Classic, Yet Modern: ZZK Records and Digital Cumbia

By 05 December, 2011

Because we live in such a digital age, most things are divided between that which is technological and new, or that which is organic and conventional. And music is no exception – in it’s most basic forms, it is either completely electronic or completely traditional. Yet over the past twenty years or so, artists have begun to mix these two genres, and a hybridized style has emerged, notably through acts like Portishead and Thievery Corporation. Since then, musicians have experimented with this combination of sounds to the extreme, simultaneously exploring older classic sounds along with new, avant-garde ones. And in today’s music scene, the Argentine-based ZZK Records is perhaps the most exemplary representation of this hybridity through their experimentation with the sounds of digital cumbia.

I was talking to a friend about the genre a few weeks ago, and when I told her that the style is called “digital cumbia,” she laughed and asked me if I was referring to the Selena song, “Tecno Cumbia.” I mean no disrespect to Selena, but if you have heard this song, you’ll understand why my friend found the term digital cumbia to be so humorous. And though the aspirations may have been the same, ZZK Records’ version of digital cumbia is no laughing matter; in fact, it’s more of a dancing matter. For the past three years, the Buenos Aires record label has been mixing the traditional folkloric sounds of the Colombian cumbia style with the new electronic styles of downtempo, reggaeton, hip-hop, and even dubstep. Other musical acts have also been experimenting with digital cumbia, such as Colombian-based group Bomba Estéreo and DJ trio Gotan Project. One could even argue to an extent that some of Shakira’s latest hits, like “Loca” or “Rabiosa,” are in the digital cumbia form. Nonetheless, ZZK Records is the absolute apotheosis of the musical style, leading the movement and giving it international fame.

The record label and production team at ZZK have been working non-stop to get the names of their artists – as well as the digital cumbia style – out to the world, and so far, their work has been paying off. They’ve been touring worldwide of late, currently on a European tour, and their artists have played well-known musical festivals, including Coachella and SXSW in the US, Rokslide in the UK, and Transmusicales de Rennes in France. They’ve equally been well received by the media, including Pitchfork, NME, Le Monde, and the New York Times. Incidentally, it was through the media that I discovered ZZK. If it were not for their continuation in creativity and dedication, there’d probably be many people who would be underprivileged in regards to grooves. Because let’s face it, if you can’t bob your head or move your hips to something, you tend to get a little high-strung.

Dancing is far from a foreign term to the artists at ZZK Records either – I dare you to look for anything released on their label that you can’t move to while listening to it. To give you a head start, here are two songs from the ZZK vault to check out: “Quimey Neuquén” by Chancha Vía Circuíto, and “El Hueso + Niño Que Llora en Los Montes de Maria” by King Coya. Both feature traditional cumbia songs – Chancha uses José Larralde’s version of an Argentine folk song, and KC uses the bullerengue styling of Colombian singer Petrona Martínez. And to accompany these passionate voices, the ZZK artists incorporate thick, stomping, heart-pounding beats that envelop you in a swell of sounds.

[soundcloud url=”″]
Jose Larralde – “Quimey Neuquen” (Chancha Via Circuito remix)

I spoke to Chancha – whose real name is Pedro Canale – and asked him why he chose to use Larralde’s take on the song (recorded in 1967) rather than other versions, his answer was simple: it was because that was the first version of the song he had heard, and because “Larralde’s interpretation is special.” When one listens to Chancha’s remix of the song, the DJ’s statement makes sense. The song starts with a slow, reverberating cumbia beat, layered with light clicking percussion; after a few more seconds, Larralde’s swooning, powerful voice melts into your ears, as the bass reinforces the background. After a while Larralde’s rhythmic guitar picking carries the song to the end, by which point, you feel as if you’ve transcended to another world – one similar to the album cover for Chancha Vía Circuíto’s Río Arriba, the name being a line from “Quimey Neuquén.” The song as a whole is intoxicating, a feeling which Chancha equates with the digital cumbia sound, saying that it’s “contagious and it transmits joy.”

The reason Chancha and King Coya give for why cumbia fits so well with electronica, as well as why there is a growing popularity of digital cumbia, is because it’s perfect for dancing. Chancha calls it “ideal” for dancing, and KC justifies his answer by saying that its “the danceable groove without a doubt” that makes digital cumbia so attractive. Like Chancha, King Coya uses an invigorating voice for “El Hueso + Niño Que Llora en Los Montes de Maria” that of Colombian singer Petrona Martínez. The singer’s lamenting voice is intense and deep as heavy bass notes ring in your ear, and a flurry of percussion sweeps through the song. Martínez is famous for singing in the bullerengue style, a cumbia subgenre traditionally sung exclusively by women. King Coya adds on to the multitude of sounds in this song as well as others by incorporating traditional instruments while simultaneously creating digitalized beats. In “El Hueso + Niño Que Llora en Los Montes de Maria,” an accordion compliments the powerful wailing of Petrona Martínez with a light melody between verses. KC also uses the charango and melodica in other songs off of his latest release from ZZK, Cumbias de Villa Donde, always playing the instruments live when he performs. Coya, or Gaby Kerpel, explains that he does this because it gives “a more human touch that distinguishes it from other electronic artists that might not play any instrument.”

It is this “human touch,” which we try to remember in our continually expanding technological lives. Though we may be surrounded by all kinds of new inventions and electronics, we still have our humanity – an idea perfectly expressed in King Coya and Chancha Vía Circuíto’s songs, the ZZK record label, and the digital cumbia movement in its entirety.

You can find out more about digital cumbia and the artists mentioned in the piece by reading The Story of ZZK Records. Also, listen to some digital cumbia thanks to Chancha Via Circuito’s Las Pastores mixtape and this mix by Caballito which explores the digital cumbia (or electro cumbia) sounds coming out of Colombia itself.

Follow Sounds and Colours: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Mixcloud / Soundcloud / Bandcamp

Subscribe to the Sounds and Colours Newsletter for regular updates, news and competitions bringing the best of Latin American culture direct to your Inbox.