Bardo Martinez is the singer, guitar player, keyboardist, and occasional accordionist for Chicano Batman, as well as a former member of Buyepongo. He speaks now about the cultural context of Colombian cumbia, Cuban and Colombian claves, and Rafael Cassiani Cassiani.
Your Master's thesis is on a Colombian accordion player–who?
I'm still working on it. His name is Andrés Landero. The guy was born in like the '30s and started playing the accordion at the age of 17. He was from this small town on the Atlantic coastal region in Colombia, and that region is very musically diverse due to the racial mixture from hundreds of years back. African, indigenous, and Spanish–other folks from all over the place. Cartagena is near by, and it's like a principal port in which slaves were brought to South America. It was also a strong place for the Spanish, so there was a lot of exchange of goods. That region is known for what is called now the cumbia.
How is the accordion related to those influences? It's not African, it's not indigenous. It's not Spanish either, right?
Mostly Germany, and it was brought to Colombia at the turn of the century. It's not Spanish; it's German. The accordion that people play cumbia with is about ten pounds, and is like … all the white keys on the piano. I'm not explaining it well–but basically, it's much simpler than a piano. There are also regional differences–Colombian accordions use three reeds for everybody. The reeds are what vibrates. Mexican accordions are two-reed accordions. But the Colombian ones are super expensive.
Most Americans who aren't of Colombian descent might not think they know what cumbia is, but if you play it for them, it's most likely going to sound familiar–particularly to Californians or people from the Southwest. How did this music become part of the American musical landscape?
How is it now American? I feel you. I mean, it's valid. Quantic, for example, is a British guy playing cumbia. The guy can play the accordion really well. He's a unique person and there aren't a lot of people like him. But I mean, I'm an American–I was born here. That's the music I listen to and I love, but it has a lot to do with the fact that people have migrated to this region, of course. But also the music left Colombia since the '30s, '40s and '50s and went north throughout Mexico and all of Latin America and changed into different forms. There are cumbias with trumpet sections and horn arrangements–even with the keytar in the '80s. It has a long history and it's a very simple beat that people can recognize and dance to. It became more simplified as time went on–the root of it is a lot more percussive.
Who are good contemporary musicians working within the cumbia genre that may be less familiar in the United States?
Rigo Tovar–he plays like Mexican cumbia. What I would be into–I really like Lisandro Meza. He played since the '50s but recorded until the '90s. There's nobody that stands out right now that's playing right now.
What kind of music is coming out of Colombia now?
My mom is from Cartagena. I was there a few months ago. The music that comes to mind is champeta. It's the music of the 'hood, basically. Cartegena is a very black city, and it's the music that's most attached to blackness. Internationally, due to the historical context, blackness can be looked upon negatively so this kind of music had a kind of a stigma but it's becoming more popular. It has like a Casio keyboard from the '90s making the beat, and it's just kind of like tropical. Cartagena–people don't really listen to cumbia no more. All of Colombia, is into salsa and lot of Dominican rhythms–merengue–because Cartagena is in the Caribbean.
I know Cubans that have defected to Colombia. I imagine that this isn't all that uncommon. Has this had an effect on the musical landscape and culture of Colombia?
There's a musical form born out of the connection between Cubans and Colombians. There's a place called Palenque about an hour away from Colombia, on the road to San Jacinto. Palenque derived from a slave escape. That's why it's called “Palenque”–and this is the word, in general, in Latin America referring to cities and towns formed by escaped slaves. So anyway, Cubans came in contact with the people there, and brought son and the rumba, and they took that and used it. They played those rhythms and created son palanquero [in a movement] that was basically led by Rafael Cassiani Cassiani. The last time I went to Palenque I got to meet him. Me and a few friends from [my old band] Buyepongo were really into it. It's a weird adaptation and it's really rooted–it sounds straight African but it's in Colombia.
I read an article discussing the fact that Spanish slave owners tried to keep people from the same African tribes together, and allowed them to make and keep drums. American slave owners wouldn't allow drums or instruments, and deliberately broke up groups from the same region or tribe.
There's a book about that–Blues People. It basically talks about the African diaspora in the Americas and that was a point that the author brought up in the 1960s.
Where do you get your South American records? You have a pretty sweet collection.
Half of them are my dad's. The Cypress swap meet has good stuff. I shouldn't say it because now people will go, but there it is. That's where I get cheap records that turn out to be really good. And I go pretty late. It's no secret, I guess, so I'll share it. I've seen some good cumbia records, not like a super super gem. But they have good records there.