Bring­ing cumbia mu­sic from Ar­gentina and joy to the crowds

Kuwait Times - - WEEKENDER -

With a sparkling smile and chic, re­fined poise, Mar­i­ana Ye­gros is merg­ing Latin Amer­ica’s cumbia mu­sic with elec­tron­ica and find­ing grow­ing in­ter­na­tional suc­cess. La Ye­gros, the Ar­gen­tine singer’s stage name, has been dubbed the “queen of elec­trocumbia.” She brings a mod­ern, club-mu­sic edge to the tra­di­tional genre of dance mu­sic that traces its roots to Colom­bia’s African com­mu­nity. She di­vides her time be­tween Buenos Aires and the city of Mont­pel­lier in the south of France. She found a base there af­ter win­ning fans at Euro­pean fes­ti­vals and night­clubs with her first al­bum, 2013’s “Viene de Mi,” which brought in in­flu­ences as di­verse as reg­gae and Arab mu­sic.

For her lat­est al­bum, “Mag­netismo,” La Ye­gros worked with the Ar­gen­tine com­poser Gaby Ker­pel, who has been ac­tive both in cumbia and elec­tronic mu­sic. A two-month world tour in­cluded 18 cities in France and six in the United States. In New York, La Ye­gros per­formed for free at Lin­coln Cen­ter. The en­thu­si­as­tic crowd there in­cluded a man in his 80s who got up, tossed away his cane and danced in­ti­mately with a young woman. “I al­ways dreamed of mak­ing mu­sic that gets peo­ple danc­ing,” La Ye­gros told AFP af­ter the show. “When I was a lit­tle girl I dreamed that peo­ple would be singing songs with me, and now that it’s hap­pen­ing it’s re­ally mag­i­cal,” she said. La Ye­gros is in her 30s but her flow­ing hair and con­stant joy make her seem age­less.

From slums to the posh class

Cumbia, born on the Caribbean coast of Colom­bia when Africans and in­dige­nous peo­ple in­ter­min­gled un­der Span­ish rule, be­gan spread­ing to other parts of Latin Amer­ica in the 1940s. The genre, which com­bines African rhythms and ex­pres­sive danc­ing with more melan­cholic in­dige­nous el­e­ments, saw a re­birth in the 1990s among the marginal­ized of Buenos Aires in what be­came known as “cumbia villera,” or slum cumbia. “I don’t think that the prej­u­dice against cumbia is over yet, but we’re go­ing in the right di­rec­tion,” La Ye­gros said.

“It used to be that the chetos would look at peo­ple who danced cumbia and say it would be crazy to dance like that,” she said, us­ing slang for Ar­gentina’s posh class. But she saw a change start­ing around 2008, when high-end par­ties in Buenos Aires, es­pe­cially those fre­quented by for­eign­ers, would play cumbia in­ter­spersed with elec­tronic mu­sic. Cumbia mir­rors the path of one of Ar­gentina’s most fa­mous cul­tural ex­ports, the tango, which also had African roots and grad­u­ally won ac­cep­tance among the coun­try’s elite be­fore go­ing global.

An Ar­gen­tine wan­derer

La Ye­gros, who grew up in Buenos Aires but whose fam­ily hails from the sub­trop­i­cal Mi­siones prov­ince bor­der­ing Paraguay and Brazil, at first faced chal­lenges in find­ing a fol­low­ing. “I was liv­ing in Los Angeles and then in New York and then I went with my band to try our luck in Buenos Aires,” she said. “It was a time of great cri­sis in Ar­gentina and many peo­ple had left. It was a very hard time. Things didn’t hap­pen.

“I was mak­ing elec­tronic mu­sic and 10 peo­ple would show up, with five ap­plaud­ing and the rest fall­ing asleep. “It was a pe­riod of great frus­tra­tion for me,” she said. “I told my­self, ‘I wasn’t born to be a singer.’ I didn’t think I could achieve it.” She de­cided to re­turn to New York to join her hus­band and try to work in fash­ion, an­other of her pas­sions.

‘What I was born for’

She re­mains known for her highly eclec­tic tastes in clothes. At her New York con­cert, she sported a mini-dress made by a Span­ish woman in Shanghai, with a tra­di­tional folk­loric de­sign in flu­o­res­cent col­ors paired with silver slip­pers equipped with small LED lights. La Ye­gros even­tu­ally found her way. She now per­forms with three mu­si­cians: an ac­cor­dion player, a gui­tarist and a per­cus­sion­ist, all of them Ar­gen­tines who of­ten re­hearse with her over Skype or FaceTime. “I like to com­pose, but what I like most is singing,” she said. “Ev­ery night is like stak­ing a claim that this is what I was born for and that I want to die like this.” — AFP

La Ye­gros per­forms at the Atrium at Lin­coln Cen­ter in New York City. — AFP

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