The origins of cumbia music can be traced all the way back to the 1800’s in Colombia, where the enslaved African people there blended their tribal sounds with the music made by the indigenous people of the land. But the genre has grown to have many adaptations throughout the world.
Raised in Houston, Gio Chamba has adapted cumbia to their own tastes, and it has helped the group grow a local fan base by melting sounds together, often layering electronic music, trippy psychedelic guitar riffs, bilingual vocals and bandmate Coffeeleaf’s unmatchable, high energy percussion. Gio Chamba creates a perfect explosion of influences and sounds rooted in the past, while blasting off into the future.
“Back then it was hard to document stuff so there are a lot of different stories about how cumbia came about in Colombia,” says Fernando Giovanny Alejandro who performs under the stage name Gio Chamba, which is also the name of the band project. He will perform alongside band percussionist Joshua Guzman, who goes by Coffeeleaf, at Karbach Brewery for their first Hot Sauce Festival, a free all-day event which will feature local food and art vendors.
As a group, Gio Chamba draws a lot of inspiration from how cumbia was created centuries ago. “The Spanish gave them a day every week to go and do their thing. The natives from there would be playing flutes, the Africans brought the drums, and they started playing. All of that together was the beginning of cumbia. It’s like both of their cultures coming together on the free time that the slave masters would give them, and I really like that because it’s a story of overcoming hard times,” says Alejandro, 32, who grew up on Houston's south side with his family who was originally from Mexico.
Both band members are first generation Americans. Like so many kids of immigrants, they were constantly straddling the line between their families' heritage and the American way of life, along with all of the experiences and soundtracks that come with it. The duo met years ago through the Houston music community and immediately hit it off.
“We are like yin and yang,” Alejandro says about his bandmate. “We balance each other pretty well because a lot of times I’m more chill onstage and he's going crazy, and then whenever I'm going crazy, he's going chill. It’s like an ebb and flow.” Along with Guzman, 38, and a native of Spring born to parents from Colombia, the duo takes the sounds they and so many Latinos grew up hearing. They grew up on cumbia rhythms that were played at backyard parties and quinceañers, and combine them with more modern elements of hip-hop, rock-and-roll and electronica, perfectly reflecting the diversity of Houston itself.
“That way it becomes digestible for the people who never really got turned onto cumbia,” Alejandro says. “We are making our own unique contribution to the tapestry of cumbia.”
Growing up, they couldn’t escape hearing the sounds of their respective countries, Mexico and Colombia, but were drawn to punk rock, an energy that still comes across strongly in their live performances. Both artists play as if someone was holding a gun to their heads, and their entire lives depended on that performance.
“A lot of times whenever you don't come from a musical family you gravitate to punk rock, and especially when you’re in high school,” Alejandro says, adding that he didn’t realize growing up the vastness of Houston’s cumbia culture, and high numbers of “cumbia heads” sprinkled throughout the city.
“I feel like cumbia in Houston has always been there and especially in a huge way with Selena .... the Astrodome. People love cumbia in Houston,” he says. Many cumbia artists, including the legendary Fito Olivares, live in Houston. But, they often play outside the city limits, or at pulgas (flea markets) where mainstream audiences may not be in attendance, Alejandro offers.
Gio Chamba’s particular style of cumbia is almost impossible to listen to without unhinging some joints in the body and breaking out into a dance, be it big or small, as the music taps into the primal spirit within.
“You put it together and mix it with live music, and it becomes more of like an experience,” Alejandro says about watching a cumbia performance. “You get to dance with your partner or by yourself, and just get lost in the music; and I think with cumbia, it's always been like a ritual.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Alejandro has had some major life changes as he moved to Colorado and recently welcomed a son, but he and Guzman made good use of their time, despite the distance, to release a steady stream of new singles on LennonMX including their most recent release, “Báilale.” The band is excited to be reuniting in Houston for a show, the first one since earlier this summer.
“Gio and I connect with a very similar type of passion for creating music, performing, and for life in general” explains Guzman. “We hype each other up and manifest our dreams to perform and create music as much as possible. Every time we get together, it’s always like that. It’s incredible.”
Gio Chamba will perform Sunday, Dec. 5, at Karbach Brewery’s First Hot Sauce Festival. Karbach Biergarten, 2032 Karbach St., show time is 11a.m. - 6p.m. Free. For more information, visit www.karbachbrewing.com.