Note: all this week, we will be highlighting Houston acts performing at this weekend's Houston Whatever Fest.
The scene: a miserably humid August evening at the Nightingale Room downtown. After experiencing floods of Biblical proportions, as Noah and his big boat of VIPs passed the rest of us by, a torrent of electronic music meshed with the indigenous sounds of cumbia poured out of the venue. A sweat-soaked Gio Chamba came out of the sparse crowd and went outside, randomly inviting people walking by the club to come in and dance. The real post-flood party was taking place inside, and with immeasurable charisma and few words, Chamba managed to lure perfect strangers to come inside, feel the exotic rhythms and permit themselves to escape the day’s burdens by dancing.
And danced they did. The room slowly filled up as more and more people withdrew from themselves, giving up their egos, stepping to the rhythms that he conjured.
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Chamba is a throwback. Reminiscent of a bandleader during swing music’s heydays, he conducts the musicians onstage and the audience on the floor. Nods and smiles emerge. He knows that the audience belongs to him, fostering a connection with the entire room.
He knows how to own a crowd. It is unavoidable these days not to see audience members bored by musical performances staring at their screens to make the experience less painful. Not at a Gio Chamba show. If phones are out, it is to let their friends know that they are definitely missing out.
Chamba's passion for music was nurtured by his surroundings in Houston and abroad. As a kid, he traveled between Mexico and the U.S. Unknown to him at the time, the cross-cultural musical influences eventually shaped who he has become as an artist today.
“Man, when I was young, I just wanted to play punk music," he says. "But being in Mexico, I couldn’t escape cumbia. It was everywhere."
A self-professed jack of all trades, Chamba plays guitar during his performances, jumping to percussion, dancing toward the table with his interfacing equipment and controlling sounds from a cellphone attached to his wrist. "I move to each instrument based on how I feel and how the audience responds to the music," he says.
Not only does Chamba expertly perform cumbia music, but he embodies the knowledge and spirit of the music’s history. He spoke fluidly about the varieties of this distinctly indigenous music that was created in South America by the region's African population. For instance, the distinction between Colombian cumbia and Brazilian cumbia is subtle. With nearly identical rhythms, the overlay of instrumentation provides the difference.
“It’s like punk music played in New York and the faster, up-tempo punk out on the West Coast," explains Chamba. "Ramones are punk, and so is Black Flag. It’s the same with cumbia. It depends on where you come from. Geography determines the difference."
The path from punk to electro-cumbia music began with Pasadena’s legendary noise-punk act, Cop Warmth. Even during his stint as the band’s drummer, Chamba infused cumbia rhythms all over the band’s Centaur Cop Top EP. “Because [Cop Warmth’s] style of music is open to improvise over, I would throw in these cumbia rhythms and add another side to a music that was already fun to play.”
According to Chamba, there are Mexican artists who chop and screw cumbia music. Since he possessed a penchant for electronic music, punk, and hip hop, it only made sense to him to fuse all of those styles together. Despite the risk, experiencing as many failures as there were triumphs, he developed the style he constructs and performs today.
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Infectious and distinctive, his complex musical vocabulary translated into instant success. Both venues and artists pursued him. Not only does Chamba fill a room and dictate joyous results, he also possesses a willingness to collaborate with other local musicians. Recently, he remixed Guilla’s stand-out track, “Groupie Love,” from the rapper's album Rap, Trap, and Drums, adding the same ecstatic feel without overwhelming the song’s original arrangement.
To experience his musical magic, it is essential to see Chamba perform live. In an age when music often provokes brooding, contemplation and vapidity, Chamba pulls pure delight out of it, and out of those who participate in his joy too.
Gio Chamba performs at Houston Whatever Fest Saturday, November 21. Stage/time TBD.