On the streets of Monterrey, Mexico, Celso Piña’s Colombian-style traditional cumbia had long been the soundtrack of that industrial city and its hardscrabble neighborhoods. Then the unexpected happened — folkloric music became hip.
The master accordionist’s music received little attention outside Mexico until Piña’s revolutionary album, “Barrio Bravo,” propelled him to the global stage in 2001. Centered on the famous accordion sound that gave him the nickname “El Rebelde del Acordeón” (Accordion Rebel) in Monterrey, Piña, who will perform at the Pachanga Latino Music Festival on Saturday, created a hybrid cumbia sound that incorporated reggae, hip-hop, ska and rock. The massive hit “Cumbia Sobre el Río” was featured in the soundtrack of the film “Babel.” And Piña’s new sound helped change the perception of the music, attracting more listeners across social and economic lines.
But for all of the success, which in recent years has taken him on tour in Europe and throughout the Americas, Piña remains the laid-back guy you want to share a beer with. He makes any room feel like a living room, especially when he chats with you in his slang-infused Spanish as if you’ve been lifelong friends.
After a musical career spanning about 35 years, Piña knows the touring drill well. About an hour or so before his South by Southwest performance in March at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, Piña was at ease, surrounded by family. His brothers Eduardo, Ruben and Enrique are all part of his band.
“Other musicians in the band have come and gone,” Piña says in Spanish. “But we’re always here. Family should always be united, at least that’s what mamá would tell us. We take care of each other.”
Piña taught himself how to play the accordion by listening to countless vinyl records during the 1970s. And while his buddies played soccer or chased girls, Piña says he disappeared into his basement accompanied only by an immeasurable desire to master the accordion rhythm that enchanted him. He recorded his first album in 1980.
Piña’s stardom came later in life, which meant that the now 60-year-old musician had already learned many music industry lessons the hard way. While on contract with a record company, he says he was given an ultimatum: “Either you record what we tell you to or you don’t record.”
With about three or four years left in his exclusive contract, he took a big risk and chose not to record. He was practically shut out of the business, unable to get any well-paying gigs or sign with another label.
“I was frozen for years,” he says. “And I felt awful because if people don’t hear new music or hear you play, then they assume you’ve retired.”
After building a strong following by bringing Colombian cumbia to the forefront in Monterrey, Piña went back to playing for pennies at tiny clubs. And his songs on the radio went silent.
“But my love for music never left me,” says Piña, who also sings and composes. “On the contrary, I kept getting new music ready because I told myself that as soon as that contract expired I was immediately going to another label.”
The years dragged on, but Piña hung tight. And when his contract finally expired on a Valentine’s Day, Piña gathered his brothers and furiously marched into the label’s offices ready to put an end to his time there.
“Just in case it came to blows, I took my brothers,” Piña says with a laugh.
It didn’t come to that. Piña was offered more money to stay, but refused. “It’s over, man,” he told them.
But while Piña was out of the spotlight, many other bands emerged playing the same Colombian cumbia sound he had helped popularize in Monterrey. And they were willing to play for less money.
Piña needed a change, to reinvent himself. At a gig one night he ran into the man who would eventually help relaunch his career into the stratosphere — Julián Villarreal, ex-bassist of the popular rock en español band El Gran Silencio.
El Gran Silencio had gained a reputation for blending rock with other musical genres, and Villarreal pitched a project to Piña. “How do you feel about doing something kind of crazy, funky?” Piña remembers Villarreal proposing. That’s when the idea for “Barrio Bravo” was born, and Villarreal enlisted the help of other Mexican musical heavyweights, such as Café Tacvba and Control Machete, to collaborate.
“We started fusing cumbia with rock ‘n’ roll, cumbia with reggae,” Piña says. “Just looking for something different. And people loved it so much that from then on we haven’t stopped creating fusions.”
It’s through these fusions, he says, that the super contagious Colombian rhythm can live forever as younger generations find themselves relating to the modernized musical style. While in Spain recently, someone suggested he fuse rumba with cumbia to create a “rumbia.” The possibilities are endless.
Nowadays, as Mexico grapples with a violent drug war that has hit Monterrey hard, Piña says performing in his home country has become more difficult for many musicians, especially those in the Mexican regional music scene. People aren’t as eager anymore to stay out all night for dances or concerts. “And I don’t blame them,” Piña says.
But the legendary accordionist says that after all the ups and downs of the business, he’s still fascinated with the power of music. It doesn’t matter whether he’s battling a cold or just had an argument with his brothers; once he steps on stage and starts to play a couple of songs, Piña says there’s nothing more healing.
Where: Pachanga Latino Music Festival, Hierba Stage
Time: 9:15 p.m.