Edmundo Gómez Moreno spent 11 months as a project manager and systems engineer helping NASA build nano-satellites in Mexico. But in 2015, he could not find a job in the U.S. "I had letters of support from NASA, from the Mexican consulate, the managers from Lockheed Martin, all stating my expertise, but nobody was calling me," he remembers. "I said to God, 'what is happening?'"
God was focusing his efforts elsewhere: "Oye Mujer," a cumbia song Moreno self-released under the name Raymix, was beginning to travel from party to party back home in Mexico. "It started with sonideros," Moreno says, referring to the DJs who play cumbia but also deliver saludos, greetings or shout-outs, over the music. "One played it at a party. Another one standing in that block party heard it, looked for it on YouTube, and found it. It started to spread."
By the time Moreno posted the track on Spotify, "Oye Mujer" was already so popular that it cracked the platform's viral chart in Mexico without any major label promotion. Now Raymix's single is an American hit – top five at Latin Airplay – and Moreno has a job: a record deal with Universal Music Latin. The former NASA scientist is also helping to lead cumbia, one of the most popular and versatile forms of Latin American music, back into prominence in the commercial Hispanic American market. "Not everybody would accept cumbia because of who's making it, which region it comes from," Moreno says. "No more is cumbia just from Mexico or Colombia. It's from the world, to the world."
Cumbia is defined largely by a rhythm, a simple four-on-the-floor thump – "it follows the heartbeat," says Mexican Institute of Sound's Camilo Lara – overlaid with a shuffling triplet that sounds like "ch ch-ch-ch ch-ch-ch." The form originated in Colombia, but it has spread across Latin America, mixing with local traditions. "It got a different seasoning in each country," Lara says. "In Peru it got more into chicha; in Argentina, cumbia villera; in Mexico, cumbia sonidera."
The extent of its reach should not be underestimated. "I would define cumbia, whether people like it or not, as the most popular Latin genre all over the Americas and perhaps the world," says Héctor Fernández L'Hoeste, a professor at Georgia State University who co-edited and contributed to the essay collection Cumbia! Scenes of a Migrant Latin American Music Genre. "Go from the south of Argentina to the north of Mexico and everywhere in between, every bus station, wedding and car stereo, you're going to hear cumbia," adds Grant Dull, who co-founded the Argentian label ZZK Records, which originally focused on cumbia digital, in 2008.
Despite the music's widespread popularity, its presence in the mainstream Hispanic American market has been intermittent, especially since the reggaeton beat put a chokehold on Latin pop. But reggaeton is not cumbia's only competitor. "It doesn't get the same love on Latin radio as salsa, bachata or merengue," says DJ Beto, one half of the group iBomba, which is responsible for popular pan-Caribbean parties around New York City.
Cindy Hill, who oversees Univision's programming in the catch-all format known as "regional Mexican," believes Selena, who has sold millions of albums, may have been the last U.S. Hispanic star who embraced cumbia and "had the potential to take it over and beyond." (Selena was murdered in 1995.) DJ Beto mentions a few commercially successful acts who engaged with cumbia in the 1990s and early 2000s, like Kumbia Kings and Ozomatli. But by 2006, when Billboard reported that the Latin Grammys were contemplating adding a category for Best Cumbia/Vallenato album, the magazine noted that "Cumbia and vallenato have virtually disappeared [from the ceremony] … and not one eyebrow has been raised."
The Latin Grammys did end up introducing an award for Best Cumbia/Vallenato album, but none of the category's winners have managed to score hits in the U.S. Juanes, the million-selling Colombian singer, has been one of the few acts able to carve out space recently for hybrid versions of cumbia, often merged with a sturdy rock backbeat.
A big part of the reason that mainstream Latin radio in America has resisted cumbia's charms, according to Dr. L'Hoeste, is class bias. "It's popular among the Mexican working class, and they popularized it in the States," he says. "The present constituency of middle-class Latinos, they're not too keen on cumbia."
Luis Estrada, managing director of Aftercluv, Universal Music's dance division – which has signed Raymix, along with another promising cumbia producer from Texas, El Dusty – also points to class-based prejudice against the genre. "You go to a Mexican wedding of any socioeconomic level, and they will end up playing cumbia," he explains. "But maybe in the lowest levels, they will start playing cumbia right away. Maybe in the highest levels, they start playing cumbia at midnight."
The regional distribution of Hispanic artists in the U.S. has further complicated cumbia's path to mainstream exposure. "A lot of the radio play starts in New York or L.A. and trickles down," El Dusty says, but, "Mexicans, Colombians, we're in the south more than anywhere else." In New York especially (only L.A. has a larger Hispanic population), more than 50% of Latinos are Puerto Rican and Dominican, which has sometimes given the genres most popular in those countries – salsa and then reggaeton, for Puerto Rico; merengue and bachata for the Dominican Republic – an edge in terms of mainstream radio support Stateside.
