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Mexico's Son Rompe Pera bang the marimba at the crossroads of cumbia and punk

Once regarded as an incorruptible pillar of tradition, the marimba becomes a revolutionary rock 'n' roll instrument for band Son Rompe Pera.
Pedro Nekoi for NPR
Once regarded as an incorruptible pillar of tradition, the marimba becomes a revolutionary rock 'n' roll instrument for band Son Rompe Pera.

In celebration of Latinx Heritage Month, NPR Music is spotlighting a series of artists across Latin America who are engaging with their musical heritage in unique ways. From reworking conservative genres for new eras, to teasing out modern sounds from old-school instruments, these artists represent the wide range of experimentation that makes up contemporary Latin music.

Earlier this year, in the blazing Mexico City sun, plucky cumbia band Son Rompe Pera was tasked with opening the main stage of the gargantuan Vive Latino Festival. Despite the notoriously thankless slot where many a band has floundered, the psychobilly marimberos from Naucalpan, Mexico, convened a massive crowd that treated them like headliners. Dance circles formed throughout the arena, throbbing to the punkified cumbia blaring from the speakers. By the end of the set, thousands of elated dancers clapped and cheered, anointing Son Rompe Pera into the pantheon of hometown heroes.

"It was a very emotional experience," remembers Kacho Gama, who wields the marimba mallets in Son Rompe Pera alongside his brother Mongo. "We played Vive Latino before with [cumbia band] Chico Trujillo, but this was our turn so it was nerve-wracking. Seeing so many familiar faces was amazing. People who came to our shows before, who bought our merch and dropped a few coins in our hat when we were performing in parks during the pandemic. Everyone dancing, yelling, moshing ... it was insane. And so beautiful."

Of course Mexico City rallied behind Son Rompe Pera. After all, its members first cut their teeth as musicians in the streets, alongside neighbors and friends. They began performing nearly 20 years ago as a traditional marimba band led by their father José Gama Sr., who enlisted sons Kacho, Mongo and Kilos to flesh out the ensemble. Son Rompe Pera would frequently perform at weddings and private parties, running through cumbia, danzón and cha-cha-chá classics, and even a few pop-rock favorites by Timbiriche and El Tri.

As they grew up, the boys veered off into rock 'n' roll, playing in punk bands around Mexico City and Mexico State's gritty underground. They continued performing with their father, but also got into skateboarding and psych music, soaking up experiences that expanded their worldview to reframe rock and cumbia as allied genres instead of foes. Tradition and modernity coexist peacefully within Son Rompe Pera, and cumbia is still very much its backbone. Even as the brothers' love of punk and rockabilly began poking through their crisp guayaberas with colorful tattoos and coiffed, greaser hair, cumbia has always guided them back home.

"We've been into punk and rockabilly since we were kids but it never crossed our minds to fuse that passion with marimba," reflects Mongo Gama. "Embracing your roots is this really cool thing nowadays, but sometimes it's hard doing that at home. We started leaning into it more as we traveled, making sure we never forget where we come from, playing in the streets, with family."

The turning point for Son Rompe Pera came in 2013, on a casual day out with friends at Mexico City's Lagunilla tianguis — a sprawling flea market filled with oddball antiques and greasy food stands favored among locals and tourists nursing a pounding weekend hangover. "This was back when we used to drink," remembers Mongo with a chuckle. "We were walking around and saw a room where some older folks were playing marimba. Our friends dared us to jump on but we were kind of embarrassed about people finding out we played marimba. We eventually started playing and a crowd gathered. In that crowd was our now manager, Timo [Timothy Bisig]. We stayed in contact but didn't really know what he was trying to get at. Then he connected us with Chico Trujillo and that's where everything changed."

Son Rompe Pera traveled to Chile in 2017, developing a tight friendship with bandleader Macha (Aldo Asenjo) of Chico Trujillo — an institution of streetwise, rule-breaking Chilean cumbia. He orchestrated a series of studio sessions that would become the group's 2020 debut album, Batuco. The musicians took cuts from the band's extensive standards repertoire and recorded them with a now signature punk gusto — tackling Los Cadetes de Linares' mournful corrido "No Hay Novedad," and giving Laurel Aitken's ska ballad "Mi Vida Sin Tu Amor" a delightful cumbia facelift. Also included was the triumphant "Cumbia Algarrobera," recorded with José Gama Sr. in 2015 before his death the following year.

Looking back on the yearslong production process, the Gama brothers also recognize a fundamental shift in their relationship to the marimba; once regarded as an incorruptible pillar of tradition, it now feels like a revolutionary rock 'n' roll instrument. "Growing up in punk and rockabilly circles, people would give you a hard time if they found out you also liked cumbia," says Kacho. "We used to play at this punk bar called El Gato Calavera and were among the first bands to open those spaces to cumbia and other tropical music. When we played in psychobilly bands we thought that was going to take us around the world, but no. The marimba has always been with us, taking us places we never imagined."

"Son Rompe Pera is in the middle of everything," he adds. "We're a rock mestizo band that plays cumbia."

It's been a steep climb for Son Rompe Pera, fielding criticism from cumbia purists and circumventing rock bookers who straight up don't understand the project. But the streets that raised them have the members' backs. "Cumbia is the new punk," the tagline emblazoned across the band's merch, has become a succinct ethos for the band. It not only highlights the "of the people" legacy of both genres, but it synthesizes how proudly exulting your heritage in the face of conformist industry trends is one of the punkest things you can do.

Focused on the road ahead, and currently on tour, the Gama brothers speak excitedly about upcoming performances, including appearances at WOMEX in Portugal and the theatrical Festival Cervantino in Guanajuato, Mexico. Son Rompe Pera are also halfway through recording a new album, jetting off to Bogotá, Colombia, earlier this year and setting up shop at Mambo Negro Studios with mad cumbia scientists Mario Galeano of Frente Cumbiero and La Boa's Daniel Michel. This time around the band is crafting original material rather than reimagining standards, flourishing in the studio with greater confidence than before.

"When we recorded Batuco we didn't really know what to do in the studio," says Mongo. "It was a completely new experience for us, but now we want to capture the energy of the stage on the record. This new album sounds really different even though cumbia is still very much the base. It's gonna be crazy."

It's appropriate that bands like Son Rompe Pera have intersected with cumbia artists from across the continent. The band carries a percussive tradition connecting communities in southern Mexico with Central America and the Pacific coasts of Ecuador and Colombia. Marimba is a cornerstone of musical traditions in Mexican states such as Chiapas and Veracruz, the latter home to a port of extreme significance throughout centuries of trans-Atlantic trade and mestizaje, as well as the birthplace of the Gama brothers' father. Son Rompe Pera are acutely aware of these generational connections, of how cumbia is the lingua franca of Latin America — from the sonideros of Mexico to the villas of Argentina. The band is loving and protective of its roots, while also letting the branches grow freely into new directions.

"We don't play things the way they're usually played," adds Kacho. "I think what's most important is that you as a performer have fun and try new things, and hopefully the audience is open enough to join you for the ride."

Richard Villegas is a Mexico City-based music journalist putting a spotlight on Latin American independent music. He is also the host and producer of the Songmess Podcast.

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Richard Villegas