¨When I Die I Want you to Play Cumbia¨ - by journalist Cristian Alarcón
There are lots of unpleasant ways to have your precious sleep interrupted in the morning, though having “Winds of Change” involuntarily forced upon you, as I did last week, is particularly cruel. In Winds of Change, you’ll recall, quintessentially bad 80’s pop-metal band the Scorpions wail out for a time ¨when the children of tomorrow
dream away,” and do it all over a German accent. Sex, drugs and social reform? Good heavy metal should never dare pine for such lofty ideals; mega hair-band Warrant knew this, instead (appropriately) waxing lyrical about “Cherry Pie” and other crude metaphors for sex.
The perpetrator of this most inhumane offense was none other than my neighbor, who lives one floor down from me in my crumbling 30’s era apartment building. I’ve never spoken with the guy and I’ve only caught glimpses of him in passing, yet I feel like I know his story. You see, in Buenos Aires, like most places, there is a fairly well defined social structure based strongly upon music preferences. This neighbor happens to fall easily into the group known as the “metaleros” – the metalheads.
Consider: not only does he blast Monster Ballads whenever the feeling moves him, he also drives a motorcycle – a beat-up, skeletal hunk of metal that he straps down to the lamppost in front of our building each night – and even rocks ass-long hair and a leather jacket to boot. Thus is the prototypical “metalero;” though my neighbor, who’s in his mid-late 30’s, probably falls on the older side of the clique, having listened to Megadeth back when they were actually cool as opposed to a gawky adolescent now.
The metaleros are far from the only quasi-social group here defined by music taste and style; ones I’m familiar with include: rappers, rollingas, chetos, and the cumbia villeros, perhaps the most authentically Argentine of them all. Considering Buenos Aires is part of Argentina, of course there’s a glaring omission here – the Tangueros, or people into the tango scene. Because there’s already been so much written on this topic and I’m far from an expert on it anyway, I’m not going to touch on this. But what I will do is elucidate on some of Argentina’s lesser known scenes.
Cordoba, Argentina’s 2nd city, sits smack dab in the middle of the country, giving off the vibe of even further isolation from home than Buenos Aires, which is already 6,000 or so kilometers away from it. So imagine my surprise when, after living there for a month, I show up to a party and see a bunch of dudes sporting Chicago Whitesox hats and XXXL NFL Jerseys as they breakdance to Lil’ Jon. Not to be left behind, another guy was proudly flashing his gold crowns all night. While they may be a year behind on what’s hot and what’s not, these guys, known as the rappers, can still move.
A lot of things strike out about the rappers, none moreso than the obvious fact that probably none of them understand a single word their idols are saying, save for the odd “bitch” or “fuck.” Practically raised on the likes of Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, even my friends and I sometimes struggle to comprehend the complex patois that makes up the gangsta rapper’s flow; I’ve little doubt to some guy who can barely speak English it might as well be ancient Indian Sanskrit.
Even more intriguing, lots of rappers are really into the “skating” scene as well. When they’re not busting a move on the dancefloor – more often than not the living room in an old converted house – they just may be busting one out on the half-pipe. Hard to imagine some dense southern California skateboarder type going home and putting on anything other than Sum-41 (or anyone else who’s main preoccupation in life isn’t high school angst), but in Cordoba after a day of jumping and grinding apparently nothing helps you unwind like a rousing verse of “Back dat Ass Up.”
As fortune would have it I also live in the same apartment building as a bunch of rollingas, perhaps Buenos Aires’ most recognizable youth movement. Dubbed rollingas because of their steadfast allegiance to the famed British band, nary a member would be caught without an oversize tongue stamped on their shirt or patched onto to their backpack. Other trademarks include hair cropped short in the front (often in infamous ¨bowl¨ fashion), a scarf around the neck, and Topper brand shoes, the local cheaper version of Chuck All-Stars.
The rollinga movement is so all-encompassing it defies easy categorization; everyone from working-class kids to disenchanted college students can claim membership in its ranks. Going through a rollinga phase is a fairly typical experience of growing up, akin to the alternative rock phase of my generation where the likes of Nirvana, Alice in Chains and the Offspring gave us a voice, and a pissed off one at that. In fact just a few weeks ago one of my students, now a most upstanding professional, recounted his glory days as a rollinga a few years back.
While Buenos Aires may have its rebellious anti-establishment proclaiming they Can’t Get No Satisfaction, it certainly has its traditionalists bent on keeping up the status quo too. Known as the chetos (“snobs”), some of the middle and upper classes concentrated in the affluent northern parts of the city roughly parallel the “socs” (as in “social”) from 1950’s movies and books, like The Outsiders and Rebel Without a Cause. In The Outsiders, you’ll remember, the lower-class black leather jacket-clad “greasers” are always fighting with the Varsity letter-jacketed, T-bird driving socs with names like Buffy and Patsy.
