Heavy Cumbia: Q&A with Celso Piña

More than 30 years ago, Celso Piña introduced cumbia into Mexico and established his native Monterrey as the seat of the genre. In this millennium, the accordionist then revolutionized the popular Afro-Latin dance music and its cousin vallenato when he collaborated with acts like Mexican electro-rockers Cafe Tacuba to produce otherworldly fusions. “El Rebelde del Acordeón” remains in demand everywhere.

Much has changed over those decades. Piña’s made his mark on Europe, the U.S., and South America, but he can hardly play his hometown. After a stopover at South by Southwest (see “SXSW Live Shots,” March 18), he returns to Austin for Pachanga Fest. We spoke Spanish with the cumbia pioneer by phone to Monterrey. – Priscila Mosqueda

Austin Chronicle: You were just here for South by Southwest. How was that experience?

Celso Piña: It was really cool. There were a lot of bands and people were really psyched. Then we played and people were equally psyched, so we hope Pachanga will be the same. I think by this point most people know my music, and I’ve never played with Los Lobos before and Grupo Fantasma will be there, too, so I think it will be a good party. There’s going to be a lot of variety: ska, rock & roll, cumbia, vallenato. I think it will be a good pachangón, this Pachanga Fest.

AC: Pachanga tried getting you to Austin before last year, correct?

CP: Yes, but unfortunately – or fortunately – we were in Europe touring for about two months so we couldn’t make it. Now we have the opportunity to be here, and it’s not a long trip from Monterrey.

AC: Now that you’re playing international music festivals are you reaching different audiences?

CP: I think we’re largely reaching Mexican audiences, because as you know there are a lot of Mexicans in Texas. When I was in Austin [at SXSW] there were people from all over [Latin] America – Cubans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans – so I think it reaches a lot of people from all over.

AC: You’re from the La Campana neighborhood in Monterrey. With the violence in your home state are you still able to visit or have you stopped going?

CP: No, no, of course [I go]. When la raza asks me, “Why don’t you play here anymore?” I tell them I don’t play for a simple reason: No one’s booking me. Why? Because there are no more venues. There aren’t music venues in Monterrey like there were 10 or 15 years ago. You could play in [the suburbs of Monterrey] and in Monterrey; there were dance halls and bars everywhere, and there’s none of that now. People ask me, “Are you not playing anymore, don’t you want to?” And I say, “Of course, but would you have us play on the street?”

AC: Has cumbia’s popularity waned there?

CP: No, it’s still a very popular rhythm that lives all over Monterrey. The problem is the security issues we’re facing now. There are no more places to play. So that’s what’s killing our concerts, and we hope that situation will improve soon. I hope that firstly God, then our leaders – the people at the top, the ones who can do something – will improve this soon so we can return to normalcy.

AC: Have you been able to play in other Mexican cities where there’s less mayhem?

CP: Yes, of course. When we can’t play Monterrey, we go elsewhere. You have to make a living; you still have to pay the bills. Sometimes you have to travel further to play. You can’t give up just because it gets hard. … FULL Q&A

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