there is no cumbia on Puerto Rican radio…

January 19, 2011

… and knowing why that is (and why there’s generally no cumbia in the islands) might tell you a lot about both cumbia and the Caribbean. But sorry, honey, I ain’t the one.

There’s a lot of other stuff of course, from 80s grocery store pop — Tears for Fears may be the world’s most ubiquitous band — to rock en español, salsa, merengue, reggae, and corporate pop. Heard some of that Ke$ha for the first time, and can I say, this is what media conglomerates throw money at these days? To quote the name of a tourist trap Mexican place in the Condado neighborhood of San Juan, “Orale, guey!”

The urban stuff rules of course, which means LOTS of merengue de calle, a bit of dancehall, a (tiny) bit of U.S. commersh hip hop — the latter a music that conquered the globe five years ago only to all but completely recede into U.S.-centered provincialism a few years later. It would seem Lil Wayne doesn’t export well. And oh yes, Pitbull, who, along with mentor Lil Jon, anticipated the way to maximize international saturation would be to go deeper into the club, mining the trendiest house tracks of the year. They certainly speak Americano in this respect.

And, oh yes, reggaeton! You’ll hear the big pop tunes that you get on the radio in the states, autotune ballads. And Don Omar’s self-conscious global cross-pollination never sounded better pumping from a Jeep Wrangler on the north coast of the island.

This is of course the watering down of the wilder cacophonic kuduro that pricked up the ears of a thousand bloggers a few years back, smoothing things out for something more Carnival-ready. Gotta say I miss the dreds, Don.

What doesn’t make it over here, or at least to the Latin radio dominated by Central American tastes in the DC area, is reggaeton’s current throwback phase, exemplified by two of the best songs on PR radio. The first recalls the teched-out DJ Blass stuff that knocked me head-over-heels back in ’04, but with some of-the-moment (at least in Latin pop) autotunage. In PR, they don’t stop at the club, they tear the beach up too. And you’re in the right place if you can’t tell the difference between the two.

Quick digression: one of my favorite tracks of 2010 was the similarly Blass-inspired remix of Bomba Estereo’s “Fuego” by the Frikstailers. With this and moombahton, ersatz reggaeton was killing it last year.

Next, a track by reggaeton’s prettiest pretty-boy, Tito el Bambino. His last album was almost totally ballads underscored by gentle dembows, but here he teams up with my favorite spanish “ragga moofin,” Don Chezina, for a deliberate recall of the proto-reggaeton era of DJ Playero. The beat switches up mixtape-stylee, with some vintage Playero-riddims thrown in for good measure.

Perhaps post-crossover-crash, reggaeton’s nostalgically revisiting its roots.

Speaking of Playero, I scored a couple of mixes (37 and 39) at a record store at the seen-better-days mall/market of Rio Piedras, along with an Omega bootleg. You would think this would be the ideal place for CD-R mixtapes, but you’d be wrong. It does have an amazing food court, though. You know your roast pork’s coming from the right place when you’re getting it from a 350-poung guy named Junior who’s being assisted by an older gentleman with a prominent bypass surgery scar.

Speaking of Omega, he’s more prominent than Daddy Yankee these days. His CDs were everywhere. Check out his own Dembow homage. Fuerte!

I finally came across that universal figure of hood modernity, the bootleg guy, hanging at a pool hall on Luquillo Beach, where the cars are hot, the music is loud, and the ballcaps are askew at impossible angles. And the mixtapes are more expensive than what I get in DC. I tried to go for the 3-for-10 deal I get from the go-go dudes at the Florida Market, only to be told by my very stoned vendor that he works for someone else and can’t make deals. Todos somos trabajadores!

The mambo I got there was some of the most creative music I heard on the island. As it emerges from its convention-establishing phase, mambo is mixing with club sounds in a variety of weird ways. Zombie Nation’s soccer anthem “Kernkraft 400” makes an impromptu appearance among Dominican polyrhythms:

Fútbol is really the path towards global crossover, which, just like capital, is where pop music wants to go.

The compilation closes with a timely remix of MJ’s “Remember the Time” (labeled presumptuously “Omega FT Michael Jackson”). I noted the explosion of mambo remixes of Michael Jackson acá.

Here’s the whole compilation, which is the first I’ve ever purchased with a prominent twitter link printed on the cover. Don’t sleep on the merengue remix of 704 Boyz, or the soon-to-blow-up Prophex.



