The music and dance called cumbia was brought across the sea on a slavers’ ships from Africa, as Europeans began to colonize Colombia. The dance, a simple two-step, was said to have originated with slaves, whose fetters wouldn’t allow their feet enough space for more complex movement. An infectious 2/4 dance beat, blending over the years with indigenous music and European instruments, became the cumbia of today, which is immensely popular throughout Latin America.
In Reno, the style’s popularity is fertile ground for exploration. Local act Tierra Tropical are pioneers who have played in the area for a decade now. While many Latin bands in town can certainly play a cumbia, few have devoted themselves wholly to the style like Tierra Tropical.
“When we first came here, we played all tropical style,” said drummer Danny Azenon. “But here in Reno, more people want to hear the Mexican style.”
As a result, Tierra Tropical caters to the crowds that frequent Reno’s most popular Latin nightclubs—such as Vaqueros in Sparks and Mambos on Virginia Street—audiences more inclined to dance to music they are already familiar with. Though the band may be grateful for the opportunity to play, they can’t help but feel like misfits in a scene that seems to know what it wants.
“Because we are so specific, it’s hard to work around town,” said conga player and vocalist Luis Caceres. “But we hope to play in more different places.”
Caceres and his bandmates are interested in branching out from Reno’s Latin music scene into venues where audiences can encounter their style for the first time. They say they’ve already had positive experiences playing at the university, as well as Bodega before it closed.
“It’s all about getting our culture and our music out there,” said Caceres. “When DJs put on our music, everybody dances.”
It’s hard to deny the urge to move even a little part of your body while Tierra Tropical are playing. The musicians are lively and kinetic while performing, even when the tempo is relaxed. Some songs are set to a slow, driving, minor key groove, and others are fired at a lively, fast pace. At any speed, Walter Caceres—brother of Luis— can be seen dancing while scratching out a rhythm on the guiro, a long, tubular percussion instrument central to the sound of modern cumbia. Azenon accompanies him with intricate, syncopated rhythms on the drums, breaking up the beat with lightning-quick rolls on timbales and toms.
Keyboardist and saxophonist Carlos Hernandez is the backbone of Tierra Tropical, writing and arranging the band’s repertoire. Currently, they cycle through 10 originals, and a blend of cover songs from various cultures across Latin America. In addition to cumbia, the band also performs salsa numbers, romantic Dominican bachata ballads, and polka-influenced Mexican music.
With the exception of bassist Mario Nuñez, who’s from Michoacan, most of the members of Tierra Tropical hail from El Salvador, where their style of music is more pervasive. Hernandez originated out of Salvadorean group Orquestra Casino, an established outfit that specialized in the region’s particular flavor of cumbia. In El Salvador, it’s common to see a band with a large brass and reed section.
In Tierra Tropical, Hernandez alone holds the honor of playing saxophone, and only on a few songs. They encourage anyone with skill in brass or reed instruments and an interest in cumbia to get in touch with them, hoping to expand to a proper Salvadorean big band. They stress that anyone will do, either on stage or in the crowd. Just as long as they’re willing to shake their hips.