THE JAZZ CAFE, LONDON — If you’ve never heard (or even heard of) cumbia music, do yourself a favor and watch the video with this post! La Yegros ratchets up traditional cumbia music several notches into wild, driving rhythms and sounds that stir the soul and the body.
But before you watch the video of her performance, you might want to first watch and listen to the traditional cumbia band (London-based Malphino) that opened for her. This will give you a sense of where La Yegros started to get to her unique cumbia style. (For even more background, here’s a great NPR story explaining cumbia music.)
La Yegros mixes cumbia with jazz, reggae, rock, electronica, and anything else that she thinks will enhance the experience. And if the packed house at London’s Jazz Cafe that night was any indication, it works. Wildly.
In an intentional set-up by the Jazz Cafe, the opening act was a fantastic traditional cumbia music group. They were dressed as if they’d just come from a cumbia concert in Argentina (long sleeve white jackets and long white pants) and and they played an exquisite, lively, fun set. They were a talented quintet with all the standard cumbia instruments and tricks to get an audience up dancing and swinging.
They put the crowd in the cumbia mood. Then the lights went down to almost dark. The crowd jammed up against the edge of the stage, a heavy drum beat started, a driving bass joined in, and then, like a vision from a psychedelic dream, out came La Yegros in an almost luminescent, multi-colored jacket made of what looked like a 1980s white shag rug completely lit up with large multi-colored lights.
The crowd went nuts.
And the La Yegros cumbia experience was off and rocking. For the next sixty minutes, the pace built up. With little or no encouragement, La Yegros had the crowd singing along in Spanish with every song. It seemed that every Argentinian from miles around must have been in the building, but half of the people around me appeared to be white Brits who nonetheless knew the Spanish lyrics cold.
(Her agent later told me this happens everywhere they go in Europe: “I asked people in a crowd in Vienna last week who were singing if they were Argentinians and they said, no. They said they were German-speaking Austrians, but they knew every word, even though they admitted that they didn’t know what they were singing!”)
La Yegros has known she wanted to sing from an early age, but it wasn’t an easy road. Speaking alternatively in English or in Spanish with her manager translating, La Yegros told me her story.
“All my life I wanted to sing,” she told me after the concert. “My mother used to tell me ‘Mariana, don’t dream — you have to study!’ But I said, ‘No, I want to sing, I want to sing!’ I knew I wanted to sing.
“And so finally, when I was 17, I left home and started to study in the conservatory and made my own way…. Now my mother is my number one fan” she said, laughing.
Success did not come right away. For five years, she worked and went to conservatory, waiting for an opportunity. Then, one day, it came knocking.
“My first opportunity came in a casting call for a theater group that was very important here in England,” she said. She tried out, and, to her own amazement, she got the role! “So my first time singing professionally, I sang for 15,000 people! That was the moment I knew I wanted to do this for all my life.”
She made an album in 2012, and hasn’t looked back. Cumbia music appeals to La Yegros for reasons you might not have thought of after watching her upbeat performance. “The lyrics of cumbia come with melancholy or sadness, but you can also dance to it,” she said. “I think cumbia makes people want to dance — it’s the connection of joy with contact with the other people, dancing and generating a party.”
When La Yegros sings, it’s not only about getting people up and dancing and partying, but it’s also about something else, something much more important. “What I want to generate is first joy and hope,” she said. “Maybe people don’t know my story — how it was so hard for me to become a singer, so I want to transmit my passion for music and the message that everything is possible.
“If someone wants to sing, you can do it!” she said. “Give it love and do your job with passion. That’s fundamental.
“Music is connected with the heart; it is my way to express to people that everything that you make with love is possible,” she said. “Music is connection, pure adrenaline, pure sensations, and that’s why I think it is the best way to send my message.”
The cumbia La Yegros sings has its roots in traditional cumbia but she weaves in a lot of other styles to make it her own. “In Buenos Aires, there was a very important current in 2006 and 2008 to mix this Latin-American cumbia rhythm with electronic, and I was part of that movement.”
But she goes beyond just blending electronic with cumbia. “I also mix rock and carnavalito and chamame with cumbia, also hip hop, rap, milonga. It happened very naturally when the band met, and that’s just how it started, how we began forming our own way of making music.”
However, she said her next album will be a return to traditional cumbia.
“My next album I think will be more towards the folkloric style, without much electronic because it is more natural and I need this,” she said. “I have lived for four years in France and I need to go back to my country with my music. It is a way to go back to my roots.” (My interview was recorded in May of 2018; in March of 2019, she released her next album: “Suelta”. (Here’s the YouTube channel with all of the songs and here’s a link to the entire album on Spotify.)
After watching La Yegros electrify the crowd, talking with La Yegros is actually a calming experience. She is quiet, thoughtful, and deeply passionate about her music, her career, and spreading her message of hope and optimism through music that stirs your soul and your feet.
- La Yegros: Lead/vocals
- Gabriel Ostertag: Percussions/electronics
- David Maldonado: Guitar
- Damien Issertes: Accordion
- Frédéric Loumagne: Tour manager
- Alexandre Ralha: Sound engineer
ABOUT LA YEGROS:
- Buy their albums: https://www.discogs.com/artist/1692300-La-Yegros
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Yegros
- Performance Schedule: https://www.layegros.com (Click on “Tours” in the top navigation bar, and be forewarned: Dating is European with day first and month second)
ABOUT THE VENUE
The Jazz Cafe:
This is one of those classic jazz clubs you must experience. Unlike most jazz clubs, the folks who run The Jazz Cafe actually pay attention to both the quality of the musical acts they book AND also their food menu! Imagine that!
It’s fantastic: Eclectic, delicious and reasonably priced. We tried the fried chicken (it would have passed muster in Alabama!) and the vegan chili (it, too, would have been a hit in the Deep South). But the whole menu is not all from the American South as there was also:
- Chili crab linguine, shallots, garlic & parsley
- 28-day aged sirloin steak with chimichurri & elistered green beans
- Sea bass, Thai herb salad, tomato, coconut & lemongrass sauce
- Bone marrow & brisket burger with mayo, provolone cheese, chimichurri sauce & skinny fries
- Vegan cheeseburger, 100% plant-base vegan patty, vegan cheese & skinny fries
- Vegan corn & black bean gumbo with long grain rice, fried okra, courgette, mixed vegetables, slow cooked stew
I’m sure the menu has changed, but that gives you a sense of the delightful variety awaiting you!
The wait staff (and all the staff for that matter) are incredibly friendly and helpful.
The beer selection, though, is modest: Good selections, but only a half dozen or so. I can’t speak to the wine or booze as I didn’t try any. Sorry.
The dining area is the entire mezzanine looking down on the dance floor and stage. Every table has a great view (I especially recommend tables 5-9 for parties of two and tables 2, 3, 11 and 12 for parties of 3 or 4). Here’s a link to the seating chart.
The ground floor is a good size dance floor that goes right up to the edge of the stage, so if you want to see your musicians up close and personal, this is the place. Whoever runs the lighting has a great time and does an awesome job of matching moods and giving you a constant light show. The end result is the feeling of being in the hands of masters of their craft.
Schedule of bands: https://thejazzcafelondon.com/whats-on