by Arielle Milkman
Kumbia Queers, the all-female tropipunk crew starring Ali Gua Gua (formely of the Mexican punk band Últrasonicas), Pilar Arrese, Patricia Pietrafesa, Inés Laurencena (all three members of the Argentine punk band She-Devils), Juana Chang and Florencia Lliteras (from Happy Makers), is back home in Buenos Aires after an extensive European tour. And they´re not stopping to take a break. On October 23rd the girls presented their second album, La gran estafa del tropipunk, in Buenos Aires before heading off to play in Córdoba. The party continues back in Capital Federal with other shows in Bahía Blanca and La Plata. La Gran Estafa, the follow-up to Kumbia Nena!, has kept critics and fans waiting for three and a half years – a wait that became unbearable with the announcement that Pablo Lescano (of Damas Gratis) would be producing the album. Believe us – it was worth every last second. The group´s second offering is cleaner, painstakingly put together and more complex, and features various collaborations, amongst them Flavio Cianciarullo of Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Quique Rangel of Café Tacuba. But the success lies in the fact that this is a progression of the same raucous, savage energy and clever rhymes that made Kumbia nena! such a joy to listen – no, to lose control to.
Arielle Milkman caught up with Kumbia Queers at one of their rehearsals, where they opened up about cumbia (that bastard child of musical genres) working with Pablo Lescano, and what it means to be a freak.
Arielle Milkman: How was your show on the 23rd? The presentation of La Gran Estafa del Tropipunk?
Pilar: It was amazing — it’s really rare that things turn out as we’ve planned. We estimated that about 500 people would show up, we wanted it to sound good, to be a great party, we wanted the bar to have decent prices, we wanted a pretty diverse crowd, and everything turned out that way, it was incredible.
What’s the crowd like at your shows in Buenos Aires?
Ali: Really mixed, and with really great energy. They come from everywhere: girls, young people, older people. Yeah, lots of girls, but people who like cumbia also come; people who like to have fun.
And in the U.S.? I know you toured there; who follows cumbia in the states?
Ali: There’s a lot of cumbia in the U.S., generally because there are a lot of poblanos [people from the Mexican state of Puebla] in the U.S., not that they’re all poblanos, but the majority of the sounds are from Puebla. So immigrants live there, but obviously it’s like a social thing with cumbia, that it’s a part of immigrant culture: it’s not cool. But in reality there’s a ton: in San Francisco, southern California, all of Texas, there’s a lot of cumbia.
I would imagine that the ZZK tours have raised the profile of cumbia internationally. What do you think about Electrocumbia?
Pilar: I love it.
Ali: It’s great. Of course it depends what they do, and there are people who have a hard time with digital cumbia, I don´t know, for me it expanded [the genre] to the dance floor, and most importantly to people who didn’t know anything about cumbia before.
Pilar: [Electrocumbia] isn’t something that has been around for a long time, it’s actually something new, cumbia has started to make its way into electronica, into rock, which is what happened in our case. It’s also in bands that are very Latin American, that began messing around with cumbia, people who have more leftist pieces, or, better said, travelers, backpackers and people like us who come more from punk, and DJs as well. The cumbia worked its way into their blood. I think it’s great, because until now cumbia has always been the bastard child of music, at least here [Buenos Aires]. It’s still really rejected.
Could you talk a little more about this? It seems like cumbia still gets limited media coverage in this city, whereas rock has a really strong presence.
Pilar: In many places it’s prohibited. Cumbia villera is banned from the media. Straight up prohibited. But the Pibes Chorros album is what — 15 years old — it’s really crazy, because in one moment all the commercial production [of cumbia] exploded, and it was censured, and it got stuck in history, it really disregards what’s fashionable, or what’s most listened to. It’s the opposite with rock, where there are lots of things that are underground, or banned, and later, kind of suddenly, they explode. But with cumbia it happened backwards: first the scene exploded and then it was prohibited. It’s strange what happened, really weird. And here particularly, cumbia is seen as music for ‘negros’[people from the lower class], it’s all wrong.
