Pablo Lescano of Damas Gratis & His Keytar
A post-depression era Argentina begot Cumbia Villera, a street electro-cumbia with lyrics that rivaled gangster rap. It started in the ghettos of Buenos Aires by Peruvian and Bolivian immigrants that brought their own style of Cumbia into Argentina in the late 80’s. Most Argentineans considered it lower class, especially by the music critics that have a stronghold on what is deemed important in Latin music. Two of the biggest groups from that scene, Los Pibes Chorros and Damas Gratis, have a widespread fanbase in the villas of Buenos Aires as well as fans all over Latin America. ZZK label co-founder Grant Dull called the success of Cumbia Villera “Argentina joining the rest of Latin America,” which meant the post-depression Argentina was no longer an oasis for the Eurocentric. Argentina is now just as fucked as the rest of Latin America.
During the eighties, the modern Cumbia groups started using keyboards rather than the traditional accordion or a horn section. One of the coolest features of Cumbia Villera was their use of synthesizers, especially the infamous Keytar. Pablo Lescano, who fronts the band Damas Gratis, is a master of his axe, as well as the other Keytar players that play in that style. All the bands have a particular look in both dress and in album art that separate them from other Cumbia groups. It’s a hybrid of Heavy Metal, Reggae, Gangster Hip-Hop, Sonidero and Soccer. It would be easy to mistake Pibes Chorros for a Metal band, with their long hair and their use of the Grim Reaper and Jesus Christ. Cumbia Villera’s heyday was in the late 90’s, right after Argentina’s economic collapse. Since then most of the groups continue to play in front of large crowds but it seems like Reggaeton has stole some of its thunder.
In 2005, Uwe Schmidt, better known as Señor Coconut, released a compilation entitled Coconut F.M. It was a collection of Cumbia Villera from Argentina, Reggaeton from Puerto Rico, Hip-Hop from Chile and Funk Carioca from the favelas of Brazil. Along with Diplo’s forays into Funk Carioca, Señor Coconut’s Coconut F.M. was both an important document and a hipster guide to Latin America street music over the last ten years.
Much like Funk Carioca a few years back, DJs have started to incorporate Cumbia Villera into their sets, many of them are the same people who dismissed it in the past. Digital Cumbia DJs are making mash-ups with Pibes Chorros music and Hip-Hop accapellas. Recently, the privileged art school set in Latin America have started their own art bands with Sonidero and Cumbia Villera influences.
I always think it’s funny to hear hipsters making fun of ghetto music, knowing that in the future they will be totally into it, albeit with an ironic tone. Of course by then it will be perceived as genius by the clueless media, who also missed the boat the first time around.