Big Cumbia in Little Tokyo: Notes From the First Annual L.A. Cumbia Festival

Photo by Farah Sosa

Little Tokyo in Los Angeles is probably the last place one would expect to listen to cumbia but that’s exactly what a few hundred people experienced on Saturday, Feb. 28th. Local artists Eduardo Martinez Y Su Palo Cuero, Buyepongo, Viento Callejero, and La Chamba shared the stage at the Aratani Theater for the First Annual L.A. Cumbia Festival. The event was the first night of the Aratani World Music Series, a co-production of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center and the World Festival of Sacred Music, which serves to bring a variety of cultures from around the world to Little Tokyo.

“The bands wanted to be challenged and step up in a way,” said producer/choreographer Andrea Rodriguez. The nature of the event required the artists involved to do more than simply perform a set of songs as they normally would at places like La Cita or the M Bar. Rodriguez joined the project last November at the behest of Edgar Modesto of Buyepongo to help the bands create a different type of live show that would utilize the space completely.


“It’s really about showcasing each band’s musicianship,” she added, “and also eloquently being able to make use of the space, make use of the lights, [and] the projection.”

The event began with a small Marketplace setup outside in the theater’s plaza, where independent vendors such as Mapache Jewelry, Soul Fiesta Records, El Machete Microbrew, and La Candelaria sold their items while the Listen Recovery DJs Fresko and Renz De Madrugada spun classic/traditional tunes. Yanga, a tropical outfit from neighboring San Bernardino, performed outdoors and hosted a workshop afterwards where they taught attendees the history behind their style of music.

“The marketplace experience was really fun,” said Eduardo Valencia who plays in Yanga and Quitapenas as well. “It was a really nice way to get a different aspect of the culture [and] the different interpretations of the art.”

“The marketplace is a very important part of this story that we’re trying to share on the stage,” added Rodriguez. “The marketplace is the one place where all the people get together and, cumbia being the music of the people, the marketplace is such a strong place for intersecting all these different generations and walks of life.”

The event then moved indoors to the theater were Eduardo Martinez Y Su Palo Cuero kicked off the music with an obscenely impressive performance. Martinez, a native of Cartagena, led his percussive ensemble through a few tracks. The group performed with the ferociousness and confidence of a headlining act that left the audience on their feet in the seated theater.

Speaking of which, a theater representative spoke after Martinez’ set and gave everyone the OK to dance wherever they saw fit. It was a response to the confusion behind a venue with a seating chart hosting a cumbia festival. “Do what ya gotta do” she said to a standing ovation. People immediately flooded every available space in the aisle nearest to them.

KPFK host Betto Arcos then took the stage and gave a brief talk on the history of cumbia. Thus, the story was set: Martinez and his group was the introduction to cumbia’s original sound. The other artists would then perform 15-minute sets of classic numbers followed by short sets of their own songs as an audio tour of the evolution of cumbia.

Buyepongo appeared first and were joined by a male and female dancer who doubled as actors and performed for the crowd. Viento Callejero namedropped a number of Colombian music legends before playing their hits such as Lucho Bermudez’ “Arroz Con Coco,” which they cover on their debut album. Finally, La Chamba took their turn on stage with twice as many members than usual including singer Dhayana Minano. Peruvian guitar god Jose Luis Carballo joined them towards the end to perform his greatest hit, “Cariñito.”

The music then shifted when Viento Callejero returned and performed an intro to “Antes De Amanecer” that was straight from the post-rock/shoegaze playbook before leaping into cumbia-funk territory. La Chamba arrived next and performed some of their own songs and more classics with Carballo before ceding the stage to Buyepongo who closed the night out with a few long jams. The night ended with members of every band joining Buye onstage for a huge number that had everyone on their feet. Cumbia is definitely for the people.