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Cumbia: How Colombia made Selena a star

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Selena opened for La Mafia between the mid-to-late ’80s and 1991, but after that it was the other way around—Los Dinos’ renewed international sound turned Selena into a superstar, and tragedy turned her into a legend in 1995.

“I asked myself, ‘How can Cubans and Puerto Ricans understand Selena’s music?’” said Quintanilla. “And you know how I got them to do that? With one simple thing: the cencerro [cowbell]. If you listen to ‘Amor Prohibido’ you can hear the ‘too-keen, too-keen.’ I played it salsa-style, it wasn’t coincidental. After that, Selena went from selling 25,000-50,000 to more than 500,000.”

Simply put, cumbia is popular because it’s an infectious, malleable rhythm that grabs you whether you like it or not.

“It’s an incredible groove, a universal beat we can all adapt to our own styles, and easy to play,” said Lichtenberger. “It’s not too fast, not too slow, like reggae. Any UB40 song could be turned into a cumbia.”

Gabriel Zavala, Best New Male Artist winner at the 2013 Tejano Music Awards, is “the only guy [in Tejano] trying to do something different,” according to Quintanilla.

“The thing that makes cumbia so loved worldwide is its ability to be danced [to] with little or no dancing experience,” said Zavala. “I’ve seen people just walk to the rhythm and that’s acceptable on the dance floor, whereas salsa or merengue’s moves are much more advanced. You don’t even need a partner to dance cumbia!”

Full of enthusiasm, Zavala even gives cumbia an esoteric twist.

“There are also some numerology patterns that I have found in the rhythm of the cumbia that might have an illuminati or extra-terrestrial origin,” he said, dead serious, “but that’s a topic for another article!”

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