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.

Interview: Travels with Monsieur Periné


By Don Macica –

Bogotá, Colombia’s capital city, is where it all comes together. Like urban centers everywhere, it attracts people from both rural areas and smaller towns. It is where traditions meet and are fused with energy and experimentation to become something new.

In 2007, university student Catalina Garcia, who was studying anthropology, met Nicolás Junca and Santiago Prieto, a pair of aspiring musicians enthralled by French gypsy jazz. She joined the duo as a singer and they began playing informally for friends at parties, weddings and other gatherings. Catalina was studying French as well, so her language skills and the duo’s musical direction were a perfect fit. Thus was born Monsieur Periné, likely the world’s first and only Colombian gypsy jazz band.

They began performing professionally a few years later. In 2012 they recorded and released their first album, Hecho en Mano, and began to attract attention beyond Colombia. Their second album, Caja de Musica, featured an expanded musical palette and was produced by Eduado Cabra, whom you may know better as Visitante of Calle 13.

“When we recorded our first album, we still hadn’t performed much outside of Colombia.” I’m speaking by phone with Catalina Garcia during a break in rehearsals for a North American tour that will bring them to Thalia Hall in Chicago this Wednesday, March 22. “Our songs were limited a bit by that, although we brought in other Latin influences like boleros. So what we were doing mostly was blending French gypsy jazz with Colombian folkloric sounds, especially in percussion.”

Garcia continues, “That album gave us a chance to tour outside of Colombia and we used those travels as a journal of ideas and impressions when we started working on Caja de Musica. We were very lucky that Eduardo Cabra noticed us and offered to produce, because he had done considerable traveling throughout Latin America to explore those sounds for Calle 13. It was a good fit, and he was a big help in bringing those instruments in and building the songs.”


The results were successful artistically and commercially. You can still hear the gypsy jazz influence on Caja de Musica, but now it is (if I could use a cooking metaphor) a broth to which several other spices and ingredients have been carefully added, resulting in a pan-Latin sancocho where reggae riddims overlay French strumming and jaunty Venezuelan clarinets sit alongside Argentine charango, all of it filtered through Monsieur Periné’s sunny sound.

It was a sound good enough to earn Monsieur Periné a Latin Grammy for Best New Artist in 2015. The band, which has grown to 8 members, is just now beginning to compose songs for its follow up. “We’ve now toured both Europe and North America,” says Garcia. “We’re reaching audiences that aren’t necessarily fans of Latin American music, and we’re meeting and learning from them. We are really excited to be coming back to the United States because there are people from different nationalities and backgrounds that identify with our music. It’s a beautiful place to play.”

The final stop on Monsieur Periné’s 2016 tour was at Pilsen Fest, where they wowed a large audience late into the night, blowing past the curfew that usually closes down street festivals at 10pm. Live, their music takes on yet a third dimension, as they play lengthy instrumental build ups to their songs and follow with extensive soloing in their midsections. Somehow, they make traditional Colombian rhythms one with Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing.

It’s great, then, that the first stop on this tour is back in Pilsen, just a bit down 18th Street at the crown jewel of Chicago’s mid-sized music venues. They’ll likely road test some new songs, as they hope to begin recording the new album in June. Garcia tells me that they are working with collaborators on the new songs.  “We did all the composing on our first two albums by ourselves, but this time we want to work with other artists that we admire. Some of them are Colombian, but some are also from other parts of the world. We are looking for ways to learn from other kinds of music than ours. We want to continue to enrich our sound.”
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Monsieur Periné with Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta and Los Gold Fires
Wednesday, March 22, 8PM at Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport, Chicago
Tickets at thaliahallchicago.com

Concert preview: “You can’t imagine Cuban music without Los Van Van.”

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By Don Macica.

Cuba lives large in the American imagination. Likewise, Cuba has been fascinated by its neighbor to the north. After the revolution, the U.S. government kept Cuban culture out of our view. On the island, though, antennas were up and pointed north. Juan Formell, founder of Los Van Van, was among those listening.

