Beats With Heat

I got some press – so I thought I’d throw this up. I’ve been traveling a lot lately and I plan to be in Europe for a month. If anyone wants to do a guest article in my absence, they are more than welcome too. I can moderate it while on vacation. Email me @ > In the meantime, I’ll try to toss-up a few articles before I go. I want to wish everyone a great Holiday Season!!! Enjoy!!!

Sonido Franko

Written by Daniela Garcia @

It’s a humid summer evening as Colombian quintet Bomba Estereo takes the stage in Millennium Park, just one of the many acts playing throughout July as part of Chicago’s monthlong Colombian Music Festival. Scattered across the Great Lawn are music fans sitting on blankets, enjoying the free show. The sounds drifting from the stage draw the attention of a curious passer-by or two. Closer to the stage, a small, energetic group of fans bounces and dances to the infectious beat, a new mixture of sound known as digital cumbia.

Colombian-American Julian Castro, who recently became a fan of the subgenre, was up front, taking in the new and old sounds from his homeland. “I think what also is exciting is seeing bands coming out of South America that feel free to incorporate their own indigenous rhythms and native customs into their music,” Castro says. “A lot of times, bands feel like they have to fit into more of a North American context in order to make it. It’s really refreshing to hear a band [like Bomba Estereo] that is kind of doing something a little different.”

It’s a musical revolution known by a variety of names: la cumbia nueva, electro-cumbia, digital cumbia. Yet no matter what you call it, they all describe a product of the fusion of traditional Colombian beats and electronica.
Traditional cumbia can be traced back to the colonial period, mainly along Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The beat originally began as a courtship dance between the indigenous people and those of African descent. The original instruments included wooden flutes known as gaitas, drums and other forms of percussion.

As the genre’s popularity spread across the country, cumbia was adapted to appeal to different social classes and began to include new elements, like horns, piano and bass. By the 1950s, cumbia had become widely recognized and enjoyed throughout South and Central America and Mexico, who made this Colombian rhythm its own. Musicians now sample older songs and put their own spin on them or, at times, add modern instrumentation to the various styles of cumbia.

Digital cumbia’s origins are difficult to pinpoint, but its popularity in the past few years can be traced to Argentina thanks to the work of the collective known as the Zizek Urban Beats Club.

Tango is often the form of dance and music that is commonly associated with that country. Like cumbia, tango was originally popular in working-class slums and has since found its way to a younger mainstream audience in the form of tango nuevo. Now, digital cumbia is following quickly in its footsteps.

“Cumbia has always been great on the dance floor; it only needed the electronic ingredient to make it appeal to young people that usually doesn’t listen to it,” DJ Sylvestre Herrera says.  “I think there has been a rebirth of Latin American folklore in the past few years. It happened to tango, so it was just a matter of time before cumbia finally got its own facelift.”

The Zizek collective emerged in 2006, providing Buenos Aires with a new monthly dance party fueled by a unique, electronic beat. Grant Dull, an American expatriate and one of Zizek’s co-founders, explains that “at the time, [in Buenos Aires] there was an emerging scene of producers that were all experimenting with cumbia … it’s such an old, legendary, popular and amazing rhythm.

“And I think what we’re doing with it is taking it into the 21st century using modern tools and technology to just give it a reinterpretation for the digital, modern age.”


Zizek’s founders created ZZK Records, now home to some of South America’s most well-known digital cumbia acts. Their roster includes Tremor, the alter ego of producer Leonardo Martinelli, who uses a mixture of indigenous sounds and synthesizers, and El Remolon, a popular DJ who polishes and remixes traditional cumbia with sleek digital beats.

Dull, who also creates music under the DJ name El G, is a professed lover of both new and old cumbia. “It’s just really fun to be working with a group of producers and musicians that are respecting their roots but building on technology and just taking [cumbia] into a completely new territory,” he says.

The Binary Cumbia Orchestra, DJ Silvestre Herrera’s project, is also contributing to the digital cumbia scene on a smaller. Having tired of house and techno, Herrera began experimenting with cumbia and was encouraged to continue his work after receiving positive feedback for “Coomvee-ah!” – one of his first tracks – from Federico Randall, the beatmaker behind The Peronists. “What I like about [digital cumbia] is that there is room to explore new sounds,” he says. “It’s not a standardized genre.”

The Internet plays a vital role in digital cumbia’s expansion. Music blogs from both North and South America (and their readers) have taken notice and responded enthusiastically.

Joseph Franko, owner of the blog Super Sonido, began to notice digital cumbia’s rapid growth in popularity in the last three years. “One has to understand that cumbia is a pretty simple form of Latin American music,” he says. “So when it emerged from Colombia, other countries were able to incorporate their own regional sounds to that basic 4/4 cumbia beat. Countries like Mexico and Peru put their own stamp on the genre, very similar to what electronic musicians are doing today.”

Blanca Mendez, a contributor at Latin music blog Club Fonograma, agrees that interest has peaked among readers. “We do keep up with Zizek a lot because they really are at the forefront of all of this,” she says. “Really any artists under their label we keep a close eye on because they’re all doing really interesting things.”

Mendez, who is from the border town of Eagle Pass, Texas, grew up listening to cumbia mexicana at family gatherings and had never had much an opinion of it. With her musical preferences leaning heavily toward electronica, digital cumbia caters to both her taste and her roots. She became a full-fledged fan more than a year ago, when she first heard a cumbia-fied remix of Santogold’s “Shove It.”

“I was already a fan of the original song when I heard DJ Toy Selectah’s remixed version, and it was just astounding how well the combination worked,” she says. “I never would have expected it to work that well.”

It was only a matter of time before digital cumbia slowly made its way to North America. Dull says that around 2007, he met one of the organizers of South by Southwest, the Austin, Texas, festivals of film, music and interactive culture, and was encouraged to help bring digital cumbia across country lines. The feedback they received at SXSW was positive and motivated the Zizek crew to bring its music to the U.S. on a broader scale. By 2008, Dull and his fellow musicians embarked on Zizek’s first North American summer tour – now an annual event.

Dull says digital cumbia’s success is due to “its ability to speak to any kind of music lover – from a college kid that’s looking for something new and hip to somebody who’s into world music and wants to know what these [people] from Argentina are doing with cumbia, something that has such a rich history.”

Back in Chicago, Colombian-American fan Castro believes digital cumbia provides yet another way to embrace his dual identity. “A lot of us connect to our heritage through our parents’ generation and through our parents’ views, and since we’re growing up in the States, we don’t necessarily get a lot of interaction with people our age back home,” he says. “So it’s a way to kind of connect with youth that we don’t have access to because we’re growing up in a different [context].”

As digital cumbia slowly but firmly establishes itself in both the worlds of electronic and Latin American music, new subgenres will follow as other traditional rhythms find themselves merged with the likes of reggaeton, dancehall, and more. Thanks to online communities and a young, enthusiastic audience, the possibilities seem endless.

“In the past, the music business was tightly controlled by only a few media outlets. The availability of music online and social media outlets has really counteracted that,” says Franko of Super Sonido. “It gives a musician the opportunity to work more independently and expand his or her reach. It’s a boon for genres like digital cumbia or any other type of underground Latin music.

“So whether it’s a passing fad or not, I believe that the best has yet to come.”


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