Cumbia Makes Chileans Dance During Pandemic

Cumbia is normally not political music but nevertheless springs out of current circumstances. Sonora Cuarentena brings joy to neighborhoods in lockdown, and new releases by Gepe and La Combo Tortuga are inspired by months of protests and confinement. Quarantine can’t stop cumbia.

The tropical cumbia rhythm is a main reason Chileans dance. It competes with the reggaeton beats. The Chilean cueca is not so easy to follow, and salsa and merengue don’t really do as ice-breakers on a criolla dancefloor. 

In the 1960s, the Colombian cumbia was transformed into a Chilean version, less focused on the hips. Classic cumbia chilena bands like La Sonora de Tommy Rey and La Sonora Palacios have since been natural parts of celebrations and parties.  

When the Conchalí band Juana Fe started to sing about street vendors in 2007, it was with a new approach to the cumbia music. Still with a romantic touch, but more directed to their neighborhood than to a dance partner. With the chorus “Lleve de lo bueno, Lleve de lo bueno,” their single Callejero became a hit at the same time as Chico Trujillo from Villa Alemana rediscovered old pearls like La Medallita and mixed them with their own ska-punk riots like La Escoba

Today, cumbia is everywhere in Chile. Santaferia invites everybody to the party and Mon Laferte sings her Cumbia para olivar to people when returned to their homes. 

Don’t Look Back in Anger

Chile Today offers the following summary of new releases of cumbia-inspired Chilean music.

  • The San Miguel artist Gepe sings about not looking back in anger, that you’d better learn from the mistakes. Gepe’s new single Buena Memoria is accompanied by a video in which the singer acts in a video game. He explains, “The spirit of the song is simply this: accept the mistakes of the past, consider the occasions you were right, with the idea to arrive at a more honest position.”

  • In both 2016 and 2018, La Combo Tortuga from Maipú was awarded the best artist of the year (public’s choice) at the Premio Pulsar. In the middle of the protests they found a romantic story for their new single Ojitos Chinitos. The combo keeps to its typical cumbia sound, but stirs it up with some salsa and reggae. Together with the Gondwana singer Maxi Vargas they “press in some more chill and positive vibes for everybody who are enduring these times of lockdown.”
  • Sonora Cuarentena are five friends that decided to bring some cumbia rhythms to the neighborhoods of Santiago in the middle of confinement. To cause surprise, the shows are spontaneous and not announced ahead.

Without Light But With Optimism

An upcoming rival or companion to the Chilean cumbia is another tropical vibe, the bachata. Vicente Cifuentes calls it bachata local. 

Cifuentes started this year winning the international competition in Festival de Viña with his song Chillán, about his childhood town. Some weeks later the pandemic changed his plans, and soon he found out that he missed his fellow artists a lot during lockdown. 

He explained to Chile Today how he started to make covers of his friends’ songs and broadcast them on #coverlocal. “I started spontaneously making some covers of artists that I normally have close to me. Songs that came up in my mind. #coverlocal was something that grew out more than something planned.”

For Cifuentes, the pandemic has been a crossroad. “I’m normally a social person and a lot into collaborations. As I have spent most of the lockdown on my own, I’ve gotten back to my trovera sound, composing like a cavern without light but with optimism.” 

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