For example, at one point I was looking on YouTube to see how people were playing, because there are lots of people who film themselves playing the guitar. It was incredible, because I was watching this guy play the guitar to cumbia, and you see his surroundings — a tiny house, there’s a baby sleeping, an older woman is washing, and there’s a man in the corner playing guitar wonderfully, and below there are tons of comments from rockers that say, “He plays so well; it’s a shame the music’s shitty,” or “Negro de mierda — all the cumbieros should be killed.” All the comments are really horrible. It really caught my attention and so I started to look at the youtubes of rockers, and obviously all the comments are like, “Wow, they play so great, excellent.” Nobody comes in to criticize them, it’s not like a cumbiero is going to go online and say, “Hey, what you do is terrible.” There’s so much animosity. I don’t understand what’s going on with these people.
Is cumbia treated the same way in Mexico?
Ali: [Laughs] Yeah. I’m from Veracruz; there are so many musical influences. There is a lot of salsa, so much so that salseros, the ones who play well, are like the jazz musicians of tropical music. Cumbia is seen as really bad music, like a minor genre, because supposedly it’s very easy to play. I really think that it’s some sort of social conditioning; that there is an economic barrier involved. People would ask me, “What do you do?” I play Balkan music, or progressive, or rock, and it’s all good, but if you play cumbia it’s all wrong. I don’t know why there are so many prejudices, about everything: that we’re women, women playing cumbia. But in Mexico cumbia is also more romantic, I mean, cumbia from Puebla would be the only cumbia of graffiti artists, or street life, because in general the genre [in Mexico] is more about dancing with a partner, it’s friendlier. Still, if you want to see a cumbia concert you have to go to dangerous neighborhoods: there are very few cumbia venues in the city.
How did you come to the genre? As people who played punk, why did cumbia attract you?
Ali: It’s awesome!
Patricia: At first, Ali had the idea to produce cumbia, and Inés also.
Inés: It attracted me because I like it, it’s not like I foresee whether I’m going to like something or not … for example, I don’t like salsa.
Why don’t you like salsa?
Inés: Because I don’t like it [laughs from the rest of the band]. I don’t like it; I don’t know why I don’t like it.
Patricia: The three of us [pointing to herself, Pilar Arrese and Inés Laurencena) played in a band, and we met in Buenos Aires, more or less in November of 2006, and at the end of 2006 we started to play, without really knowing what was going to happen, because we had no idea how to play cumbia. We started to do some covers of rock songs we already knew, and we started to gather together a small repertoire.
We wanted to play together but we didn’t want to do another punk rock band; we wanted to do something different.
Pilar: And I always liked cumbia musically, but the lyrics bothered me so much that they made me mad — I never imagined that I was ever going to sing in a cumbia band. I would dance to it at parties; there were certain things that I liked, but in general the truth is that it made me pretty angry, the elements in the lyrics, like the idea of the bitch, the misogynistic themes specifically. When Ali proposed creating cumbia I said, “Cumbia? Ugh, why? Fine, let’s give it a try …” But looking over the pieces that we all liked, some songs from Los Pibes Chorros, the ones that didn’t talk about women; some of them were great. You start to listen, and there are millions of cumbias that don’t have horrible lyrics, and there are others with horrible lyrics but they’re great in themselves anyway: the rhythm, the music, it’s a good genre. It’s like anything — once you start to get to know it — my problem was that I was dealing with something unknown and saying no, this is awful — but once you know more about it you start to understand, you start to open things.
Ali: I think we approached cumbia in a very punk way, because we hadn’t played cumbia. Like with rock — you don’t really know how to play well, but you start a band, sort of learning as you go along. But I think learning to play cumbia was like learning to play all over again, like, look, this is not easy. For me it was finding a different way to do things: if you’re accustomed to working in the rock atmosphere, you already know more or less what the scene is like. But working in cumbia is very different: there are no sound checks; you play eight times a night; it doesn’t matter who plays what; there are no protagonists; it’s really promiscuous, and it’s great.
