It's a Saturday night in early January and the promoters of Tormenta Tropical have prepped the Rickshaw Stop for a big Latin-America-meets-North-America fiesta. DJ Oro11 (aka Gavin Burnett) and Disco Shawn (aka Shawn Reynaldo) adorned Rickshaw's walls with colorful squares of papel picado and mounted images of the Virgin of Guadalupe around the stage, the showpiece by the turntables being a particularly eye-boggling offering of cheap neon.
Tonight is only the second installation of Tormenta, and the relentless rain this weekend has made Burnett and Reynaldo nervous about the expected turnout (an e-mail sent on Friday afternoon promised friends free guest list spots). By 11 p.m., though, a rush of energetic clubgoers eliminates that anxiety and pushes the wallflowers into the bar and balcony areas. The crowd is a distinct blend of races and ages — although your typical bearded hipsters are in attendance, "white kid" isn't the lone nationality here.
Cumbia is a Colombian-rooted dance-folk music reinterpreted throughout Latin America and picked up by gringos Reynaldo and Barnett in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Like the revelers at the Rickshaw tonight, the cumbia being DJed here is an ethnic mix, the bottom line being that staying in motion is paramount. And like the border-boundless San Francisco club nights before it (Non Stop Bhangra, Surya Dub), this new party scorns the staid concept of "world music" while culling cutting-edge beats from across the globe — this particular night using Argentinean cumbia at its core.
Playing card–sized images of saints are scattered around Rickshaw's tables like club flyers. Burnett picks one up, placing an illustration of a mustachioed man named Gauchito Gil in my hand. "Here, take one of these," he says. "This guy's a lucky saint in Argentina."
Burnett would know. The DJ moved from the Bay Area to Buenos Aires in 2001 to study communications, and has since set up residency in both regions, traveling south every other month for a job in human resources. It was in Argentina that he met up with Reynaldo, a longtime San Francisco DJ (most prominently at KALX, Live 105, and Popscene) and owner of the indie/post-punk label Double Negative. Reynaldo moved to Buenos Aires in 2006 (he's just recently moved back to San Francisco). Their shared passion for digging into the sounds of their South American surroundings brought them together, and fueled their interest in Argentinean cumbia.
Cumbia has been around since the 1800s, where it originated as a blend of African rhythms and native Colombian melodies. Its sound varies depending on the country interpreting it — producers in Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Chile, and the U.S. all have their variations on the genre, which has enjoyed great popularity in its different hybrids. One main thread, according to Burnett, is "a super basic beat" that sounds like the scraping of notched canes against one another. He adds that the Argentinean version is similar to Miami bass or gangsta rap, with crass lyrics hyping big guns and fast women.
"I'd never heard it before," says Burnett, sitting with Reynaldo before a Friday night Amoeba DJ set. "I was living with a friend and his family in Buenos Aires and every Sunday there's a variety show on TV that's all cumbia all day long. It's very garish — there's blondes in thongs and guys with long hair and it looks so ridiculous that I started buying up all the CDs. In Buenos Aires it's frowned upon as trash music, though. It's from the lower classes, and that's who listens to and makes this music."
Cumbia is so widespread throughout the Latino music community that the Latin Grammys added a "Best Cumbia" category in 2006. But Reynaldo and Burnett are most interested in the very underground strains of the Argentinean sound — made by the basement producers they met in the clubs. "[Buenos Aires producers] started sampling hip-hop and electro and dancehall and melding it with cumbia, and that's what we go into," says Reynaldo. A Buenos Aires club called Zizek began hosting experimental cumbia nights, and both Burnett and Reynaldo DJed there regularly. Burnett also made cumbia tracks of his own, mixing it with everything from Baltimore house to Gnarls Barkley (his remix of "Crazy" got attention from U.S. DJs and from Fader magazine).
Music tastemakers started to take notice of the sounds emanating from Buenos Aires. Renowned beat scout Diplo — credited for helping break Brazil's baile funk sounds to the American masses — DJed at Zizek on the club's one-year anniversary. Diplo and his Mad Decent label crew are now supporters of Burnett and Reynaldo, an important alliance since the pair is launching a Buenos Aires cumbia label called Bersa Discos. Its debut offering, Bersa Discos Vol. 1, coincides with the next monthly installment of Tormenta Tropical (Feb. 8 at Rickshaw with Mad Decent's Paul Devro on deck). Each Bersa release will be a 12-inch collection of singles by various artists, with the initial record featuring Burnett's work alongside Buenos Aires discoveries like producer El Hijo de la Cumbia.
"Kids burn CDs and a lot of it is [low]-quality MP3s and they sell them at little merch tables hand to hand. None of it is going to end up in a record store, and it was never going to make its way to the U.S.," says Reynaldo. "We thought we should start a record label and spread the word that there's a lot of really cool stuff going on. Especially because Brazil got so much press, but with Argentina you don't hear about anything except tango." Burnett hopes the label will grow to become a cultural exchange of sorts between Buenos Aires and San Francisco, with the regular Tormenta parties allowing the public to experience the vivacity of the music.
At Rickshaw, Reynaldo and Burnett keep the cumbia newbies bumping alongside the experts. It doesn't seem to matter that unknown songs greatly outweigh recognizable hits (such as remixes of Mims and M.I.A. tunes). The crowd is energetically involved in the duo's discoveries. Looking out over the room, Burnett grins widely as Reynaldo selects the track "Bombon Asesino." The song layers faint dog barks and prominent female moans over a simple bouncing dance beat that gets catchier the more it repeats. "This one is by El Hijo de la Cumbia," Burnett says. "He lives way out in the sticks of Buenos Aires. He's basically building these incredible beats with a junk PC in the basement of his parents' house. To see it go crazy in San Francisco, where they're dancing like it's a hit song, it's magical to see that."