-mba Etymology

November 6, 2009

The use of the term timba in popular language and songs points to a close semantic relation between the words timba and rumba Discussing the origins of tumba, Leon relates the word to “a series of terms of Afroamerican origin like tumba, macumba, tambo, and others meaning collective partying, with the general meaning of group, meeting.” This seems to suggest an identity of words such as tumba, timba and rumba, meaning both drum and the occasion where drumming and dancing takes place. The hypothesis seems to be corroborated by folklorist Rogelio Martinez-Fure, who “suggests that mba, the root of the word rumba, now refers to dance and is found throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. According to him, it represents similar festive dance events and has similar accents in the dancing, e.g., on flirtation, chase of the female, or bumping the pelvis area.” This might confirm a semantic connection between words such as rumba and timba and names of other Afro-Latin American dances like Cuban mambo, Puerto Rican bomba, Colombian cumbia, Brazilian samba, Argentinian and Uruguayan candombe and Peruvia malambo.

–Vincenzo Perna, Timba: The Sound of the Cuban Crisis (2005)


May 17, 2008

A commenter was kind enough to point me to a very Tecnorumba-ish site (I think the original is defunct now) with a cache of merengue de calle along with reggaeton and some other Caribbean odds and ends: The site design is baffling, with some mp3s scrolling across the screen and necessitating some Duck-Hunt-style link clicking, but the tunes are there.

My favorite find was from Mala Fe, who had a novelty hit in the DR a while back called “La Vaca” (moo). More recently Mala Fe has become a gay icon of sorts with his cover of a parody of an internet meme version of a Moldovan pop hit (whew).

Here’s the evolution:

Moldovan Euro-dance group Ozone with “Dragostea Din Tea” live.

Chunky teenager Gary Broslma’s ebullient lip-syncing turns the song into a huge internet meme

Spanish comedy duo Los Morancos give the song the Weird Al treatment, turning it into “Pluma Gay,” a campy parody of homosexuality and Euro-dance. The lyrics are changed to “Marica quien? Marica tu. Marica yo. Maric ha ha!”: “Who’s gay? You’re gay. I’m gay. We’re all gay!” At first I thought they said “maricon,” which means “butterfly”; think of the use of “fairy” in English. Turns out “marica” (literally, “magpie”) is Castillian for a “weak, effeminate man” according to the DRAE, something the dictionary has taken flak for. Ah, learning! The video isn’t all that funny, unless you think middle-aged men engaging in homo-play-acting is inherently hilarious.

Mala Fe’s mambo-style cover changes the tone from mocking to celebratory, making it an affirmation of gay identity, while maintaining the irreverence (his name does mean “Bad Faith” after all) of Los Malandros’ version. In the video, Mala Fe struggles to remain in the closet, but when he can’t satisfy his new bride, he’s forced to come out. The song’s title makes more sense with the video’s abundance of feather boas — plumas gay indeed.

Fittingly, a homothuggin’ lip-sync version of Mala Fe’s song is also on YouTube. 

I haven’t gone through all the TuPayola jams yet, but also of interest to the sociologically inclined is DJ Sensual’s La Historia Del Haitiano, which proves that Latinos can have just as much xenophobic anxiety about immigration as gringos. Haitians can’t even speak Spanish, yet they expect to get good jobs and eat seafood when they cross the border! Muy familiar, no?

Proyecto Uno

April 28, 2008

So a belated follow-up/expansion of this blog’s greatest hit (los exitos de unfashionablylate) so far with some further thoughts on merengue de calle. Proyecto Uno was (is?) a Dominican group mixing merengue with hip hop and club dance back in the go-go ’90s. There’s something charming and cheesy about these weird little major label forays into niche-market hybridity, where house beats pop up everywhere — I get it from El General’s lesser ’90s work as well, not to mention some of the weaker 90s hip-house cuts, which seem to be the antecedent of this stuff. Definitely NOT authentic, to reference an earlier discussion, and often not very good either.

Though I must say, the boys at Proyecto Uno have something. Their biggest hit, “El Tiburon” still gets plays on La Calle (the “hurban” station here in Chicago, which has mercifully diversified from its all-reggaeton playlists of 2005). Their sound is a very self-conscious patching together of merengue, hip hop, and house – the seams show, although that’s not always a bad thing. And it makes sense, since these guys were based in NYC and almost certainly scarfing down the hot club sounds along with a healthy diet of more traditional Dominican sabrosos. 

