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Cumbia makes you move: Kiko Villamizar is building an international hub in Austin

With the male gaita, a Colombian reed flute, in his left hand, Kiko Villamizar beckons the drummers with an airy looping riff. The male gaita’s job is to ground —to “hold the seeds of the group in the earth,” Villamizar says — so the female gaita, a larger reed flute, “can tell her story.” 

In his right hand, he begins a steady pulse with a large maraca.

The drummers join in with rollicking patterns that mesh in an explosion of sound. Edwin “El Indio”  Hernandez, part of the Latin Grammy-winning Colombian ensemble Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, picks up the female flute.

The group sits in a circle in a gravel parking lot outside. Warmed by the Sunday afternoon sun, they coax rhythms from traditional drums stretched with goat skin that rings the heads with fur. When the groove falls apart, Hernandez stops spinning the melody. He explains what went wrong in brisk Spanish. (When non-Spanish speakers join the ensemble, Villamizar translates.) Using thick wooden sticks on a round drum, he demonstrates how to alternate thumping bass pulses with clacking rhythms on the drum’s body. 

Kiko Villamizar plays a gaita during a Colombian drum and flute workshop at his new community center Casa de la Cultura. He offers private lessons and group classes in piano, guitar, drums and more for adults and children.

Villamizar celebrates the release of his third album “Todo El Mundo” on Feb. 18, but the dozen years he’s lived in Austin have been about more than making music.

Over the past few months, as a pandemic-weary world has resumed business, Villamizar achieved his long-standing dream of opening Casa de la Cultura, a new community center in South Austin. The weekly drum and flute workshop is the centerpiece of the curriculum.  

Although the powerful baritone studied vocal jazz and theater in college, Villamizar when on a musical journey as an adult that drew him back to his childhood on a coffee farm in Medellín. He studies the sounds of his homeland and amplifies them in Austin through his own work, the groups he has formed and his annual Wepa Cumbia Roots Festival, which brings maestros of folkloric cumbia together with modern cumbia practitioners.  

“The world already saw the extent of how beautiful and diverse and deep the music is in the Caribbean, in Cuba and in Puerto Rico. Even the Beatles did a bolero,” Villamizar says. “But people don't understand the depths yet of what there is in Colombia to offer.”

Kiko Villamizar has tapped Edwin "El Indio" Hernandez, left, from the Latin Grammy-winning Colombian ensemble Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto to lead his weekly Colombian music workshop.

An international hub for cumbia

“This used to be Asleep at the Wheel’s studio,” Villamizar says when we meet at the center on a chilly morning in late January. The South Austin complex was once Texas swing legend Ray Benson’s headquarters. 

“Willie Nelson recorded his reggae album here with Toots and the Maytals,” Villamizar says. 

These days, Villamizar uses it for classes and music lessons during the day and rents it to bands for rehearsal space at night. In addition to the Colombian music workshop on Sundays, aspiring musicians can take piano, guitar, drum, bass or ukulele classes. A visual arts program is run by Alejandro Moreno, who also teaches art at Garza High School. It covers everything from claymation to painting. 

Students also can study the accordion. Villamizar is working with Bradley Jaye Williams of Conjunto Los Pinkys to start a Conjunto program. “I really want to do the stuff that's relevant to the community here,” he says. 

At the moment, most of his young students are children of musician friends. He hopes to grow the programs, offering classes on a sliding scale basis. 

“The reason I formed this nonprofit is because my mom couldn't afford lessons for music when I was a kid," he says. "So I'm doing this for my mom.” 

Classes have a suggested donation “and then you pay what you can,” he says. “If you don't have any money, please don't take my students away.”

Behind the classroom space is a large studio he rents to the Peligrosa DJ crew. It’s a laboratory for his frequent collaborator Orión Garcia, co-founder of the Discos Peligrosa record label that launched with the release of Villamizar’s 2015 album "La Remolacha.” 

And tucked away in the back is Villamizar’s own lair where, working with an audio engineer, he produces music. He is working to develop a young singer-songwriter from Laredo named Allyxxe. In 2020, he released an EP by the traditional Colombian cumbia outfit Son De La Provincia, which he brought to Austin to headline Wepa Fest in 2019.

He hopes to bring in more cumbia artists from around the world. 

“I want this to be a cumbia hub internationally (for artists) to come record and to come do their videos,” he says. 

Traditional cumbia combines African drums with indigenous Colombian flute music. “You can't tease out the red and the Black unity in it,” Kiko Villamizar says.

‘Where music needs me’

Villamizar is a student of the indigenous music of all cultures. “I like roots music from Mongolia or Kentucky. It doesn't matter,” he says. 

But the new album “Todo el Mundo” leans into the folkloric traditions of his homeland. 

“It's not that I think it's better than other things. But it's more like, I think that that's where music needs me,” Villamizar says. 

While urban cumbia has become a global phenomenon over the past few decades, Villamizar says he feels like the world doesn’t fully understand the form’s Colombian roots. 

