INTERVIEW
ALL HAIL THE CUMBIA KING
ALL HAIL THE CUMBIA KING

by Shawn Reynaldo

Dick Verdult is a middle-aged Dutch man who also happens to be the godfather of the experimental cumbia scene in Argentina. Better known as Dick El Demasiado, the founder of the legendary Festicumex festival recently returned to Buenos Aires to finish up a new album and play a series of live shows. Just a few days after his arrival, he sat down for an interview and asado at WhatsUp Buenos Aires headquarters to talk about his life, his music and exactly how he started messing around with all this stuff in the first place.

WhatsUpBuenosAires: Starting with the basics, where and when were you born?

Dick El Demasiado: I was born in Eindoven, Netherlands in 1954.

W: As a child you lived in a lot of different places, can you name the different countries where you lived?

D: Guatemala, Argentina, Netherlands, France, South Africa.

W: Why did you move around so much?

D: (There is) a generation of children of multinationals and I’m part of it. My city, Eindoven, is the original town of Philips, the electric company. My father worked for them, he took his family with him and in every country a brother or sister was born. I was born in Holland but my brother was born in Guatemala and my sister was born in Argentina.

W: How many languages can you speak?

D: Five. Dutch, French, German, Spanish and English.

W: What kind of music did you listen to growing up and during your youth?

D: I grew up before the term “world music” existed. I lived through it. (When) I was 3 years old I would listen to marimba music and Mexican music. Then when I was 5 or 6 years old I would listen to Argentinian music but also Arabic music, Irish music, Nigerian music, and everything in between. Dixieland stuff and all that. We were traveling all around and Philips of course is also a record company…so we had the source of having a record company near our hands and (the benefit of) traveling around.

W: At what point in your life did you start messing around with music?

D: Of course it’s the wish of nearly every child to have some kind of musicianship and I started very awkwardly as a kid. Then, of course, I had bands. But the construction of a band, I thought it wasn’t so interesting. It has a lot to do with loyalty and democracy and all that stuff. Later on…I (formed) an artist group in Holland called Institute of Affordable Lunacy, and we do performances. So we did backing tapes (for) that and I did pirate radio, like 500 hours of radio, live. And during (the) radio (broadcasts), we would distort and apply effects on stuff live and it was just one big long improvisation, not in a jazz kind of way…but just to screw the material up. That’s how I learned to think very lightly of music.

W: At what point did you discover cumbia?

D: From age 6 to 12 I lived in Argentina. Traveling a lot, moving all the time, you can suffer or be aware of your situation. I was fortunate enough to be aware of my situation. I knew very well that I was on the wealthy side…I had a judgement for that as a small child already. Cumbia was the music of the maids. We had a maid too. She was always nice to me, I had nothing against maids and that was her music. All my friends were in white, well-to-do schools and they would look down on it. I never got to that level because I left at 12 years old. If I would have left at 16 maybe I would have looked down on it, going through (a phase) thinking (I was) a “cool guy”. I just stayed with a very good impression of the maid and so I did not have any misconception about what the values of the stuff were. I liked it and it had nothing to do with class.

W: So when did you start experimenting with cumbia sounds yourself?

D: Working a lot with dub music, I very easily compared the cumbia and saw there was the same kind of structure and the same kind of possible attitude in it. That’s when I thought there was a lot of texture in that music to work on and that was about in 2000.

W: Would you say that doing more experimental cumbias is just a continuation of your experimentation with sound in general?

D: Yes. You don’t want to think of your life as being a part of a category. The interesting thing is to open up categories.

W: At some point, I think in 1996, you did the first Festicumex in Honduras. Why Honduras of all places? Were you living there at the time?

D: I will tell you the story. I had earned a lot of money from Endemol, the big television/production company. We could spend it on whatever because I had this artist group. I wasn’t paid personally, I was paid through this group. So I said “Well, let’s go to Honduras” a year after the Mitch Hurricane. Honduras was always a forgotten country. Then Mitch came, they had three months of attention and then they vanished again, a forgotten country. So we wanted to know how this forgotten country, one year after this moment of glamour, would live. We went there with a whole group and we filmed a lot of material without any direction. We didn’t want to prove something, we just filmed a lot. We were all artists without any purpose, just observation and to see what was going to happen.

