Mirlos”, as originally composed by Peruvian cumbia band Los Mirlos and then covered by Damas Gratis.

Damas Gratis: “Los dueños del Pabellón” – “Laura”

Pibes chorros: “Duraznito” – “Muchacho de la Villa”

Yerba Brava: “Vamos a bailar” (lighter in content, party anthem around 2003/4)


[1] The duo takes its name from the first lines in the song “Yo me enamoré” (“I fell in love”), sung originally by Amar Azul.

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