Photo by Mariana Treviño

In Monterrey, Life Moves to the Rhythm of Cumbia

A chronicle about street musicians in the Mexican city where the genre has most deeply taken root.

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Jan 12 2018, 9:30am

Photo by Mariana Treviño

A version of this article originally appeared on Noisey en Español as part of Semana de la Cumbia. Leer en Español.

In Monterrey, the capital city of Nuevo León in northeastern Mexico, cumbia belongs to the people. The majestic mountains guard a tradition of accordions, of players swaying them from side to side, pushing their buttons, generating illustrious sounds of vallenatos (a genre of Colombian folk music comprised of the rhythms, paseo, merengue, puya, son, and tambora), which arrived here via Colombia’s Caribbean coast; even as the northern Mexico has its own regional music, be it the polka, chotis, and redova, of age-old European origin, or the more local styles of huapango and corrido.

In the 50s and 60s, Latin American tropical music made its way throughout the continent. In Monterrey, Colombian music was adopted quickly in the Cerro de la Independencia, an area atop a small mountain where the city's poorest families lived. From here came the first sonideros - locals who bring their sound systems and records to gatherings, and are a sort of master of ceremonies. They livened up the parties of family members, friends, and strangers who’d heard of them – and wished to steal them away for their own parties. Records arrived by way of Mexico City or the United States. One of the principal icons of cumbia who adopted who adopted Monterrey's culture was Gabriel Dueñez (of the group Sonido Dueñez Hermanos). He was given the nickname “the creator of cumbia rebajada” (Mexican cumbia), thanks to an incident that occurred when the motor on his record player overheated, the turntable slowed down, and the caja drum, accordion, and ridged guacharaca cane became the signature of the cumbia from Nuevo León.

Colombian cumbia mixed with other styles of music in Monterrey. In some instances, vallenato launched full time professions, creating artists that respected its musical foundations and attracting performers from abroad to play at the city's La Fe Music Hall. Shops dedicated to the sale of Colombian handcrafts and music schools that offered accordion lessons opened; in 1998, the Festival Voz de Acordeones (the Voice of the Accordions Festival) was founded. To date, the festival seeks to improve each of its participants, with the end goal being that someday they’ll end up playing in Colombia, winning the heart of the people during the Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata (the Legend of the Vallenato Festival), which is one of the country's most cherished musical events. Then there are acts like El Gran Silencio, the Accordion Rebel, Javier López y sus Reyes Vallenatos, La Tropa Colombiana, Paco Silva, Kumbiamberos, Desafina2 de la Cumbia, Los Siriguayos and other groups that continue to create cumbia under a regio concept – that is, existing at the center of Nuevo León’s culture, leaving no room for anything gringo-ified – and with undeniable Colombian influences.

And that’s how this cultural phenomenon expanded to nearby cities like Saltillo, San Luis Potosí, Torreón – to other areas of northern Mexico and even some parts of Texas. For this reason, cumbia is respected in all corners of the city. Colombian vallenato will continue, but so will Argentine cumbia, called cumbia villera. I first learned about it when I was in school: It had emerged in the poorest neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires, called villas, in 1999, and gained steam during the country's economic crisis in 2001. Cumbia villera's popularity in Nuevo León is largely due to the other passion that defines the region: Love for local soccer teams, whether for the Tigers (“Tigres”) of the Autonomous University of Nuevo León (UANL, in Spanish) or La Pandilla from Monterrey.

Calle de Arramberi. Photo by Mariana Treviño

A few beers at La Pantalla

I thought it would be easy to find street musicians who enjoy cumbia. In the hope that I’d come face to face with some Colombian musicians, I headed out one Saturday morning to the Mesón Estrella farmers market, located on Juan Méndez Street in downtown Monterrey. When I asked some acquaintances where I could find live cumbia, most of them directed me here, to the area where mythic Chacmool statues can be found, where informal commerce dominates, and where you’ll find sweet shops and tacos or gorditas.

There, where that immense cellar fills with people among the smell of fruits and vegetables, you’ll find yourself face to face with some quirky musicians. And I found a couple: A blind accordion player making his way through the crowd, along with another robust guy playing the guacharaca while he sang vallenato songs about God.

The other area people recommended to me was Mercado Juárez, between Ruperto Martínez and Aramberri Streets. It was around 2:00 PM in the afternoon and the temperature was around 95°F. Just breathing was enough to make your whole body sweat.

