Cumbiamania at the Continental Club
Like the armadillo, an ancient Colombian dance music continues creeping north
I've always had a theory that if the cumbia ever made the jump into the English language, it would sweep the world. A show this Saturday featuring the reunited El Super Estrella and the debut of cumbia-rockers Los Lunas at the Continental Club could mark one of the opening salvos of that barrage.
The cumbia is just too infectious to be denied. Just as you can't watch an armadillo shuffling through the underbrush and fail to smile, you can't hear a cumbia without the same warm reaction. And also like the armadillo, the cumbia has been marching steadily northward for much of the last 50 years, stopping only periodically to gather its forces and renew its strength. Picking up English as a second language is all it needs now to continue north.
The cumbia originated in Colombia, where native peoples like the Kogui and Kuna mixed their Amerindian flutes with tribal drumming and call-and-response vocals from the Guinean slaves imported there by the Spanish, whose guitars and accordions later rounded out the basic sound that is modern cumbia. The hypnotic cumbia beat is basic 4/4, like that of so much of Western music, and yet it is incredibly intricate, funky and syncopated, marked by scratched percussion and lisping cymbals.
Like jazz, hip-hop, tango and rock and roll, and hell, every other popular music ever invented, it was frowned upon by the upper classes in Colombia for decades. Nevertheless, with the advent of improved recording and distribution in Latin America in the late 1950s, it started its armadillo-esque creep out of its coastal Colombian stronghold. Frowned on by the elites everywhere, it toddled both south (it is popular today in both Argentina and Chile) and north. It swept through Central America, advanced up the Mexican Gulf Coast, and had reached the borderlands by 1970, where the torch was picked up by Matamoros native Rigo Tovar.
After his move to Houston in the early '70s and before his death last year, Tovar transformed cumbia by adding in influences from Ray Charles, border ballads, the blues, the Beatles, and even Black Sabbath. (Tovar's stage wear and manner owed a lot to Ozzy Osbourne.) Along the way, despite several debilitating illnesses including blindness, diabetes and vitiligo, the flowing-haired, sunglasses-wearing Tovar wrote the standards "La Sirenita" (later recorded by Los Super Seven among many others) and "Matamoros Querido," became a leading man in the movies, and even — get this -- outdrew the Pope in Monterrey. (John Paul II drew 300,000, while Tovar got 400,000 to come out.)
One of the many bands inspired by Tovar, a list that would grow to include Los Lobos, Ozomatli, Selena, Kumbia Kings, the Blazers, Calexico and Grupo Fantasma , was Houston's own Fito Olivares and also El Super Estrella , who both got started in the '70s. The keyboard-driven Super Estrella , aided by the backing of local record shop owner Memo Villarreal , had a few trans-border hits such as "El Besito Cortado," "La Negra Candelosa," "El Amuleto," "La Cachimba de San Juan," "El Guayabo," and "La Carreta" and toured as far as Chicago and California before disbanding in the mid-'80s. Today, the band is led by founding member Tino Ortega , whose son (also named Tino) is the bassist and a singer in rockeros Chango Jackson .
"I grew up hearing cumbia in my garage," says the younger Ortega, who also plays bass in Super Estrella. "They used to play big-ass cumbia dances here, where 10,000 people would come out."
While the Continental certainly can't accommodate that many people, this promises to be a strong show. The reunited Super Estrella — which includes has been tuning up for this show by visiting several of their old strongholds in the Valley and Mexico — includes the two Ortegas and four members of the Luna family, who will also open the show as Los Lunas, a cumbia-rock project that the younger Ortega is producing in the studio. Ortega promises also to feature some English-language material, including a cumbified version of a song written by John Lennon that you'll just have to come see to believe.
Could cumbiamania become the next Beatlemania? Only time will tell, but the younger Ortega is working on it, and he's a very talented guy. And it's promising that American society scarcely notices cumbia now and condescends to it as the music of laborers and working people when it does. Cumbia has beaten those attitudes everywhere from Tierra del Fuego to Houston already, and here's betting that with English lyrics, this music will constitute the next great American dance craze. - John Nova Lomax
El Super Estrella and Los Lunas perform Saturday, December 16, at the Continental Club, 3700 Main. Call 713-529-9899 for more info.
Watch a video of Rigo Tovar >HERE
Watch an excellent Chango video HERE:
Watch Los Lobos performing a cumbia live HERE:
Watch a weird cumbia video HERE
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