When Disco Shawn and Oro11 team up on the turntables for their popular monthly Tormenta Tropical parties, they're typically accompanied by up to four hundred glistening, writhing bodies. But tonight is not a typical night. Instead, the two DJs have come to the Independent to support Mexican touring artist El Guincho, with whom they share a knack for chopping, splicing, and otherwise tricking-out Latin American music. Yet even given El Guincho's rhythmic inclinations, his fans seem more prepared for a listening party than a dance party. That doesn't stop Disco Shawn and Oro11 (known to their parents as Shawn Reynaldo and Gavin Burnett, respectively), the two men behind budding Bay Area/Buenos Aires label Bersa Discos, from attracting their share of attention during two short sets, performed between the evening's live acts. After the first, an older gentleman approaches Burnett with a lively stride. "I just want to say, that was a great set," he beams. Later, when the club has begun to fill, people really start to move — some straight to the DJ booth, to ask the men of Bersa Discos what the heck it is they're playing.
They can't be blamed for wondering; Reynaldo and Burnett are dispersing a brand new sound among Bay Area audiences. Tentatively dubbed experimental cumbia, new cumbia, or electro cumbia, it was developed over the last seven or so years in Argentina and is essentially a mash-up of traditional cumbia with various non-native dance genres such as hip-hop, reggae, and electronica. Both artistically and logistically, the scene is centered in Buenos Aires, where a hip weekly party called Zizek, now in its second year, provides a regular outlet for amateur local DJs and producers, who sample and produce the music on their home computers, burn it to a CD-R, then spin it for hundreds of kids that weekend. Bersa Discos is one of only two labels in the world — the other being an offshoot of Zizek called ZZK Records — dedicated to introducing their work to the general public.
It was in Buenos Aires that the two Bay Area DJs met — under quite serendipitous circumstances. Reynaldo, 29, a former manager at UC Berkeley's KALX radio, had recently moved to the city with his girlfriend. He didn't know much about the local music scene and took to investigating the MySpace pages of artists whose names he saw posted on party and club fliers. One such name was Oro11, and when Reynaldo noticed a favorite San Francisco band listed as a top friend, he investigated. Turns out Burnett, 27, had moved from the Bay Area to Buenos Aires three years earlier and was already entrenched in the local DJ scene, performing regularly at Zizek and its predecessors.
Experimental cumbia was thriving in Buenos Aires when Reynaldo and Burnett came together. Both got hooked — even Reynaldo, who admits he doesn't particularly like to dance, doesn't drink, and used to dismiss world music. Even with cumbia's lowly social cachet, he couldn't resist its allure: "I'd tell people about my trip and that I got really into cumbia, and they'd say, 'I can't believe that's what you're taking from our country.'"
A simple mix of Colombian folk, African rhythms, and German accordions (according to legend, they washed ashore after a shipwreck), straight cumbia is considered in many Latin American countries to be dance music for squares and old folks — the sort of stuff spun at weddings and family gatherings. It's also almost universally associated with the lower class, a populist and ghettoized art form the well-to-do avoid. However, over the last decade, some of that has begun to change. Enterprising young artists have brought cumbia back to the kids by mixing and mashing it with modern styles like gangsta rap, dancehall, dubstep, hyphy, and crunk. Cumbia's leisurely 4/4 shuffle and basic structure make it easily adaptable without smothering its original identity. The sound of two notched canes scratched against one another can be replaced by electronic beats, while the dawdling accordion can be stretched out, sped up, and cut to pieces. Younger generations have learned to use cheap editing software to reference and re-imagine their musical heritage without letting parents and grandparents in on the joke.
Until recently, in fact, its scope was limited almost exclusively to the Buenos Aires club scene. "We had friends that were making this amazing music, but no one was releasing it," said Reynaldo. So he and Burnett decided to do something about it. From his days at KALX and his experience running Oakland indie label Double Negative Records, Reynaldo had connections and experience to apply to the new venture. Burnett, who became an Argentinean citizen and still keeps an apartment there, offered close ties to the artists and DJ scene in Buenos Aires — as well as considerable artistic and musical production skills. Within a year they were ready to return to the Bay Area and launch a label. "We had enough connections stateside and felt that there was enough interest there that if we put something out, it wouldn't be sitting in our closet," said Burnett.
They were right: all five hundred copies of Bersa Discos' first record, featuring five songs (one by Oro11 and the rest by Buenos Aires DJs) and available only on twelve-inch vinyl, sold out within a couple months of its February release. Two more followed in the spring and summer, with twice as many copies pressed, and they're nearly gone too. Number four, featuring tracks by Brooklyn- and Holland-based DJs who have picked up on the scene, comes out this month. Each five-to-six-song EP has been pressed and distributed internationally by Turntable Lab. Reynaldo figures their primary customers have been fellow DJs and Latin music record collectors.
To supplant their enterprises as a label, Reynaldo and Burnett also developed Tormenta Tropical, a monthly party staged at a number of hot San Francisco clubs over the last year including Club Six, 222 Hyde, Rickshaw Stop, Mezzanine, and Elbo Room. No matter which venue, it's drawn a reliably large crowd since the second or third month. "I think it's just because it's something different. It's not a typical Latin party," reasoned Reynaldo. On the other hand, it does fit nicely into the city's undying remix and mash-up culture.
Tormenta Tropical audience composition tends toward half hipster (particularly those smitten with San Francisco's "third-world" DJ scene) and half Latino, including some "hardcore cumbia heads." Yet even the Latino revelers who may have grown up with cumbia tend to be "pretty blown away" by this new sound, said Burnett, because it's such a radical reinvention — not to mention entirely unavailable on the radio. Partiers from both sides have warmed up to experimental cumbia quickly. "It's all dance music," Reynaldo said, "whether it's the original stuff from the '50s and '60s or electronic stuff on some guys' MySpace page."
When he and Burnett first discovered this new sound, it had made few inroads in the states. Today, thanks to their efforts, along with extensive Zizek tours here and abroad and renowned deejays Diplo and DJ/Rupture championing the style, it has become a badge of honor among hipsters in the know — especially in New York, where cumbia has enjoyed a particularly heated resurgence. "It seems to be constantly expanding and more and more people are getting hip to it," said Reynaldo. Consider this fair warning.
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