La Pantalla. Photo by Mariana Treviño

I ducked into Mercado Juárez. Supposedly, around that hour, at some of the food stalls, cholombianillos, a subculture that blends Chicano's Cholos fashion and cumbia culture, would come by to light a candle and play some music. I walked by the religious santeros who invite you to sit with them and be spiritually cleansed, statues of Malverde (the so-called angel of the poor, a folkloric hero in the Mexican state of Sinaloa), musical instruments, flowers, typical suits from Nuevo León, and stalls selling seafood, stews, goat meat, and more. I never heard an accordion. I believed that the subculture was in danger of extinction. Videos like “Chuntaro style” or “Cumbia poder” wouldn’t take long to become cult classics.

El Beto's. Photo by Mariana Treviño

Outside the market, men and women of all ages waited for the bus that would take them to their destinations, among the smells of tacos, trash, and roving vendors offering cold water and shaved ices. Letting myself be led by appearances, I asked a guy if he could tell me where I might find some folks playing Colombian music. “I dunno, buddy; you’ve gotta walk around a lot; sometimes, you can find them here among the buses. Put your heart into it and you’ll probably find them,” he said.

I was there for nearly two hours. I started to feel hungry and thirsty; I wanted to take a cold bath, I was so uncomfortable in the heat. But, while walking along defeated, my gaze cast down as I walked along Aramberri Street, I realised that this tropical environment gives birth to those vallenato rhythms. The bars in the area look like clandestine sites where everyone congregated to dedicate themselves to their vices.

I’d been on that street before, inside Beto’s, a crazy joint where everyone is welcome. Nearly all the bars here seem to have the appearance of being the collective degenerate zone of Monterrey, but they’re really just like any other place (without malls and air conditioning).

And that’s how I ended up in La Pantalla, #218. I’m still not sure what it is, exactly – whether it's a dance hall or a pick-up spot. I had a great time. I enjoyed cumbia and vallenato, and the best dancers of Colombian music I’ve ever seen congregated there.

Popping in there just to listen to the sound of live cumbia, and to see that the price of a 40 oz. beer was just 35 pesos (approximately $1.80 USD), was the best thing I could have done on that hot day. Apparently, at some hour of the night, the televisions screens start playing porn. But for the two hours that I was drinking and watching everything around me, I only paid attention to the dance, to those turns and spins guided by the beat of the timbales.

Bar La Pantalla. Photo by Mariana Treviño.

During the presentation of the Princes of Vallenato, I saw people approach the stage to request songs and shout-outs, northerners with pointy boots illuminated by the light of a star that was hung from the ceiling, a guy who looked exactly like Tao Pai Pai from Dragon Ball sweet-talking two girls. Meanwhile at another table, some single guys overcome by booze hugged their backpacks as their only consolation. At others, there were groups of three or four people (young and old cholombianillos). Everyone ordered 40 oz. Sol or Carta Blanca beers, so that, a few drinks later, and for a minimum fee of 10 pesos, they’d be able to dance “Muevelo muevelo” with some chick dressed in a mini-skirt, tight pants, or short shorts. With every song came the best moves at La Pantalla, with the same kind of happiness that characterises every weekend, when people wear Rayados or Tigres jerseys.

At the bar, men served 40s that had been submerged in ice while some people danced alone, making signals with their hands that only they understood.

Un Tu Fazo vi-regio con código

In all of Monterrey, soccer, like cumbia, runs in people’s blood. Fanaticism for their teams is unrivalled anywhere else in Mexico. The Nuevo Leonian people wear the blue-gold UANL jersey with pride. Others choose the jersey with the white and blue stripes, boasting about their recently built, world-class stadium.

Belonging to the hot northeast, then, means throwing your weight behind your favourite Liga MX team, in the craziest bars (Libres y lokos for the Tigres and La adicción in Monterrey). And for a while now, the passion for cumbia villera here has almost matched the passion for soccer in this mountain region.

Bar La Pantalla. Photo by Mariana Treviño

Cumbia villera made its way to Monterrey thanks to soccer. Between the Libres y lokos and La adicción, there are Argentinean capos. Perhaps it was they who converted the cumbias from their country into chants of support for the teams hosted by Mexico, as cumbia villera resonated with the working class of Nuevo León. Ojos Rojos (sons of Los Reyes Vallenatos) and Barra Libre (previously a Colombian group) became pioneers of the genre in Monterrey.

