Colombian Exposition

“What I love about cumbia is that it’s the music of the people,” said Tiff Itzi-Nallah. Itzi-Nallah spun last Thursday at Zhou B. Arts Center with the People’s DJs Collective, bringing the popular art form into a new context.

Traditionally the music of the Colombian peasantry with a distinctive Afro-Caribbean beat, cumbia has begun to incorporate other music genres, from reggaeton to house as it modernizes. As cumbia evolves, so does its fan base: no longer only a favorite of Latinos and Latin-music enthusiasts, cumbia is drawing in young Chicagoans looking for something to dance to. One of the genre’s virtues is its ability to retain and expand its appeal, incorporating the sounds of the people and places it comes into contact with.

A style less renowned than salsa or bachata–at least in Chicago–cumbia is rarely played in these parts. To make up for this shortage of that signature shuffle, the People’s DJs Collective holds monthly cumbia nights where the lively and danceable music is given its due. When they first started playing, they showcased Maracuyeah, an all-female DJ group from Washington, DC. Maracuyeah’s name is a play on the Spanish word for passion fruit, maracuyá, and denotes how they, like the People’s DJs Collective, are interested in injecting Latin music with the sounds of hip-hop and dubstep.

Earlier in the night, familiar salsa and meringue beats reverberated: a more folksy style of cumbia issued from the turntables, with fewer of the touches that give cumbia its contemporary, poppy flavor. Later in the night NuCumbia came on, a subgenre that infuses elements of hip-hop and house. The DJs played some tried and true remixes, like Juanes’s “La Camisa Negra,” and some pleasant surprises, like a mashup of the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go.”

The People’s DJ Collective got their start playing fundraisers for non-profits. Their promise to serve the community through the fusion music they play remains evident today in their decision to hold cumbia night at Zhou B. While the swank art gallery is not exactly of the masses as cumbia professes to be, Itzi-Nallah says that Zhou B’s location in Bridgeport helps to attract a local crowd–one of the Collective’s primary objectives. “Many times the Latin community has to go north or to expensive places to hear nice music, or just a generic Latin night. A lot of our people don’t want to go to Wicker Park.”

The dancers on the floor included Latinos living on the South Side and young adults with a taste for cumbia’s syncretic sound. There were a few members of the crowd engaging in the kind of sexy shimmying that Shakira removed her bottom rib to do, but most of the attendees seemed relaxed and insouciant, practitioners of a more homegrown groove. Another DJ summed it up nicely later that night: “It’s a traditional kind of music, but anyone can dance to it.”