So then I invented this festival – Festicumex – not to have it as a festival but just to have it as an internet site. (I figured) that if you make an interesting site (for) Festicumex you can say these musicians played there and their hobbies are filming inundations. I used the whole idea of Festicumex just to have a clothes hanger for all this material. So it never existed but we mentioned it as if it did. We even got a subsidy from Holland to make a site for what we called the first antedated festival. This festival was the first subsidized, antedated festival. It never took place, but the artists started to live. We had created these (artists) and people were asking about it, so then I wrote a book about all these musicians and (included) interviews with them and everything. Suddenly it started to live and I made all the music for all of these different artists. I made a song for Padre Theresa, for Hygienica Gonzalez as if they were all different persons and it just spread. Then at the same moment I figured that I may as well make something for Dick El Demasiado, who (at that time) I still wasn’t. I made a whole CD and I liked doing it and that’s how it happened. That was the first Festicumex. Then the second one we really did in Buenos Aires in 2003.

W: What prompted you to eventually make Festicumex an actual event?

D: I realized that coming in here, that I could afford a very luxurious situation where I could (be) completely independent. I didn’t need to be friends with this guy, with that guy. I could just do exactly what I wanted because I was funded from Holland and I could just generate whatever I wanted. Of course I generated only what I thought was interesting and what would be welcome. It was an obvious choice to do it outside of the city in a peripheral situation with a bunch of musicians that would never meet with each other. For this, you have to invent bands. You just invent bands and invite people. Everybody was in that same kind of co-plot attitude. They wanted to participate in this incredible organized lie…Of course, the result was very authentic and it generated a sudden looseness in approaching their complex (about) cumbia. Everybody was astonished in my interest when I came here in 2003. They asked why I would come here and do cumbia.

W: Speaking of cumbia, it seems that even today the genre still has kind of a stigma as being a kind of lower-class music. It that something you still find as you go around Latin America?

D: It’s much less. If you take a look at Argentina, the most spoiled kids are playing cumbia villera. It’s already being taken out of the ghettos where it was born. Colombia is authentically a cumbia country and even the prime minister will dance a cumbia without thinking that he is politically correct. He just does what he always did. In Mexico the cumbia is slightly lower class, but it’s accepted. When I came here the first time, people were complaining about cumbia villera. If a car stopped and cumbia was coming out of the windows, it was proof that society was going down. That’s the way they talked about it. I think the cumbia was most stigmatized here. This was the country where cumbia was most pushed down.

W: Why do you think that was?

D: Argentina is a country that could believe that (it is) slightly European. They’ve got it embedded and only now after the whole crisis are they starting to look really inward. There are a lot of middle class and white people in Buenos Aires, so they have a big necessity to distance (themselves from) the working class…In Peru and Colombia it’s much more mixed.

W: Would you say the changing perception in Argentina is mostly to do with the effect of the economic crisis?

D: I think that the economic crisis helped a lot to gain interest (in) the interior of the country. Buenos Aires is a port and it looks upward. It doesn’t look inside. It’s not 300 kilometers inside a country like Mexico City. It’s at the edge. (After the crisis), they had to find a cheaper way to do their trips and suddenly they started to look at the provinces. I think that’s a very strong element. And they certainly got an incredible cathartic blow during the crisis. It was like waking up again.

W: You’ve brought cumbia back to Europe with you and done shows. How is the reception over there?

D: I don’t expose it too much. I’m not taking the cumbia there. I’m just playing there when they invite me. It’s not like “here I am with my suitcase full of originality”. I play when they invite me and I do other things too. In Europe they have a misperception of course that Latin music is all about Buena Vista Social Club, you know? There are like four or five clichés and…cumbia doesn’t fit in very well. It’s starting (to) now and they’re putting it in with the other trophies of their frozen perception. So if they classify you as a Latin musician it’s like “when is the Cuban song coming?” Or samba or whatever. I could go sit on the horse of the cumbia and exploit the territory…but my interest is to work here and in Mexico and Colombia.

W: It seems that in the past five years or so there has been a big trend of people from the United States and Europe looking to the Third World for new sounds and new beats. How do you feel about that?

