For 16 years, Discos Barba Azul sold Bruce Lee T-shirts, concert tickets, VHS tapes and racks upon racks of CDs from a cramped Broadway storefront in downtown Los Angeles. So packed was the surrounding block with stores selling wedding dresses, cheap jewelry, tacos and cell phones, and so inconspicuous was Discos Barbas Azul's modest storefront that one might not have even noticed it was there, save for the trance-inducing, gently surreal music that sometimes blared from its speakers.
It was the sound of cumbia sonidera: a style of cumbia, the traditional Latin dance music, that remains distinctive both for its sound — repetitive, overlain with booming shout-outs, recorded by live bands and yet conspicuously synthetic-sounding — and for its unique function as a portal between Mexico and Mexican immigrant communities in the United States.
Discos Barba Azul, before it closed in 2013, was more than a CD store — it was the home base of the Discos Barba Azul label, and a nerve center of cumbia sonidera in Los Angeles and beyond, responsible for diffusing the recordings of Mexico-based groups to fans and DJs here in the U.S.
A new compilation, titled ¡Un Saludo! Mexican Soundsystem Cumbia in LA, preserves a bit of Discos Barba Azul, collecting 13 tracks released on that label during the seven years it operated out of its namesake shop. The compilation is being released by Dutty Artz, the record label and crew headed by DJ and author Jace Clayton — also known as DJ Rupture — and Songs From Home, a new label based in Portland, Oregon. Its creators tout ¡Un Saludo! as the first-ever release of cumbia sonidera on vinyl (it's also available digitally and on cassette).
“The idea with this compilation is to highlight some of the border-crossing music coming from L.A.,” says Alexandra Lippman, a DJ and postdoctoral scholar in cultural anthropology at the University of California, Davis. Lippman curated the collection, and says it serves to memorialize Discos Barba Azul itself. “It’s a way to show how Los Angeles and Discos Barba Azul [served as] this center for music that doesn’t obey boundaries or borders.”
In a live setting — at parties and clubs around L.A., for instance — cumbia sonidera is often performed not by live bands but by sonideros, DJs who select tracks and then continuously talk over them. The sonideros read a stream of dedications passed their way from the crowd via scribbled notes, texts and Facebook messages.
Salón Lazaros, a club in Pico-Union, serves as a local destination for cumbia sonidera. A recent Saturday night at the club — which has the feel of an old bowling alley, with slatted wood ceiling and walls lined with neon — featured a few sonideros as well as Grupo Maravilla de Robin Revilla, an ensemble of percussion, bass, keys and vocals originally from the Mexican city of Puebla, now based in Los Angeles. The audience crowded the stage with their phones out and recording while, on occasion, listeners stepped to the band with a scrawled dedication.
To outsiders, the sonideros' constant disruption of the music can seem odd; to fans, however, the dedications have evolved as a means of communicating with absent loved ones.
“People who may not be physically present can be sonically present through the voice of the DJ,” explains Lippman.
When Vicente Pedraza opened Discos Barba Azul in 1997, it had only been two years since he’d immigrated to the U.S. from Cuernavaca, a city in southern-central Mexico. His new store stocked mostly banda and norteño music; it wasn’t until years later that customers started asking for cumbia sonidera.
When they did, Pedraza took the bold step of skipping the middle man and decided to release and distribute the Mexican music directly to customers in L.A. He leveraged connections he had made selling concert tickets and, in time, found artists who were willing to work with him.
Pedraza put together the CDs — stamping them with a Discos Barba Azul logo made by someone he knew in Mexico — and drove them out to swap meets and sonidera concerts in the area, hoping to get the music in front of listeners.
In the beginning, things were uncertain. “I only had two bands,” Pedraza remembers. “I said, ‘Now what?' I didn’t know what was going to happen.” But word spread, and other bands started reaching out. “A lot of bands from a lot of [Mexican] states started calling me and asking, 'Can you please make my CD?'”
