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.

"We really try to be first to get the new music out," Casas says. "The DJs get music imported from Mexico, people hear it and like it and then they start playing it on the radio stations."

KLNO-FM, ranked No. 1 by Arbitron in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, regularly spins Piña's "Cumbia Sobre El Rio." And J Medina, a.k.a. Mixmaster J, who hosts Party Lounge on KNON-FM (89.3), says the number of requests he gets for Piña's music has gradually increased: "Now, basically every time I pick up the phone they are wanting to hear it."

But these younger fans aren't only requesting Piña's songs; they want sonidero, no matter who's giving it to them. Raul Rojas, who DJs at the Bronco Bowl's Tropicana (formerly La Changa), says Dallas' sonidero scene exploded about seven months ago, after KLNO sponsored a sonidero concert downtown at Artist Square. Thousands of people paid to dance to the heavily promoted lineup of big-name Mexico City DJs. Since then, sonidero is everywhere: Thursday nights at De Cache, Fridays at Club DMX, Saturdays at Tropicana. Bailongo mixes sonidero music into its lineup all weekend, and the DJs at Escapade 2001 and Far West play sonidero on a nightly basis.

Far West also has a pure sonidero night about once a month, usually Thursdays. Sometimes the night entails live music; other evenings the club brings in DJs from Mexico, frequently from Mexico City, Casas says. These special nights at Far West annoy Rojas, who says he's been trying to cultivate a sonidero scene in Dallas since emigrating from Mexico City about seven years ago.

"When I got here, there wasn't sonidero," Rojas explains. "I suggested to discos this scene, but they shut the doors on me, so I had to start playing it myself. They didn't take me seriously because it was so different. They only played what was selling."

At the time, that was tejano. As the crowd inside Tropicana one Saturday suggests, that's not the case anymore. Rojas shouts out greetings and other messages so heavy with reverb that unaccustomed listeners feel like their skulls are rattling. These salutations and dedications are part of sonidero culture, where the DJ is there to play messenger as well as records. This is nothing new to the dancers at Tropicana.

"Back in Mexico, all the Chilangos [Mexico City natives] are used to this music," says Angel Escobar, who immigrated to Waco from Mexico City a few years ago. He drove to Dallas with his wife and brother-in-law to get his sonidero fix at Tropicana. "It's like our rock and roll."

Rojas--a freelance DJ who got his start about 16 years ago performing for free in Mexico City's streets--landed his first sonidero gig in Dallas in 1998, getting the crowd warmed up for a norteño concert at Palenque (which later turned into Far West).

"I was sending out saludos [greetings] to people from different Mexico City neighborhoods," he says, "and people were crying because it reminded them of Mexico."

Two months later the now-closed International Ballroom hired him to put on a sonidero dance. About 2,500 people showed up, much to management's surprise, he recalls: "They had to shut the doors. Cover was $20 and people were offering $50 to get in."

Which is the main reason there are so many clubs playing sonidero music now. According to Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission records, Northwest Dallas' Escapade 2001 and Far West each generate more revenue in liquor sales than any of the thousands of other nightclubs licensed to sell alcohol in Texas. Combined, both warehouse-sized venues made more than $110,000 from liquor sales last November, the most recent month for which records are posted. No individual nightclub in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio or Austin beat the approximate $59,000 Escapade 2001 generated Friday through Sunday nights and the approximate $52,000 generated Thursday through Sunday nights at Far West.

Far West likely will bring in some nice coin when Piña performs there on March 13, his second appearance at the club in four months. When he played last November, the club sold about 2,000 tickets for about $30 a pop, Casas says.

"He puts on a good show," Casas says. And that makes everyone happy. Especially the club owners: Tickets are going for at least $30 this time, maybe more.

The story of how the music of urban Mexico's underbelly seeped into the country's mainstream, and became such a hit in North Texas, begins in poor colonias like Sierra Ventana, a jumble of cinder-block, graffiti-scrawled houses high in the hills overlooking Monterrey.

The sweet accordion runs and folksy lyrics of Colombian vallenato first hit Mexico sometime in the 1960s when sonideros, or disc jockeys, began playing the music at parties in Loma Larga, especially in the neighborhood of Independencia. Jose Juan Olvera, a professor at Monterrey's Universidad Regiomontana who studies the city's Colombian music culture, attributes the DJs' interest in Colombian music largely to immigration. When poor young men from Loma Larga immigrated in search of better opportunity to places such as Texas, California, Florida and New York, they frequently returned to their communities with music that had been imported to the United States from Colombia.