D: I wish it would all be for curiosity. I think curiosity is very good…But I definitely think there’s a lot of shopping, sample shopping. I don’t think it really helps. It’s a very fragile field…You cannot treat it like a museum. It’s not archeology. You can easily fuck up the beauty of a culture within three or four years and leave nothing left. If you look at the Tuvan (throat singers), after two tours…all the beauty and the magic is gone. You have to walk on eggshells.

W: With your music, what you do to make sure that you’re treating the music and the culture in the right way?

D: I don’t think that I’m taking away. I feel like I’m bringing. There’s a big difference.

W: When you are making music, do you do it by yourself or with a band?

D: Three of my four CDs I did by myself with machines and in the studio. But I don’t do it like an engineer. I just enjoy (myself) and amass a lot of material. A lot of people making electronic music, it’s like they are making a small airplane and all the stickers have to be right. And that’s one song, and then (there is) another airplane. I just amass a lot of material and (later) in the studio I decide what to do with it and it’s all very fast.

W: Do you make sample-based music or is it all original or both?

D: At the moment I’m going to record with my band. I’ve got a band. Until now mostly it was like this – I have a sampled-based song construction on the record and then when I’m playing live I just skin it and let the musicians fill in (the rest). It gets a completely (different) character.

W: Speaking of your band, are the band members from Argentina?

D: Yes.

W: How did you go about finding them?

D: They just announced themselves. If you profile yourself strongly, then people know how to find you. I took a very strong position doing Festicumex, so people approach me all the time. I stuck with the first people that approached me and it’s really a fantastic band. When I play abroad they say I’ve got wonderful musicians, and I do. There’s nothing where I have to go and look (for band members) or say “please” or anything like that.

W: Do you put out the albums yourself or do you have record labels that you work with?

D: I generated a record label, which is a shady endeavor in the sense that it’s not a shop or something like that. It’s a logo and we (put) out the records. Without any pressure, (everything) is working very well so we don’t feel the need to put pressure on it. I’ve also got songs on other compilations, like Señor Coconut for instance. One of my records was licensed in Mexico and Colombia too.

W: In Latin America there is such a high level of piracy. Does that discourage you from putting out anything?

D: No, not at all. I’m in the position where it’s up to me to get the money from elsewhere, not to earn it here. I would like to earn money here, but I would like to earn it as a professional, not from merchandise. If I do one art project in Europe it pays me (enough) for three records. I’ve got a lot of sympathy for piracy, not because of stealing the rights and everything but for instance if you watch how Bolivians here listen to their own music, (it is) mainly due to piracy. They buy them for nothing and maintain their culture. These things are to be taken into account when you feel bad about piracy.

W: You’re playing a bunch of shows this September and October in Argentina. You have one show listed as taking place at a cárcel de mujeres. Is that actually happening at a women’s jail?

D: Yes. Personally, it is important (for me)…to play for different kinds of (audiences). If I freeze too much the situation so that I’m playing for the same (people), I expect to be walled in. So I like to be explicit and take it other places too. This show at the women’s prison wasn’t my choice, but of course I think it’s wonderful. I take a lot of pride in it.

W: What are some other artists, either from cumbia or other genres, that you’re excited about?

D: It’s not easy because I don’t do that a lot. I’m listening to Peruvian music now, old stuff. I’m also studying Calypso stuff.

W: Are you a record digger?

D: No, no. I’m not looking at the covers of the records, collecting or something. I’m just trying to think what the nucleus of the thought is. For instance, Calypso music has a very strong pedagogic need. Many songs of Calypso try to explain something. So I like to try and get a sense of that. How do they do that? How does the song start? Does it say the problem or something else?

W: Do you have any other future plans?

D: Yes! I’m planning a long feature film to be shot here. Also, we’re going to record a live CD of cumbias in the Arctic Sea. In Russia, in the winter.

W: Why the Arctic Sea?

D: For me it is important with this whole situation where I’m in the middle, because I like to destroy clichés, to take so-called tropical music as far as possible from its source and still make it valuable, credible and authentic there.

Dick El Demasiado will be headlining Super Zizek on Saturday, September 15 at Niceto Club. For more information and a schedule of upcoming shows, check him out online at www.myspace.com/dickeldemasiado