Dancing Across the Border

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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.

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Cheryl Smith

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