L.A.s' DJ Lengua has been tearing up clubs all over California with his unique cumbia sounds and innovative jockey sensibilities. It was our pleasure, then, to hang out with the guy at his house just a little ways north of our offices, share a few cold ones, and listen to way too much dance music from the Southern hemisphere.
Check out the mix he kindly put together for us in the media player to the right or just download it below for later listening. Also, we've got the track list on the next page and an excellent Q&A with the man himself below.
Tell me a little about your history. You used to live in S.F., for example. What were you doing up there?
I was born in Tucson, Arizona. I like to go back and run in the desert from time to time. I have lived in Huancayo and Lima, Peru, where my father's family is from, and in Mexico City for a spell. I lived in S.F. for about 12 years and moved to L.A. about five years ago.
While I was in S.F. I was part of a lot of music and art. I threw parties at my apartment on Mission & 16th with a diversity of bands, from my friends noise band Total Shutdown to the great instrumental dance band Tussle (with whom I have a remix coming out on vinyl any day now on FrecueNC Records, cover art by Paper Rad). While I was in S.F. I was also a founding member of the Club Unicornio, a night of all rare and not-so-rare Spanish language music. We started Club Unicornio around 2002 and just recently retired the monthly parties to concentrate on putting out music we like as a label and to do specialty events. Club Unicornio was named after a famous club in Tijuana on Revolution Ave. that my friend Julio's aunt used to sing in. It eventually became a tranny bar. We played anything from Mexico City dance-pop to New York Boogaloo to Mexican Sonidero Cumbia as well as Peruvian Garage Punk and Disco to traditional Cumbia Costeña. We really wanted to make something for the people in the neighborhood from Latin America that was reflecting the real diversity in our music more than just what everybody thinks of as Latin American music, like Salsa and the crappy corporate Latin music.
When I (sort of) saw you at Verdugo Bar with all those other cumbia for Mas Exitos, it became pretty clear that the whole “cumbia sound” has somewhat of a following. How did that event (and any others you'd like to discuss) start and how are you all interconnected?
In the past year I met up with Gary Garay (Ganas) because we were both in an art exhibit at LACMA called “Phantom Sightings.” Gary had been putting together the idea of doing Mas Exitos so he asked if I would be down to support. When we met, my LP had just come out and so I was passing them out and he showed up and gave me a mix of his own. Ever since that day we have been friends and have joined together to do our thing with the other friends like Chico Sonido, Hoseh, and Enorbito. The Mas Exitos night is an informal place for us to gather and jam out to our favorite tunes. It's like a lab of sorts, but we also do occasionally put on larger parties. Everybody in our group of music heads has been really generous, I think we all know that we are kind of like music mutants. Therefore we help each other out to get the music out to the most people we can.
A little more broadly, I have this weird hunch that cumbia―and other varieites of South American music―will be picked up by, say, the DFA crew or something. Figuring out what the cool retro thing is seems to be of major import today (hence the disco revival and reinvigorated interest in old techno and, to an extent, even 1990s rave music). Do you agree with that at all or are those musics too unrelated to the pop and dance music we're used to?
I don't know if the DFA would go that far but I wouldn't be surprised if they had an act that was in that vein. I think it's good to reinterpret older music and mess with it like the DFA does, I love them, but I am weary of the collector types that strut their stuff and show off their collections and act like they're the bee's knees. This music is for everyone, and it would make me happy if people take it and do their own thing with it. I mean, there will always be something coming out of the far corners of the world that will blow our minds and that is what is needed to keep creativity alive.
You played a little bit of obscure disco in this mix. It hit me that a lot of Latin “dance” music is almost proto-disco in a weird sort of way. Heavy, funky bass lines, really whythmic beats, and flamboyant (or straight-up cheesy) hooks… but it's often said that disco was originally more of an extension of a lot of “black music.” Do you notice any parallels between various forms of disco and Latin musics?
