by Verena Spilker
This July Berlin had the pleasure of welcoming Kumbia Queers, a band from Mexico & Argentina in Berlin for no less than three concerts, in which they introduced us to their version of cumbia, aka tropipunk.
And what a joy that was!
We met the day after their hot and crowded first show at Raumerweiterungshalle in Berlin-Friedrichshain for an interview at an empty pool at tentstation, a camping site not far from the Berlin-Hauptbahnhof.
Kumbia Queers came into existence in Buenos Aires in 2007 when Juana Chang and the She Devils from Argentina met Ali Gua Gua, of Las Ultrasónicas from Mexico. They started off covering their favorite songs with a cumbia rhythm. Cumbia is a musical style which originally evolved during colonial times and blends, among other influences, African rhythms with indigenous Latin American instruments and Spanish lyrics. It’s commonly known as the music of the slums in contemporary Latin America. Nonetheless, we were told, everybody in Latin America secretly looooves cumbia. People might not admit to that during the day, but after a couple of drinks everybody dances to it. Kumbia Queers took well known melodies ranging from Madonna’s La Isla Bonita to The Cure and even Black Sabbath, and pimped them, with cumbia rhythms and new queer lyrics, applying their punk attitude to them to queer both style and attitude, surprising not only traditional cumbia lovers and haters, but also the punk and metal community.
The well known track Chica De Metal, for instance, a cover version of a Black Sabbath‘s Iron Man, deals precisely with the gap between metal and cumbia that they’re trying to bridge. “Metal-heads usually hate cumbia”, Ali Gua Gua explains. She herself is not only a big fan of Black Sabbath, but also of the Scorpions, she admits. “In this song we’re trying to figure out if there’s a way for a metal girl to be in love with a cumbia girl. The metal girl tries to change, because she’s in love, but after a while she can‘t bear it anymore and leaves the cumbia girl.”
Learning of the prejudice they have to deal with towards their fusion of musical styles and the different scenes they tackle made me wonder how the queer concept and their way of addressing different gender roles and sexualities fits on top of it all. They explained that queer as a word is understood mainly in academic spheres and is not widely known to the majority. As a result their names are often misspelled as “Kumbia Queens“ or “Kumbia Queréis“. Like in Germany and most places, the word queer, whether a political stance against heteronormativity or a way to identify yourself opposed to the binaries of claiming to be straight or gay, male or female, black or white, is something that is practiced and acknowledged only by a relatively small group of people, even though the idea is spreading more and more.
Unlike Berlin, where there is quite a big queer and feminist scene, where queer bands and artists support each other and do their best to create a safe and fun place for cultural entertainment, a queer music scene in Mexico City or Buenos Aires is quasi non-existent, Ali Gua Gua tells us. In a place that is still dominated by a machista society, that makes it impossible for women to walk the streets alone during certain hours and where you can get arrested for having an abortion, women are still struggling to become an equal part of society. This makes it hard for most people to think in terms of queerness as long as these problems aren’t solved. That’s why queerness in Latin America is still a relatively small fancy “ghetto” affair, as Juana Charang says, that is starting to grow but can’t yet be considered a real movement.
But that won‘t stop the Kumbia Queers! They say they don’t have a political attitude, but their actions seem to say the opposite. Playing at jails, gay marches, empty swimming pools, private parties or events for children, they let the word queer be heard and show their natural presence to cumbia lovers as well as punk crowds. Six independent women calling themselves names like Ali Gua Gua, Florcita, Inespector, Juana Cha(ra)ng, Pat Combat Rocker and Pila Zombie Jackson, they do their own thing, something that’s still not that common today.
So how does the audience react to their stage appearances? “They’re dancing and having fun!“ Juana answers. And this is what makes the Kumbia Queers happy – when they can play a show, it sounds good, and people come and enjoy their music. They don‘t want to change the world with their music, the focus of the lyrics shows a more humoristic approach than a political one. They’re not on a mission to please people. “If people don’t agree or like what we are doing we accept that.“ Juana adds. And this respectful attitude makes them very special.
But people don‘t always reply with the same kind of respect. Even though crowds attending their live shows are mostly enjoying themselves and supporting them, they also receive quite a few negative comments for their YouTube videos for example. “These people call us freaks”, Juana adds, because they are not appearing conforming to heteronormative rules. People are wondering whether they are boys or girls, most likely only because they are not behaving in a gender appropriate way. One example of this is their video for Chica De Calendario, where the biologically female band members are taking their car to a repair shop, wearing leather jackets, sunglasses and dirty jeans, much like men in 60s American movies, while the scantily dressed woman, representing those displayed on calendars in many of these repair shops, is played by a male-to-female transgendered woman. I can very well imagine that a conservative majority is startled by this joyful confusion!
Despite these negative remarks they are not afraid of a bigger audience. On the contrary, taking into account that they might get bad critiques, they are still trying to play at many different venues, to reach new people and get new ideas. “If you only play for your friends, who like what you are doing, it‘s very nice and comfortable. If you want to reach more people you can‘t be afraid“ Juana says. Once they played at a famous TV show in Argentina at 12 pm and started their set with Kumbia Zombie, a song Ali Gua Gua wrote when she was alone at home, since the rest of the band had just left and the empty house felt like a zombie house. This song even freaked some of their friends out – they thought it was too strong to be playing on TV.
So who says the Kumbia Queers are not politial? By using the word queer in their name, they make people wonder what that might be, by going on stage, not caring what others might think of them, they empower other women to do the same, and along the way, they also encourage music lovers to break boundaries in between musical styles and scenes. All of this while presenting a positive feeling with their joyful music and open and friendly attitude. I’m glad I got to meet them and hope they come back to Europe sometime soon!