Celso Piña, one of Latin America’s most beloved accordion players and singer-songwriters, died of a heart attack in his hometown of Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico. His record label, La Tuna Group, confirmed Piña’s death on Wednesday. He was 66.
For over 30 years, Piña, known by the nickname “El Rebelde de Acordéon” (the Accordion Rebel), was a trailblazer in the cumbia genre, and in Latin music at large. His most popular songs, like “Rinconcito Azul,” “La Reina de Cumbias,” and “Cumbia Sobre el Río” garnered him fans across both North and South Americas; he released over 20 albums throughout his career, and was nominated for two Latin Grammy Awards.
Raised in Colonia de la Campaña, a particularly gritty neighborhood in Monterrey, Piña was an early star among Mexican cumbia musicians. He performed with his band Su Ronda Bogotá, which included his brothers Ruben and Lalo (Eduardo) on percussion, and Enrique on guitar. Aided by Monterrey’s prominence as a key industrial base in the West, Piña and his brothers quickly developed a large following, as cumbia’s popularity expanded from its roots in Colombia and Panama into Mexico and the United States.
Piña’s legacy as a music pioneer was built by fusing traditional cumbia with modern genres. He was to the accordion what George Harrison was to the guitar; whereas the former Beatle helped incorporate the sitar and Eastern influences to rock and roll, Piña specialized in marrying Colombian vallenato rhythms with North American styles like norteño and hip-hop.
Piña came to mainstream prominence with the release of the Latin Grammy-nominated Barrio Bravo in 2001. A collection of prior hit songs, updated to include modern acts like Café Tacvba, El Gran Silencio, and Control Machete, the album was a global smash. Album highlight “Cumbia Sobre el Río” was transformed from a simple Latin folk song into a hybrid of cumbia, reggae, and rap music. Produced by the venerable Mexican DJ Toy Selectah, the track served as a mainstream introduction to sonidero nacional — a diverse blend of sounds that paid homage to “all the rough neighborhoods of the world,” as Piña once stated in 2002. The song is best known for its inclusion in the Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett-starring 2006 film, Babel; Piña’s performance of the song with Pato Machete, frontman of Mexican rap-rock group Control Machete, would stand as a career highlight for the musician.
In the years since his transformation into global accordion icon, Piña continued to collaborate with modern Latin music stars like Julieta Venegas, Gloria Trevi, and Lila Downs — the latter of which he performed with at the 2012 Latin Grammys. Earlier this summer, Piña featured on Cuban-Mexican alternative singer Leiden’s single, “Tu Boca.” Piña continued to tour across the world until his death, with his final performance occurring at Chicago’s Pilsen Fest.
This past March, Piña tweeted a video of the One Hundred Years of Solitude author, Gabriel García Márquez, dancing cumbia at a show in 2003 — perhaps the most high-caliber endorsement he’d receive during his 30-year career. Yet in spite of his natural talent for getting people on their feet, Piña remained humble his whole life; to work his magic, he simply noted that he needed “little more than my accordion, a drum, and the guacharaca.”
El día que Gabriel García Márquez bailó cumbia.
Nomás mi acordeón, un tamborcito y la guacharaca. pic.twitter.com/yeQKNQzYPn