By Stef Schwalb
MUSEYON GUIDES: Traveling seems to be in your blood—you’ve lived in several different countries as a child and now you tour all over the globe performing and creating. How has the experience of interacting with multiple cultures and sounds helped mold your music?
DICK EL DEMASIADO: I know we are living the hyperactive phenomenon of mutations and cross-breeding in culture nowadays, and this in a very manifest way, but life has been like that for me ever since I moved from Eindhoven (in The Netherlands) to Guatemala in 1956. I was one-and-a half years old at the time. I moved more or less 20 times during my first 20 years, and later on I traveled, moved and got mentally displaced by own choice. Thus, I grew up listening (as early as five years old) to Marimba, Arabian nightclub music, Irish flutes, Mariachis, Rancheras, and most of all, since they were my favorites – Cumbia and Nigerian Calypso. I did this all simultaneously. There was simply an ever-growing pile of vinyls we had at home, which I played. I used to sing phonetically those African calypsos, and I even do so now, when I feel particularly happy.
With all that imposed cultural cocktail-shaking, you get to develop yourself in a completely detached way – without religiously holding on to any elements of your surroundings that conditioning imposes on you. You just remember and cherish what struck you the best; it’s as simple as that. Therefore, there is no constraint for me within the perspective of making music, and I am not rooted in rigidity. I never think about particular instrumentations and geography, and I have no false nostalgia whatsoever to any culture I could be curious about. The idea of World Music doesn’t exist for me. For me, it’s breastfed childhood music! I learned that curiosity has to do with intensity and not with displacement, so experimenting in a bold way is always there with me – waiting on the workbench as a song comes afloat.
MG: What attracted you to Cumbia originally? Do you think it’s a genre that lends itself to musical experimentation easier than others?
DED: There are two reasons for the attraction. One is an emotional: It was the music of the women that worked at our house in the ’60s of Argentina. They were joyful people, but nevertheless they had lives that were severely scarred as infants – which was a steep comparison to the splash-allover expats’ culture we lived in (with the loud decorated interiors, homegrown traditions and tennis-fixations). I experienced that contrast as inherent violence as a child, and I have chosen the other side in my sympathy. The other reason is a technical, musical one: I sensed the similarity of the Cumbia with Dub in the ’90s, and obviously – far from the Rasta point – I thought the musical drive of the Cumbia (the little horse: tak-a-tak, tak-a-tak), skinned to its bones, was a perfect flow for poetic information – whether it would be mere sounds or the content sung.
MG: What are some of the differences you find when playing music in Latin America versus Europe and Asia? Do you find the audiences more or less hungry for experimental music depending on where you go? And what about the U.S.?
DED: Well, it is very easy. Playing in Latin America is like a conversation between a tuna and a dolphin, they both know how fine it can be under water and what those particular conditions impose on you. The nearest I got to a Latin feel abroad was in Osaka, Japan. Those people were wild, warm and as a public started up the concert igniting the fuse with their own enthusiasm. It was a complot: tonight we are going to the moon … together! Europe is difficult because they believe in their clichés of Latin America: from Brazilian hips to Cuban cigars and hair-creamed tango. I cannot play that card – I don’t want to. Clichés are the fundament for mismatching. I have not played the USA yet, but by now, I’d like to and I will. I’d like to touch the Latino Butthole Surfers-vein and drill deep into the nerve (of pleasure, I am not a dentist). Bring me to that Big Black Lion’s paw, and I’ll pull the thorn with my two microphones and the skeleton shirt.
MG: Political upheaval (for better or worse) often results in musical inspiration. In terms of Argentina, Cumbia (as it was traditionally known there) was greatly altered by the economic crisis. What else do you think has added/is now adding to the changes Cumbia is experiencing in the country?
DED: What made the Cumbia Villera so effective is also what makes it so tough to digest for Spanish-speaking people … the melody and rhythm are happy yet the lyrics are harsh, vulgar, angry. This is a most incredible phenomenon. As we know, IF rap or hip-hop is revendicatory, by all means it sounds like that. Oddly enough, this is not the case with the Cumbia Villera, it is kindergarten-rock with cadaverous texts – and how I like that incongruence! The Cumbia of Argentina is in a very particular modus these days. Suddenly humoristic and weird sonorous elements have risen and given it some more air. To tell you sincerely too, as you bring up political upheaval etc. as an element, you could say in a tinted comparison that if Cumbia was Che Guevara (it wasn’t), then now comes the industry of its Guevara T-shirts. Beaches of the world will be paved with them. The international limelight brings a for-export disease very fast, and its representatives are coming, and scanning, and sniffing the Cumbia grounds. But that cashing-in is a first reflex. There is a very interesting eagerness within this second generation to develop Cumbia in a digital field, which is incredibly good. I am positive that mechanical buttons and cables have to be given some kind of soul. Cheap trash electronica is there for us, and not the other way around. PC’s are within hand’s reach in faraway villages and require only time to invest and a free mind. It is a challenge to PUT this genius IN the bottle first; it will come out again anyway, and fast.
MG: Any future plans you want to share with our readers?
DED: At the point I am now, I feel like a Brazilian football with a lot of kids around me.
After initiating the Cumbia experimental and Festicumex, I am developing the Facultad de Distorsion Popular, which will bring out the first and truly authentic Cumbia Festicumex compilation (coming in the spring). I am also editing an eight-hour film on exaggeration in music, I am preparing a Festicumex-like concept for the capital of Europe (coming 2010), I am developing an unusual and vast exhibit for a to-stay-secret-museum of modern art in 2011, I am preparing the production of a full-length musical film about the naval battle of Matanzas (in Cuba, a battle that liberated two continents), and I am finishing a short novel “Mis Rejas Son Mas Lindas Que Las Tuyas (My Prison Bars Are More Beautiful Than Yours)”, which will be edited in Colombia. Plus, I have a small bundle of my “Poemas Feos (Ugly Poems)”, which will come out next spring in Spain. You see, my life is not in JPG, but in a true Photoshop file – with all the layers still there, and workable.
Dick’s pick: From the Sundance film ‘Sin Nombre‘, about the Honduras and Salvador gangs. The song is titled “Flaca de las Coloradas.” What is remarkable is that with a sudden new public (with gang-aesthetics), people start making their YouTube gungho clips on my music.
For more on Dick el Demasiado check him out on the web, on MySpace and at www.canalcumex.com (where he dares you to “just visit and get lost in the amount of cowbell-whipping content”). Plus, be sure to pick up Music+Travel Worldwide from Museyon Guides where Eve Hyman is your guide to all things cumbia in Buenos Aires.
Image © Patwasi Pat Taylor