Cumbia villera (locally [ˈkumbja βiˈʒeɾa] or [ˈkumbja βiˈʃeɾa]) (roughly translated as "slum cumbia", "ghetto cumbia" or "shantytown cumbia") is a subgenre of cumbia music originated in the slums of Argentina and popularized all over Latin America and the Latin communities abroad.
Lyrically, cumbia villera uses the vocabulary of the marginal and lower classes, like the Argentine lunfardo and lenguaje tumbero («gangsta language» or «thug language»), and deals with themes such as the everyday life in the villas miseria (slums), poverty and misery, the use of hard drugs, promiscuity and/or prostitution, night outs at boliches (discos and clubs) that play cumbia and other tropical music genres (such as the emblematic Tropitango venue in Pacheco), the football culture of the barra bravas, delincuency and clashes with the police and other forms of authority, antipathy towards politicians, authenticity as of being true villeros (the inhabitants of the villas), among other topics dealt in cumbia villera's lyrics.
Musically, cumbia villera bases its sound in a heavy use of synthesizers, sound effects, keyboard voices, keytars, electronic drums and other elements from electric instruments. The cumbia villera's characteristic sound was born taking influences from Colombian and Peruvian cumbia, cumbia sonidera and cumbia santafesina in the realm of cumbia, and from reggae, ska, Argentine folklore, and electronic music in other music genres. Lastly, the creator of cumbia villera, Pablo Lescano, admitted that his lyrics were influenced by bands from Argentine punk rock like 2 Minutos and Argentine rock rolinga like Viejas Locas. This overview is not definitive, as time went on and the genre evolved, many bands started to explore different sounds, so new fusions were born, like cumbia rapera with Bajo Palabra («Parole») mixing cumbia villera with hip hop, and tropipunk with Kumbia Queers mixing cumbia villera with punk.
For its characteristics, cumbia villera has been compared to gangsta rap, reggaeton, punk rock, tango, Argentine foklore, rock rolinga, protest song, raggamuffin, baile funk, outlaw country, and narcocorrido, among other music genres.
Cumbia villera was born in the late 1990s, amid an economic and social decline in Argentina. The introduction of neoliberal economics in Argentina in the early '90s gave a quick boost to the nation's economy but progressively marginalized large areas of the society, and by the late '90s, Argentina was in a total and implacable depression. Some of the most affected by this crisis were the worker and lower classes, and among them were the inhabitant and dwellers of the villas miseria (slums or shantytowns) in Buenos Aires and its metropolitan area, which favoured cumbia and other tropical music genres. However, through the '90s, Argentine cumbia bands such as Grupo Sombras («Group Shadows») or Grupo Green didn't touch social issues and in fact their lyrics were limited to themes such as love or partying. It was in this situation that in 1999 the first cumbia villera band was born in the depths of Villa La Esperanza («Villa The Hope»), a slum in San Fernando, Buenos Aires (north side of the Buenos Aires metropolitan area). Pablo Lescano, then keytarist from one of these cumbia bands, named Amar Azul («To Love Blue», but a play on words with "mar azul", blue sea), started to pen new songs with more aggressive lyrics but his band rejected them, so he started saving from the royalties of the songs he penned for Amar Azul to buy instruments and equipment for producing an independent record, and created a new group with a different aesthetic, different lyrics and a different sound, Flor de Piedra («Stone Flower», a name that also has a double-entendre, meaning roughly «hell of a rock»). However, Pablo Lescano decided not to play any instrument in the band because he stayed in Amar Azul, and he just limited himself to songwriting, composing and managing. Flor de Piedra released the first cumbia villera's album ("La Vanda Más Loca", «The Craziest Vand») by sending the master to a pirate broadcaster due to lack of interest in major record companies, and when the song used as the promotional single and first cumbia villera song "Vos Sos Un Botón" («You're A Snitch») started to dominate the airwaves, the Leader Music label finally was interested in the band.