I’m wondering how influential these guys were on merengue de calle, though it’s possible that they aren’t at all. Still, I hear more than a trace of what’s to come in “Pumpin.'” Yeah, it’s called that. What they lack in cool sophistication (and rapping ability), they make up in enthusiasm. If they didn’t inspire merengue de calle, they were plowing a similar furrow, but more synthetically/syncretically. 

I picked up their greatest hits in Bowling Green of all places. Perhaps the most interesting is the “Techno” mix of “Merengue Con Letra” (which also appears in its merengue version). Shamelessly cribbing the synth riff from Reel 2 Reel’s “I Like To Move It Move It”, it sounds a whole lot like that “Calabria” tune that’s as universal a hit as we’ve got these days. Has anyone mentioned that the sax riff in “Calabria” is basically a restrained, slightly interpolated version of the hook on Reel 2 Reel’s infamous party starter? No cheeky nu-rave DJs mashing it up? The melody’s already locked away in our brains, it just takes a Scandinavian producer to trigger those dormant neurons.

Anyway, to bring this back to my original topic and maybe digress somewhere else, I wonder how this 1990s stuff — El General, Proyecto Uno, Reel 2 Reel — fits into the global ghettotech nexus. It sounds cheesy to my ears in a way that a lot of contemporary stuff doesn’t, and it hasn’t made its way into hipster record crates. Perhaps it lacks the undercurrent of violence and menace that makes the Other authentic in the post-gangsta music-scape? Or maybe it’s just time: will flogging the 808 Volt riddim will sound passe in the next generation’s funk carioca (and for whom will it be passe)? The papers keep telling me those ’90s synth presets are retro-cool again, so maybe Proyecto Uno’s proyecto techno is due for a reappraisal. 

Translatinidad Vol 1 – Tecnorumba

February 10, 2008

Ok, so after I check out this awesome mambo mixtape I got in the Dominican Republic, of course I wanted more. And I knew from my days combing for bongoflava that this wouldn’t be as simple as firing up the ol’ Soulseek. This was going to be navigating through the slapdash HTML slums of the Third World Internet armed with only Google and a passable knowledge of Spanish. Luckily I stumbled upon something promising right off the bat, something that was much more than the mambo treasure trove I desired. This was Tecnorumba, a Spanish-language social-networking site hosting videos, chat, and most importantly, thousands of mp3s. I found plenty of mambo (I think Tecnorumba is based in the Caribbean, if not the Dominican Republic) as well as… well, everything else. The latest American rap, Eurodance, reggaeton, bhangra, old school salsa, and LOTS of homemade remixes branded with that mark of piracy-based mongrel music — “Made with Sonic Foundry ACID.” This was something foreign and yet familiar at the same time, and I could almost envision the soundwaves of the poorly beatmatched 50 Cent/cumbia mashups as I started a massive binge of downloading.

What I find interesting about Tecnorumba is that it’s a node in the vast series of Intertubes in which the music of the Global Postmodern — mainly indigenized and hybridized forms of hip hop, reggae, and dance music from throughout the developing world — collects and mutates, almost with a mind of its own. Indeed, sifting through the vast amount of music on the site, my browsing imitated a data-mining virus more than a record connoisseur. I scooped up as much as I could through a series of preset inputs (“search ‘reggaeton'”; “search ‘remix'”), then went back through to pick out the valuable pieces of information. So several weeks later, after picking through bad songs, broken links, odd titles, shitty mastering, and the kind of bizarrely wonderful cultural soundclashes you only find through a mixture of serendipity and perseverance, I could come out with this value-added compilation of harvested data that will fit on any standard CD-R: Tecnorumba: The Mix.

The music of Caribbean has always been subject to clashing cultures wrought by economic imperatives, and Tecnorumba is just a late installment in this long history. Still, I wonder at the weird kinds of identities being produced by this proliferation and collision of culture, where Turkish DJs make reggaeton hits big in Dominican clubs, where Tanzanian hip hop mixes made by Dubai DJs find their way into Eastern Europe via digital trade routes through the Caribbean, where microgenres formed in the crucible of geographic and cultural isolation suddenly invade the hard drives of youth worldwide hungry for shared contexts. This is what I mean by “Translatinidad,” in which identity becomes ingrained more through cultural collaboration and mixture than through political boundaries or racial categories, although a shared language seems to be one major organizing principle. I’ve got at least one more installment of the Translatinidad theme planned, hence “Vol. 1.”