It's always been a two way street, the band Afrosound in Colombia was influenced by disco from Italy back in the 70s as well as the disco sound being influenced by the tropical sound from Brazil. I think that the Latin “dance” music relies on the driving beat to structure the harmonies and the movements in the song and that is what disco does as well. It creates that hard beat to sink your dance into, and then adds those hooks to move your mind into the different movements that are going to happen. Most of the Latin “dance” music is heavily indebted to it's black roots, as well as disco and in general, “dance” music. They are the foundation for which the other European and Native American harmonic instruments flourish.
I really enjoy your original work. How do you make those songs, where do you pull the samples incorporated into them from, and what's the inspiration behind your sound?
I pull my samples from whatever moves me, it could be a hard beat from an old descarga tune mixed with an equally hard disco/funk/soul beat or a subtle guitar riff from a romantic ballad layered on a smooth jazzed up drum line. The inspiration for my sound is the people and places I love, and the idea that we can find connections in our variety.
You've also done some remix work. How do you approach remixing other people's work when it tends to be quite a bit different from your original stuff as well as your mixed DJ set stuff?
I let [the Tussle] track influence the direction. I take their lead and start to find what's inside of it that grabs me and what can I add to it. It's really hard sometimes cause it's hard to work on a song that is really bad ass, you know, like it's easier to work on a song that isn't quite working somehow, because then you can just jump in and really make it your own. With the Tussle remix, I really loved their dubbed-out approach, but I wanted to make it a little less dub, but with and attitude. So I cut the bass line and made it almost sound like a rock steady bass, and then dropped this really gritty beat on it. Each song demands it's own answers.
You're also in a band, OJO, and are an artist. If someone didn't know you, I'm sure they'd be surprised to know how varied your creative work is. How does it all connect for you?
For those who don't know of OJO, when I came to L.A., I joined up with a great group of artists and formed the group OJO. We are a loose knit combo playing freeform music as well as leading group participation performances sometimes involving my 808 drum machine and a large stack of speakers. We just put out a record through a non-profit artspace here in L.A. called LAXART, available through the gallery's homepage as well as Printed Matter, N.Y.C. and other random locations.
As far as making it all connect, I was one of those persons that took that advise from someone about “Art being anything you want it to be.” Seriously. I don't like to draw lines in the creative process that don't allow me to follow whatever my heart and mind feel like doing. All of my heroes have been creatively fearless and so I think that rubbed of on me. I totally understand when you need to focus and concentrate on one thing and appreciate the value in that but for me it's always been about taking that creative approach into anything I do, even driving, and drinking. I like to drink and drive creatively… ehhhhhhhh.
No, but seriously, to draw and paint is to communicate; to make a song is to do the same.
Lastly, I'm curious to know what role cumbia in particular plays in your life. Did you grow up with this stuff or were you into totally different stuff? Is there some sort of personal relationship you have to the tunes you play?
Like my friend Moi always says, “Ask not what cumbia can do for you, but what you can do for cumbia!”
I grew up listening to a lot of different music from Black Flag to Toots and the Maytals. Growing up in Tucson, I would go to a legendary record store called PDQ and I started to pick up a lot of border funk type music like Manny Perez and Los 7 Modernistas. That store has since been sold and has gone down the tubes but there was a time when you could find all this amazing music. Also, when I would travel to Peru, I would pick up a lot of cumbias as well as more traditional stuff like huaynos and saya from Bolivia. My family in Peru is into huaynos and Afro Peruvian music as well as cumbias and all kinds of other music. So for me, yeah, I think in a lot of ways it's like comfort food.
I think a lot of people from my generation are a lot like me, we have been a people on the move and we have a lot of influences and so I think people naturally gravitated to these sounds because it reminds them of parties in their home, and, well, honestly, cumbia is the happiest sounding music on the planet! Even when it's being sad!
1. “Llamarada,” DJ Lengua
2. “Regresa Amor,” Louis Buillion
3. “Danza de Lobos Refix,” DJ Lengua
4. “Go,” Naf
5. “Dolares,” DJ Lengua
6. “La Silenciosa,” Conjunto Miramar
7. “Cumbia Ritmica,” Alfredo Gutierrez
8. “Petronita,” Los Corraleros de Majagual
9. “Carruseles,” Afrosound
10. “Chacarrero,” Los Diablos Rojos
11. “Crees Que Soy Sexy?,” La Cumbia Moderna de Soledad