My sister has always compared love to a delicate piece of china that should be handled with extreme care. You may get away with tossing it around, breaking it in two and mending it. Should you act with carelessness, however, the china will splinter into a thousand pieces, and putting it back together could be out of the question.
The analogy serves well when describing the sad fate of La Sonora Dinamita, a Colombian band that has, in the last decade, fragmented into so many different units that even those familiar with its history are unable to give a fair account of how many versions of the group are currently in existence. Rumor has it, for example, that 20 different incarnations of the venerable band are presently working the Los Angeles area alone. One local promoter is said to have kept a stable of singers and musicians at a downtown hotel, booked Dinamita at two separate venues on the same evening, then shipped two groups of performers to their respective engagements.
It‘s a tragicomic finale to one of the most remarkable and underrated ensembles in the history of Latin music, a group that perfected the fusion between pop music and the traditional Colombian dance known as cumbia. Thanks to the Dinamita, cumbia became immensely popular in Mexico and the United States, and the group’s dozens of hits are still staples in jukeboxes all over the Americas.
Mind you, it‘s not hip to admit you’re a Dinamita fan. You need to belong to a lower socioeconomic class in order to dance to their music, or so goes the unspoken belief among the majority of Latinos. This is musica de pueblo, music from the countryside, by definition implying a pejorative judgment. How can an educated Latino enjoy songs with titles such as “A Mover la Colita” (“Let‘s Move Our Bums”), “Lindo Maridito” (“Beautiful Little Husband”) or “La Garrapata” (“The Tick”)? Most musicians within the tropical genre deplore the cumbia, that simplest of rhythms that lacks the sophisticated syncopation of salsa or the space for improvisation provided so generously by Afro-Cuban jazz.
To the unprejudiced listener, though, La Sonora Dinamita provides a lot of fun. Although rustic, the group’s songs burst with addictive doses of flavor, anchored on the ever-present beat of the bouncy cumbia, exploring other dance formats and assimilating them to its picturesque aesthetic. The ubiquitous piano solos are sticky and delightful, like the mischievous chorus of a darkly hued nursery rhyme. The lyrics, brimming with double entendres that range from the crass to the sublime, tell stories of Latino life and its preoccupations: food, sex, tradition; infidelity, useless husbands and devoted wives; tropical fruits, nights of never-ending parranda and copious amounts of alcohol. The self-references abound. At one point or another, the song‘s protagonists will invariably end up “gozando [partying] con la Sonora Dinamita!”
The Dinamita canon can be admired in the series of 20 discs entitled “Coleccion Oro” (“Golden Collection”), released by Discos Fuentes, a renowned Colombian record label and the company responsible for putting the band together. Since its inception in 1934, Fuentes has been the launching platform for a prodigious variety of excellent music acts, from Los Corraleros de Majagual and the Latin Brothers, to Joe Arroyo and Sonora Carruseles. In 1960, Fuentes conceptualized the Dinamita and enlisted the raspy voice of Lucho Argain (from Los Corraleros de Majagual) as its lead vocalist. Three LPs were released to moderate success, and La Dinamita disbanded. It would be resurrected in the mid-’70s with the help of Julio Ernesto Estrada, a.k.a. Fruko, the label‘s tireless multi-instrumentalist and talent scout, and leader of the crucial salsa outfit Fruko y Sus Tesos.
Argain returned as the lead singer, and his humorous, macho vocal style was the key to hits such as “Del Monton,” “Se Me Perdio la Cadenita” and “Cafe Con Ron.” But in 1981, Discos Fuentes had the idea of inviting a female vocalist into the fold, someone who would add contrast to Argain’s overpowering presence, as well as sing duets with him, bringing to life the piquant tableaux that notable Colombian composers such as Isaac Villanueva and Argain himself were writing for La Dinamita.
Enter Melida Yara Yaguma, a.k.a. La India Meliyara, a powerhouse diva with a gutsy roar that shines whenever the material approaches the more traditional side of cumbia, evoking the genre‘s original mixture of African rhythms, Indian folklore and European melodies, which took place on the Atlantic coast of Colombia toward the end of the 17th century. Meliyara’s first hit with La Dinamita was “Las Velas Encendidas,” arguably the best moment in the band‘s entire career. Marked by a sparse bass line, cowbells and a festive melody carried on by the trumpets, the song discusses the cumbia ritual, danced with a shuffle reminiscent of the black slaves’ attempt to dance with their feet bound, and with the women holding candles, symbolically lighting their steps in the darkness of the plantation.
Meliyara continued recording hits with La Dinamita, but Fuentes decided to bring in additional female vocalists, a practice that soon degenerated to the point where, according to Meliyara, anybody‘s a 36 girlfriend would be given a try, her success not necessarily based on her vocal talents. The only singer who got close to La India in commercial terms was the Barranquilla-born Margarita Vargas, who scored big with the giddy “A Mover la Colita.”
By the early ’90s, many of the artists associated with La Dinamita were disgruntled with Fuentes, and Meliyara left the group, citing a low salary and the lack of royalty payments. Lucho Argain and Margarita moved to Mexico, where they founded a local version of the Dinamita. Eventually Margarita would form Margarita La Sonora y So Sonora, performing the old Dinamita hits as well as new material. Fruko formed a new, multipiece Dinamita that commuted frequently to Los Angeles for massive gigs at the Bonaventure Hotel. But some of his musicians defected, stayed in town and assembled various incarnations of the band, which continue performing in California to this day. They face some fierce competition, though. Meliyara herself has been appearing in Los Angeles for the last two years with Sonora Meliyara, which includes her husband, bassist and musical director Rodrigo Morales, as well as former Dinamita and Latin Brothers singer Macondo. Discos Fuentes continues to release Dinamita records, but its new lineup has still to generate any heat outside South America.
Eating a slice of watermelon in the dining room of my Glendale home, Meliyara sports the melancholy smile of someone who‘s used to the music business ignoring her talent. With a guiding hand and the appropriate producer, she could easily become a Cesaria Evora, an Omara Portuondo, even a Celia Cruz. But the right producer hasn’t arrived yet, and it‘s doubtful that he’ll happen to frequent some of the salsa or norteño clubs where Meliyara performs with her Sonora.
Sitting beside her, Rodrigo Morales holds a pile of old Dinamita records and a folder with newspaper clippings, all meant to prove that Meliyara was a member of the group that made her famous, and that she has the right to perform the old hits on her own. Since they moved to Los Angeles, leaving their two grown daughters in Bogota, the couple has had to struggle with a number of lawsuits involving other Dinamitas. A recurring problem is that most promoters insist on booking her as La Sonora Dinamita instead of La Sonora Meliyara, a technicality she and Morales don‘t feel comfortable with.
As for reforming the good ol’ Dinamita, complete with Lucho Argain and Fruko, Meliyara says the idea is tempting, but probably out of the question. The 74-year-old Argain‘s health is frail, and besides, Morales says, they’d rather not talk business with Discos Fuentes again. Instead, they‘ve just released an album, Sin Alma y Sin Corazon, distributed by Balboa Records, offering new versions of all the Dinamita hits that Meliyara didn’t get to sing the first time around.
Still, Fruko himself mentioned the idea of a Dinamita reunion when he met with the couple some months ago, the day after a fiery Fruko y Sus Tesos concert at the Sportsmen‘s Lodge.
“We talked honestly about the past, and we explained to him that returning to the band would be very difficult for us,” says Meliyara. “We’re doing our own thing now,” adds Morales. The once strong, still shiny piece of china known as La Sonora Dinamita has been broken into too many pieces. It may be too late to put it back together.