LOS ANGELES — A tiny room at the back of a dingy office building, LaPau Gallery has the underground energy of a ’90s indie record store. Even the buoyant particles of dust seem suspended in time. In the corner, soft music spills from the speakers of a CRT television. A man sings into his microphone as he paces the grainy screen. The walls hold faded photographs, record sleeves, posters, carefully ripped news clippings, and a cassette tape with a marked-up tracklist in bold sans serif: the mementos of Toño Estrada.

Estrada is a documentary filmmaker, archivist, and aficionado of the cumbia scene in northeastern Mexico. Pioneros Vallenatos y Tropicales; The Story of Toño Estrada presents ephemera from a pivotal moment when Colombian cumbia music hit Monterrey, Mexico in the 1980s and ’90s. Estrada’s personal archives, lovingly arranged on the walls, depict the beginnings of a Mexican cumbia renaissance through the eyes of a fan — visual relics of a cultural history often heard but rarely seen. 

Toño Estrada, “Marketplace of the bridge of Papa, in Nuevo Leon Monterrey” (1992), reproduction of matte Epson print, 18 x 40 inches (courtesy Toño Estrada Archive/edited and digitized by CDC, photo Isabella Parlamis/Hyperallergic)

When envisioning Mexican cumbia, slicked hairstyles, XXL shirts, and baggy pants typically come to mind. These are the trappings of cholombiano subculture: a famed sartorial movement from the 2000s, adjacent to cumbia, that blended Chicano fashion with Colombian sound. The exhibition, however, portrays a slightly earlier era, hearkening to a time when cumbia and vallenato — folk music from Colombia’s Caribbean coast — vibrated in the mountainous outskirts of Monterrey. Estrada’s archives trace this overlooked period of musical transmission through the rise of the famous Colombian vallenato group Binomio de Oro. On the wall, one of Estrada’s colorful posters advertises the group’s Mexican debut at the 1998 Festival Voz de Acordeones in Monterrey. Across the room, a muffled and blurry VHS, like a foggy memory, brings us back to that very concert. Among the 40,000-person crowd pictured on the walls, Estrada with his vueltiao hat stood in awe and in love: one of the fiercest fans in Monterrey. 

Installation view of Pioneros Vallenatos y Tropicales; The Story of Toño Estrada at LaPau Gallery, 2022 (courtesy LaPau Gallery, photo by Jorge Balleza)

As the years went on, Estrada continued to document the growth of a distinctly Mexican cumbia tradition, compiling concert posters, cassette tapes, and records from influential bands — forming a sort of visual accompaniment to the distinctly Mexican sound. The exhibition shares its title with a 1991 compilation of Colombian cumbia from Estrada’s vinyl collection, Pioneros Vallenatos y Tropicales, an album credited for popularizing the genre throughout Mexico. The album sleeve is displayed on the wall above two prominent records from Monterrey: El Disco de Oro (1979) and Mexican cumbia pioneer Celso Piña’s eponymous album (1985). The first displays a cheerfully simple monochrome cover, while the latter two ooze rhythm and get playful with typeface, graphically suggesting an evolution from cumbia’s traditional roots in Colombia to an underground, experimental scene in Mexico.

Installation view of Pioneros Vallenatos y Tropicales; The Story of Toño Estrada at LaPau Gallery, 2022 (photo Isabella Parlamis/Hyperallergic)

Estrada followed Piña from concert to concert with his camera in hand. They appear together in a photograph on the wall, Estrada proudly clad in his signature hat. The image is part of a montage of twelve small photographs organized around a cassette tape of rebajadas by Sonido Dueñez. Cumbia rebajada, a uniquely Mexican subgenre, was invented by Gabriel Dueñez (of Sonido Dueñez) when during a set the motor on his turntable overheated and the music slowed down. The photographs are snapshots of life in Monterrey during cumbia’s heyday, and the chopped and screwed tape is the city’s soundtrack.

Estrada’s archives paint a rare portrait of a brief and beautiful period of Mexican cultural creation. His memories transport you from the petite Los Angeles gallery to the steep streets of 90s Monterrey, where the steady rhythms of a caja drum, accordion, and guacharaca whisper to you through your walkman.

Pioneros Vallenatos y Tropicales; The Story of Toño Estrada is on view at LaPau Gallery (3006 West 7th Street, MacArthur Park, Los Angeles) through April 16, 2022. The exhibition is organized by Cumbia Documentation Center (CDC) and Sabotaje Media.

Isabella is an art historian and museum worker. Her projects and research explore the visual cultures of music with attention to the interactions of non-visual sensory modalities. Based in Los Angeles,...