The importance of being Celso Piña


By Don Macica –

I have to start this out with a confession. Before it was announced that Celso Piña would headline a show at Thalia Hall on May 28, I knew very little about him. I figured he played Colombian music because I saw his name in an article a few months ago about a new album paying tribute to forgotten Colombian songwriter Magín Díaz. Piña is among an all-star cast of guest musicians that include Carlos Vives, Li Saumet of Bomba Estereo, Totó la Momposina and Monsieur Periné. That’s a pretty impressive list and it covers a lot of musical ground. I also knew that the group playing at Thalia was billed as “Celso Piña y su Ronda Bogotá.”

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered Piña is from Monterrey, Mexico and, at the age of 64, something of a legend.  A Google search seemed to indicate that while the singer, songwriter and accordion player (he’s sometimes called “El Rebelde del acordeón”) is held in high regard throughout Latin America, the reason for that admiration varies. Apparently, Celso Piña is many things to many people.

Rather than cobble together a bunch of stuff and call it my own, I decided to call on a few friends who I was quite sure knew more than me. The first person I spoke to was Jorge Ortega, a native of Barranquilla, Colombia and the driving force behind Chicago’s ever-expanding Colombian Festival / El Grand Festival Colombiano.

“I’ve tried to book Celso Piña into the Colombian Festival, but his travel schedule and our dates never lined up,” says Ortega. “The guy is devoted to Colombian cumbia and I respect that a lot. His accordion is tuned in the Colombian way. He’s open about his dedication to getting the Colombian sound right, having been inspired by Anibal Velázquez. He brings his own thing to it, of course, and he took cumbia to another level in Mexico, that whole urban Monterrey scene. He turned young people on to cumbia and was an inspiration to the whole cumbia sonidero movement. At the same time, he can play a festival in Colombia and people love it.”

Aqui Presente Compa is Piña’s latest album, and it’s a raucous gem of a party record. The cumbia beats and Piña’s accordion are front and center. But there is toughness to it as well: Electric guitar and a forcefully played drum set easily put it in a more rocking space, at times sounding like the sort of norteña rock that bands like the Texas Tornados do so well. But if you go back to 2001 and an album called Barrio Bravo, you’ll hear the sound that inspired a generation.

“Cumbia Sobre el Río is a masterpiece,” says Mexico City born musician Zacbé Pichardo, referring to Barrio Bravo’s lead track and mega-hit that features guest appearances by Pato Machete and Blanquito Man, both of whom were at the forefront of the rock en español scene. A 2002 profile of Piña in the Austin Chronicle article said of the song, “… there wasn’t a car or living room from Chicago to Chiapas that didn’t have the bass booming and the sonic onslaught layered with accordion rattling their windows.”

Pichardo, who leads the Chicago based cumbia sonidero outfit Guapachosos and is also a member of the highly respected Sones de México Ensemble, continues, “Celso has created a unique blend of traditional Colombian cumbia with the modern unique touch of urban chaos. Many cumbia groups have found a style and stuck to it, but Celso has always progressed alongside the current new trends and made something unique through his Ronda Bogotá filter. It has significantly influenced what I produce nowadays.”

Barrio Bravo featured guest appearances by several rock en español and Latin Alternative artists, some of whom joined Piña in a 2003 appearance at Mexico City’s Vive Latino Festival. YouTube videos of that performance show the rapturous reception that the crowd of several thousand gave to the performance, and the energy being thrown off by Piña and Ronda Bogotá is phenomenal.

I was beginning to get a clearer picture of exactly who Celso Piña is, but I wanted to check with one more person. Alex Chávez leads Dos Santos Anti Beat Orquesta, a band that initially made an impression by playing chicha, the Peruvian variant of cumbia, but quickly progressed to more of a pan-Latin sound. I knew from previous conversations that there was a philosophical foundation to the band’s embrace of cumbia as its starting point.

“Colombian cumbia bears witness to significant stylistic transformations in the 20th century, becoming a robust transnational musical phenomenon along the way,” says Chávez. “Commercial radio and recordings also emerge as a powerful force of dissemination at this time, taking cumbia to nearby and far off places like the industrial center of Monterrey, Mexico. So, when Cumbia Sobre el Río drops in 2001, it’s spread throughout Latin America is preceded by half a century of cumbia’s circulation along those same routes. While Piña had enjoyed success in Monterrey since the 1980s, his 2001 hit exhibits a unique blending of the accordion-based vallenato style he popularized with the slowed-down rebajada style pioneered by sonidero DJs in the working-class colonias of that city.”

