Arriba la Cumbia has its heart in the right place. Though the compiler’s aim is to incite us with modern cumbia variants—cumbia hip hop, dance, remix, rave—he dots the playlist with examples of old-style cumbia as well, songs recorded in the mid-twentieth century when the band scene was at its strongest. What he would like to do, I think, is ask us to love the new tracks and then give a little of our love to the old tracks. He would like us to see a continuum. “Yes,” he would like us to say. “A good genre is still a good genre. It was good then and it’s good now.”
This is an idea that has been used before, notably in the Rough Guide to Klezmer, which saw old klezmer recordings juxtaposed against recent interpretations. It was a clever way of showing us how a song can be altered by time. We were able to hear the imaginative leaps interpreters make when they’re bringing traditional songs into their repertoire, the decisions they make, the ideas they keep and the ideas they discard.
Arriba la Cumbia is not that systematic. The old tracks and the new ones belong to the same genre, but aside from that, there seems to be no special connection between them. When we exchange Up Bustle & Out’s “Cumbion Mountain”, which was released on their Mexican Sessions album in 2007, for Alberto Pacheco’s “Cumbia Cienaguera”, recorded half a century earlier, the differences are so dramatic and the juxtaposition so arbitrary, that they jar the two apart. Any theoretical ideas of continuum have suffered a shock.
The music’s signature sound is a fierce twitch coupled with an extended melody that hops around the twitch, plays with it, goes off on its own, brings in new instruments, preens and yelps. Usually there is a singer and a chorus. Cumbia singers are traditionally male, but there have been exceptions, such as Leonor Gonzalez Mina, “the big black lady of Colombia.” Arriba la Cumbia is wall-to-wall men. The difference in this compilation between the old and new music lies in the relationship between the instruments creating that twitch and that melody. Listening to “Cumbia Cienaguera” you can hear the accordion and the percussion sitting snugly above and below one another like layers in a fat lasagna. The sound has depth. You can tease out the personalities of the musicians: there’s one, lazing back a little, there’s another, putting an extra flourish into his work.
Most of the modern tracks are not like that. The twitch is a sampled sound, and the group, when there is a group at all, sounds small. The samples lie shallowly on top of one another, crammed close to the surface. There’s a richness in the older tracks that vanishes from the newer ones. This is a problem in an album that wants us to appreciate old and new alike. There were times when I thought, ” Cumbia used to be better.” It wasn’t the music itself, but that drop from fat to pith.
Listen to the modern tracks separately, on their own terms, and they improve. The venerable accordionist Aniceto Molina remixes cleanly into “El Campanero”, and Humberto Pernett’s “Huele a Mariacachafa” is a blippety-fast cumbian accordion-rave. The best of these new cumbias are the ones that marry the traditional style to hip-hop, updating the old lead singer/chorus idea to include rapping and shout-outs. “New York, New York!” chant the Dominicans of Fulanito as the accordion twists behind them and the sampled percussion lets off a rapid smashing sound. “City of DREAMS!” Originally African, the basic cumbia sound started its American life in the form of a slave courtship dance, and the brash plea of that original purpose has not gone away. It jumps out of Arriba la Cumbia from every angle, out of old songs and new ones alike. Here I am! Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!