Summer Music: Sonido De La Frontera Fuses Cumbia With Sound System Culture
Local supergroup embodies the San Diego-Tijuana region with a fresh cumbia sound and danceable songs in a forthcoming new album.
In the latest installment of our KPBS Summer Music Series, we feature a group that embodies the spirit of our diverse border region, and celebrates the beauty of Baja California with their own take on Latin America’s resurging dance music: cumbia.
Sonido de la Frontera is made up of a power trio of veteran musicians, each with a rich and diverse history in the San Diego and border music scene: vocals by Karlos Paez of the B-Side Players; production by Luke Henshaw of Planet B, Satanic Planet and First Power Crew; and on the turntables, DJ Unite of Tribe of Kings and First Power Crew.
Their new album, "Sonidero Guerrillero" is due out later this month.
Each musician in the band brings decades of experience to the project, and the results are an exciting cumbia sound that fuses the party energy of soundsystem culture with the big drums and loud bass associated with a hip-hop production aesthetic.
Cumbia's festival and party roots
DJ Unite said that cumbia originated in Africa, from the cumbe dance, though it has festival roots in Colombia.
"It's a very blue collar type of music, and it spread throughout Latin America and in Mexico. They latched onto it really strongly and started making their own version of cumbia, and so now you can hear it basically in every family gathering, you can hear it on the radio, cars driving by when the radio is pumping," DJ Unite said.
It's also a form of music that can be made in a casual, hanging-out party setting, too — no full band required. What's important are the dancing beats.
"You can actually sit down with the hand drums and with the guacharacas, and somebody has an instrument to play along with it. And sometimes you don't even need any of that. I've seen videos of people just sitting around using whatever they have around to make rhythms and somebody sings along to it," DJ Unite said.
"The song ['Cumbia Mundial'] has a hard, hip-hop, pounding bass. Kind of a loop," Paez said. "And the lyrics are talking about the celebration of Latin American, different countries."
He said that "cumbia mundial" means "world cumbia," and that's the genre Paez and the band define their own music. "It just appeals to every culture, everyone that loves to dance and have a good time," Paez added.
Convergent paths to cumbia — and the band
DJ Unite's discovery of cumbia music is rooted in his DJing, after being asked to play at a friend's party when he was 18, using a stash of old records.
"I started realizing what tunes were working really well at the parties. And I started really taking a liking to the rhythms and everything," DJ Unite said. "I don't come from a background where I grew up around cumbia or anything like that. So it was part of a musical discovery for me that I latched on to really quickly. I mean, it's the type of music you hear around San Diego a lot. So it's something that just touched me and made me feel really good about the rhythm. From there, I started studying and getting in depth onto where it came from and who the big groups were and what styles of cumbia that I like the best."
Luke Henshaw, a self-described "late bloomer" to cumbia, heard DJ Unite playing the style at an art gallery and bar in downtown San Diego.
"The bass was just kicking, and that shaker was just so hypnotizing. So from then on, I was just into it. I believe the next day we were in the studio making it," Henshaw said. "And like three days later, I met Karlos and we just hit the studio."
Paez came to cumbia music through his father, who started the Tijuana band Los Moonlights. The records that band made — and others in the Southern California and Tijuana region in the late sixties and early seventies, like Solitarios, Los Bukis, Los Freddy's — were danceable music, with each album containing an eclectic collage of styles.
"They would always have at least two cumbia tracks on each record. And that was kind of like the way of making sure you had a party song on the record for those quinceañeras. That's the way the records were back then. It was like a mixture of different genres of music. So it'd be, like, two boleros, two cumbias, two ballads," Paez said. "They were heavily influenced by the Colombian cumbia music, which was strictly party music back then."
DJ Unite brought a rich history of sound system culture to the band's style. Sonido de la Frontera cut their teeth playing shows at venues like Voz Alta in Logan Heights or backyard parties in the neighborhood — "before it had its full renaissance," he said.
"Sound system culture has been a big part of my career as a DJ, of course. And it's also a big part of the cumbia sonidero movement where you'll have DJs set up big sound systems and all the people in the neighborhood can come out," DJ Unite said. "The sound system culture and the sonidero culture is similar to Jamaican sound system culture in ways as well, because you may just have a sound system set up in the neighborhood that may not be a venue, and they play the music and everybody could come out and dance and have a good time."
He said this background influences their live performances.
"What we'll do is we'll run through the turntables and the sampler, and we'll have Karlos singing live in front of it. So this type of setup can be used out on stage at a concert, or it can also be in the middle of a club," DJ Unite said. "We can actually take our set and perform some songs and actually turn it into a dance party, take a break from our songs and play some cumbia tunes, and go back to our set."
La frontera sound and stories
One song, "La Lucha Continua," translates to "the struggle continues." It's something Paez is familiar with, and a lasting relationship with strife permeates much of his songwriting — and the message he wants to get across behind the upbeat, danceable tunes.
"I'm a border child that was raised in Tijuana and San Diego, all of my life crossing back and forth. My family lived in Tijuana, and my dad would always have opportunities over here across the border. My mom as well. So it was like a working family that was crossing back and forth four times a week," Paez said. "I would see the third-world country struggle on the Tijuana side. And I would also see the struggle here on the US side, which is some of the same problems that we're facing today, like homelessness and racism. All those things are things I used to sing about back when I started having a voice in my youth as a musician. And they're the same topics that I sing about today."
But for the musicians in Sonido de la Frontera, their roots are not just from one city.
"We're not really representing just San Diego. We are representing la frontera, which means the border, so this imaginary wall, this whole region that we live in, and it's a culture and it's a way of life out here," Paez said.
What happens along the border is intrinsic to their music, but also to their livelihoods. During the pandemic, many of the musicians they work with were unable to cross the border to perform or work, and border crossings continue to be limited. But music still finds a way to flourish.
"There's some new music coming out of this region, of the South Bay, lower side, south side of the border that is really inspirational right now. It's like a new sound. And it's very exciting because I feel like with every struggle — like this whole pandemic is a struggle in itself — there's always new music behind a new struggle. So Sonida de la Frontera is definitely like a new sound coming out from all these hard times that we're experiencing right now," Paez said.
Sonido de la Frontera's new album, "Sonidero Guerrillero" will be released Sept. 24, 2021 on San Diego-based label Three One G. An album release show will take place at SideYard BBQ on Saturday, Oct. 2.