Frente Cumbiero: cumbia beyond cliché

You may know the Colombian musician, composer, and producer Mario Galeano Toro from Ondatrópica, and he once set Recyclart alight with Los Pirañas. When we Skype him, he is at a studio in Bogotá for recordings with his hippest band: the enthralling nu cumbia quartet Frente Cumbiero.

An upcoming European tour will provide a foretaste of the new album, which is slated for release next spring. “Our leitmotif is still the instrumental mix of old cumbia samples, two exuberant horns (sax or clarinet and euphonium, tp), infectious percussion, and contemporary electronica,” Galeano explains. “The only difference is that we try to find a better balance between the melodious sound of cumbia and beats that are produced by drum machines. You could think of it as adding an extra floor to the house of cumbia, which was built between Argentina and Mexico, but which in its contemporary form also seems to appeal to a niche audience outside Latin America.”

Perhaps that is because the musical cross-pollination of Frente Cumbiero counteracts the often-exaggerated positivism of mainstream Latino styles with sufficient dissonance. “We do indeed try to steer clear of clichés. People aren’t always happy, don’t spend their lives lying under swaying palm trees at tropical pools surrounded by tanned and muscled bodies. We seek to present the dark side of tropical music.”

Caribbean authenticity

Could this also be a reaction to the mountain climate of Bogotá? “The city is indeed at a great height. It is never really warm and it often rains, like in Belgium and the Netherlands. You could say that we try to sound like the place that we come from. And there are lots of different kinds of music from that place. At home, my mother listened to bolero and tango, while there was a lot of salsa and cumbia on the radio and at parties. During my youth, rock, punk, and electronic music arrived. And when I was twenty, I decided to start looking for my own mix of everything that was out there.”

In the meantime, Galeano has also decided to start crate-digging for samples of authentic big bands and ballroom orchestras from the Colombian Caribbean. They were particularly popular in the 1960s and 1970s. “But they stood for a much more authentic and rawer form of Colombian music than the extracts that I would hear in the charts.” The only downside to the increasing popularity of electronic nu cumbia is that you can forget about buying classic vinyl for a bargain. “Fortunately, my collection was already quite extensive when the Europeans, Americans, and Japanese started digging around in our cumbia roots.” 

RECYCLART HOLIDAYS: FRENTE CUMBIERO 18/07, 22.00, Recyclart

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