There's a future and there's the past, and we call the thing in-between "the present." One of my favorite portraits of the present-- and one that I think has become more and more common since the late 20th century-- is one that combines a technocratic near-future with a raw, distant past. Paul Simon sang about it in 1986: "These are the days of lasers in the jungle, lasers in the jungle somewhere"-- the idea being that both the lasers and the jungle seemed slightly out of reach but still evoked the current moment. In indie music, it's become a familiar trope: Animal Collective-- who are sometimes described as "tribal" despite playing shows where three guys stand at podiums of decks and wires and flashing lights-- are a good example. It's a particular kind of nostalgia-- not just for James Murphy's unremembered 80s, but a kind of pre-verbal, collectively remembered moment that we can't access without electronics.
Chancha Via Circuito is a young Argentinian producer named Pedro Canale who makes music generally referred to as "digital cumbia"-- a modern interpretation of a sound originally forged in Colombia when African slaves lived there during Spanish occupation. Rio Arriba is a dreamy, neo-primitive mix of chopped-up pan flutes, folk guitar, Coke-bottle percussion, and booming, electronically treated drums-- an almost shamanistic sound that carries its own landscape: underbrush, riverbanks, campfires. The melodies are simple and repetitive; the rhythms-- or the standard cumbia rhythm, at least-- have an uncanny quality of sounding like their upbeats are snapping back against their downbeats, firmly in step but rebelling against the next bar. They're hypnotic but jerky, a kind of rhythmic paradox.
As I understand
it, Cumbia in Buenos Aires has long been treated as bottom-rung culture
for people who are poor, old, or both-- a reputation complicated by the
way in which the city, according to DJ/rupture, "look[s] wistfully towards Europe."
(The local brand of cumbia is actually called "cumbia villera"--
shantytown cumbia.) But, Canale has been revisiting and revising it over
the past several years.
Chancha Via Circuito-- is downtempo and atmospheric. Like Burial's Untrue, Rio Arriba is informed by dance music more than it actually functions as dance music. One of the interesting things about CVC is that he's managed to make a mutated form of cumbia that actually appeals to upscale locals, too. And what's interesting, I think, is that the unglamorous sound of cumbia is being reclaimed by a younger, more local audience as something to celebrate.
Canale lives on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, and "chancha via circuito" roughly means "pig on the circuit" (or loop)-- a reference to the train he takes out from the center city every night, and an image that only reinforces the impression that Rio Arriba is, like an old Sexy Sounds of the Jungle-type exotica record, meant to be a journey. The album is dressed with samples that sound like hooting owls or jangling change-- small, ambient ornaments that give the music a sense of mystery.
And actually, it's when Rio Arriba hints more strongly at the dancefloor-- on a couple of the guest-vocal tracks toward the end-- that I fall out of its spell. Most of the time, it's is incredibly repetitive, but the repetition shows patience and restraint. And it's that patience and restraint that always makes me feel like I've never gotten enough from the album, but it's also what makes me able to listen to it over and over again, absorbing its mood a little more each time. Because it never bangs my door down, I'm happy leaving my door open.