Translatinidad Vol 1 – Tecnorumba

  1. DJ Mauro Martinez – Cumbia Crunk – excerpt from a mix of cumbia rhythms and rap acapellas
  2. Omega – Me Persiguen Los Mamberos – Omega is the king of mambo: although not necessarily its most representative artist, he could be the genre’s most talented. He’s got a whole band, and his songs have that spontaneity of a live performance, although structurally they’re similar to other mambo songs.
  3. DJ Hakki – Kolbalsti – From what I can tell, DJ Hakki is a Turkish DJ who makes reggaeton-inflected Turkish club-dance. Reggaeton is HUGE in the nascent Turkish pop industry, and Hakki’s in turn found fans in the Caribbean.
  4. Africanos – DRAGON ROJOChampeta used to be a kind of Spanish afrobeat from Cartagena, Colombia, but now can refer to any number of sonic mixtures hailing from the area. This one is more cavernous Latin house than anything.
  5. rumba portuguesa – I have no information on the artist, but it sounds like it’s from a mix of rave-influenced Latin music. There’s some cubia-style accordion as well as trancey synths.
  6. Punto Rojo feat. Nastasja – Calabria (Dominican Remix) – The 2007 reggae-fied remixes of “Calabria” by Danish producer Rune are blowing up Spanish radio. Here’s the Dominican version.
  7. Mambo Infinito feat La Mayor – Coje Lo Tuyo – This is basically mambo ghettotech and as such IT OWNS. We’ll see how long it takes for this to migrate from my blog into Diplo’s DJ sets.
  8. DJ Sam – Minimambo Mix – A 10-minute mix of merengue, street and classic.
  9. Huaynos – Llaqta – Ok, I don’t know if I got the info right, but this is an example of the guitar+female vocal music of the Andes that influenced cumbia. Heartwrenching singing!
  10. Charly Dyen – Esposa amp Amante. This is labeled “Bachatatango,” which means you get that arpeggiated guitar with some FUNKY bass for your troubles. Oh, and some drum machine kicks and claps for good measure. This cuts off abruptly, so was probably part of a mix I wish I had.
  11. DJ Blu – Chingue Tu Madre. Yes, they are acquainted with the dance genre of ‘breaks’ in Latin America as well (proximity to Florida probably helps).
  12. Don Chezina – Te Pongo Mujer. Don Chezina was in Playero 38, the DJ crew that got reggaeton started from a hodge-podge of Spanish dancehall and 90s hip hop. This particular track is a perreo-style romp through the beatboxing from Doug E Fresh’s “Freaks.”
  13. Tempo – Donde Estan Las Girlas – Another older Puerto Rican track, with the synth riff from “I Like to Move It Move It” and some dem bow drums. Tempo was the doyen of dirty lyrics in the pre-crossover days of reggaeton; unfortunately he was in prison when Daddy Yankee broke big. Truthfully he is a bit lacking as an MC.
  14. DJ Ricky – Los Power Ranger En Mambo – El nombre dice lo que es. DJ Ricky is the go-to guy for mambo remixes (sort of like DJ Kazzanova in reggaeton). Here he covers the Power Rangers theme, while throwing some 50 Cent and Nate Dogg acapellas over top apropos of nothing. Zany!
  15. El Original – Te Doy (rmx) – This is the token cracked-out cumbia track, with a reggae interlude for good measure. I had hoped to find more druggy-as-hell cumbia in Tecnorumba, but came up short.
  16. Omega y Su Mambo Violento – Por Telefono No – Omega begging his girl not to break up with him over the phone. Great theme for a track like this, and once again Omega’s performance doesn’t disappoint.
  17. Arcangel – Siente El Mambo – Another DJ Ricky remix. The hushed vocals and unreleased tension remind me of the Whisper song.
  18. Hector El Father – Tumba -Reggaeton heavyweight with some merengueton; melodically this owes more to standard merengue than the ultra-minimal mambo/merengue de calle. A nice spice to what otherwise could be one of those drearily portentuous reggaeton anthems.
  19. Guanabanas – Chinga – Some bhangra drums and bed-squeaking (a la Trillville’s “Some Cut”) with your reggaeton? Yes, please. “Chinga” means “fuck,” so you can guess what this song’s about.
  20. El Rookie – Papel y Pluma – Old school (1998) Spanish dancehall! Maybe Panamanian?
  21. Residente Calle 13 – Japon (DJ Sticky Remix) – Another mambo remix of a reggaeton track, with all the appropriate seriousness that Residente commands.
  22. Jessly – Adios Amor – More of that beautiful musica de indios Andeando, but very well produced. The shimmering off-kilter guitar rhythm has a “glitch-remix” feel to it, but it’s all natural. Does Bjork listen to this stuff?

