The prolific and celebrated Mexican accordion player Celso Piña died Wednesday of a heart attack in his hometown of Monterrey, Mexico. He was 66 years old.
His record label, La Tuna Records, announced Piña's death on Thursday.
Piña contributed greatly to the evolution of cumbia. The Colombian folk genre has had an interesting life span since its 17th century origins and very few musicians have added to that colorful history more than Celso Piña.
As we explained on this Alt.Latino episode, the genre has roots in the African slave trade and percolated as regional dance form until it became the soundtrack to the upscale ballrooms and nightclubs of Mexico during the 1950s and '60s. A young Celso Piña first heard it in the '70s and was eventually drawn to the Colombian accordion masters who played both cumbia and its musical cousin, vallenato. He channeled that passion into Celso Piña y su Ronda Bogotá, a band he started with his brothers Eduardo, Rubén and Enrique.
How a kid from the dusty mountain town of Monterrey on the northern edge of Mexico became known for transporting Colombian folk music to stages around the world is part of the colorful legend he leaves behind. He came to be known as "El Rebelde del Acordeón" (The Rebel of the Accordion) as he deftly and artistically inserted cumbia into a wide swath of contemporary Latin music from hip-hip to rock to electronic and beyond. Barrio Bravo (2002) earned him a Latin Grammy nomination but more importantly it kickstarted a series of high-profile collaborations with artists such as Cafe Tacvba, Lila Downs, Gloria Trevi, Natalia Lafourcade among so many others. He was just featured on a single by Mexican-Cuban artist Leiden's track "Tu Boca."
Perhaps the best measure of an artist's success is not awards and sales figures but the respect and admiration of their peers. The prolific Mexican producer and performer Camilo Lara produced several songs for Celso Piña and was overseeing his last recording session just last week. Lara wrote this about his musical compadre for Alt.Latino:
The last of the rebels is gone.
Celso Piña was not a typical music star. He was the last of the underdogs. An idol who came from the barrio, to the barrio, and later on, to the world. Through local songs that talked about very specific things from his community, he sent a universal message. In the end, we all laugh, cry ... and dance.
The legacy Celso left is really important. He let rich people know there is a vast culture in poor Mexican neighborhoods. He was a proud ambassador of his beloved Barrio Independencia.
Celso was more punk than any punk I've ever known. He went on experimental escapades with pop artists, hip-hop, electronica and all sorts of sounds. He was the architect of Nu-Cumbia, creating the seminal song "Cumbia Sobre el Rio," mixing traditional cumbia and hot and exciting electronic beats.
He was the crystal ball announcing cumbia was going to be (once again) THE music for kids looking for answers. He was the soundtrack of the new counterculture.
Gabriel García Márquez called him El Acordeonista de Hamelin (the accordion player of Hamelin). Celso was a unifier. His music was the true meaning of democracy: no matter if you were old, young, fat, skinny, tall or short, you would certainly dance to his music.
I've always wanted to be like Celso. An outsider, a rebel. Someone proud of his roots but with his eyes on the future. Now he is next to all my idols. Strummer, Marley, Malcolm McClaren, Augustus Pablo.
One thing I know for sure: his music made this world a little better place. Those of us that knew him will remember him as a generous teacher and friend.