Celso Piña was by far the most important ambassador of Mexican cumbia — particularly of the Colombian-influenced style in the City of Monterrey — that ever existed. His legacy is simply incalculable.
Last Wednesday – August 21, 2019 – will forever be remembered as a black day for fans of Mexican cumbia, fans of the accordion, and music lovers everywhere. Celso Piña, “el rebelde del acordeón”, passed away at the age of 66 from a heart-attack. As the news arrived, there was shock and profound grief throughout Mexico and beyond. Coming from a family of salsa and cumbia musicians spanning several generations, this felt as personal as if life has taken one of our own blood. He was one of us; came from us, the poor, downtrodden and underserved, he spoke to us, through us. He carried the sound and spirit of our struggles and hopes, our joyful noise, and made it known and understood in the entire globe.
Celso Piña was born April 6th, 1953, in Monterrey. His first musical steps were made along his brothers Eduardo, Rubén, and Enrique; they played regional Norteño music and used to serenade the girls in their neighborhood. But the true turning point in his musical life was when he first met the accordion. It was a second-hand instrument, a gift from his dad; young Celso was obsessed with cumbia, Colombian cumbia, spending a good chunk of his teenage years and early adulthood practicing, trying to learn cumbias by giants like Anibal Velásquez and Alfredo Gutiérrez.
Entirely self-taught, his love for cumbia and his modest collection of Colombian records shaped his playing, as Celso slowly turned his passion into a profession. “In Monterrey, I never found a teacher to get me started in the genre. Perhaps if I had stayed in the Norteño tradition I could be taught by somebody; practically everyone played the accordion back then. Corridos, chotís, huapango, all that stuff”, he told DW.
After years of practicing and honing his skills in small gigs, he finally first recorded in 1980, a time in which many people of the area just did not understand why he played the accordion like that, so strayed from Norteño folk. “In Monterrey, they first thought I just played too weird. I wanted to play vallenato“.
Surprisingly for the times, Celso’s presence in dances and parties in the barrios gave him a cult status inb his city, and a loyal following for the entire 80s and 90s. He was one of the artists of the people, and the spirit of his neighborhood, Colonia Independencia, “la Indepe”. Despite its notoriously bad reputation as “a dangerous slum, a hub of criminal activities and questionable personalities”, la Indepe is an emblem of Monterrey, where the marginalizaed and the disposessed find shelter, where migrant communities are always welcome, and an important place of Worship and pilgrimage, due to it being home to the Basílica de Guadalupe. It is also the cradle of incredibly talented artists and musicians, that would get their due recognition in the following decades.
Celso’s music gained even more acceptance in Monterrey in the early 90s; in Mexico, there was already a strong tradition of cumbia, but it was until this particular time where it became mainstream in Monterrey, due to the national fame of Tamaulipas native (a fellow Norteño) Rigo Tovar, and the phenomenon of cumbia norteña. This is a sub-genre of Norteño and Tejano music, in which the drumbeat and keyboard-heavy sound of Tovar was combined with the typical Norteño instrumentation. Groups like Bronco and Selena Y Los Dinos found international success with this fusion style. And somewhere at the turn of the millenium, Celso had the big idea: “let’s make our cumbia global”.
Another great moment in music that prompted Celso’s move to go international was La Avanzada Regia, in the late 90s. This movement was a wave of Monterrey rock, hip-hop and fusion bands that, thanks to the increasing connections between regional scenes throughout the music industry in the CD era, got signed by major labels. Groups like Zurdok, Jumbo, Plastilina Mosh and countless others achieved notoriety im Latin America as trendsetters in the rock world. But it was the success of seminal Monterrey hip-hop act Control Machete, and most notably, “freestyle norteño” group El Gran Silencio, that anticipated Celso’s rise. They were central in orchestrating the process of the Grand Homecoming of El Rebelde del Acordeón, taking part as the main collaborators. Control Machete DJ Toy Selectah was the producer of Celso’s first international record, and undoubtedly his masterpiece, Barrio Bravo (the title needs no translation).
Barrio Bravo is not only a statement of intent, but a perfect example of how to take a traditional, historically isolated rural sound from abroad, make it Mexican, and infuse it with modern, urban sounds and styles from the entire world. An exquisite melting pot of cumbia, rock, hip-hop, ska, reggae, bolero, electronica, and a hefty dose sof his beloved vallenato.
Celso was finally getting the international recognition he always deserved, and the moment he first played a show in Colombia, the birthplace of cumbia, he felt it like a triumph; the fruit of decades of love and intense dedication to his craft. Of course, being in the original cumbia land, he had to offer something different. “How am i going to play traditional cumbia here, where it all began? What Colombians really like about me is that I mix it with other stuff, harder sounds. It’s more agressive. I’m like the heavy metal of cumbia. I like it loud and tough”.
He mantained that philosophy and that level of success throughout the following records, began to collaborate with the young wave of Latino bands, and solidified his legendary status, taking La Indepe and Monterrey cumbia as his banner of command. Before Los Ángeles Azules, Cañaveral, Chico Ché Chico, and even Los Tigres del Norte revived their careers through collaborations with today’s stars, in turn bringing their music to a new generation, Celso Piña had made cumbia cool again.
A week after his death, we haven’t even begun to fathom the extent of his influence and the dimensions of such a legacy. He is crucial if we want to talk about the History of Mexican music, and one of the figures that shaped the culture and sound of modern Mexico.
Here’s a mix of some of his greatest tunes:
Special thanks to Elsa Nuñez and Gloria de la Rosa.