Even within the regional Mexican format, however, Univision's Hill says, cumbia has been overlooked, as labels focused more on norteño and banda. "I grew up in San Antonio, and a lot of the cumbia artists made it up around the area but didn't go past that," she says. Perhaps because mainstream institutions hadn't signaled a strong appetite for cumbia stars, labels "didn't see the cumbia acts as having the appeal to crossover outside the Texas market."
As a result, Hill finds that "new, fresher cumbias are missing [from the radio]." Of the top 25 most played songs on Billboard's April 28th Latin Airplay chart, only Raymix's "Oye Mujer" featured cumbia's signature beat. "We play Los Ángeles Azules [a veteran group that scored their first Regional Mexican Airplay hits in the 1990s]; we play some older stuff in the mix," Hill adds. Other veterans who still get traction in Mexico with cumbia include Alicia Villarreal – produced by ex-Kumbia King Cruz Martinez – and Bronco, but neither have scored hits in the U.S. in at least a decade.
There may be one other obstacle in cumbia's way: At a time when "urban" sounds are dominant, cumbia is still seen as a folkloric genre. In 2007, for example, a traditional cumbia mainstay, the Gaiteros of San Jacinto, won the Latin Grammy for Best Folklore recording. "There are actual dance steps and actual partner dancing traditions that go along with cumbia," DJ Beto points out. "There's no perreo" – grinding dance moves. "We're in the ratchet era," he continues, referencing the rise of dancehall, reggaeton, and most recently, baile funk from Brazil, all of which are sexually explicit and perreo-friendly. "Nobody's trying to drop it low to cumbia as much as they would to reggaeton."
But one of cumbia's strengths has always been its malleability. "I would label it a genre that's proven itself remarkably flexible at adapting itself to the musical preferences within national boundaries," Dr. L'Hoeste says. DJ Beto has been finding "more ratchet" versions of cumbia on YouTube and SoundCloud. And Raymix labels his synth-coated music "electrocumbia," joining a long line of acts – from Peruvian tecno-cumbia producers to the Colombian group Bomba Estéreo – intent on updating the form.
Mexican Institute of Sound's Lara also thinks the lack of perreo may turn out to be another one of cumbia's strengths. "It's not like salsa, where you need to be fit and know the dance moves, or danzón [a Cuban style], which is complex, or cha-cha-chá [also Cuban] that has a very particular form, or reggaeton, where you have to be in shape and have a great body to dance to it," he says. "Cumbia is democratic."
In addition, younger Latinos may not always share the biases that informed their parents' taste. "It's mostly a matter of a new generation embracing the music," Dr. L'Hoeste adds. "Quite recently I was in Mexico with students, many of whom happen to be Anglos, and they were all looking forward to going out and dancing cumbia."
Dull of ZZK Records has seen cumbia's social status rising in Argentina. He points to the group Damas Gratis, who became successful playing what he describes as "cumbia from the slums." "Three years ago, someone suggested Damas Gratis play Lollapalooza [the Argentine edition of the festival], and Lollapalooza, from their social media account, responded, 'I think you have the wrong festival,'" Dull says. "This February, there they are playing for 50,000 of the richest Argentinians."
As Damas Gratis was preparing to perform for Argentina's upper class, the Mexican-American singer Becky G reached Number One on the U.S. Latin Airplay chart with "Mayores," which Alejandro Reglero, Head of A&R at Sony Music Latin, describes as an "urban cumbia." The cumbia pattern is present in the track, though it's partially – and shrewdly – camouflaged by the concentrated smack of a reggaeton beat.
Raymix's single goes one step further: There is no rapping and no reggaeton. "Most of the market is urban music, hip-hop," Raymix says. "When [listeners] hear this style, they're like, hold on, what is this? It's refreshing." Juanes recently appeared on the "Oye Mujer" remix, fueling the single's ascent.
"You can feel cumbia everywhere right now," Sony's Reglero says. Los Ángeles Azules were on this year's Coachella bill; Justin Bieber was spotted dancing in the crowd during their show. "I'm getting booked all over the place," El Dusty says. "Cut Chemist [a former member of both former member of Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli] invited me out on tour with him and did a whole cumbia album pretty much – that shows me the tastemakers are listening."
El Dusty has a new album of his own, Cumbia City, which mixes the genre with trap and club-ready bass music, due out May 11th on Aftercluv. Sony's Reglero has signed Patrick Romantik, the writer behind Beck G's urban cumbia, to a solo record deal. Univision's Hill also hints that Becky G has more cumbia-tinged material on the way, hoping to build on the success of her first Number One hit. In April, the Organization of American States even announced that the cumbia rhythm was part of "the cultural heritage of the Americas."
Of course, this might just be another uptick for a cumbia in a country where, as DJ Beto puts it, "there have been many little ticks over the years." But over time, enough ticks make up a beat and acquire rhythmic power. "Cumbia has always been remarkably effective at just lurking in the background," Dr. L'Hoeste says. "That's the way it has happened all over Latin America: By the time you get to know it, it just becomes mainstream."