What was it like working with Pablo Lanscano?
Pilar: We learned a ton. About cumbia, about music.
How did you meet Pablo?
Ali: We shared a show — a Zizek party, their two-year anniversary I think — and the show was Damas Gratis with Kumbia Queers, so we met there. Right away we started to joke around and chat; there was a connection from the start, and in some ways Pablo seemed pretty similar to us, he had the same attitude. We started to talk about music and the differences between cumbia and rock right away.
Patricia: He’s really nice, and really easy to deal with, and he was interested in the things we were doing, and since we had already played together, it was easy because we had a good energy going.
Ali: It’s interesting, because in cumbia women usually get thrown into the background, somewhere between groupies and obsessive fans. He was also really generous: what I like about Pablo is that he’s always looking for the newest stuff, what just came out, he never stops. When he’s not recording, he’s playing or on tour: He never, never, never stops.
Pilar: He invited us to his studio to record some songs that we wanted to record. We met up to work with him, and we returned a year later, already working on the album that just came out, La Gran Estafa del Tropipunk. We started from scratch working with him — the earlier recording was just to experiment — and we were there like three months in his studio, working with him, with his musicians, with invited musicians. The studio is always busy, he’s always inviting people to record — people from other parts of Argentina, from México, from Colombia, from Peru, there are always people from wherever who are there, so he has no problem saying things like, “Hey, don’t you want to record with the girls? Don’t you want to sing?” We met so many people right in his studio.
Ali: He [Pablo] is sort of like punk rock because he started to play in a band without knowing anything about music, and his love for music made him start playing. Working with him you also learn a lot about business. He says he’s like a DJ, even though he plays live. The truth is that he never stops playing. He plays a half hour and plays all the songs one after another, there is no rest. That way they can play more songs in a space of 30 minutes. You don’t even think about that in rock — you play a song, you stop, you wait for applause.
How has your style changed since the first album (Kumbia nena!)? What’s different about La Gran Estafa?
Pilar: For me it’s much more cumbiero than the last one; you can tell that we did this with Pablo. The production sounds a lot better.
More influenced from outside of the band ?
Pilar: No, it’s still homemade, but much more complex. In the last album we recorded a rhythm, but in this one the songs have the rhythm, and the drums, and more keyboard, and more voices were recorded, and everything was done with much more care, everything had to be perfect, and you can tell. But also, you notice the presence of Pablo Lescano. When you go to a producer you also go because you like what they do, what they record. I think the artistic approach of this person inserts itself into your style. We spent long hours with him, and we liked his stuff and we immersed ourselves in it.
Ali: Yeah, in this sense it’s generous, because I was playing rock for 15 years, and no one cool ever came along saying hey, do you like this? In this sense we were very fortunate to have him [Lescano], because we wanted to do cumbia, and he is the best teacher.
What is the group’s relationship with the queer community?
[Juana Chang comes into the room]
Pilar: Juana, do you want to establish our relationship with the queer community?
Juana: I have some queer friends [Ali laughs] … we do what we do for everyone, for the whole community.
But the name: why queer? Is it music for girls?
Inés: The word queer [strange] refers to cumbia, not to us. For me, cumbia is queer, and for cumbia as a genre, we are queer.
Ali: The word queer is difficult; the best translation I’ve found is “rarito” [freaky]. In this sense it works well for us: we don’t feel part of any clique, you know, we’re not punk, or rock, or rasta, we’re not dikes or cumbieros, we’re a mix of a lot of things. Aside from that there is the joke of the Kumbia Kings; we’re queens. But really, it means to be different, not sexually, but rather in all senses.
What else should we know?
Pilar: This new album is really important, because the other one [Kumbia nena!] is 3 and a half years old, so for us it’s something great, to have done it with Pablo, to have been able to play in Europe, in Mexico, in the U.S., in Canada. Come to our show; listen to the album!