But in 2004, Tu Fazo was formed in Valle Verde (a rough neighbourhood in Monterrey known as the “Valley of Death”), at a moment when the style was gaining traction across Latin America. I found out about them thanks to Rodo, an old pal from west Monterrey. It was because of my friend – who would give everything for Rayados – I was able to meet up with Código, the lyricist and the creative half of Tu Fazo. I found him two days after my visit to La Pantalla (where, it turns out, he told me he goes to have fun) at a burger joint where he works along Francisco I. Madero Avenue, near the University Hospital.

Código discovered cumbia villera in 2000. He sang in a reggae group called Código Reggae, hence his nickname. He remembers that the first time he heard villera-style cumbia was in some songs by Fidel Nadal. From the moment he became interested in that type of music, which was only really circulating on the Internet at the time, he got into the habit of searching out artists in the genre. His group converted into Código Villero. And as he got hooked by the cumbia of the country of “Chelito” Delgado and Roberto Fontanarrosa, he became friends with some Argentineans, important groups from there that suggested he make truly villera-style songs. One of those teachers was Rasta, a member of Yerba Brava; he even lives in Monterrey now. Nevertheless, Código explains that Tu Fazo is a mix of villera-style cumbia, Colombian style, and a little bit of reggae.

In Monterrey, an important chapter in the history of cumbia villera and sports is the boost it was given in 2003. Renowned cumbia villera band Damas Gratis played a show in the city thanks to one of those capos from the Libres y lokos. Código explains that from that moment on, cumbia villera enjoyed the affection of all soccer fans, regardless of social class.

The night that Damas Gratis visited, Código and other members of Tu Faza were at the show. That’s how they met. Between the two, they gave rise to Tu Fazo, inviting friends and acquaintances to join them.

Tu Fazo began playing at parties of Libres y lokos or La adicción. It wasn’t unusual for fights to break out; sometimes they wouldn't even get to plug in their instruments before the party got started. The vibe was much like that of Colombian music shows. People threw rocks.

Cumbia villera music caught the public's attention. Musical groups formed at every bar. In Tu Fazo, there were no arguments or rivals; half were Rayados and the rest were Tigres. Nor do they deny their Colombian influences. Código knows that even little kids have become accustomed to listening to vallenato in their neighbourhood. His taste for the tropical sound happened organically, and that’s why he plays it everywhere. They go to celebrations with the local teams or with fans of Cruz Azul, Pumas, Chivas, Atlas, León. They’re invited to massive events organised by the government of Nuevo León. They were part of the Sos Villero Festival, which, until recently, brought Argentinean groups to play in Monterrey. Now fixtures on the scene, they play twice a month at Skizzo in Barrio Antiguo, a club that transformed from a spot exclusively for electronic music to one that now has cumbia villera and other types of music.

They gained recognition among the villera-style movement in Monterrey thanks to their own songs like, “No voy a cambiar” (“I’m not going to change”). Some Argentinean groups have approached Código to ask him to write lyrics for them. They broke paradigms. They’re played in every corner of Mexico and South America, in the fanciest malls in the city, on soccer programs on TV, and more.

Tu Fazo.

Between Colombia and Argentina, two worlds ruled by their own musical styles, I’m sure that Código and the rest from the region who live and breathe cumbia, know that in Monterrey, there will always be an unconditional love for vallenato, since it arrived here first. But Código, whose heart beats in time to a more street-style rhythm, more than D10S Maradona, assures that Colombia will never disappear, even as it will also never not be seen badly by part of society.

As a villera-style group, Tu Fazo isn’t immune to critics and conflicts. Código laughs and doesn’t explain the rivalries. But this doesn't stop the group from dancing in time with the essence of the region, the combination of vallenato and soccer: A strong, powerful battle cry heard all throughout Monterrey.

To calm the envy and rivalry, Tu Fazo recently finished recording a song with Los Kombolokos.

But soon, cumbia villera will grow in popularity in Monterrey, as more and more people fall in love with the characteristic sound of the accordion’s keys, and as they can’t deny that they learned to dance listening to cumbia rebajada, doing the paso del gavilán or la moto step.