Los Van Van was born out of something of a mutiny when Formell, then the arranger of the popular charanga group Orquesta Revé, had a classic case of “artistic differences” with the orquesta’s namesake, Elio Revé. Formell had joined the already existing group in 1967 and immediately set about tinkering with the charanga formula, which at the time was dominated by the great Orquesta Aragon. Formell was as familiar with jazz and the Beatles as he was with Cuban son and began introducing rock into the mix. Even as Revé increased in popularity, the orquesta’s leader seemingly chafed at these changes, prompting Formell to leave just two years into his tenure. Several kindred spirits in Orquesta Revé followed suit, and in December 1969 Los Van Van was formed around this core.

The rest, as they say, is history. And what a history it is!

“The violinists, pianist and flutist all came with me,” recounts Juan Formell in a terrific interview with Cuban writer Leonardo Padura for his book Faces of Salsa. “At the outset I introduced the electric bass and the electric guitar… and instead of the timbal I used a complete drum kit, and later we enhanced things with synthesizer and trombones. In sum, I carried out a series of transformations that complemented the music mélange we were creating: rock, Afro-Cuban music, beat…” The style that they created was dubbed songo, and later it formed the roots of timba.

Formell goes on to say that in order to excite young audiences and get them to dance, he recognized that the Beatles and rock had forever changed the course of music. Being the first to incorporate those modern sounds into the charanga format likewise changed everything that followed in Cuba, and is what led historian and ethnomusicologist Ned Sublette, author of Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo to say, “You can’t imagine Cuban music without Los Van Van, any more than you can imagine the world’s music without Cuba.”

In a contemporary context, think of bands like Novalima or Bomba Estéreo, both of whom recently visited Chicago. In each, they began with a base that is purely local to their home countries, but then amped things up with the latest in tools, technology and global trends. That is precisely what Los Van Van began doing over 45 years ago, and continues to do today.

And yet, for those first few decades they did this largely out of sight of the U.S. because of the embargo imposed on Cuba. Things began to thaw a bit in the 1980s as more U.S. musicians began to re-discover Cuba, but this opening was largely confined to jazz. I first heard of Los Van Van in the early 90s through a pair of compilation CDs, Sabroso: Havana Hits and another assembled by the Talking Heads’ David Byrne, Dancing with the Enemy. Shortly after that, the same Ned Sublette quoted above, then a producer for Afropop Worldwide, founded Qbadisc Records and began releasing CDs of Cuban music here, including one by Los Van Van. The flowering that followed Buena Vista Social Club helped make Cuban music fashionable in the late 90s, even if the throwback nostalgia of BVSC harkens back to an older style. Meanwhile, Los Van Van kept evolving and updating, winning a Grammy Award in 1999 for Llegó… Van Van (Van Van is Here). The group was earning the nickname the Rolling Stones of Cuban music, an odd reference when you consider Formell’s reverence for the Beatles, but perhaps appropriate because Los Van Van, like the Stones (but unlike the Beatles), are going strong after nearly 50 years, even if they disappeared from view after George Bush slammed the U.S.-Cuban door shut again in the wake of 9/11. In recent years, the door has swung open again and, lo and behold, Los Van Van is still here.

Los Van Van is a rare cultural phenomenon that broke through boundaries of nation, generation, politics, and genre. Juan Formell passed away last year at the age of 71, but he has left his orquesta in good hands. For the last 20 years, Los Van Van’s drummer has been the founder’s son, Samuel Formell, and he has taken over leadership of the group.

All of the above should be enough to convince you that missing Los Van Van this Sunday at Thalia Hall would be a serious mistake. If not, I’ll leave you with one more quote, this one from the Los Angeles Times:

“The controlled frenzy that is a Los Van Van concert hasn’t calmed down in more than 40 years.”

Prepare yourself.

Los Van Van, Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport Street, Chicago. Sunday August 9, 8PM. Tickets at TicketWeb.
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About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.