Around 2007, pretty much at the same time the whole ñu-cumbia phenomenon was starting to jump to international notoriety, a bunch of riot grrrls from different bands and even different nationalities got together in Buenos Aires and, for some seemingly random reason, they decided to play cumbia.
Pat Combat Rocker, Pila Zombie and Inesphektor were all members of the iconic all-girl punk band She-Devils, together with Juana Chang and Flor Linyera they decided to conceive this side-project that was only meant as an inside-joke. “It was supposed to be only a summer fling,” explains Chang. And maybe that would’ve been the case if it wasn’t for the sixth member, the not less iconic Mexican punk-rocker Ali Gua Gua (of Las Ultrasónicas) who was instrumental in guiding the band into the cumbia direction. Thus, Kumbia Queers was born.
As it had happened before with other similar cases of punk rockers who start playing cumbia as a joke, eventually the joke is on them and the cumbia band ends up becoming way more successful than they ever expected (just look at the Chilean underground punk band La Floripondio and their internationally successful side-project Chico Trujillo, for example, or the Argentines Las Manos de Filippi and their cumbia alter-ego Agrupación Mamanis).
After an acclaimed second album, produced by cumbia villera’s patriarch Pablo Lescano (of Damas Gratis) and ñu-cumbia’s undisputed pioneer Toy Selectah, the Queers went back to their D.I.Y. roots and decided to record and produce their third album all by themselves. Titled Pecados Tropicales, the album is scheduled to be released on September 4th on Horario Invertido (their own label) and Austria-based Confort Zone, who also releases it on vinyl.
We talked through Skype with the Kumbia Queers’ two main vocalists, Ali Gua Gua and Juana Chang, about this new album, girls, booze, boobs, zombies, and the connection between punk rock and cumbia and this is what they said:
How do you manage to keep up with writing and reheasing as a band when you live in two different countries?
Ali: A lot like this. Through the internet. We tried doing rehearsals through skype, but there was a lot of delay.
Juana: We should try again now, with a paid connection.
Ali, have you gotten used to your regular talk expressions of the Argentine vernacular? And how are you doing, Juana, with your Mexican slang?
Ali: “A full, boludo!” There’re many things that I find it best to express in Argentine Spanish, for example the verb “copar” we don’t have that in Mexican and I like it a lot.
Juana: I think I speak really good Mexican. I say, “estoy en chinga,” “no mames,” or “a poco” a lot. We feel at home here in Mexico and I imagine Ali feels at home in Buenos Aires as well.
Why do you think there’s this connection between punk rock and cumbia? Becuse you’re definitely not the firsts to explore this mix…
Ali: I don’t really know where the connection comes from. Cumbia villera, for example, is more ganstah, from the hood, and I think it’s more related to hip-hop. Though, in a sense, cumbia was always a popular expression that came from the lower segments of society and was looked down on, like punk rock. And there’s also the do-it-yourself part of it. You see, cumbia bands manage their careers going completely outside of the mainstream, doing things in their own way, and we feel very identified with that, even if we work in very different manners.
There’s also that common perception that cumbia is a very accesible music genre. There’s that idea that anybody can play cumbia, that you don’t need to be a virtuoso. And that’s very much connected to the roots of punk rock.
Ali: You know, I used to think that same thing. But then I realized cumbia wasn’t that easy. I’d even say rock, or punk rock in our case, is a lot simpler. Cumbia has a kind of flavor, a flow, that if you don’t get it, you can’t fake it.
On your first album, you were mostly doing cumbia covers of punk songs. On this new one, instead, you’re doing punk covers of classic cumbia songs. How do you explain this switch?
Juana: Yes. That was something necessary. In recent years we’ve been listening to a lot more cumbia, going back to the Colombian roots, crazy cumbias poblanas… And we adapt those thing we hear, like from our punk perspective.
Ali: For example, in the case of “Caballo Viejo,” we tried to do that in many cumbia styles but we ended up doing it punk rock, straight up.
FROM THE MOMENT WE STARTED, WE HAD THE IDEA THAT
WE WANTED TO DO SONGS FOR GIRLS, ABOUT GIRLS.
You also do a retro-house adaptation of the Peruvian chicha classic “A Patricia” by Los Destellos.
Juana: Since Patricia (a.k.a. Pat Combat Rocker, the bass player) first heard that song she’s been asking us she wanted to play that cover.
Ali: Patricia lives in La Boca, that’s why we dedicated the song to her neighborhood. We did the shout-outs in the style of Mexican cumbia sonidera.
And that one is added to a list of songs you have with girls names as title. Daniela, Valeria…
Juana: From the moment we started, we had the idea that we wanted to do songs for girls, about girls. Also, sometimes with Ali we say, “let’s do a song about a profession,” and that’s how they come out.
Ali: That’s how we came out with a song about the bartender (“La Cantinera”) with the intention of scoring more free drinks from the bars where we play. More than the ones they already give us.
Ali, in “Metamorfosis Adolescente,” the cover you did of Flema, your singing style sounds like you’re channeling Lía Crucet. Was that your intention?
Ali: So I’ve been told a few times already. I didn’t know Lía Crucet, really. When I recorded that song, I was so emotionally involved that I ended up crying and that’s why my voice came out like that.
Since we mention Lía, from the queer perspective, who’s your all-time favorite cumbia diva?
Juana: Lía Crucet is totally a queer icon. She’s huge, with those tetas. Even before getting into cumbia she was already known as a diva because of her giant tetas. So yeah, I’d say Lía.
You use “¡cumbia nena!” as a battle-cry, and you even had it as the title of your debut album. Did you get that from Amar Azul?
Juana: When we met Pablo (Lescano) personally and we went to his studio to record, he showed us the cover a the album Cumbia Nena by Amar Azul, because he used to play in that band (before Damas Gratis). We had no idea. We were using that battle-cry for a long time without knowing where it came from.
On your second album you start the song “Mal Carácter” telling Pablo Lescano to go a la concha de tu madre, and we hear him complaining about having to deal with these girls, he even says “go record with Toy (Selectah).” What’s the anecdote behind that intro?
Ali: He was a little overwhelmed. Imagine being in the studio with six rowdy girls. But we learned a lot from him.
Juana: The original idea was to say, “With all our sincere love we dedicate you these words…” (laughs)
Ali: Originally the song was going to have another name. There was a difference of opinions and we have some censorship issues, within the band. Let’s say there’s a certain member of the band who has some mal carácter. We did that as a joke, mocking one of the members of Kumbia Queers.
Juana: We all have our weaknesses but we also have a sense of humor and we laugh a lot at eachother.
Who’s the one with the zombie fetish?
Juana: We all like zombies. They are part of the cultural universe we grew up in. Where we can, we put in a zombie.
Ali: Kumbia Queers started rehearsing in Pilar and Ines’ old house which they called La Casa Zombie. And they used to throw a party there called La Fiesta Zombie. I think zombies are the most charismatic and attractive characters in film. So one night when I stayed at La Casa Zombie I said, “let’s do La Cumbia Zombie.” It was a tribute to that house because that’s where we started, where we played our first gig and where we used to sleep.
You tour a lot through Latin America and Europe but you never come to the US. Are we gonna see you here anytime soon?
Ali: We would love to go. It just hasn’t been easy. We need a proper invitation from a festival or a promoter so we can get visas for all of us. But we definitely wanna go, hopefully with this new album.
Download music by Kumbia Queers below: