by Juan Mora-Torres
I have followed Celso Piña’s musical production since the release of Barrio Bravo, his 2001 breakthrough album. At that time I was living in San Antonio, Texas and “Cumbia sobre el río,” a song from that album, was being played everywhere I went. I bought Barrio Bravo and caught the Celso Piña fever, regarding it as one of the most original albums to come out of Latin America. A few years later I met Celso after he performed at a music festival in Chicago. We had a long conversation about Monterrey, growing up in the Cerro de la Campana, the history and the growing popularity of cumbia in the Americas. I was fortunate to attend his last performance at the Pilsen Fest.
As I reflect on his death and the significance of his artistic production that has captivated me since 2001, I sincerely believe that his music is one of the soundtracks that has captured the cultural transformations of the first two decades of this century, an age of rapid globalization whose features include the building of walls between the rich and poor nations, on the one hand, and cultural transgressions on the other. His post-2001 musical production trespassed the walls of established musical genres by fusing the local, especially the music of the urban poor, with latest international sounds to create something different. Piña and his band, the Ronda Bogota, blended Colombian cumbia with rock, funk, reggae, bolero, ska, rock and rap and other sounds. Stated another way, Celso Piña was one of the pioneers that ushered the new sounds that have influenced the emergence of the urban cumbia that is heard from Buenos Aires to Chicago.
The tracks on Barrio Bravo provide various hints that propelled Piña’s transition from a “traditional” cumbia vallenata musician to a creator of the “modern” cumbia urbana. Piña, a native of Monterrey, declared in one of the tracks that “música es música” and calls for the ending of prejudices that had created walls among musicians and listeners and compertalized them into rockeros, colombianos (cumbianeros), gruperos, and norteño tribes. This was a bold statement considering that for twenty years Piña had been a faithful colombiano, playing vallenato at bars, weddings, and street parties. Over these years, he cultivated a cult-like following within the city’s barrios bravo, such as the Colonia Independencia, the birthplace of Monterrey’s cumbia colombiana. Besides seeking an understanding among the city’s musical tribes, Piña also called for the accommodation of these genres because “aquí (Monterrey) se puede acoplar todo.” The mixing of sounds became his new gospel.
In pursuit of blending sound, Barrio Bravo represented not only Piña’s break with traditional cumbia but also his first experiment in fusing cumbia with other musical genres. Although not well known outside of Monterrey’s barrios bravos, Piña had earned the respect of many well-known musicians in Mexico. He invited musicians of the grupero-norteño genres (Bronco, La Firma, and Los Humildes), rock (Santa Sabina, Resorte, Café Tacuba, and El Gran Silencio) and hip-hop (King Changó and Control Machete) to participate in his Barrio Bravo experiment. This was not an experiment of a mad artist who fused all to see what came out but of a maestro who carefully selected sounds that, as he noted in a track, “realmente valgan la pena.” The fusing of the Piña’s accordion-driven cumbia with different musical sounds created a new cumbia that depicts the urban as disorderly and chaotic, but also with an essence of complete and sustained animation. Barrio Bravo became a critically acclaimed album and Piña reached millions of new listeners (and he thanked “la pirateria” for spreading his music).
A couple of Piña’s songs serve as geographical guide into the musical landscape that influenced his new music. “El Tren,” a song from his follow-up album, Mundo Colombia (2002), is a metaphor for a journey into the circuits of sounds, from the “local” to the “cosmopolitan,” that influenced his new musical direction:
Cantandole al mundo
desde La Campana
y cumbia colombiana
La Campana, the “local,” is a reference to the tough working-class neighborhood where Piña was born, raised and lived most of his life. Established on top of a hill, La Campana was populated by poor migrants from San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Hidalgo and other parts who came in search of work in Monterrey’s factories. In the 1960s the cumbia colombiana found a nest in the Cerro de la Campana and other poor, isolated, and marginalized neighborhoods in Monterrey. The cumbia colombiana became the blues of these poor neighborhoods. Not forgetting his roots, the title of Barrio Bravo is a tribute to the many barrio bravos and to the street music emanating from them.
In “Cumbia sobre el río” Piña introduces Blanquito Man of the hip-hop group King Changó, “desde Venezuela a Nueva York.” Blanquito Man responds, “desde Nueva York a Monterrey.” Finally, Piña announces “desde Monterrey para el mundo.” The point that is being made is that any new musical creation that seeks to be relevant needs to involve the fusion of sounds from different circuits, especially the mixing of the local with the global. Walls need to be knocked down and Celso did that.
Celso Piña crossed a musical boundary with Barrio Bravo. He thanked all the artists who helped him in this crossing in “Verseando para mis amigos,” the last track of the album. He dedicated the song to them for helping him “a volver para retomar el vuelo.” The new experiment in mixing sounds came with a price, however. Many of the colombiano musicians (and audience), including close friends from the vallenato scenes of the barrios, viewed Celso Piña as an outlaw who had deviated from the “authentic” cumbia. These cumbianeros regarded him as a heretic, pointing out that the act of mixing different sounds had contaminated, polluted, and soiled what is “pure” cumbia. Piña, however, had crossed the boundary and there was no return. ¡Buen viaje por Mictlán, maestro!
Dr. Juan Mora-Torres is an Associate Professor of history at DePaul University. He has worked in farms and canneries in California and as adult education instructor in Chicago. He is the author of The Making of the Mexican Border. He is currently working on a book on Pilsen and Mexican Chicago (1945-1983). He is on the Board of directors of El BeiSMan.