In New York City’s Coolest Clubs, Remixing Cumbia for the Hipster Set

It was 1 a.m., and Thursday night had become Friday morning when Anthony Dominguez, known around the New York City D.J. scene as hellotones, took the stage at the Market Hotel, a club in a 19th-century building whose windows look directly on the elevated J and M trains passing through Bushwick, Brooklyn.

The theme of the evening was “experimental Latin sounds,” and arriving at his console, Mr. Dominguez unleashed a thunderous bass. Then came the beat, from a metal comb scraping a ridged, hollow tube, known as the guacharaca: chik-chika-chik-chika-chik, repeating over and over.

Mr. Dominguez, who was born in New York to Mexican parents, spins remixed cumbias, a riff on the indigenous and Afro-Colombian tropical genre that has inspired countless interpretations across Latin America. His sets are what he calls “a party mix bag of chips,” and he often digs deep into the past and has recently found “a beautiful pocket of Argentinian cumbia.”

Tony Dominguez, whose DJ name is hellotones, plays a cumbia set in Brooklyn.

But the sounds Mr. Dominguez produces from the booth also represent a new kind of cumbia, remixed for a new audience. Mr. Dominguez still relies on tracks by Mexican cumbia groups such as Los Daddys, which resonate with the generation born after their Mexican parents settled in the city in the late 1980s, like Mr. Dominguez’s father. But he also drops in samples of dreamy synthesizers and hip-hop.

Mr. Dominguez is part of a generation of D.J.s that is bridging the old-school sensibility of the Mexican neighborhood record spinners and New York’s electronic scene. And the crowd, a mix of Mexican and Latino New Yorkers and college-age transplants, flooded the dance floor in response.

Thirty years ago, the cumbia scene took off in New York City as a way to tie a nascent immigrant community to its homeland. Amid flashing lights and smog machines, D.J.s, known as “sonideros,” shouted out personalized messages at house parties and backyard family gatherings, as well as at small nightclubs in Queens. Recordings of their sets made their way via cassettes and CDs mailed to family back home in the southern Mexican states of Puebla, Oaxaca and Guerrero.

These days, the music is less about holding together familial ties stretched across borders than about establishing new identities and new ties here. As traditional Mexican music melded with established city sounds, a hipster scene has emerged that spans neighborhoods and nations.

A new generation of cumbia musicians was born in New York City. Some are incorporating the sounds of the city they grew up in into the music of their parents and grandparents.CreditCredit…

Mr. Dominguez, whose tagline is “el hijo de PueblaYork,” or son of PueblaYork, is one of the several D.J.s spinning this new cumbiahybrid. D.J. Chihuahua and Shadow Recordz, from Puebla, are among a generation of musicians who are remixing cumbia favorites with electronic beats and shout-outs that are distorted, heavier and more trancelike than the traditional sounds.

These D.J.s open for veterans in the scene at traditional spots like La Boom or Queens Palace, Latin clubs and event spaces in Woodside, Queens, that have hosted generations of reggaeton, cumbia and Mexican regional acts. But they also spin sets for bars off the Myrtle-Wyckoff stop in Bushwick and the Lot Radio in Williamsburg, where the Ecuadorean cumbia vinyl D.J. Danna Yana Allpa plays a “sonidero sounds” showcase.

Cristian Simon is an accountant by day and DJ Chihuahua by night.

To Mr. Dominguez, playing cumbia is “not just about the Mexicanness of it all.” It is about reflecting and borrowing from New York’s cultural melting pot.

“That style is injected into how I play, how I mix it, how I move to it,” he said.

Cumbia originated in Colombia sometime in the 19th century, then traveled across Latin America. Ecuador’s cumbias were accordion heavy. In southern Mexico, they were more marimba-forward. During the 1950s, in Mexico, “sonideros,” or sound men, grew cult followings by spinning records and talking over the music to offer dedications to those in the crowd.

Sonideros are different from D.J.s in slight but important ways among musicians in the scene; sonideros are more like M.C.s, and their voices overlaid over the music are an important part of the sound.

Mr. Dominguez attended traditional cumbia parties as a child in the Bronx, where he remembers being lulled to sleep by the sound of the crackling bass as adults danced into the morning.

Traditional cumbia music, like this song played at an outdoor event, is played throughout Latin America and goes back decades.

But Mr. Dominguez also grew up listening to hip-hop. For a while, he took a job at a music publication while learning to D.J. In 2019, while working for the label and music collective, Like That Records, he made his D.J. debut at the Brooklyn club Bossa Nova Civic, relying mostly on house music and electronica. But as he did more, cumbia began creeping in to his set.

Once he became more established, he threw his own parties, known as Kumbiatazos, at Mi Sabor Café in Bushwick, a Dominican restaurant turned dance hall. “I had to show people this is how I do it, and this is how I wanted to present it,” he said.

Other experimental D.J.s and sonideros have found a home there, including Sonido Tipsy, one of the few sound women in the scene, and Cristian Simon, known as D.J. Chihuahua, whose bass-heavy sound was created by sampling music from New York and his parents’ hometown Chinantla, in Puebla.

These days, Mr. Simon said, speaking from a recording studio in Brooklyn, “people are being exposed to more sounds in cumbia that are not traditional accordions.” To demonstrate what he meant, Mr. Simon, who is an accountant in his day job, played a new cumbia version of the 2002 song “Dilemma” by the rapper Nelly. The track was a collaboration with Mr. Dominguez’s cousin, who calls himself Sonidera Blues. “It’s amazing,” Mr. Simon said, his eyes fixed to the computer. “I’m gonna crank it up.”

Some veteran D.J.s, like David Huerta, known as Sonido Caluda, are impressed with the new sounds. “They have done what we haven’t,” Mr. Huerta said. “They’re playing for a different crowd.”

This was evident at the Market Hotel, where the crowd featured a mix of white and Latino hipsters sporting a nightlife uniform of silky mid-length skirts with sneakers and cowboy-inspired outfits. Max Glenn, a 22-year-old sound producer, who uses they-them pronouns, was there to see Mr. Dominguez after listening to his sets on the Brooklyn-based Lot Radio station.

“Hellotones is the best D.J. in New York right now,” said Mx. Glenn.

Maribel Marmolejo Reyes, a 22-year-old documentary filmmaker from Williamsburg, whose family hails from Puebla, believes that some of the cumbia parties’ distinct pleasures, like receiving a shout-out, may be lost on newcomers to the scene.

“It’s an emotional tie that I don’t think can be replicated in Bushwick bars,” she said.

But Ms. Marmolejo was quick to add that the music could be enjoyed by everyone, and clarified that she was not “the dancing patrol.”

To Mr. Dominguez, New York’s cumbia scene should reflect the ethos of the city it has evolved in: “Mix the styles, dance how you want and have fun.”

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