Surf guitars, sapphic lyrics and punk rock attitude – that’s Kumbia Queers, a lesbian sextet from Buenos Aires. Founded in 2007 by former members of two rock bands, Ultrasónicas, from Mexico, and She Devils, from Argentina, Kumbia Queers are an ensemble with a unique take on one of Latin America’s most popular styles, cumbia, which emerged in early 19th century Colombia. Like so many Latin American idioms, cumbia is a hybrid of African, indigenous and European influences. Its characteristic off-beat rhythm (mostly 2/4 time, sometimes combined with 2/2) is reminiscent of ska, and like the Jamaican style, compulsively danceable and easier to pick up than the more rhythmically complex Afro-Cuban salsa. That made it the perfect new direction for six Latina rockers who embraced punk’s DIY ethos but wanted to make a genre shift and create something new.
Their first album, Kumbia Nena, featured girl-centric covers of Black Sabbath (“Iron Man” became “Chica de Metal”, or “Iron Girl”), the Ramones and the Cure, and a re-working of Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita” they called “La Isla Con Chicas” (The Island with Girls). They followed their debut with two shorter recordings, God Save the Queens, an EP, and Scream Queers at the Kumbia Club, a collaboration with the Berlin-based band Scream Club. In 2011, they released their second full-length album, La gran estafa del tropi punk (The Great Tropi-Punk Swindle), produced by Pablo Lescano and featuring such guests as Café Tacuba’s Quique Rangel and Flavio Cianciarullo of Los Fabulosos Cadillacs.
Pecados Tropicales (Tropical Sins), recorded in early 2012 in Buenos Aires, reveals a maturing band, one more confident in both their mastery of an adopted style and their fusion of cumbia with rock and ska. They’re still irreverent, but less jokey, which is all to the good, especially when they’re taking on classic material like “Caballo Viejo” (Old Horse) and “Desaprendiendo” (Unlearning), both by the beloved Venezuelan singer-songwriter Símon Diaz, and “Patricia”, by Peru’s Enrique Delgado.
Cumbia has evolved into a pan-Latin style with many variants, like Colombia’s vallenato and Argentina’s villera, Peru’s chicha, and several regional Mexican styles and subgenres. Kumbia Queers work these various strains of cumbia, giving their sound a pleasing variety. And although Pecados Tropicales is indeed a cumbia album, the band has by no means forsaken its punk roots, evident in their stage names (Ali Gua Gua, Pat Combat Rocker, Inesphektor, Pila Zombie), the cheeky attitude, and especially the guitars. The wonderful twangy, skanking and surfing guitars of Pila Zombie and guest players that make tracks like “Tiro al Blanco” (Target Shooting), “Motochorra” and “Caballo Viejo” so much raucous fun. Inesphektor, on drums and percussion, deftly mixes the clip-clop cumbia rhythms with rock and ska beats while Flora Linyera provides the enjoyably cheesy keyboard parts typical of contemporary Colombian electro-cumbia.
The band’s weak spot, however, is the singing. Ali Gua Gua is a front woman with stage presence and charisma, but her vocals are for the most part just serviceable. “Quizas Mañana” (Maybe Tomorrow), a cumbia-reggae hybrid, is a catchy number with a great hook and the band rocks it, but a stronger vocalist could have made it great. Vocal shortcomings don’t hurt “Caballo Viejo”; Kumbia Queers’ version of the Símon Diaz classic covered by such eminences as Celia Cruz, Ruben Blades and Placido Domingo gets over on its guitar-driven punk-ska rambunctiousness. “In the Mood for Love” teams Kumbia Queers with their Teutonic gal pals Scream Club on a cumbia-rap en ingles that’s all sexy come-ons and bedroom boasting. It’s the sound of gay girls having fun, which pretty much describes the entire record. Less than stellar vocals and some dull material notwithstanding, the fun is contagious.