Max Pearl reports from the Mexican capital on a timeless DJ tradition that stretches back to the 1950s.
To my left, a circle has formed. A man in a white dress shirt is twirling his dance partner under a yellow spotlight. They are dancing to the ecstatic cumbia beat of "En La Lejanía" ("In The Distance"), a 1969 classic from Los Wawancó, a legendary tropical music group.
In front of me, a group of young men has pushed their way to the metal barrier at the front of the stage. They're vying for the attention of the sonidero ("sound man"), Sonido La Conga, who's headlining the night. They're passing pieces of paper with hand-written messages to the sonidero's assistants, who take them to the stage and hold them in front of his face.
He cuts the volume on the DJ mixer, picks up the microphone, and reads one: "A shout-out to Luis and Daniela from their father, Edgar, who has joined us all the way from Toluca!" He introduces the next song, fires off more sound effects, and the dancing continues.
The party is taking place on a blocked-off residential street. There are kids watching from roofs and balconies. There is no cover charge, no security and the tent is lined with vendors selling giant micheladas—beer with lime juice, salt and a pungent seasoning sauce to give it a savory kick. In the distance, you can occasionally see an airplane landing or taking off from the Mexico City International Airport, which is only six blocks away. Peñón De Los Baños, a working-class neighborhood, is one of the crucial sites for Mexico's sonidero culture, a DJ tradition that goes back to the 1950s.
Sonidero parties aren't all bewildering spectacles. There are sonideros DJs big and small; some who play local birthday parties and some who tour the country with a 16-wheeler full of speakers. Some younger DJs take a modern, electronic approach to the sonidero sound, and some older purists only play music from the '50s and '60s. There are obsessive record collectors who repair their own turntables and casual fans who don't even own a DJ controller. Like any musical milieu, the sonidero universe contains multitudes.
What makes a sonidero a sonidero? Musical tastes vary, but they mostly share one thing in common: cumbia. The genre, which was born from the mingling of African and indigenous music in Colombia during the first half of the 20th century, has since spawned countless variations across the Americas.
There's the psychedelic twang of 1970s Peruvian cumbia, sometimes called chicha, which paired surf-rock guitars with more traditional rhythms. There's the older folkloric sound of Colombian groups like Los Gaiteros De San Jacinto, a rootsy style played with wooden flutes and hand drums. There's cumbia villera, from the slums of Argentina, a synth-heavy variation that, like gangster rap or reggaeton, has been decried as vulgar and corrupting.
The term cumbia sonidera could refer to a few generations of Mexican music, but its modern iteration involves more software than live instruments. This particular offshoot, characterized by synth melodies so colorful they're almost cartoonish, was captured on last year's excellent compilation ¡Un Saludo!—Mexican Soundsystem Cumbia In Los Angeles.
Some sonideros play more Cuban salsa than Colombian cumbia. Some only play tracks by Mexican cumbia bands. Others play big-room EDM remixes that sample cumbia classics. But as a general rule, the backbone of this tradition is the unmistakable cumbia beat of the guacharaca, a hollow tube that's scraped with a fork to form the genre's rhythmic foundation: chik-chika-chik-chika-chik. The melodies—sweet and potent like a rich dessert—are simple enough to have you whistling the hook after only one listen. Generally, cumbia isn't so much about virtuosity, or even originality, as much as sheer irresistibility. Unlike salsa, it doesn't require a jazz musician's musicality—just catchy hooks, charisma and the ability to keep a beat.
There's no rule that says you can't dance by yourself, but a good partner-dancer gets as much respect as a good DJ. Both play a role in the scene, and they're mutually reinforcing. Like checkers, the basic step is easy to grasp, but the turns, the gestures and the many stylistic accents can take a lifetime to perfect.
Sonideros who don't have their own soundsystem aspire to, and those who do are continually adding and upgrading to give it more juice. They're sometimes fine-tuned for clarity, but that's not really the point for many sonideros—they're just supposed to be loud. At first glance, it's not so different from Jamaican soundsystem culture, with sound men competing to see who can stack the tallest rigs and draw the largest crowds. It's got the same big egos and beefs that can lead to lifelong rivalries.
Then there's the talking. A sonidero isn't just a DJ. They must also be a great orator, an entertainer with the charisma to keep the people engaged from start to finish. A key aspect of this whole phenomenon is the saludos, which are the shout-outs that people request by passing along pieces of paper with messages written on them.
Some saludos are addressed to people who are at the party, often to super-fans who follow their chosen sonideros to gigs in different cities. But people also request saludos for friends and family members in the United States or Canada. They'll record the sonidero's shout-out on their phones, then send an audio message to let them know they're in their thoughts, even though they're separated by a border. Promoters will burn CDs with live recordings of the night and sell them to people as they're leaving, so partygoers can send shout-outs by mail.