[Update: Since this article was first published, La Cuneta Son Machin lost in the Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album category to Pitbull and Natalia Lafourcade, who tied for the win.]
Being nominated for a Grammy is a feat for any musician. But what if it’s your one-time cumbia-metal side project that’s up for the award? And what if you're the first nominees from your small, Central American country, a country better known to the voting members of the Recording Academy for its abject poverty and rampant political corruption than its contributions to popular music?
This is the position in which underdog Nicaraguan band La Cuneta Son Machín finds itself. Their third album, Mondongo, is up against releases by such globally recognized artists as Pitbull and Bomba Estereo in the hodgepodge category Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album, making them the first Nicaraguan band ever to land on the American Grammys' radar.
“It was a big surprise,” La Cuneta bassist Augusto Mejía says in Spanish by phone from his home in Managua. “I don’t think any Nicaraguan music project would expect to be nominated for that big of an award.”
Mondongo’s nomination surprised not just the band but also many in the music industry, mainly because, while Latin America might be the birthplace of cumbia rhythms, dancehall beats and everything from tango to bossa nova, Nicaragua has never produced any such internationally recognizable sound. The one genre with deep, true roots in the country is folklorico, a vessel for storytelling that’s entrenched in deep national pride but isn't very radio-friendly. Driven by classical guitar, floating flutes and tropical marimba, it doesn’t incite hip-shaking as much as courteous nods.
The two most famous modern Nicaraguan folklorico singers are Carlos Mejía Godoy and his brother Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy. Driven by a profound love of country, they got their start writing and playing traditional songs, telling stories about life in Nicaragua. When the Sandinista movement began to mount a revolution against the brutal Somoza regime in the 1970s, the Mejías turned their lyrics into not-so-subtle calls to arms, inciting the nonreading rural public to join the cause. In the process, they became Central America’s loudest voices in the powerful and politically charged nueva canción, or trova, genre.
Today, these traditions are slipping away. There is a live-music crisis in Nicaragua, with DJs displacing bands as the preferred entertainment and electronic music from other countries dominating youth culture.
“The problem is that the young musicians are not telling stories with their lyrics,” Augusto Mejía says. “The music sounds good but it doesn’t have content. It doesn’t have heart. That has generated less things to talk about because they don’t put stories out there.”
La Cuneta Son Machín’s distinctive brand of marimba-soaked hyper-cumbia can’t help but be directly influenced by the country’s old-school storytelling traditions. Carlos Mejía Godoy is the father of two La Cuneta members, Augusto Mejía and marimba player Carlos Mejía. Singer Carlos “Frijol” Guillén is a cousin through the Mejía side and the band’s remaining three members — keyboardist César Rodríguez, drummer Fabio Buitrago and guitarist Omar Suazo — are all young but seasoned professional musicians from the capital city who grew up playing everything from rock to jazz to, yes, folklorico.
“We come from a generation that was in transition from political music to the new thing. We preserved the necessity to tell a story,” says Augusto. “Instead of rejecting what people call ‘popular music,’ we’re trying to incorporate those rhythms into our own sound. In Nicaragua, despite all its problems, there’s an interest in telling the story of our country through music quality enough to compete on an international level."
All of the group's members were focusing on other projects — from classical ensembles to metal bands — in 2009, when the annual Santo Domingo festival’s raucous parade going by the front door of Carlos Mejía’s house inspired them to drag their instruments outside and play along.
At first, Augusto Mejía says, they settled on mixing familiar cumbias with metal, jumping back and forth between the disparate sounds so brutally that people thought it was a joke. They settled on a name for the project (“la cuneta” means “the sidewalk” and “son machin” is a play on the English words “sound machine”) and spontaneously recorded a debut album. A second album, Amor Fritanguero, incorporated more hip-hop and folklorico, netting them several anthems loved by Nicaraguan youth.
For Mondongo, La Cuneta traveled to San Francisco to record with famed Latin producer Greg Landau, who was once in Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy’s band. He helped them make their most rhythmically complex album yet, filled with songs like “El Chikungunya” — a cumbia-drenched take on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” that talks about a virus carried by mosquitos — and the title track, "Mondongo,” named after a hangover-curing tripe soup (kind of like menudo) that is as much a mix of cultures and ingredients as the music itself.
Even if you speak Spanish, you might not be able to fully understand La Cuneta’s lyrics, which are rich with Nicaraguan slang. But the band's point has never been to make neutered rock en español that could be from anywhere. And as the first Nicaraguan band to be nominated for a Grammy, La Cuneta now feel even more responsibility to create something that represents their home while sounding contemporary enough to travel internationally.
"With the stories, we are trying to be completely Nicaraguan," Augusto says. "They are written how Nicaraguan people talk and probably a lot of other Spanish speakers have a hard time understanding the majority of what we say. We’re trying to make the music appealing for people who aren’t Nicaraguan and for people who don’t even speak the language. We hope it’s kind of an invitation so people can have more interest in Nicaragua, to see what makes us different."
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La Cuneta Son Machín play a post-Grammy concert with Los Cojolites, a son jarocho band from Mexico nominated in the Best Regional Mexican Album category, Tuesday, Feb. 16, at the Roxy. Tickets and more info.