“It's not just a Black tradition. It's not just a Black and white tradition. It's a really balanced mix of what Indian, Black and white people together are. And so it kind of relates to everybody,” he says.   

The origins of cumbia can be traced back 400 years and the music reflects the diversity of Colombian culture.   

“You can't tease out the red and the Black unity in it,” he says. “From 1603. It started to be a thing together.”

In 1603, a group of African people on a slave ship revolted while traveling the Magdalena, the river that connects Bogotá to the Caribbean. They overcame their captors, and in the foothills of the Montes de María, “they set up a community that was the first ever free African society in all of the Americas,” Villamizar says.  

They developed a language, Palenquero, a creole that mixed Spanish with Central African languages. Musically, the African drummers began to mix with the indigenous flute players who lived in their new jungle home. Eventually, Villamizar says, they added vocals based on “a standard white way to sing that spread through the Caribbean” with décimas, a style of song poem that originated in Spain.      

“The mix is very balanced and the music comes out that way,” Villamizar says.

He believes that balance is what makes cumbia relatable to such a wide audience. 

“It checks your head, your heart and your, you know, butt,” he says. “It makes you move all of them.”

Kiko Villamizar took over a studio that used to belong to Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson to create Casa de la Cultura. He hopes to build the space into "an international hub for cumbia."

‘The world is migrating’ 

Reaching into his own indigenous roots, each of Villamizar’s releases has a corresponding element. His debut “La Remolacha” was an earth album. The follow up “Aguas Frias” was a water album, and this one is a wind release. 

In ceremony, he says, you sing wind songs when you need change to happen. 

Written before the pandemic, in the midst of an escalating crisis at the Texas border and a government policy that separated children from their parents, the title track declares that everybody has the right to migrate. 

“The world is migrating,” he says. “We're on a rock going millions of miles an hour in the great migration of everything in space. Plants and animals migrate.”

In the last 400 years, he says, ancient “trade and medicine routes” have been interrupted by borders.  

“These borders, that's not going to last forever, and those (routes) are always going to continue and we're going to cross and move through there,” he says, noting that “the rate of the crossing is accelerated by strangling the (global) South economically.”

A call for change for “that whole situation of migration and how we look at it and deal with it” is the origin of the album, he says. 

Pastoral themes reverberate through the album. The latest single, “Sembrá el Maíz,” is a reminder “to just keep planting your seeds” when things get hard, he says. 

“Flor de Maracuyá” is based on a poem for the passion flower vine in his yard. And “Guru” came out of a ceremony-driven “musical realization that the only teachers are the plants.”

“The people are just a dude named Mike with a credit score but the plant medicines will really guide you,” he says.  

Kiko Villamizar plays a maraca during a traditional Colombian music workshop at Casa de la Cultura. Villamizar loves roots music from all cultures, but teaching the sounds of his homeland is "where music needs me,” he said.

To 'settle the tab'

With looming climate catastrophe and recent geopolitical strife, Villamizar isn’t optimistic about the future of humanity, but he feels “we should do good things anyway, no matter the result,” he says. 

“Life is giving us stuff. And that costs an energy,” he says. He believes our obligation in this life is to replenish the energy the world gives us. 

He’s been focused on the idea of legacy.   

“According to elders in North and South America, through our different ethnicities, it's our job to consider what we're going to leave for the next seven generations. That's how we’re supposed to look at the world in general,” Villamizar says. 

That idea is a guiding reason behind his cumbia festival, which will celebrate its fifth year this summer. (Villamizar skipped 2020 and held a virtual event last year.)   

The cultural event brings the elders who are keepers of the folkloric tradition from Colombia, helping them to navigate difficult visa issues that impede their ability to play stateside. Billing them with younger acts helps foster an exchange of ideas. 

He's been growing the reach of Colombian music in Austin in other ways, too.

“All the nouveau Colombian bands that are here are bands that I brought because I hired them to work in my band. And then they branched out and did their own thing,” he says. The heavy psychedelic group, Nemegata, grew out of Villamizar’s backing band. He started the band Wache as an educational ensemble. Though Villamizar dropped out, “it continues and people learn,” he says.

Colombian vocalist and gaitera Jaime Ospina, who was already in town, joined Wache and his band Superfónicos branched out of that project to a certain extent, Villamizar says. 

He hopes to continue his mission “to pass down the things that I get,” through the community center.  

“I owe the universe energy. Right?” he says. “I owe music, my life. It saved my life. And I owe my mother and I owe the women I have been with. I owe my kid a future. A lot of things. 

“So I’ve got to do what I can, right, to see if I can settle the tab. Before I go.”

Casa de la Cultura

The Colombian music workshop takes place from 1 to 3 p.m. every Sunday at the community center, 4023 Manchaca Road. The center also offers private lessons and group classes. More information is available at casadelaculturaaustin.org.

Wepa Cumbia Roots Festival

After hosting a virtual event in 2021, Villamizar plans to bring back an in-person event this summer. The date and location are TBA. See wepafestival.com for more information and updates.