Global bass, cumbia digital, tropical bass—whatever you call their music, this Peruvian duo are creating thrilling fusions of traditional rhythms and modern electronics.
I met him and Salmon outside a vegetarian restaurant in Kreuzberg, Berlin, where they'd taken up residence for the summer. Having Berlin as a base has made it easy to cross Europe for festival gigs, plus the music's great and the living's cheap—about the same as what they pay back home in Lima.
"The first time it got stolen was in Copenhagen," Pereira said, "and I mean really stolen, because I was in the room with the guy and he just—swoop." The masks are an essential part of Dengue's image. They've gone through about 30 different pairs since they began the project six years ago, most of which they designed and built. Like their music, the masks are visions of the future as filtered through ancient memories—mythological creatures interpreted in fluorescent colors and angular, modern contours. It's a current that also runs through their music videos, which balance magical realism with sci-fi kitsch.
Dengue's music could be filed under a few different names: tropical bass, global bass, cumbia digital, cumbia nueva, electro cumbia. They're one of the most successful acts in a loose constellation of Latin American artists who interpret traditional folkloric rhythms with modern electronic tools. At the center of their sound is cumbia, a dance style that exists in different forms throughout the continent. Though born in Colombia, it has found a home in almost every Latin American country, and each has their own spin on it. Pereira and Salmon add shades of Caribbean music to this rhythmic foundation, along with heavy digital basslines and the snappy drums of modern bass music.
"Dengue Dengue Dengue was just one of our side projects," Pereira explained. "We never expected it to get so big." Whatever you want to call it, their take on electro-traditionalism struck a chord in South America and abroad, and now they regularly play world-renowned festivals, like Roskilde in Denmark and Sónar in Barcelona. They'd been in the game for nearly a decade before they stumbled into this sound, and it happened to be the one that stuck.
"We did the first drum & bass parties in Lima," Pereira told me. "For two or three years we had only 30 people in a really small bar and that was it. At some point we finally got to maybe 300 or 400 people, and that was the best thing ever." Apart from those rag-tag early gigs, the only place to hear anything besides trance and funky house was at home. "We didn't have electronic music in Lima until really late."
Pereira and Salmon had to build their own scene. In 2007 they founded the Colectivo Auxiliar, a group of musicians and artists who ran an event series focused as much on the visual experience as the music. "We took care of every aspect of the party—the sound, the bar, the flyers," Pereira said. "And once we started doing it, then everybody wanted to do it. We couldn't wait for someone to call us and say, 'Hey, come over to my club and play.' That was never gonna happen."
Their early projects explored a range of styles, from drum & bass and dubstep to ambient electronica. In 2008 Salmon released an album of dreamy IDM, under the name Zolcan Breaker, influenced by the detailed programming of Aphex Twin and µ-Ziq. At the time, Pereira was coding visuals for Salmon's live performances. It wasn't until 2010 that they began using electronic music to dig into the region's roots, and even then they came to it as outsiders. "I was never in a cumbia band or anything like that before," Pereira explained. "I was just making electronic music, and then I found this sound."
It's hard to trace this electro-traditionalist strain back to a patient zero. The Tijuana collective Nortec began experimenting with this kind of fusion as early as 1999, splicing regional genres like banda and norteño with synths and sequencers. Toy Selectah, another Mexican producer, put out a string of hip-hop-cumbia crossovers a few years later with his group Control Machete. Salmon pointed to an unlikely originator in the form of Señor Coconut, an alias of the German artist Uwe Schmidt, who released tropical renditions of Kraftwerk tracks like "Trans-Europe Express" and "Showroom Dummies." "Señor Coconut did this thing several years before anybody," Pereira said during a lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy in Tokyo, "but not in a club environment."
The movement picked up speed in 2006 with a new weekly party called Zizek Club in Buenos Aires, Argentina, organized by Guillermo Canale and Diego Bulacio alongside American ex-pat Grant C. Dull. It attracted a group of artists who were drawn to the idea of weaving threads from the past into the fabric of the future. At the forefront was Chancha Vía Circuito, whose 2010 album, Rio Arríba, was a gateway to South American music for many people in the US and Europe. The flamboyant live duo Frikstailers played an important role, as did La Yegros, a singer-songwriter with a folksier approach to the style who worked closely with the pioneering producer King Coya. Then there was Villa Diamante, El Remolón, and Fauna, a duo of producer-MCs with a junglist strut.
Zizek Club became a record label, ZZK, which became synonymous with the emerging sound. A pan-American network began to form, with the rowdy QUE BAJO?! parties holding it down in New York and the San Francisco label Bersa Discos pressing a bunch of these tracks to wax. Texas producers like El Dusty and DJ Orion put a gangster rap spin on it, while Mexican acts like Los Macuanos and Siete Catorce took the sound in a more apocalyptic direction. Colombia had its own parallel movement, with performers like Bomba Estéreo and Systema Solar transcending the club scene to become Latin American pop stars.
"I had seen these kinds of fusion before," Pereira said, "but it wasn't until 2009 when we went to Argentina that we saw these guys doing it in a party, with people dancing." Their aha moment happened at Buenas Noches Trimarchi, a music, art and design festival that takes place every year in the beach city of Mar Del Plata, on the country's Atlantic coast. The festival, which began in 2003, is heavy on audio-visual interaction; their Friday night lineup included some ZZK artists accompanied by VJs who channeled pop sci-fi with bright tropical colors and a distinct South American design sense. The aesthetic fusion inspired Pereira and Salmon as much as the audio did, and upon returning to Lima they started testing ZZK tracks at their club nights.