Did I mention that Chávez, in addition to leading Dos Santos, is an anthropology professor and Latino Studies Fellow at Notre Dame University?

“Celso and the whole Monterrey scene have reconstructed a grassroots Colombian sound in their own image where we find the story of how cultural capital participates in assigning meaning to place, to migration, and all of the experiences in between. Monterrey is a center of Latin American music-making, but is also deeply connected to the United States economically. And so, Celso Piña’s sound tells the story of a cosmopolitan sensibility coated with working-class flare; it is “people’s music”—something which can be said about cumbia more broadly. Still, his story and his sound speak to how contemporary experiences of marginality provide the backdrop for powerful cultural constructions of place, of belonging, and of travel beyond nations and across borders.”

This is where it all connects and points to how a musician working in what seems to be a fixed style is in reality tapping into something that is all about migration, change and adaptation, one sensibility assuming the form of another to create something personally authentic, yet having a wide appeal to traditionalists as well as progressives. The Austin Chronicle may have referenced “Chicago to Chiapas”, but Celso Piña’s impact reaches much farther than that, all the way back to where cumbia was born.

Sharing the bill with Celso Piña y su Ronda Bogotá at Thalia Hall are Dos Santos Anti Beat Orquesta and ÌFÉ from Puerto Rico, who I have written about here, here and here.


Tickets at Ticketweb.

Review / Preview: New Music from Dos Santos: Anti-Beat Orquesta

Dos Santos
By Don Macica –

With Fonografic, their new EP, Chicago’s Dos Santos: Anti-Beat Orquesta find themselves getting comfortable in their own skin and refining their many influences into something unique and wholly theirs. And, as is often the case, it’s the guidance of an outside producer that helps them get there.

When I first encountered Dos Santos at a Rogers Park street festival in the summer of 2013, they were practically brand new. At the time, much of their musical hat was hung on chicha, an immensely danceable and stripped-down psychedelic Peruvian variant on Colombian cumbia. You can still hear traces of cumbia rhythms and the hallucinogenic feel remains, but now a host of pan-Latin sounds and big, meaty funk and rock riffing have asserted themselves in the mix.

To record Fonografic, the band traveled to Austin, Texas and enlisted Beto Martinez of the Grammy award-winning Grupo Fantasma as producer. This assistance finds them working on a much larger aural canvas and lending the tracks an almost cinematic feel (their video for the driving twang of Camino Infernal reinforces an impression that this would make great theme music for the next twisted Robert Rodriguez epic).

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Dos Santos is, ostensibly, songwriter-guitarist-organist-singer Alex Chavez’s band, but the contributions of all five members (in addition to Chavez, there is bassist Jaime Garza, drummer Daniel Villarreal-Carrillo, conguero Pete Vale and newest member Nathan Karagianas on second guitar) loom large in the sound. The percussive tandem of Vale and Villarreal-Carrillo has gelled into a powerhouse duo, especially on the descarga ¡Cafeteando!, which features guest trombonist Mark “Speedy” Gonzales and sounds something like a lost Willie Colón track driven through a Colombian pico and turned up to maximum volume.

Two other tracks are especially notable for the way they diverge from the band’s chicha beginnings. Santa Clara is an optimistic sounding tropical Latin tune that Chavez wrote years ago, and has the sunny feel of Los Amigos Invisibles at their best. At the other end of the emotional and sonic spectrum is the second half of Red, a slow and sinister bit of R&B balladry punctuated by Chavez’ wounded howl of “Ay, amor!”.

They do all of this in seven brief tracks that total less than 30 minutes, which suggests to me that Dos Santos is anything but a self-indulgent jam band, and that every note they commit to is played with purpose. There is no doubt more where that came from, and we’ll hopefully get to hear them stretch out at this Saturday’s CD release concert for Fonografic at the Hideout. $10 gets you in, but $15 gets you in and a copy of the CD.

Dos Santos: Anti-Beat Orquesta with special guests, October 1, 9PM (doors 8:30) at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave, Chicago. Tickets at Ticketfly.
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About the author: Don Macica is Agúzate’s content manager, a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a contributing writer to several online publications. When not traveling, he lives a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He also writes Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.