Is cumbia the new punk? How Son Rompe Pera gets crowds moshing to marimbas

Kacho, Kilos and Mongo Gama grew up performing in cemeteries. Along with their father, José (aka Batuco), the brothers played alongside the mariachi and norteño groups that performed during Día De Los Muertos for families visiting relatives. They meandered through the cemetery between the raised graves with their marimbas – a percussion instrument with a warm sound, similar to a xylophone – and played traditional Latin music.

“That was the day we looked forward to the most,” Mongo says, reflecting on playing at the grave at the Panteon Municipal de Rio Hondo, a cemetery near her home in Naucalpan, west of Mexico City. “And it was the day we felt closest to our father. Things were more emotional.”

Almost 20 years later, the Gama brothers will continue this tradition at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. They will attend the annual Noche de los muertos October 29th event, a night of performances by traditional and popular artists, which also features altars, art and vendors. For Son Rompe Pera, the night is an opportunity to perform in her favorite US city. “Feeling at home is like a dream come true,” says Kacho.

But the brothers are much more than holiday players. They perform together with friends Raúl Albarran (bass) and Ricardo López (drums). Son Rompe Pera — one of the most energetic acts in Latin punk. Or punk, period.

Son Rompe Pera proclaim – on shirts, in lyrics, with sheer power and dedication to creating their own style – that cumbia is the new punk. “We don’t want to pretend that punk is more or less cumbia. That’s what we say [our music is] Cumbia with attitude more than anything,” says Mongo. “We are rockers who play cumbia. We are very political [personally, but] For us, this is all music that people enjoy and that everyone enjoys.”

While the band brings a rocking twist to traditional cumbias, their influences are much broader. There are elements of Rumba, Chicha, Son Jarocho, hardcore and even some ZZ Top (“My dad always listened to salsa, metal, and rock,” notes Mongo).

There’s something for everyone, but there are some common sights at a Son Rompe Pera show: moshing, couples dancing to punky covers of traditional cumbias, crowd surfing, and friends hopping together. Typically, a circle pit forms as the fivesome bounces around the stage, stripping off sweat-soaked shirts at various points and switching instruments. Everyone is screaming, and while no knowledge of Spanish is required, the vibe is absolutely contagious.

Kacho, the eldest and quieter Gama brother, adds, “If I wasn’t broadcasting while playing, I’d feel dead.”

Marimba has long been a way of life for the Gamas – and how Batuco made his living (he also coined the name Son Rompe Pera, an amalgamation of his musical interests and the name and no-nonsense attitude of his wife Esperanza). He taught then-13-year-old Kacho and 11-year-old Mongo to play, and together they performed at weddings and parties. When they weren’t performing properly, the family would carry their heavy marimba through the streets of Naucalpan, busking and handing out business cards for the family band.

By the time they reached their teens, the young gamas were embarrassed – marimba was an old man’s instrument played in a traditional style with formal attire. The brothers had tattoos and large, flat pompadours; They were into English psychobilly and 80’s punk, ska and hardcore from the likes of Kortatu, Decibelios, the Misfits, Rancid and even Blink-182. But Batuco initially advised his sons against playing poorly paid rock concerts. “He got mad at us and told us that what we were doing was up to no good, that our future was in the marimba,” Mongo said Remezcla in 2020.

Timothy “Timo” Bisig agreed with Batuco, although his vision was slightly different. The tour manager and booking agent was visiting Mexico City in 2013 when he first caught the Gama brothers playing the marimba her Path. He remembers a group of children dressed in black approaching marimba players with mohawks at Lagunilla Market and holding their breath.

A group of five punks pose at a fence with barbed wire

“Cumbia with attitude” is how Son Rompe Pera describes his music.

(Mauricio Sanchez)

“They looked evil. I thought they were going to beat up the marimba guys or something,” says Bisig. “They asked him about the maletas and started playing the marimba like crazy.”

Bisig knew he had seen something unique. “I wrote these guys for two years [on Facebook] and they didn’t give me the time of day because they were way too cool to talk to anyone. They’re like super punk, super anti-establishment.”

