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The Origins Of Digital Cumbia, Peru’s Exciting New Genre

Dengue Dengue Dengue!’s Felipe Salmon and Rafael Pereira have decamped from their home in Lima to spend the (northern hemisphere’s) summer in Europe while they tour to promote their new LP, Siete Raíces. The title translates to “the seven roots” and plays on the idea of the duo’s musical lineage, which fuses many of Peru’s musical strains with exciting contemporary club sounds into a style dubbed “digital cumbia.”

In fact, “digital cumbia” is one of the new global bass mutations that Native Instruments is exploring in Tropical Frequencies, a documentary series that explores genres like kuduro, baile funk and moombahton. The first installment, Poder Verde: An Amazonian Exchange, follows Dengue Dengue Dengue’s journey out of Lima and into the jungle to meet with the seminal cumbia band Los Wembler’s de Iquitos. There, they re-recorded and remixed some of the band’s material and discussed how their music played an important part in the Dengue style. It enforced this notion of how the two Peruvians are connected as much with their past as they are with the future.

Tell me about the roots of La Siete Raíces.

Rafael Pereira: There’s cumbia, Afro-Peruvian sounds, Portuguese music, footwerk, criolla from Lima and dub. It’s funny because sometimes people say that some tracks have reggaetón sounds and other stuff in them and I think, “Really? Are you sure?”

What was your first introduction to music while growing up in Peru?

Felipe Salmon: I used to like chicha [an offshoot of Peruvian cumbia that involves a Western band format] but my mom used to tell me that it was shit, and at some point I just lost interest. I don’t like chicha so much. I’m more into tropical cumbia.

RP: There are lots of bands in Lima doing cover versions of [songs by] old cumbia bands. In the beginning they just played the really popular stuff, and after we explored further we found that some of the really big, well-known tracks were actually written by other bands. For instance, some tracks that we thought were by Los Mirlos were actually by Los Wembler’s, so that opened a whole new world for us. We began digging on the Internet, went to some markets and asked friends. But it’s not that easy to find those records anymore. Around the mid-‘90s, collectors came to Lima and took everything.

You met Los Wembler’s de Iquitos while filming Poder Verde. What was that like?

FS: We actually brought over Los Wembler’s de Iquitos to Lima in 2013 to play at one of our digital cumbia parties. People didn’t know who they were, so we put them in the middle of the show to see what happened. And it was really good to see; they loved it, and so did the crowd.

Do you have connections with other bands from this era?

FS: We did the same with Los Mirlos: we booked them for party and remixed one of their tracks.

RP: There are other bands we’d like to work with, but it’s really difficult to get in contact with them. There’s Ranil, who’s also from Iquitos, but he’s not into music so much anymore. He’s a politician and runs a TV station.

Is Iquitos is a special place for tropical cumbia?

FS: Totally. It’s the main city in the jungle, and the petrol exporters who arrived at its port were mostly Americans. They brought electric guitars, Moogs and American music, and that mixed with tropical stuff. That’s how this type of music came about.

Do you look to any other places in Peru for inspiration?

RP: Yes. South of Lima there’s a small town called Chincha, which is near the sea. All the immigration from African took place there during the times of slavery, so there’s a big black community there. All Afro-Peruvian music comes from there; it’s a really rich place for music.

FS: Then that mixed with the Spanish music in Lima and Afro-Peruvian stuff, which became criolla music.

RP: Criolla has Afro-Peruvian instruments like the cajon [a box-shaped percussive instrument] and the donkey jaw. Then they mix it with the Spanish guitar.

FS: There’s also Andean ritual music from the highlands, which is known as huayno.

RP: To the north of Lima there’s marinera, which is a big band thing with lots of brass instruments. There are lots of big bands in the highlands that play at parades and festivals; every different region has a unique style of band music.

How did you come into contact with all these different styles?

RP: When we were kids, you’d hear it in the grocery store, public transportation or market. But that’s changing a lot. Now pop music is taking over everything. A type of cumbia that’s closer to pop music than traditional cumbia is big on the radio now.

Can you tell me more what’s happening within the music scene in Lima and who is throwing events there?

RP: There’s Terror Negro Records, and they’re more into reggaetón and street sounds. [DJ/production duo] Animal Chuki is really good and young, and then there’s also a guy from Cusco called Alqo Subbass. This is the first time someone outside of Lima has done something like this. Cusco is not a good place for music because it’s a touristy city, so it’s hard to build an audience there. And the rest of the cities in Peru are too small.

How are you perceived in Peru?

RP: We actually try to avoid attention. If the radio was good, we’d like get some play—but the radio is shit. We don’t want to do shit interviews on the TV. There’s a new music channel that started three weeks ago, which is interesting, but everything else is shit and full of contest shows. The government has this organization for arts that they use to push a lot of shit stuff. They mention us a lot, but we’ve never had any support from them.

What’s your opinion on the growing global attention towards Peruvian culture, particularly the cumbia scene?

RP: I think it’s a good thing. You have to think local and act global. It opens roads back and forth, and we need that. That’s how we approach things with Dengue. For sure there are some things that don’t work. Sometimes someone will make a compilation, but they haven’t fully fleshed out the idea. For example, a record came out seven or eight years ago called The Roots of Chicha, but it wasn’t chicha—it was cumbia. When they made the next record, The Roots of Chicha 2, they had to include a really big explanation stating that they really fucked up with the first one. These things have to be approached correctly and by the right people.

Published August 04, 2016. Words by Dan Cole.