Dancing Across the Border

MONTERREY, MEXICO--The twin circles on the smooth concrete plaza swell, drawing more and more young bodies into the hurricane of bad haircuts, bright tropical shirts, baggy pants and dirty sneakers. The ever-growing number of young men in the circles twirl and twist and strut and shake their bodies to the breakneck rhythm of the accordion-driven music blaring from the raised stage in Monterrey's main downtown square, where a few hundred people, maybe more, have gathered for today's Celso Piña concert. This free-spirited display is a show within a show for 20-year-old Diana Castillo and 19-year-old Elizabeth Camisales, both clad in trendy, tailored denim jackets.

"Very strange," says Castillo, a psychology major at one of several local universities. Camisales nods in agreement.

But Castillo and Camisales have one thing in common with the circle of dancers: They all came here to see Piña, a mustachioed 48-year-old musician with a hairy chest. An unlikely hero, to be sure; after all, Piña has been playing vallenato and cumbia, traditional music of Colombia's Atlantic coast, in Monterrey since before the young women were born.

Castillo and Camisales, who are among the group concert promoters classify as "Celso's new fans," admit they only like some of Piña's music. "His newer songs," as Castillo puts it. Most of Piña's hard-core fans aren't university students. They come from places such as La Loma Larga, the decrepit neighborhoods high in Monterrey's neglected brown hills.

On the plaza, pairs of boys from La Loma Larga and other such neighborhoods face one another and dance back and forth, bending their knees, bobbing low and turning circles to the beat. They look like roosters gearing up for a cockfight as they bob toward one another. When asked if they ever dance chuntaro, as this style has been dubbed, Castillo and Camisales simply giggle, never taking their eyes off the blaze of movement.

That the young women have come here to see Piña work his famed accordion and hear his lyrical chronicles of the hardscrabble life in this industrial city is worth noting. For years Piña sang mostly simple, melodic tunes for Mexico's working class, hewing close to vallenato and cumbia's long heritage. But since the May 2001 release of his 17th album, Barrio Bravo, which sets his accordion-dominant sound against a backdrop of rap, reggae, rock and roll and hip-hop, Piña has been acquiring scores of young middle- and upper-class fans.

His newfound popularity isn't limited to south of the border. Within the past year, he has been nominated for a Latin Grammy and an MTV video award, and he took home a trophy at Miami-based Univision television network's 15th annual music awards. Piña's music sells more in Texas than anywhere outside of Mexico, according to his manager, Ruben Mojica, and he is especially popular in Dallas. As more of Piña's Mexican fans move north, more of his music moves with them. Local clubs such as Far West and Bailongo have begun catering to this new audience, and so have radio stations and record shops. Where tejano once reigned, this modern update of traditional Mexican music, called sonidero, is taking over.

Back at the concert, the two dance circles merge into one. A blend of tropical shirts becomes a kaleidoscope of swaying palm trees, white-capped waves, perfect blue skies, brilliant yellow suns, lush green grass, tropical flowers of every color. The circle eases to almost slow motion as the rhythm mellows, then returns to a swirling frenzy as the tempo picks up again. The temperature creeps down, but nobody seems to notice. Nobody dancing, that is.

This is the appeal of Celso Piña and his music. His newer music, at least.

It's after 10 on a Thursday night at Far West, one of the area's most popular Latino nightclubs. A steady stream of young men and women keeps the bouncers at the front door busy checking IDs, stamping hands and attaching wristbands. Laura Martinez, who immigrated to Dallas from Monterrey about six years ago, waits outside with three cousins to pay the $25 cover charge. This is--and at the same time, isn't--the usual scene at Far West.

"There are hardly any cowboy hats out there," manager Mike Casas points out while observing the vast, bustling dance floor inside.

Instead of Far West's usual clientele in their boots and hats and snap-button shirts, the club is populated tonight by people who look more like the 19-year-old Martinez: baggy pants, tropical shirts, young faces. They've come to hear what was advertised in Spanish on KLNO-FM (94.1) as "sonidero music": traditional cumbia, for the most part, mixed with the modern rhythms of R&B, funk and hip-hop. Though Celso Piña's international hits ("Cumbia Sobre El Rio" is the biggest) helped popularize sonidero, the bass-heavy style enjoyed a healthy existence in Monterrey, Mexico City and other Mexican urban centers long before he released Barrio Bravo. Far West is just one of the local clubs tapping into this newer vein of Mexican music.