Dancing Across the Border

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"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

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Cheryl Smith

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