Dancing Across the Border

Born in Mexico and raised by Celso Pia, sonidero music is taking over Dallas' Latino nightclubs. Is it here to stay?

Hence Piña's nickname: The Accordion Rebel.

Undeterred, Piña practiced in his mother's house with his brothers Enrique, Ruben and Eduardo while working as a janitor at a children's hospital; much of his income went to buying instruments. They practiced on and off for a few years, eventually landing gigs at weddings, quinceaneras and other parties. It was at one such performance where a Mexico City recording company representative heard Piña and his brothers play, later inviting the group to Mexico City for a recording session.

Initially, Piña's music didn't receive a warm reception in Monterrey, the capital of norteña, Mexico's version of country music. His penchant for colorful tropical shirts didn't help him much in the largely cowboy boots, buckle and hat city. And many Mexicans associated Piña's Colombian vallenato with drug trafficking, a problem in both countries. It's not a baseless stereotype. More than one of the Monterrey clubs that specialize in Colombian vallenato are dark, rough places of ill repute.

Kids in Monterrey walk past an advertisement for a vallenato band at a now-abandoned Colombian music club.
John Sevigny
Kids in Monterrey walk past an advertisement for a vallenato band at a now-abandoned Colombian music club.
Saul Munoz (top, right) churns out Celso Piña's "La Paz de la Cumbia" in the mountaintop neighborhood of Sierra Ventana. These young men come here to play vallenato almost every day.
John Sevigny
Saul Munoz (top, right) churns out Celso Piña's "La Paz de la Cumbia" in the mountaintop neighborhood of Sierra Ventana. These young men come here to play vallenato almost every day.


Celso Piña performs March 13 at Far West.

Piña was never a big seller in Mexico until he performed a vallenato-cumbia duet ("Cumbia Poder") on Barrio Bravo with the already popular Monterrey band El Gran Silencio, which blends rock with cumbia, vallenato and grupero. (Ironically, the group's own vallenato-cumbia blends have been largely inspired by Piña's music.)

The danceable cumbias fused with rock and other genres on Piña's Barrio Bravo also caught on big in Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo and other Texas-Mexico border towns, as well as other Northern Mexican cities such Torreon and Ciudad Victoria. From there, his music forked into other regions of Mexico as well as into the United States, where cumbias were already a standard at many Latino immigrant gatherings.

But cumbia had developed a stigma as old-fashioned among many young Mexican-Americans. That changed with Barrio Bravo; as KNON's Medina says, cumbia is now cool. When he DJs private parties, everybody wants to hear cumbias, regardless of what side of the border they call home, he says.

"I went to a quinceanera and they wanted pure Colombian cumbia, not dance or hip-hop," Medina says. "You put a dance song on and nobody's dancing to it. It's good, though. You get young and old dancing. Mexican-Americans are really starting to pick up on it.

"You really don't hear tejano that much anymore."

Located in the Corner Shopping Center just north of Walnut Hill on Interstate 75, Bailongo is unobtrusive. If it weren't for a colorful advertisement painted next to the entrance and the Mexican flag dangling in one of the large display windows, it would be difficult to know where the club's bland brown brick exterior begins and that of neighboring MRI Central Office Center ends. Friday and Sunday nights Joe Servin, a.k.a. Norteño Joe, spins a range of cumbias--everything from his own East Dallas remix of Piña's "Cumbia Sobre El Rio" to the cumbia-rap of Torreon's popular Los Chicos del Barrio to the authentic Colombian cumbias of old-timer Aniceto Molina. Servin has been fielding almost nonstop sonidero cumbia requests since last summer.

"That's when it really hit. I don't know why," he says. "But it really gets people dancing. You put some of that on and people are just feeling the rhythm."

Jesus Castro, 26, and Jose Castillo, 34, dance chuntaro-style by a high, round-topped table off to the side of Bailongo's dance floor. Castillo, who immigrated to Dallas from San Luis Potosi eight years ago, puts his own spin on the dance by steadying a clear, plastic cup of draft beer on top of his head with one hand while he bobs and turns. He has been hitting Bailongo every Friday and Sunday for the past year, about the amount of time he has been interested in sonidero, he says.

His friend Castro, who came to Dallas from Torreon about 10 years ago, has been listening to sonidero cumbia for about six years, since he visited the border city of Juarez for an impromptu weekend of partying.

"It's a good, mellow place to come and dance at," Castro says of Bailongo, which, with a taco stand inside rather than exotic animal prints and make-out booths, has a notably more laid-back atmosphere than other local nightclubs.

Priscilla Garcia, 22, has been going to Bailongo for cumbia dancing almost every Friday, Saturday and Sunday for the past few months. Raised in Dallas and Pleasant Grove, Garcia's shuffling around the oval dance floor amid the largely Mexican crowd is indicative of sonidero cumbia's spreading popularity among Mexican-Americans. She used to listen to rap but has gotten more into cumbia lately because she finds it more danceable. Yet unlike salsa, merengue and other dances, cumbia doesn't require a partner.

"You can just go up there and dance with your girlfriends," she says.

Garcia heard sonidero about four years ago in a Laredo bar while visiting her extended family. Although Garcia was listening to cumbia by choice before most Dallas youths, she didn't discover Piña until about a year ago, when KLNO-FM added "Cumbia Sobre El Rio" to its playlist.

"That song hasn't gotten old yet. Everybody loves it," she says. "Every time it comes on at the club, everybody gets up to dance."

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