Cumbia villera ("shantytown cumbia", locally: [ˈkumbja βiˈʒeɾa] or [ˈkumbja βiˈʃeɾa]) is a typically Argentine form of cumbia music born in the villas miseria (shantytowns) around Buenos Aires and then popularized in other large urban settlements.
Ever since the 1930s there has been a strong migration from the provinces (as well as from neighboring countries like Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia) to the Greater Buenos Aires area where factory jobs beckoned. Migrants brought along their culture; the musical mix and the dynamics sounds of big-city life eventually gave birth to new styles. Notably, chamamé from Corrientes was cross-pollinated with Andean music and cuarteto from Córdoba province. Peruvian cumbia bands such as [Los Mirlos]] were much in demands in the Buenos Aires suburbs. During the 1970s and 1980s, tropical was used as a catch-all term for this hybrid.
In the 1990s, commercial interests started promoting local cumbia numbers such as Amar Azul and Ráfaga with a more sophisticated image and an emphasis on attracting wider audiences. Traditional cumbia lovers looked for "authentic" acts, and many bands obliged by settling on a square cumbia beat, and writing lyrics that delved ever deeper into themes of crime and drug abuse. A pioneering act was Los Pibes Chorros ("The Thieving Kids"). Other bands in this vein are Yerba Brava ("Tough Weed", a play on words referring both to yerba mate and marijuana) and Damas Gratis ("Ladies' Night", literally "Ladies for Free"), widely acknowledged as the genre's leading act, that was started by former Amar Azul's keyboardist Pablo Lescano after a serious car accident made him reconsider the message he wanted to convey through music.
The pauperization of vast segments of the population due to the economic slowdown that started in 1998 enlarged the social substrate that sustained the genre. The term cumbia villera took hold in the media, and many bands were propelled into fame when emerging football stars from the shantytowns, such as Carlos Tévez, proclaimed their allegiance. When his schedule allows, Tévez is lead singer for Piola Vago (loose translation: "savvy bum").
Some radio and TV shows had incorporated cumbia villera into their offerings, notably on weekend omnibus variety shows, where music runs the gamut from folklore to tropical. The more provocative lyrics were seldom broadcast. Some of the bands gained audiences outside of Argentina, notably in Uruguay and Chile. Due to pressure from broadcasters and (allegedly) influence from Evangelical preachers active in the shantytowns, bands with less aggressive lyrics have enjoyed some success.
Whilst traditional cumbia dancing bands often use a full brass section), cumbia villera recordings are often made at the lowest possible expense. As this usually entails the use of synthesizers, Argentine cumbia can be described, like Algerian raï, romanian manele or brazilian baile funk, as a "low fidelity, high tech" genre.
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