Coming soon: More Translatinidad mixes! And should you find anything worthwhile on your own Tecnorumba expeditions, drop me a line.

Merengue de Calle AKA Mambo: The Sound of the Dominican Underground

January 26, 2008

While vacationing in the Dominican Republic over MLK weekend, I had one of those unique exchanges in which I attempt to purchase a CD of unknown provenance in the vain hopes I will stumble upon some weird hybrid music from the global postmodern. Typically these exchanges are conducted with no more than 70% comprehension by either party, terms such as “hip hop” and “bass” are bandied about, and I get some watered down bhangra or generic reggae for my troubles. This time I lucked out with Super Mambo Supremo 2008, an unlabeled CD-R with an inkjet printout of Heidi Klum next to the Domincan flag’s coat of arms, containing 19 tracks of the sound burning up the Dominican streets — mambo, also known as merengue de calle.

As is typical of such genres, names are often cribbed inappropriately from elsewhere, as the music sounds very little like mambo, at least according to my limited understanding, although “street merengue” does a much better job. The tracks are stripped-down merengue rhythms (most sound right off a Casio’s “Latin” presets), with high tempos, dirty rapped lyrics, and an occasional reggaeton rhythm thrown in for good measure. Also typical for these genres (reggaeton, bachata, cumbia, and funk carioca have similar trajectories), the older and more elevated classes of Dominican society scorned this music until popular pressure became insurmountable; now mambo artists play rallies for major presidential candidates.

Omega is the mamboista tan grande, with a distinctive gravelly voice very reminiscent of Tego Calderon. Apparently he’s so successful he can afford an entire merengue backing band, although you’d never know it from the sound. Have this many musicians ever made a sound so minimal?

Music videos (with typical girls+jewels+cars+money hip-hop imagery — par for the course) are rather the exception — I had far more luck on YouTube finding live performances on low-budget TV shows. One of the biggest hits of the genre is Galgo Mambo’s “El Viajero,” which means “the traveller” — I believe a reference to how Galgo gets around, not, unfortunately, to the rampant sex tourism in the DR:

Love that 80s soft rock intro, a staple of the Dominican radio. Raphael, our taxi driver, preferred it to anything else.

And it’s not exclusively a boy’s club, although the ladies of Unidad Key certainly need to work on their stage presence:

Mambo’s even got its preferred producer/remixer, DJ Ricky, who produced the track “No Era Por Ahi” on Tego’s latest album, El Abayarde Contra Ataca.

Sonically, mambo reminds me more of the tinny hyperrhythmic sound of Angolan kuduro than Caribbean hip hop styles, although there aren’t any links that I know of, other than Iberian-colonialism-meets-black-diaspora:

And now for links!

Blog (en espanol) about merengue in La Republica Dominicana: Merengue Mundo

Thread on a Dominican messageboard about merengue de calle (en ingles!): DR1 Forums

And as a special added gift, the entire contents of Super Mambo Supremo 2008.


Here’s the tracklisting, now that I’ve actually bothered to type it all in:

  1.  Tulile – Ta Buena
  2. Omega – Si No Me Amas
  3. DJ Lexxon – Dale Maraka (this is a remix of a popular Dominican dance song with some Dem Bow)
  4. La Chelcha – Bebe Mas
  5. Galgo Mambo – El Viajero
  6. El Ferry – Te Tienen Pena
  7. Rimambo – La Voz Que Te Quilla
  8. Kewdy – El Bram Bram
  9. La Super Banda – Quedata Loco
  10. Silvio Mora – Los Camarones
  11. Lebreke – Si Tu Quieres Mangamos
  12. Conde Marc Lauri – Demagocia Con Mi Coro
  13. DJ Kennedy – Manga Ahy
  14. Jay Pallano – El Bollo
  15. Unidad Key – Tumba Eso
  16. The Four One – Sofia
  17. La Grena Con Mambo – La Maicena
  18. Mala Fe – Como La Mochila
  19. Tamarindo – Para El Violento

Check the next post for another mambolicious mix.