It’s unavoidable: Widespread access to the Internet means those interested can dig deeper into collective cultural history than ever before. Crate-diggers and audiophiles around the world have used this unprecedented access to learn more about the music of past and present.
In Buenos Aires, artists like Chancha via Circuito, Tremor, and Mati Zundel mine obscure folk recordings for diamond-in-the-rough rhythms and melodies, while blending those with modern day production techniques derived from dance music. This unabashed cultural mishmash has led to some truly exciting music.
At the forefront of what’s known as the Digital Cumbia movement are labels like ZZK, located in Buenos Aires, Argentina. ZZK founder and president, Grant C. Dull, took a few minutes to chat with us about the state of modern Cumbia, the strong links between music and community, and how being hyper-connected today creates new avenues to explore the past.
Where did Cumbia come from and how did its digital form develop?
Cumbia originally comes from Colombia, a mix of African slaves, Spanish colonialists and indigenous peoples. Traditional Cumbia became popular throughout South America in the ‘50’s. Along with another Colombian style of music called Vallenato, Cumbia eventually spread to Argentina. Some of the first Argentine bands were copies of those styles, like the Wawancos. Then, over time and cross pollination, Cumbia grew to include various local strains [of music] and became more Argentine, Peruvian, Mexican, etc. Local influences started to mutate the genre and transform it. Every region in Argentina has it’s own Cumbia now. And this 21st-century strain is what most people call “Cumbia Electronica.”
What does Cumbia Electronica sound like?
It’s a 21st-century interpretation of traditional Latin folk using modern technology. It’s musicians who grew up listening to Aphex Twin and Modeselektor, but also went to Cumbia parties and listened to what was on the local TV and radio channels. ZZK is a mashup of all of that. It’s sample based and has digital production with Cumbia rhythmic elements. It’s experimentation.
Who are some of the key producers, artists, and DJs people should know?
Some of the artists we work with at the forefront are: Chancha Via Circuito, King Coya, El Remolon, Frikstailers. Outside the label, there are pioneers like Dick El Demasiado and Toy Selectah. Then you also have an international scene which we’ve collabed with a lot—Uproot Andy, Sonido Principe and tons more. A good snapshot of the moment is on our latest compilation ZZK Sound 3.
How did your label get started?
Cumbia was already bubbling up in the underground around the time our weekly party started. There was a festival called FestiCumex. It was a festival of experimental Cumbias, and a lot of the musicians we work with came out of that scene or were inspired by that scene. There wasn’t a unified channel for these guys to put stuff out and play shows. When we had to come up with a title for the style of music these guys were making, we came up with the title “Digital Cumbia.”
Cool, so it grew pretty organically.
Yeah, it was happening all Argentina and Latin America and we just kind of grouped it all together under the banner ZZK. We gave it space to develop and grow, which is what our weekly party did. Then eventually we gave a stab at it more professionally in the industry with the ZZK label.
Myself and my two partners were each doing really relevant cultural projects: I had What’s Up Buenos Aires [AKA: WUBA, a local website]. Nim had had an underground electronic label called Bombaclap Records, working with artists like Princesa. He was an A&R heavyweight in the scene before I even knew what A&R meant. And Villa Diamante was already making his name for himself as the go-to DJ for eclectic underground music.
ZZK has thrown some killer parties in Buenos Aires, and now in the US and Europe too. How did these come about and how do they represent what you guys are all about?
You didn’t really have all these crews coming together for one party, so we pulled together these artsy guys, the Reggaeton crews, the glitchy electro-Folklore groups, some hip-hop crews, and the Cumbia artists. We quickly learned that anything Cumbia was the crowd favorite. It was the most authentic and native representation of local culture.
It’d be like three in the morning in San Telmo on a Wednesday, and just a great mix of people—students, artists—it was a young, very cultured, very eclectic crowd. We called on a different artist to design a flyer for us every month. We wanted the coolest urban art to interpret their vision of our party, so naturally a lot of these freelance artist types were regulars at our party because it was the place to be and musically it was very inspiring to them.
Since then, we’ve been touring nonstop for five years, putting out a lot of albums, signing a lot of artists.
How has the music and community changed since it started?
First and foremost, the sound and artists have been put on another level. They’ve gained fans and press and institutional praise and newsworthiness that they didn’t have before. We’ve had our music placed on some internationally-acclaimed stuff and that’s reverberated pretty dramatically down in Argentina. And what we’ve been able to do internationally has had a lot of local effects. Argentina is geographically at the bottom of the world, so the notoriety just through hard work and touring has gained us a lot of respect and love that didn’t exist before. And in that is what we’ve been able to accomplish for Cumbia—we’ve been able to de-ostracize it, at least a little. We’ve taken it and put it into cool, artsy, prestigious places.
And not just Cumbia, but there’s been a return to appreciating local culture and music, even before ZZK. It’s spun into this other genre called Digital Folklore, too. We’ve worked with these artists called Tremor who interpret traditional folklore styles like Malamba, Chacarera, and Coplas.
Though they’re just labels, how do you or artists you know feel about Moombahton? What about “EDM?”
I love Moombahton. I have respect for it. It’s kind of like a sped up Reggaeton. I think it’s great that electronic music has had a resurgence in the US and around the world. It was just a matter of time considering these hyper-connected internet kids that grow up listening to music on YouTube and Soundcloud. I think where we fit into it—the South American experimental electronic Latin angle—we can cultivate the crowd and hopefully gain fans [from the EDM world] too. I’m not a big fan of the term “EDM,” but I understand the need for people to label it easily.
There was an article earlier this year written in the LA Times where one of the music critics said ZZK was making some of the most innovate EDM music of modern times. So we fit into it, but the music we make is different enough from the mainstream that we’re able to cultivate that acclaim.
What do you see as the future of ZZK and Digital Cumbia?
In the immediate future, we‘re already working on next ZZK compilation, we’re going to focus more on compilations and singles. We’re also booking two European tours for our artists, right now. Every year when somebody asks me about the future, it’s impossible to answer because of the times we’re living in and the state of the industry. All we do is so experimental and niche-y, it’s such a labor of love. So these past five years has been very worthwhile and important in a lot of different circles. I hope ZZK continues to nurture and expose great new South American electronic music to the world.