A couple of weeks ago I was in New York’s Central Park catching La Santa Cecilia’s show while sharing some beers and chatting with an old colleague when, all of a sudden, we noticed a sizable chunk of the crowd standing up and starting to dance. La Santa Cecilia was playing one of their cumbias.
“You can’t deny the power of cumbia,” my colleague stated. And it’s true. Cumbia has that democratic appeal and almost unexplainable hypnotic power that makes everybody stand up and dance. Bands that combine multiple Latin genres in their repertoire know this very well: they see the faces in the crowd, down there, waiting impatiently for the next cumbia.
Now that I’m listening to Viento Callejero’s eponymous, independent debut album, I’m wondering if that was at least part of the motivation behind Gloria Estrada’s jumping ship right before the crucial major label signing of La Santa Cecilia to start a cumbia band. Why waste time playing all that other stuff when the main reason people come to see you is to dance cumbia, right?
That’s what Viento Callejero essentially is: a power trio that plays straight up, stripped down, classic cumbia. No hi-brow pretentiousness. No hipsterish ironic twists. No sampled electronic loops. No attempts at reinventing the wheel. Just plain soulful, old-school, cumbia joints that will get any party going in milliseconds.
Estrada found two perfect teammates for this operation in Chicano Batman’s Gabriel Villa and Tokeson’s Federico Zuniga and the invaluable help of a bunch of guests providing vocals (Quetzal’s Martha González, Las Cafeteras’ Leah Gallegos, Héctor Guerra). With the even more invaluable help of their fans who crowdfunded the recording, the trio self-released this modest, but at the same time epic, declaration of love to the lingua franca of Latin American music, cumbia.
There is however a modern approach to the genre. Even though many of their songs are covers of decades-old standards, the sound they magically managed to create with just three musicians is very current. While golden age cumbia was epitomized by the big band format, this trio with just bass, guitar, and drums transmits the illusion of a much larger line up.
Their influences come mainly from Colombia—obviously—but also from Peru, where psychedelic jungle cumbia, also known as chicha, successfully replaced the accordion and brass sections of traditional cumbia orchestras with surf-rock guitar and effects pedals.
In just nine songs, plus a couple of low-fi skits, Viento Callejero proves that they’re a lot more than just a cumbia cover band and they have potential to become an international cumbia powerhouse. Plenty of their tracks (“Tolu,” “La Burrita”) are ready to be dropped in your DJ set (a vinyl pressing would do justice to this album), are and ripe for remixing, too. But it’s in their chichadelic joints, like the up-tempo “Yolanda,” where the dexterity of Gloria Estrada shines in such an unprecedented way that it suddenly makes sense why she would abandon a successful band to start this project. You can’t deny the power of cumbia.