Cumbia rhythms are as emblematic of Mexico as the taco, torta and tequila, yet this musical style originated in Colombia, before crossing borders and continents and making its way north. It was in Mexico, then, that cumbia became cumbia sonidera, an offshoot genre of this overwhelmingly danceable musical style. Here’s an introduction to this most Mexican of cumbia subgenres and its associated culture.
What is Mexican cumbia?
While cumbia had been big business in its Colombian birthplace since the end of the 19th century, it was only in the mid-20th century that Mexican cumbia really took off, in tandem with other Latin American countries such as Peru and Argentina. While cumbia sonidera is arguably the most well-known cumbia subgenre hailing from Mexico, there are many other prevalent takes on this style – take, for example, cumbia norteña (a slower, accordion-heavy rhythm) or cumbia andina (a fusion subgenre, featuring Latin American folklore music), to name but a few.
However, the cumbia with the most fascinating backstory is almost certainly cumbia sonidera, a subgenre that was bubbling away throughout the 80s, coming to fruition in Mexico City during the 1990s. It ultimately peaked in popularity at the turn of the century, spurred along in no small part by the phenomenon of pirated musical recordings.
It was the brainchild of DJs (sonideros) from across the city and is notable for its particular emphasis on the guacharaca (a percussive instrument) and organ elements, as well as electronic voice and pitch alterations. In fact, cumbia sonidera did not exactly develop from new musical advances within established cumbia groups, but rather from the additions made by the sonideros playing the music. In many ways, cumbia sonidera harked back to the cumbia forefather rhythms of the 70s, which included many tropical elements of cumbia colombiana. Either way, when groups cottoned on to the popularity of these shout-out additions from the sonideros, they actually began to implement them into their recordings, formalising the genre of cumbia sonidera as we know it today.
While the origins of cumbia sonidera are somewhat murky, developing as it did from a more or less underground DJ scene, many trace the beginnings back to two Mexico City neighbourhoods – Peñón de los Baños and the notorious Tepito, although San Juan de Aragón and the State of Mexico’s Nezahualcóyotl were also locations where early exponents of the genre could be found. It’s these urban, lower working-class roots with which cumbia sonidera continues to be associated.
Nowadays, cumbia sonidera is actually most frequently produced in the state of Puebla, where they also have their own sub-subgenre called cumbia poblana. Cumbia sonidera has also spread back down to South America, where countries such as Ecuador and Argentina (who developed cumbia villera from this Mexico City sound) have embraced it.