Mario Galeano Toro not only creates Colombian music, he lives and breathes it.
The co-founder of Colombian quartet Frente Cumbiero, which plays in the New Zealand Festival tomorrow and Saturday, is also a university lecturer who specialises in Afro-Caribbean music, and has several other projects on the go, including Ondatropica with sought-after British producer Will Holland, aka Quantic.
Frente Cumbiero's music has its roots in a genre called cumbia, part of a broader category known as musica tropical. It's a tradition popular throughout Latin America, but was born in Colombia and Panama 200 years ago. It mixes black African rhythms – the first musicians were African slaves – with Spanish and indigenous Colombian melodies.
But Frente Cumbiero treat cumbia in the same way many of today's musicians in English-speaking countries approach traditions like blues, jazz or soul – it's not about recycling the past but creating contemporary music from these influences. A Frente Cumbiero gig, says Toro, will have a mix of traditional and contemporary instruments.
"Basically we have live drums, clarinet and saxophone, and lots of effects and echoes and guitars. I'm playing electronics on keyboards and synthesisers."
For people who have never heard Frente Cumbiero's music, there are elements that do sound Latin American. To a more attuned ear, there's a distinct Colombian thread running through it. But the music is also underpinned by sounds Kiwis are very familiar with, including dub, rock and dance.
The result is a sound that's instantly accessible and appealing – and one that's likely to lure many into dancing.
Toro formed Frente Cumbiero in Colombia's capital Bogota seven years ago. "It started happening because of the realisation that there was a huge ambience of cumbia happening from Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Chile. I thought about just making this kind of pan-American approach to it. But even before, in 94, 95, 96 we were already experimenting with tropical sounds."
Toro says Colombian cumbia's distinctiveness is in its strong percussion. "The depth is much more and the melodic variety is bigger." But Frente Cumbiero is still about applying it to new music. "It is a very contemporary scene in Bogota. We are part of a small underground scene but with very dynamic things happening."
Toro is also passionate about the history of Colombian music. As an academic and musician, he often frequents Bogota's record stores, sifting through old vinyl. "It is very important. It's where all the good music is – it's all in vinyl because not all of that made it to the CD times. If you want to hear the good things from the 50s, 60s, 70s, you definitely have to go look and dig for the vinyl. It is important. We are always trying to get vinyl and seeing what learning we can get out of it."
Toro says his research has changed his views on his country's music. It has a richer and more complex history. "If you go into a record store to buy CDs, then you find like the cheap, cheesy taste of the record manager of the label who decided that 'these 20 songs' were the best songs of whatever artist. You are missing the heavy stuff, so you are only finding it in vinyl."
Toro believes the internet has helped English-speaking countries discover Colombian music in recent years. While Quantic, who is based in Colombia, sought the music out, Frente Cumbiero have also been proactive in reaching out to foreign musicians.
It included Guyanese dub producer Mad Professor, best known for his work with Britain's Massive Attack, but has also worked with Kiwi musicians. Toro invited Mad Professor, who knew little about Colombian music, to Bogota for 10 days in 2009 for recording sessions, workshops and shows.
Both learned from each other, Toro says. "From my side it was like a great experience. I got to see him and the tricks he was using, how he worked. It was very important to see him up close."
And for anyone who wants to quickly appreciate Toro's passion for his country's music as a contemporary force, check out a YouTube clip that has him performing on an electronic instrument called the maschine. Toro samples sounds from old Colombian vinyl, adds a dash of dub, and proceeds to play using a series of pad-like buttons. It is as hypnotic and riveting as anything being created by English-speaking electronica or dub musicians. If you want to hear true "world music", this is it.
Frente Cumbiero, James Cabaret, tomorrow and Saturday, 8.30pm.
- The Dominion Post