Loma Larga sonideros soon began traveling across the border to Houston and other Texas cities in search of imported Colombian music--since the trip is only about 500 miles, vs. 600 to Mexico City. Vallenato gained more recognition in the early 1980s when Piña and other musicians started following the music of Colombian virtuosos such as accordionist Aniceto Molina.

Now aspiring musicians follow Piña's accordion instead. On a crudely paved road called Servicio Publico, between Francisco "Pancho" Villa and Los Angeles streets, a group of young men gathers around a rusty old boat of a Chevrolet sedan. With the three core instruments of any vallenato ensemble--an accordion, a caja (a goat-skin drum that looks like a bongo) and a guacharaca (a bamboo scraper)--they emulate Celso Piña's songs as best they can. Since they're more than a trio, they've also added another typical vallenato instrument--a cencerro, or cowbell. Someone keeps time on a snare drum as well.

Like the electric guitar in a rock band, almost everyone wants a turn playing the red accordion since it's the featured instrument. Luis Vialva, the oldest of the group at 21, starts out with the accordion. He hoists it around his neck and slides his fingers onto the keys. He looks ahead while he plays, squeezing the music out as his lips move slightly, counting the weepy song's beats.

"He's Celso Piña's son," jokes a fellow afternoon musician.

Sierra Ventana and other Loma Larga communities have reputations as dangerous, drug-infested places. Exactly how dangerous and drug-infested these neighborhoods are is debatable. But no matter how exaggerated their reputations, the fact remains that some taxi drivers refuse to take paying customers to them. Sierra Ventana oozes struggle and insecurity. Young people with little hope for the future gather regularly in bands on steps, corners and in the street to kill time.

They like more than just Piña's music, which they buy pirated from entrepreneurs known as disqueros, ubiquitous in Monterrey as well as the rest of the country. The young people of Loma Larga knew of Piña five or six years ago, when he was knocking out tunes in Los Panchos, one of downtown Monterrey's seedier bars at the time, even if most of them were too young to have actually seen him perform there.

"You enter and you don't know if you'll leave," Piña once described the venue in Monterrey daily newspaper El Norte. "You drink something and say, 'I can still see. Pour me another.'"

The fact that Piña no longer has to play at such places to make a good living is a matter of pride and a symbol of hope to his followers. He seems to be aware of the significance he holds for Monterrey's disenfranchised youths. For instance, last year he gave a free Christmas concert for the 200 or so residents of a local juvenile detention center. The teen-agers danced and played along on invisible instruments on a basketball court to the music of Piña's band, La Ronda Bogota, for almost two hours. Just as he did at the public concert in downtown Monterrey, he shouted out the names of different parts of town, prompting wild cheers from members of the various 'hoods.

In this 'hood, by the time the accordion gets to 15-year-old Saul Munoz, he knows exactly what he wants to play. He bends his head, completely shaved except for a short tail at the nape, and watches his fingers as he churns out a slow, awkward version of Piña's "La Cumbia de la Paz," from Barrio Bravo. After a few riffs, he jerks into "Cumbia Sobre El Rio." Asked where he learned to play the accordion, Munoz shrugs. "Just watching," he says.

As the ad hoc band plays on, primary school-aged boys and girls appear from down the sloping street and around the corner, drawn to the music. Two boys pass a soccer ball back and forth in the middle of the street in front of the group. A little boy in a soccer jersey climbs on top of the old sedan, crosses his legs and begins banging his hands on the roof to the music. When he tires of that, he climbs down and squats on the tennis shoes of the snare drum player. The sweet scent of marijuana briefly wafts through the air. The illicit smell then fades as quickly as it appeared.

Guadalupe Guzman, mother of Martin Hernandez, a baseball cap-clad 16-year-old leaning on the white car, comes outside to hear the music with a couple of the youngest of her 10 children. The young men gather in the same spot to play vallenato almost every day, Guzman says. The neighborhood also hosts Saturday-night dances featuring the music of Piña and other Mexican musicians who play Colombian music, she adds.

"It's a diversion for the muchachos," says Guzman, watching her son and his friends from the opposite side of the street near an old pickup truck.

Piña got his start in much the same way as these street musicians, playing music as a hobby in his neighborhood, nearby Cerro de la Campana.