Pedraza’s hustle went into overdrive. Between himself and two assistants, he would hit five cumbia parties on a single Friday night, convincing sonideros to spin the tracks. With a sonidero friend, Pedraza traveled to Denver, Chicago, and as far out as Tennessee and Georgia.
“People would go up to the DJ and say, ‘Can you please tell me the name of this song?’” says Pedraza. “The DJs would say, 'Go to Barba Azul.' And people would come.”
“Whose name pops up again and again? Who clearly has the best ear? It was Vicente at Discos Barba Azul.” -Jace Clayton aka DJ Rupture
The label's notoriety continued to grow through its first few years of operation. Pedraza was in his car the first time he heard one of his tracks playing on the radio. At first, he thought it was one of his CDs playing in the car's CD player.
One of Pedraza’s regular customers at the shop, he remembers, was Ashland Mines, the visionary L.A. DJ who, under the name Total Freedom, used to throw a series of parties in downtown L.A. called Wildness. Mines would sometimes mix a selection of Pedraza’s huge stock of cumbia sonidera into his devastating DJ sets — sets bursting with sonic diversity and uncanny sound.
Pedraza’s label, like so many others, was ultimately damaged by the decline of the CD and the rise in digital music listening. Instead of selling the CDs he distributed, local vendors started ripping his CDs and selling the music on SIM cards or USB sticks, Pedraza says. His final Discos Barba Azul release only sold about 60 copies. By 2013, he was forced to shutter his shop, later finding work at an apron factory, he says.
Occasionally, bands still reach out from Mexico about making CDs — though typically, Pedraza says, that's because the more CDs a band puts out, the easier it is for them to get visas to play in the U.S. Regardless, Pedraza says he turns them down.
But even as Pedraza's retail enterprise fell victim to the changing economy, Discos Barba Azul’s name floated around the experimental-leaning party scene. Clayton, of Dutty Artz, has written broadly about cumbia sonidera, and the way it transformed the dance floor into a distinctive kind of communal space (specifically, in his 2016 book Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture).
Clayton says he became fixed on the idea of doing a Discos Barba Azul compilation because, simply, their releases are the best in the genre. “They had the best tunes,” Clayton says. “Whose name pops up again and again? Who clearly has the best ear? It was Vicente at Discos Barba Azul.”
Clayton approached UC Davis' Lippman about assembling a compilation of songs from Pedraza’s vast catalog. Lippman, whose anthropological work has focused on concepts of communal ownership and processes of “versioning” in other types of Latin music, says she recalled hearing Discos Barba Azul tracks years earlier, at Total Freedom’s Wildness party.
After undertaking the project, Lippman found Pedraza in 2015 at Santee Alley, where, after leaving the apron factory, he had set up a stall selling dollar jewelry, toys and makeup. Pedraza handed a stack of music over to Lippman — he said Discos Barba Azul released about 130 CDs altogether over the years — and Lippman ultimately whittled ¡Un Saludo! down to 13 tracks. Each in its own way contributes to the stylistic diversity of the collection, from DJ Neo’s feverish, Bollywood-inspired “Guacharaca Indu” to the more traditionally grooving “La Kumbia en la Playa,” by genre stars Grupo Kual.
On a recent sunny weekday afternoon, Pedraza helms his storefront, which recently expanded from a smaller space. He is excited about ¡Un Saludo!, he says, though he acknowledges that, for the most part, it’s intended for a different audience than the one he built, party by party and concert by concert. “I never even dreamed about [something like] that,” says Pedraza. “It’s very nice. I think they’re going to like it.”
In his new space at Santee Alley, Pedraza says he wants to set up a corner devoted to cumbia sonidera. “I want to put out a table and cover it with blue fabric, and put out some CDs. Cumbia CDs,” says Pedraza. “And I’ll bring a TV, and I’ll play the videos like the one I showed you. I’ll put them there so that people can see them.”
The goal of Clayton and Lippman's new tribute to Discos Barba Azul seems, in its own way, much the same — an opportunity to preserve the music, as well as Pedraza's legacy, and a chance to tell the story of a label that helped so many others tell their own stories on the dance floor.