Without a job and in the midst of a personal crisis, musician Sebastián Cárdenas packed his belongings and left Mexico City for his hometown in the surrounding state of Mexico. There he reunited with childhood friends with whom he had played in his first bands. Turns out luck hadn’t been on their side either. Many of them had split from their current bands, and all of them were ready for a change.
Sonido San Francisco had been Cárdenas’ laptop/DJ project back in Mexico City, and in 2009 Cárdenas proposed converting the project into a band with his friends.
The quartet hasn’t stopped playing since.
The revamped Sonido San Francisco emerged playing synthcumbia that married the synthesizer and accordion with Colombian folk and Mexican cumbias. After a much-buzzed about EP, the group is releasing its first album with the label Discos Intolerancia this month.
Sonido San Francisco debuted at South by Southwest in 2012, but Cárdenas says that, like many festival newbies, he felt SXSW swallowed him up.
"Everything went by so fast," Cárdenas says in Spanish. "And I feel I only got to take advantage of maybe half of the festival." But this time he says Sonido San Francisco comes with more experience, a better understanding of how SXSW works and new material from their latest album.
Cárdenas chatted with us from Xonacatlán ahead of the group’s Austin arrival.
Austin360: The wave of hybrid sounds with folk and cumbia rhythms has been strengthening in recent years. What do you think that your synthcumbia style is doing for a new generation of Latin music listeners?
Cárdenas: We often have young people tell us that they don’t listen to tropical music or cumbias and that they think it’s awful. Then they’ll say that, in spite of that, they do listen to our music and get it. There’s something there that allows them to get close to our music, which eventually makes it easier for them to start exploring and giving other folkloric music a chance.
In Mexico many people consider those who listen to cumbias or tropical music to be of a lower social status. There’s a stigma around a sound that’s one of the oldest in the world. Listening to that music is opening your mind up a bit and ridding yourself of any stereotypes or misconceptions.
So did you enjoy tropical music and cumbias as a teenager? How did you end up embracing the music?
In your youth you tend to be more rebellious, and so for me listening to tropical music was a no-no. I was into rock. But at the same time I had to listen to it because it’s everywhere in Mexico, like on buses.
The first time I heard the word cumbia was from the mouth of my grandmother. That music always accompanied me in one way or another. It took me a while to accept it and understand it and not be afraid of it because at the end of the day it’s fear that keeps people from not giving tropical music a chance.
When I was about 20 I started listening to it on my own. And actually when I was 16 my family, who is from Colombia (the birthplace of cumbia), went to visit relatives there for the summer. I realized that one of the best ways to get close to the girl I had a crush on was to ask her to dance. And I thought, "I’ve got to learn how to dance salsa, merengue or whatever in order to dance with her, otherwise I’ll end up alone."
What’s the indie music scene like in Mexico?
Well, Mexico does have venues to play in and there are opportunities for a music career, but it’s difficult. Musicians have to develop their own careers and not wait for someone to discover you. The days of a big label with a big budget coming to sign you are over.
When I was going through my own crisis and got fired from a job, I fought for my severance and ended up investing it in the band. We recorded a couple of songs on our own and did our own marketing. Then about a year and a half later our songs reached the ears of Discos Intolerancia and we formed an alliance.
We work together. Labels can’t do everything for you. In fact that’s part of our deal with them, and we talk about it a lot, how they are not the solution to all of our issues.
These are hard times in Mexico. How do you see your role as a musician in times of crisis?
One of the reasons that I play music and try to do many concerts is because people when they are at a concert often have this sort of mystical experience. Music has the power to produce sensations that few other things can generate. So when we are playing a concert, we try to exude a positive energy to balance the scale against all the negative things happening around us.
When people are dancing, listening to rhythms and feeling the energy they tend to think differently. And the audience leaves, even if it only lasts a little bit, with the feeling that things don’t have to be a certain way. At least that’s what has happened to me.
And I don’t think dancing and going to a concert is irresponsible. Our music does have some conscious messages without pointing the blame. At a concert people tend to get in sync as they feel the music. We tend to feel hopeless at times and that things won’t ever change, but music allows you to enter into a state of being where you believe again.