Not long after hearing vallenato at a party in the 1970s, Piña purchased an accordion and began teaching himself how to play it. He gigged early on with a tropical music band called Jarax, but the other members didn't want to play the Colombian sounds he was bent on performing. Piña went through a series of other groups playing different instruments and searching for sounds he wanted to make his own. Upon leaving one of these bands, a member told him he'd never go anywhere because of his insistence on playing Colombian vallenato, Piña recalls. "They used to look at me like I was weird," he says. "I've always been with this music, though, defending it."

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.

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."

But to Tropicana's Rojas, the success of Monterrey's Piña holds little significance.

"Celso, he plays Colombian music really well," Rojas says. "But in reality, he copied all the Colombian artists. He's pure covers. What we're doing here is the original." He nods toward a long screen on the wall inside Tropicana showing DVD footage of a crowded sonidero street concert in Mexico City.

Regardless of the origins or degree of originality of Piña's work, the fact remains that Tropicana has only been open about a year--about the same amount of time "Cumbia Sobre El Rio" and the sonidero scene it helped fuel north of the border took root in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Would Rojas be working tonight if it weren't for Celso Piña?

Most of the people at Tropicana don't care what the answer to that question is. They're just glad Rojas is here, playing sonidero. In front of the wall screen, Alicia Trundoe, 21, and Joel Santos, 25, twirl to Rojas' cumbia mixes on a red dance floor under a flashing strobe and manic spotlight. Santos, who emigrated from the state of Hidalgo to Dallas about seven years ago, and Trundoe, from Arlington, have been dating for about six months.

"Every time we go out, we go to these kinds of places. I didn't know about cumbia music until we started going out," says Trundoe, who wins hands down the prize for whitest dancer in the room.

"It's got a good groove, this cumbia. I like it."

Rebel With an Accordion

The thing about Celso Piña is he can play anything. Before he formed Ronda Bogotá 23 years ago, he played with three bands that made a living with a repertoire that extended well beyond Colombia's cumbia and vallenato. His early career as a Made-In-Mexico Colombian accordion king was decent, but Celso Piña is no Egidio Cuadrado, the ace accordionist in Carlos Vives' band. Celso knew this, but he also knew he was good, and that Monterrey was the hottest musical place in Mexico. So he called the rockeros and came up with a joyful blend of Latin folk (especially Colombia's), rock and hip-hop. His efforts since then—Barrio Bravo and Mundo Colombia, both available in the United States—are Piña's two finest albums. (If you're a beginner and have no idea what cumbia or vallenato is, get the first Carlos Vives album, 1994's Clásicos de la Provincia. You like it? Good. That's where Piña comes from, though the accordion part of his music has more to do with Cuadrado than Vives.) This ain't pop music; it's the work of a damn good accordion player who has outgrown his own genre and wants to hang with the best of 'em. Add to the mix the rockeros who love him (Café Tacuba, Santa Sabina and many others, rockeros or not, must have their reasons) and you know Piña is onto something. Just listen and let the cumbia eléctrica bug crawl under your skin. It's inevitable. —Enrique Lopetegui

Get 'em now:

Barrio Bravo (WEA International, 2001)

Mundo Colombia (WEA International, 2002)

Recommended early compilation:

Mis primeras grabaciones...Mis primeros éxitos (RCA International, 2001)

Where to hear sonidero music:

Thursday: De Cache, 9100 N. Central Expressway, Suite 300, 214-739-5548. Far West (7331 Gaston Ave., 214-367-8800) has a sonidero night about one Thursday a month.

Friday: Club DMX, 10733 Spangler Road, 972-501-9935.

Saturday: Tropicana, 2600 Fort Worth Ave. (inside the Bronco Bowl), 214-943-8088.

Friday-Sunday: DJs at Bailongo (9840 N. Central Expressway, Suite 340, 214-369-3312), Escapade 2001 (10707 Finnell St., just north of Northwest Highway, 214-654-0545) and Far West mix sonidero into their usual playlist.

Where to buy sonidero music:

For the most up-to-date selections, hit the music stalls inside Gaston Bazaar (3035 N. Buckner Blvd., 214-319-7600), Harry Hines Bazaar (10788 Harry Hines Blvd., 214-352-2233) and Bargin City Bazaar (735 N. Westmoreland Road, 214-330-8111).

Casa Latina (5334 Ross Ave., Suite 100, 214-823-5824), a tiny music and western wear shop, offers a good selection.

Best Buy also carries a decent but not-so-current assortment of sonidero.

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Cheryl Smith

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