Cheto is a much more general classification than rollinga, rapper or metalero and essentially refers to any arrogant social climber, but they too have defining characteristics. In terms of music, chetos love pop and MTV, often shunning local bands in favor of their imported counterparts. No weekend would be complete without a night out to the club, where 25 peso covers are often the norm. For many of them shopping is a pastime revered almost to the same degree as soccer, while trips to the gym follow closely at second. As you can imagine the “bowl cut” is not the haircut of choice amongst this set, who instead prefer just well-coiffed enough do’s and a good clean shave.
At the complete opposite end of the spectrum are the cumbia villeros. First, “cumbia” refers to the quintessential Latin American music genre originally from Colombia. With its tropical, slow-and-steady rhythm it gives off a folksy, native vibe, explaining why it’s probably less popular in unapologetically Eurocentric Argentina than in the rest of Latin America, where it’s largely accepted. Next, “villera” is an adjective referring to the slums, known in Argentina as “villas miserias” (misery towns) or just “villas” for short. It’s worth noting here that immigrating Bolivians, Paraguayans and Argentines from the poorer northern provinces make up a considerable percentage of villa dwellers. Regular cumbia – while varying in style from country to country – is warm, lively and rarely strays from familiar music themes like romance and fiestas.
In contrast cumbia villera is gloomy, haunting and often downright dirty. Killing cops, easy girls and drugs are the subject matter in many songs – as is the obligatory ode to a fallen comrade – making it largely analogous to gangsta rap in the U.S. Though while in the States gangsta rap is enjoyed by all social classes and many of its artists have achieved household-name status even in surburbia, cumbia villera superstars’ celebrity pretty much ends where the villa begins.
Like in the States, in Argentina the debate goes on, questioning whether this type of music is little more than depraved rubbish or is actually the (angry) voice of the disenfranchised. I’m not at personal liberty to pass judgment, but what I can assert is that cumbia villera, like or not, certainly isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact on Monday, July 10, there was a front-page article in La Nación – one of Argentina’s most important dailies – reporting that within the past four years the villa population of Buenos Aires has gone up by 30 %. Until the abject poverty in these cities-within-a-city is effectively addressed, groups like Yerba Brava (“Tough Weed” – use your imagination), Damas Gratis (“Girls for Free”) and my personal favorite, Los Pibes Chorros (“The Robbing Kids”) will undoubtedly have a captive audience.
For more info. on this theme, The Guardian has a good, albeit graphic, article on the movement dated from 2002: http://arts.guardian.co.uk/fridayreview/story/0,12102,803625,00.html; also, local journalist Cristian Alarcón, who writes for leftist paper Pagina/12, spent years living in the villa and wrote a book about his experience in 2003, ¨Cuando me Muera Quiero que me Toquen Cumbia.¨
Cumbia Villera group Repiola breaks it down…ya errd
In terms of style, disciples of cumbia villera often synthesize with the rollingas and the rappers. For example, in the Pibes Chorros song “La Colorada” (the Rude One), the chorus rhymes about a delinquent who never showers and always wears “una remera de los Rolling Stone” (a Rolling Stones t-shirt). Solid Nike hats pulled over tight or sideways, oversize sports shirts and cornrows all reflect rappers’ influence too.
But as much as they may crossbreed with other groups, nothing affects the cumbia villera scene like soccer. Opportunities are few and far between in the villa, but soccer offers a ticket out, and if you’re good enough, one to superstardom as well. Right now one of the biggest celebs in the entire country is none other than Carlos Tevez, who plays for the Argentine National squad and has his mug pasted across the city in Nike billboard ads. From the Fuerte Apache villa in the Buenos Aires province, Tevez is already being alluded to as the next Maradona (who himself came from very humble surroundings) by some. “Carlitos,” as he’s affectionately known, easily represents the rags-to-riches dream of a boy in the villa, just like ‘Melo does for a boy in West Baltimore. It’s of little surprise then that soccer jerseys, jackets or any type of apparel are by far the most common gear in any cumbia villera fan’s dress.
Throughout this entire rambling commentary on music tango was mentioned only once. Quintessential Argentina it may symbolize, but to easily dismiss the significance of other music on the country would be a huge error. At least amongst the youth, the old rhythms of their grandparents have been traded for the beatbox and the distortion guitar. Though, as opposed to all of the other aforementioned groups - which all are more or less a local interpretation of an already existing music group or theme - cumbia villera, it could be argued, is the most authentically Argentine, having totally created it´s own unique sub-genre at the source.
Tags: Argentina, Buenos Aires, Droppin´ Some Knowledge, music