They named their new project after the highly infectious, mosquito-borne fever, and set out to reinvent themselves from the ground up. They designed the ornate masks that would become their calling card (both had attended art school). "It was an idea for making this project feel different," Pereira said. "With the masks, it's not Felipe playing or Rafael playing. It's Dengue Dengue Dengue." At their first local gigs, few of their friends even realized who they were. "Our friends would come up and be like, 'Hey, that was great!' And I'd take the mask off and be like, 'It's me, man—Felipe!'"
A small but dedicated satellite scene began to form in Lima. "These ideas started around the same time in Argentina, Colombia and Mexico, but they only came to Lima a couple years later—like everything," Pereira laughed. "There were already a few guys producing stuff like this in Lima, but it wasn't until 2011 that we had a crew of people doing it, and it started to get stronger."
For middle class kids in South America, cumbia tends to carry a stigma—at best it's uncool; at worst it's vulgar and tacky. In Peru, the word chicha refers to a rock-tropicalia fusion that grew out of cumbia in the late '60s. It was also used as a classist slur for poor people with bad taste. Imagine, then, 1,000 hip city kids in a Lima nightclub dancing to edits and remixes of tracks they might have scoffed at a couple years earlier. It was quite a shift to see the middle class warming to Latin traditional music, rather than idolizing imported bands from the US and Europe. But Pereira reminded me that, in a country with such a stark wealth gap, the scene they've built is just a tiny bubble in a city of 14 million people. "The middle class is really small in Peru," he said. "And around those kids, sure, it's cool or even hipster-ish to listen to cumbia, but if you're talking about Lima in general, most people are into reggaeton or salsa, stuff like that."
La Alianza Profana, Dengue's debut album, came out in 2012. Their first video, "Simiolo," outlined their aesthetic—in the opening scene an animated UFO zaps two men in neon track jackets; an Amazonian shaman sips from a steaming bowl; a man in blue leopard print and a Star Trek visor bangs a cowbell. It's awash with iridescent green and orange and pink, a nod to the chicha poster designs that are inseparable from the music itself.
That '70s sound—captured by the seminal Roots Of Chicha compilations—routed Andean pentatonic scales through surf rock guitars, wah-wah pedals and noodly synthesizers. It riffed on Colombian guiro rhythms, while folding in salsa percussion and hints of music from the country's Amazonian region. La Alianza Profana dipped psychedelic cumbia in digital textures, with heavy negative space and a meditative streak borrowed from dub reggae. Like the ZZK crew, most of their early tracks hovered near 100 BPM, with cumbia's iconic shaker sound looping like a heartbeat: chik-chika-chik-chika-chik.
With this year's album, Siete Raíces, the duo broke that format open. "The first album was all about psychedelic cumbia," Pereira told me. "But this album has a different concept. It's more 'Afro.'" The first single, "Guarida," with Peruvian singer Sara Van, is an homage to creole music from the Pacific Coast, where the country's African root is more audible than in the Amazon or the Andes. Another standout, "La Rama De Tamarindo," samples the 90-something singer Magín Díaz, an unsung hero of Afro-Colombian folklore. They weave his syncopated drums and shakers into a tapestry of organic textures, departing altogether from the standard cumbia beat.
"The sound that we had on the first album is a lot more popular in South America than this sound," Pereira explained, "because this is more African—and lots of audiences don't feel connected to that." For Pereira and Salmon, labels like "electro cumbia" or "cumbia digital" had started to feel stifling. Yes, they're sexy, marketable buzzwords that make it easy for journalists to tell a story. But they can also turn a multi-faceted movement into just another flavor of the week, especially with magazines who are thirsty for the hot new thing to promote. "We've tried not to get labeled like that," Pereira said, "but we're also not trying to push that hard against it. It's like, let's just make more music, play out a lot, and people are going to notice with time that we're exploring new directions."
That meant reaching for new textures, tempos and inspirations. "It's the same thing that happens with every genre of music," Pereira said. "It gets popular and everybody starts doing the same exact thing. Then that forces the scene to develop into something else. What started with cumbia is now spreading to other rhythms, which I find a lot more interesting actually." Like many artists who have built their career alongside an emergent genre or regional scene, they've had to be careful not to let it consume them. "At home maybe I'm not even listening to cumbia," Salmon told me. "I'm probably listening to house music or bass music or something."
What else are they listening to at home? "Teklife." The Chicago footwork collective, whose founders include DJ Spinn and the late DJ Rashad, was a major influence on their new album. You can hear it in the syncopated triplet patterns, heavy bass and high tempos. "We've brought a few of the Teklife guys down to play in Lima," Salmon said. "I don't know why, because we never make any money out of it, but we still do it. We like their vibe and everything they've built around it."
"Who cares if we lose money," Salmon said. "People needed to hear it."
A few weeks after our meeting in Berlin they flew back home for the fall, where they will take a break from the constant gigging. The Lima music scene grows more robust with each passing year, and they're excited to jump back into the fray. "It's not just about global bass," Salmon said. "There are alot of electronic projects coming up, and bands with really unique sounds. The scene is as small as it's always been, but people are more curious than ever." With fewer distractions they can also focus on widening their repertoire for their next record. When they come back for festival season next year, they'll still be looking back at everyone else from the future.