Eventually, Bisig got the Gamas to attend a performance by Chilean cumbia band Chico Trujillo – one of his clients. The group’s energy sparked something in Son Rompe Pera, Mongo recalls. “We got carried away by the music – we felt free. We said, ‘Why don’t we try and let ourselves go?’” The Gamas performed with Chico Trujillo in 2015 and when the band invited them to a recording session, they brought their father along. Together they covered the 1960s Venezuelan song “Cumbia Algarrobera”.

“It changed their attitude a bit,” says Bisig. And while they “wanted to give up the marimba forever” after Batuco’s death in 2016, meeting Chico Trujillo sparked something of a rebirth. New son Rompe Pera played 40 shows with Chico Trujillo, La Floripondio and Bloque Depresivo (all projects by Chico lead singer Aldo “Macha” Asenjo) and became the first Mexican act on Argentinian label ZZK. Years later they would record two 45s for Brooklyn’s Barbès Records with Mexican virtuoso guitarist Gil Gutiérrez.

“Batuco‘, Son Rompe Pera’s debut LP of punk-influenced cumbia, corrido and ska standards (plus an original) was released in 2020 right at the start of the pandemic. Yet the backdrop of the gamas playing the streets of Mexico was uniquely suited to the moment; The band drew attention on social media for their loud, energetic street performances during lockdown. Eventually, Son Rompe Pera and Bisig got a van and started touring the country.

Black and white photo of five men with skeletal face make-up

The Gama brothers say playing Hollywood Forever on Día De Los Muertos will make them feel at home as they play for families visiting relatives during the holidays in Mexico.

(Mirko Yuras)

The group has toured extensively over the past two years, from illegal lockdown shows to multi-date tours in Los Angeles, New York and Texas, where they performed at the Mexican Independence Day celebration in Houston. (“It’s usually a much more traditional, well-known band,” notes Bisig, who plays the town event. “It took someone a lot of courage to get us there.”)

Visiting Europe for the first time this summer, Son Rompe Pera took her marimba and equipment on commuter buses on a 16-day tour that stretched from Spain to Denmark and Italy to the Netherlands. “We were kind of nervous [to play Europe] …but we weren’t too surprised that almost every show had seats taken and they knew us and our music,” says Mongo. “With a new and rare band like us, it’s very difficult for them to pay attention to you [in Mexico]. They have to do many things or do things in another country for them to pay attention.

Miraculously, given the busy touring schedule, the band has completed their second album. Recorded live at Mambo Negro Studios in Bogotá, Colombia and produced by Frente Cumbiero’s Mario Galeano and Daniel Michel of and La Boa, the as yet untitled LP will feature original songs steeped in SRP’s unique style – which is both precise and has expanded his influence with extensive touring. “It has a lot of really good sounds from Mexico, Colombia, Chile, [and] there is a bit of Argentina. Everything we do live we tried to get on the record,” says Kacho.

Son Rompe Pera have joined forces with fellow musicians and fans across three continents, embracing new records and influences in the process – plus a support spot on Fishbone’s West Coast tour in December. Breaking away from their youthful belief in a strict, segmented subculture, the members of SRP have found themselves part of a larger network of punk and alternative groups across America. But their fan base is particularly diverse in cities like Los Angeles.

“We did very well with the public response [in L.A.]. There’s everything from families bringing their kids, parents, older people, punks, people who like rock,” says Kacho. “We’re breaking with the paradigm that the marimba is more folkloric, more classical and more standardized. We want to bring it to everyone.”

Typically, on Día de los Muertos, the Gama brothers traveled to the cemetery and played at Batuco’s tomb. The Hollywood Forever celebration promises to be another unifying thread between the family tradition and the fusion they created.

“We’re very proud of what he taught us because he wasn’t like other people who said, ‘No, do it because you have to.’ My father always [told us to] always play how you want or how you feel,” says Mongo. “It fills us with pride to keep reaching other countries. It was my father’s dream that people would know our music.” Is cumbia the new punk? How Son Rompe Pera gets crowds moshing to marimbas

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