PHOENIX — It’s an unmistakable beat that grabs you by the ear and won’t let go. A tune that has the power to get your feet on the dance floor instantly. It’s the burgeoning heart of Latin music known as cumbia that a local DJ duo and fusion band are cultivating in a growing Phoenix scene.
“The first time you hear it, you know it’s cumbia,” because you get on your feet, explains Rafa Calakas, drummer and founder of the band Phoenix Las Calakas. “It doesn’t matter if you’re sad, if you’re angry, if you’re happy. Once you hear the drums and the bass and everything, everything just comes together and flourishes. It makes you happy and makes you dance.
Cumbia—a percussive style of Latin music that originated in Colombia—has a distinctive rhythm with a pattern known as the clave, heard in Afro-Cuban music such as reggaeton and reggae.
Today’s cumbia is a mix of musical culture. Eduardo Pym and Felix Trejo, the Phoenix natives who founded the DJ duo Vinyl Vagos a year ago, found inspiration in their mutual love of music and its cultural significance to the community.
“It’s important to preserve and release this for our generation because the music we play is nostalgic,” Trejo said, adding that Vinyl Vagos is hosting its biggest cumbia event to date, a celebration of Selena’s birthday in honoring the late American Tejano singer — at the Crescent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix on April 15.
Cumbia traces its roots to the African culture of Colombia in the 19th century. Enslaved Africans who were brought to Colombia and other Caribbean countries created cumbia as a courtship dance style.
Cultures began to intertwine as indigenous Colombians added their own instrumental influences, such as drums and flutes. In the 1940s, he arrived in Mexico with Colombian singer Luis Carlos Mayer Castandet, mixing mariachi music with African, European and Colombian instrumental influences.
“Selena was instrumental in popularizing the genre in American Latino communities before her death,” explained Ilana Luna, associate professor of Latin American studies and Spanish at Arizona State University, who sees the genre as a cultural element.
“Phoenix in general is not one city, there are many different cities and many different communities that emerge and sometimes fade away,” Luna said. “Maybe there’s less cumbia and more band and grouper on the west side, or pop rock in Spanish in downtown nightclubs or Scottsdale, but cumbia isn’t going anywhere because they’ll always be playing at family parties and rusvetas (small get-togethers ) and in Latin clubs.
Cumbia has also become a bridge between generations in Latin American culture, something in which Vinyl Vagos and Las Calakas have found their purpose.
Pym and Trejo, who met in 2020 as activists working on immigration issues, bonded over their mutual love of collecting rare old records of various Latin music genres such as cumbias, norteñas (a fast-paced genre typical of the North Mexico) and corrido (traditional Mexican ballads). This led to playing DJ gigs for cafes and restaurants to officially become Vinyl Vagos on 1 April 2022.
The duo defines cumbia as a representation of joy in Latin American culture and views its shows — which include Phoenix venues Linger Longer Lounge, The Womack, The Dirty Drummer and The Lost Leaf — as gatherings where people of all backgrounds can connect through shared love of music.
“At first we just wanted to play music for people, but then we were like, ‘This is a place where the younger generations can come and experience our culture that we grew up with, that our parents exposed us to,'” Pym said .
Pym and Trejo said before they started that Phoenix lacks a true cumbia music scene. “I’m 27, and when I was 21 up until this point, I don’t think there was a scene where anybody was doing that,” Trejo said.
Vinyl Vagos hopes to replicate the burgeoning cumbia scene in neighboring California, where 40 percent of the state’s 39 million residents were Hispanic or Latino in 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Arizona, about 32 percent of the state’s 7.4 million residents were Hispanic that year, compared to more than 42 percent in Phoenix.
“Everybody could talk about the technical side of the music and the kind of rhythm and beat, but I think for me it’s about waking up on a Saturday morning, like when I hear that music, that cumbia, it’s time to clean the house,” Pym said. “It represents quinceañeras and weddings and such, family parties and just people dancing and living in joy. We don’t want this culture to disappear with the older generations, with our grandparents and parents.”
Las Calakas, a local Chicano fusion cumbia band, also found inspiration in sharing their love of cumbia with the community. But the band takes the sound a step further. Originality is something Las Calakas strives for – producing only music written and composed by its six members. Calaka said he hopes to see new music from more cumbia bands.
“The cumbia scene is starting to grow, but it’s not fully developed yet because I feel like a lot of these cumbia bands that are around are mostly playing covers.” Kalaka said.
“We’ve seen about two or three bands come up that do all the fusion stuff, and I like them. I think there is potential for growth,” Kalaka added. “As long as bands just keep going out and not following rules, you have to play covers, you have to do that. I feel like if you’re just an artist and you put art out there, it will grow. I feel like this is just the beginning of something that is going to be really big in Arizona.
Calaca, who has been playing drums since he was 9, said his band members have been together for six years and draw from different musical backgrounds. The band has played the Arizona Super Show, a car show and concert at State Farm Stadium, for the past three years and will return there on April 29.
“I mean 80% of it, the backbone is cumbia, right? But if you listen to everything, there’s rock on, there’s metal, there’s some dancehall, there’s hip-hop, and there’s Spanglish.” Calaca said. “It’s nice that all six of us bring our own grit to the music and just adapt to it and add to it.”
The six-piece group – including Calaca, Joseph Sanchez and members who go by the stage names Dash, Les, Vic and Rocky – were born and raised in Phoenix. Calaca gathered longtime friends to form the group because he believes that cultivating a strong cumbia scene in Phoenix is important to the culture and brings people together.
“It’s a style of music that people can’t help but hear when they hear it. You get up, you just move and you start dancing,” Kalaka said. “Even if some people don’t know Spanish or even if they don’t know English, it doesn’t matter because music is universal and that’s what brings everyone together.”
Cumbia is not just a form of music in Latin culture, but also a distinctive form of dance. Dance FX Studios in Mesa has been around for 22 years and all of its instructors are certified to teach cumbia.
“It has its own quirks and style like all dances, but this one is very desirable to anyone who grew up in a dancing household,” said Dance FX Studios owner Sierra Graves, who has been teaching for five years. “I’m glad it’s bringing people and families together.”
Although Graves said cumbia isn’t as popular as bachata and salsa classes at the studio, she recommends giving it a try.
“I think cumbia is sprinkled into every Latin dance scene, but sometimes it gets forgotten,” Graves said. “I think like anything else, it can become more popular as long as people keep dancing to it. We also challenge our students to always dance in a social setting, so hopefully this will spread the dance.”