Dancing Across the Border

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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.

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Cheryl Smith

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