Quito’s Ataw Allpa is Bringing the Accordion to the Club, One Digital Cumbia at a Time

Photo courtesy of Impar Lab

It’s pushing 3 a.m. at a party inside the Teatro Bolívar, a crumbling theater in Quito’s old city just barely restored to functional use, when Atawallpa Díaz Ricaurte takes over with his accordion in tow. During daylight hours, the sidewalk outside the building’s ornate façade will likely play home to a blind accordion player belting out traditional tunes in the hope of some charity from passersby, but Ataw Allpa, as he is known on stage, has a different take on the clunky yet charming instrument. Wired up to analog synthesizers, a laptop-assisted digital setup, and a microphone, this accordion is the centerpiece of a one-man digital cumbia band that energizes the late-night dance floor.

The squeezebox has a storied history in Latin American genres like vallenato, merengue, forró, and cumbia. Those traditions remain vital, and for them, the accordion never went out of style. But it’s not exactly a mainstay of the continent’s trendy clubs either. There’s no denying that Ataw Allpa turns heads when he trots out his beloved instrument, and the journey that brought him to innovate with the “poor man’s piano,” as he calls it, is also the story of a long exile from his native Ecuador that revealed both the beauty and the beast of Latin American identity, from discovery to discrimination.

In 2007, Ataw Allpa was a fashion student in Buenos Aires when he got a curious homework assignment from his postmodernism-loving professor: hunt for street style at this new party called Zizek Club, named for the cult Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who was married to an Argentine supermodel.

Ataw Allpa. Photo by Marko Bizarro
Read more

Ataw Allpa dutifully reported to Club Niceto in the city’s trendy Palermo neighborhood. While the threads inside didn’t impress him, the music – a digitized version of cumbia just coming into vogue at the time – definitely did. “It was the first time I was in a nightclub where I identified with the music as far as being a mixed-race person in the 21st century,” he later told me over the din of baristas grinding coffee at the Galletti roaster and café, not far from Teatro Bolívar.

“Music scenes can empower people to accept their identities.”

By that, the then 21-year-old musician meant that the Zizek sound was neither the Western imitation rock he found so uninspiring among his middle-class friends at home, nor a wholly folkloric music environment where he would be a total outsider. Rather, it was a hybrid that fit his own in-between identity. Ataw Allpa, which means “linker of worlds” in Kichwa, is named for the last Inca emperor. The son of a Colombian father and Ecuadorian mother, he was, as he describes, “a white oppressor in Ecuador and a negro de mierda in Argentina.”

While Ataw Allpa noted the irony of an Ecuadorian having an epiphany over cumbia – a style popular up and down the Amazon – in temperate Buenos Aires, he recalled with enthusiasm how he soon dove into music production. Throwing fashion by the wayside, he figured out how to program cumbia on synthesizers while his rave-happy classmates were still experimenting with techno, house, electro, and trance.

But the accordion didn’t enter the picture until 2012, when after seven years, Ataw Allpa finally flew the coop from the Porteño scene. With its Eurocentric sensibility, “Buenos Aires is not a very welcoming city for South American immigrants,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Calavera Films
Read more

Several years grinding as a promoter for dubstep and drum’n’bass nights had caught the attention of the manager for Stereodubs, a Brazilian hip-hop production duo based in São Paulo, who offered him a job promoting for Paulista rap nights. With that, he made the move to the continent’s biggest metropolis.

“We as 21st century mestizos are defining ourselves through our music.”

“People valued a lot the cultural knowledge that an Andean guy could bring,” Ataw Allpa marveled of Brazil, a far cry from more homogenous Buenos Aires. São Paulo is Brazil’s artistic vanguard, drawing forward-thinking musicians from across the country, and there Ataw Allpa hung out at the local Red Bull studio and fell in with producers and crews like the 24-party-people at Voodoohop, the northeastern-tinged Calefação Tropicaos, and Belém-born Jaloo.

But it was a chance encounter with São Paulo’s only accordion shop that finally brought the expat into his own. There he followed in the footsteps of his father, who played Colombian tunes on accordion growing up, and nabbed his own. Ataw Allpa is a self-taught virtuoso with an encyclopedic knowledge of regional rhythms that he happily taps out on the table to teach me the difference between Ecuador’s sanjuanito and Brazilian forró. In São Paulo, he linked up with DJ Nirso, formed the duo Sonora Digital, and honed the live act on Brazil’s underground party scene that is still his calling card today.

Ataw Allpa’s love for the accordion is fervent. In our chat, he rhapsodizes about how tropical heat can create air bubbles inside the instrument after years of bellowing, seasoning each well-worn accordion with a unique sound the way a cast-iron skillet acquires its own taste after years of use. Indeed, Ataw Allpa cherishes the accordion for its power and aggression, arguing that “accordion riffs can replace a whole brass section.” With the digital assistance of flange and other effects, it easily served as the centerpiece for his one-man band approach.

“Brazil, the land of samba and bossa nova, was an unexpected place for me to flourish,” he said, but credit goes to tecnobrega, the Brazilian genre whose name refers to the Portuguese slang word for tacky. The tecnobrega scene, centered on Belém, the major port at the mouth of the Amazon, reprograms the traditional styles of lambada and guitarrada onto synths the same way that Ataw Allpa was noodling around with cumbia rhythms.

Photo by Marko Bizarro
Read more

Ataw Allpa is dedicated to the art of producing his own beats – “I don’t sample because we cannot only live in the past, we have to reinvent it, reinterpret it” – and took inspiration from tecnobrega’s unabashed embrace of lowbrow pop culture.

Ataw Allpa cherishes the accordion for its power and aggression.

“Brega interested me the most – it’s a place to be yourself, a place to be brega,” he said. “People stopped trying to be cool and just didn’t care anymore.” The scene, which reached brief mainstream heights with the popularity of Gaby Amarantos (who skyrocketed from living in a shack to crowning Carnaval floats), is known for wild and wacky sound systems called aparelhagens that imitate spaceships.

While tecnobrega and cumbia are sonically quite distinct, Ataw Allpa enjoyed mashing them up – both as a remixer and for his live act – along with other Brazilian sounds like carimbó. He also found their parallel paths to fame instructive. Just as tecnobrega was a marginal sound for the working class on the outskirts of Belém now playing in trendy Brazilian clubs, cumbia was grandparents’ music with little appeal to the under-30 set.

“I saw how geopolitics are embedded so [many] in music genres and how music scenes can empower people to accept their identities,” Ataw Allpa explained, drawing on the ideas that kicked around during the master’s in cultural studies he pursued during his São Paulo sojourn.

That philosophy manifests beautifully in Ataw Allpa’s new EP Cyberfolk, premiering today on Remezcla. The project is his debut remix EP, with influences from Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil. As he puts it, the EP is “contextualized in a bright present that sounds like the utopic future.” The four-track collection is dropping via Mishky Records, Ataw Allpa’s own imprint, intended to uplift Ecuador’s prolific electronic community of producers and beatmakers.

Ataw Allpa has already launched a bimonthly club night and festival to highlight that scene, a project he hopes to amplify through the official launch of the netlabel. “I think that is what is happening with this global bass scene, this cumbia scene,” he concludes. “We are getting our pride back – being Latin American is cool again without the folkloric stereotypes. We as 21st century mestizos are defining ourselves through our music.”

Stream our premiere of Ataw Allpa’s Cyberfolk EP above, with cover art by visual designer RAMO.