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Dance Awareness 

Vox Urbana brings our border region's stories to life through cumbia

Something about a cumbia doesn't love a chair. The music makes for a crowded dance floor, be it the polished wood of a ballroom, the asphalt of a street fair or the packed dirt of a rodeo ground.

That transient micro-community, shuffling in close quarters with our sexiest wiggles, always makes me want to learn better Spanish.

If you feel like getting that kind of a move on, Solar Culture is the place to be Friday, Feb. 13, when Vox Urbana headlines a show with DJ Orchestra and Smite starting at 9 p.m.; $7. They'll be featuring music from their CD "La Pitaya" (a cactus fruit), released last November.

Although the music unmistakably invokes Mexican and Latin American culture, Vox Urbana's lyrics most often relate unique stories of people displaced to a new life in the sometimes dazzling yet often fearsome north, where exploitation, disrespect and even deportation are routine hazards one never quite gets used to.

Examples on "La Pitaya", include "La Piedra y La Bala," (The Rock and the Bullet), the sickening true story of a Mexican teenager shot dead for throwing a stone through the border fence at U.S. Border Patrol agents; and "Pepe Arpia" a withering satire about Maricopa County's racist, flamboyantly cruel and politically opportunistic Sheriff-buffoon, Joe Arpaio.

For 2015, the band won a grant from the Tucson Pima Arts Council and Puffin Foundation for "Cumbia Corridos," a project focused on collecting and setting to music the true stories of people who are underrepresented in other media coverage of border life. In that work, the band revives and extends the tradition of corridos, a stylized form of balladeering that's believed to be centuries old in Mexico.

Guitarist and vocalist Enrique "Kiki" Castellanos, co-founder of the six-piece band with bassist Joaquin Zamudio, explains the project: "We started this band on a trip to Kino Bay because we really wanted ... to create our music and tell stories and try to portray our social reality. We want to tell stories from different angles." As examples, he suggests a story of leaving home and traveling north through Central America. "Once they get here, it doesn't mean they've made it. Or that person could be a male homosexual."

Saxophone player Jim Colby says the group has so far sought stories from workers at the Southside Worker Center, but the research has just begun. The band is looking for “stories we don’t hear all the time—women’s stories, other voices that are not heard.”

Colby also works to stretch the cumbia tradition to incorporate other musical influences, just as our border region includes more and more immigrant cultures. “I listen to a lot of different music from all over the world. So I’ll listen to an Ethiopian song [and] maybe I’ll take the scale or the melodies from that and I’ll put it to cumbia. For me, [it’s about] making connections to different music.”

Castellanos says he’s happy that so many Tucsonans seem to have discovered cumbia recently, but he notes, “I think it’s very necessary to acknowledge who started all this, and I think it’s important also to provide—to the people who grew up with it—I think you have a responsibility to try to reach them as well, not to alienate them.”

More by Linda Ray

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