To say that cumbia music is rising or suddenly becoming popular in Los Angeles would be a grave mistake. Originally from Colombia, cumbia has traveled far and wide to evolve into multiple forms and subgenres in the last several decades. The genre has been catapulted by artists like Celso Piña, La Sonora Dinamita, Carlos Vives, Los Ángeles Azules, Lucho Bermúdez, and Tejana icon, Selena, among others. From the original Colombiano to Peruvian and Mexican cumbia, these and other versions have established a longstanding cultural tradition that many of us have grown up with, especially in the greater Los Angeles area — where the Latinx population is the majority.
Distinct for its use of instruments like the caja drum, bajo sexto, guacharaca or the accordion, cumbia is nearly always the music of choice at a backyard party or a quinceañera — cumbia has never gone away. But this contemporary scene isn’t the same one we’ve been acclimated to, as the new generation has musically and socially upended the genre to include more influences, as well as more women and LGBTQ+ identities. Local entrepreneurs and artists agree, like the founders of LA’s Locatora Radio, a podcast that highlights the cultural achievements of women/femmes of color. “What I love about the LA music scene is the way that so many artists blend and remix cumbia with other local and global diasporic sounds,” co-founder Mala Muñoz tells Remezcla.
While not comprehensive, below is a list of ten innovators carrying on the tradition of cumbia with a twist; this is not your parents’ cumbia, because it intermingles unconventional influences, deconstructs tradition and caters to marginalized identities for a more inclusive community. This is the new face of cumbia.
When it comes to cumbia in LA, you can’t go anywhere without hearing the name San Cha, and rightfully so – San Cha is a versatile musician who sings, plays guitar and champions the LGBTQ+ community through her artistry. San Cha’s music spans across genres like ranchera, electro, alternative and cumbia. Some of these influences can be heard in her latest release, “La Luz de la Esperanza,” which she frequently performs as a live queer telenovela. At a recent panel by Locatora Radio, San Cha revealed that despite this new release, the concept album in its entirety has been years in the making.
“Cumbia is part of everyone’s DNA,” says Gloria Estrada, the accordionist, guitarist, vocalist, and founder of Viento Callejero. Gloria was previously in the Grammy Award-winning band La Santa Cecilia — which she helped co-found — but when she left the band, she wanted to build on the genre to create her own unique sound. “We’re not traditional in the sense — we definitely have rock and a different sound than most cumbia bands out there,” she says. Gloria realized this goal with Viento Callejero by adding alternative, experimental and rock influences. The rock edge is no surprise — Gloria has been playing guitar since she was 14, and obtained a degree in studio guitar from the University of Southern California.
With members from both Portland and LA, Sávila mixes different Latin-based genres with experimental, R&B, and other soulful influences to produce a distinct form of cumbia sung in both English and Spanish. Yet, despite their worldly sound, Sávila uses their music to pay tribute to their rich Mexican heritage. The all-Mexican band recently released a music video/mini-documentary called Échale Sávila. The video includes interviews with their mothers as they explore their intergenerational roots and identities. Sávila celebrated the premiere of this video with a musical showcase in LA called “Madres del Mundo” (mothers of the world), which paid homage to Latinx mothers.
Cumbiatón is an event and collective made up of artists that celebrate cumbia music by creating a safe space dedicated to women, queer people of color and immigrants. Cumbiaton’s artists include DJs, photographers and musicians. The collective has been so successful, they’ve been invited to other major cities to establish residencies and pop-ups, including New York, Seattle, San Francisco and more. “Cumbia is not only trendy now — cumbia is ancestral knowledge that has been passed down from our elders and that we have a duty to uplift and share. But more than anything, cumbia is something that brings our communities together,” co-founder Zacil “DJ Sizzle Fantastic” Perch says.
La Mera Candelaria
La Mera Candelaria is both Stephani Candelaria’s stage name and solo project. Originally from the bay area, La Mera Candelaria is now based in LA and has successfully established herself in the scene. She is a proud queer Xicana who not only combines Colombian cumbia with Caribbean sounds like Son Cubano, but she also relays feminist and socially conscious messages. La Mera Candelaria has released two EPs and is currently working on her first full-length album, “Si Reina,” which is scheduled to be released in early 2020. In the meantime, her single by the same name is available to listen on Spotify.
Sister Mantos was founded in 2008 by Oscar M. Santos and has featured a grand slew of rotating performers depending on the occasion or project — the most recent live act included 12 artists. This year, the band released “Songs in the Key of Destroy Capitalism,” which Oscar describes as “a tropical-punk-funk-noise orchestra.” Oscar tells Remezcla that the album is also invested in social awareness and healing from the trauma of subjugation. “Our songs are about Queer and POC empowerment, decolonizing your mind, connecting to indigenous roots and standing up to the hypocrisy of the United States and the police state… we hope the music can help provide some medicine for these times.” Oscar says.
Despite being from the Inland Empire, QuitaPenas has made a name for themselves in LA’s cumbia scene and recently performed at Tropicália Festival with names like Los Tigres del Norte and Caifanes among others. The five-piece act not only creates infectious sounds that pay homage to worldly rhythms, but they’re also socially conscious and experimental about the messages they deliver in their music. The band’s song/video for “Tranquilidad” is an example of this. “The song itself is a declaration of humanity desecrating the planet for our current lifestyle while asking mother nature to forgive us,” Eduardo Valencia, the band’s conga/tambora player says.
Chrisol Lomeli y Los Efectos/Selenamos
Since 2015, Chrisol has been performing in the popular Selena cover band, Selenamos. As such, she was the music director of this year’s Selena for Sanctuary concert in DTLA. Chrisol recently released solo music for the first time in her project, Chrisol y Los Efectos, which mixes R&B, disco, soul and cumbia. “The musicians in both of my solo projects and Selenamos — they’re all cumbieros, and they all play in cumbia projects, so it’s just opened my mind as a songwriter,” Chrisol tells Remezcla. Chrisol’s music gives an early Amy Winehouse vibe (Think Frank), but more Latin-based: “It’s pretty niche, but I feel like there’s a lot of kids like me that can really vibe with what I’m making,” Chrisol says.
David and Rene Pacheco are brothers from East LA who originally performed in Thee Commons, but have since revamped their sound as Tropa Magica, which brilliantly intermingles cumbia with psychedelic rock. Tropa Magica is highly accomplished in the scene, as they not only performed at this year’s Tropicália Festival, but have also played Coachella and Desert Daze. The band recently released a music video for “Ven Como Eres,” a cumbia cover of Nirvana’s “Come as You Are.” “Ven Como Eres” is one of four songs on their latest EP, “Smells Like Cumbia,” which is available now.
Find their music here.
La Chamba takes their love of chicha to brand their sound as “Chicha Angelina.” The band draws from this iconic ‘60s psychedelic sound to amalgamate it with other Afro-Latin influences and ultimately add their own distinct LA flavor. La Chamba stayed true to their name (which signifies “putting in work”), as they had a busy 2019 — they celebrated their 10-year anniversary with a big show put on by KCRW, toured the east coast and also performed a slew of gigs, including Tropicália. The band also released their new song, “Dame tu Corazón,” which is available on Bandcamp.