The records began to get heavy airplay, and soon the poor, the marginalized and the unemployed identified themselves with the new musical genre, and cumbia villera spread out to other large urban settlements, eventually rising to popularity in all Argentina. By 2000 there were dozens of cumbia villera bands starting, playing and recording their albums, one of these bands was in fact the second created by Pablo Lescano (this time definitely with the role of singer and keytarist), Damas Gratis («Ladies Night» but also «Ladies For Free»), which he created after a motorbike accident that cost him his place in Amar Azul. New bands also went beyond the original foundations of Flor de Piedra and started to explore new sounds and themes, borrowing elements from rock (Los Gedes, «The Annoying») or classical (Mala Fama, «Bad Reputation»), and making the lyrics more socially conscious (Guachín, «Homie») or radically aggressive (Pibes Chorros, «Robber Boys»). The crisis that exploded in 2001 in Argentina strongly boosted cumbia villera's popularity and symbolized it for the posterity as an icon of an era in the history of Argentina. It was at this point that some of the finest albums in the history of cumbia villera were released, like "100% Villero" from Yerba Brava (2001) and "Sólo Le Pido A Dios" from Pibes Chorros (2002). The genre and its repercussions were widely discussed in the mainstream media, with debates in major newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and radio shows, and the phenomenon even reached the television with "Tumberos" (2002) and the cinema with "El bonaerense" (2002) and "El polaquito" (2003). Cumbia villera bands even started touring in neighbouring countries, North America and Europe, spreading the genre beyond the boundaries. This Argentine invasion greatly influenced the peoples from the Latin American countries were the bands toured, and soon there were cumbia villera bands formed in countries like Uruguay (La Clave), Paraguay (Los Rebeldes), Bolivia (Diego Soria), Chile (Buena Huacho), and Mexico (Cumbia Zero), contributing musically to the genre by using the different styles and influences from all the music genres of those nations, and contributing lyrically by using the vocabulary and slang used in the everyday life in their respective countries.
But trends in Argentine cumbia started to change by 2003, owing to the election of Argentine president Néstor Kirchner and the subsequent improvement in the nation's economy, some new measures in the Argentine music industry that affected the original cumbia villera's theme like pressure from the managers of the bands to quit singing controversial lyrics and censorship from broadcasters and the COMFER that forbade cumbia villera, though at what extent the censorship diminished cumbia villera's predominance or, on the contrary, further invigorated the musical genre, is discussed. The advocacy in the villas of Christian groups (both catholic and evangelical) also contributed. Other causes include changes in cumbia villera's bands like breakups (Guachín), switching singers and/or other members (Yerba Brava) and downfalls in drugs or other addictions (Damas Gratis), and the rise of new cumbia bands that differed in both sound and lyrics and even aesthetics like La Base and El Original that, for the most part, avoided controversial lyrics and instead sang about love, and named their style as "cumbia base" or other monikers to avoid the implicancies of being labeled as cumbia villera and subsequently being forbidden to play in venues or receive promotion, due to the censorship of COMFER.
Through the decade of the 2000s, cumbia villera continued to have a stronghold in the worker and poor communities all over Latin America, with even new bands being formed every year all over Latin America and continuing with the evolution of the genre, along with the usual constant tours around the Americas by the most representative bands like Damas Gratis and Pibes Chorros. As late as 2007, 30% of total sales in the Argentine music industry were still from cumbia villera records. But its predominance and influence in Latin America was somewhat decreased with the rise of reggaeton that started in the mid 2000s, and bachata and cumbia wachiturra in the 2010s. However, other authors have different opinions, like Pablo Semán, an Argentine sociologist, anthropologist, investigator in the CONICET and professor in the Instituto de Altos Estudios Sociales and the Escuela de Humanidades of the Universidad Nacional de San Martín, who also studied the phenomenon of rock rolinga and the decadence in Argentine culture in the '90s; Pablo Semán argues that cumbia villera is at last being vindicated in the decade of 2010s in circles of culture, philosophy and thought like universities and government secretaries as a genuine representative of speech by the forgotten peoples. The rising promotion in the 2010s of cumbia villera bands by mainstream rock and pop publications like the Rolling Stone of Argentina magazine, the organization of gigs and concerts of cumbia villera in venues were mainstream rock and pop bands use to play, outside the circuito de bailantas tropicales (the conglomerate of the tropical and cumbia discothèques), and lastly, the close collaboration and financial production of cumbia villera bands by mainstream musicians like Andrés Calamaro, Vicentico and Fidel Nadal, is also a phenomenon of the 2010s decade seen as a sign of good health in the genre. Nevertheless, cumbia villera remains in the memory of the collective imaginary as the most aggressive, the most defiant and the most socially conscious style of cumbia ever made, and one of the last genres made with true social commitment in the music in recent times.
Ever since the 1930s there has been a strong migration from the provinces (as well as from neighboring countries like Peru, Paraguay, and Bolivia) to the Greater Buenos Aires area where factory jobs beckoned. Migrants brought along their culture; the musical mix and the dynamic 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 demand 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 Amar Azul's former 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 Tevez, proclaimed their allegiance. When his schedule allows, Tevez 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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