To call them underdogs is an understatement. A band from Nicaragua, of all places, that rejects the popular “urban” genres of the moment and was born, as they put it, “with a completely anti-commercial concept, in the midst of the celebration and religious fervor of the Santo Domingo festival.” Somehow, La Cuneta Son Machín has gone from a band of flip-flop-wearing youngsters doing idiosyncratic covers of well-known cumbias to Nicaragua’s most popular musical act and the first to receive a Latin Grammy nomination.
This is a rare case of true quality, true originality rising to the top. Since its formation in 2009, La Cuneta Son Machín has developed a unique sound, omnivorously eclectic, infectiously energetic, enhanced by a strong identity and a biting sense of humor (the band’s name plays on the way a Spanish speaker would pronounce the name of the Miami Sound Machine). They wear their politics on their sleeve, but lightly, their primary emotional wavelength much more happy-go-lucky than angry or ironic.
They combine popular ‘chinamera’ music from Nicaragua with cumbia and rock and roll and freely twist together the sounds of marimba and electric guitar, accordion and digital-effects machines. It would be impossible to trace their myriad inspirations, but at their best, they sound like the impish offspring of Café Tacvba and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, with a pinch of old-school Santana for flavor. This is not hyperbole. With any luck, La Cuneta Son Machín will reach the heights of these venerable predecessors. They are that good.
Which is why it’s so refreshing that, as their popularity has grown and their profile has risen, its members retain the same joyful spirit, the same self-aware wit. It won’t be long before lead singer Carlos Guillén, bassist Augusto Mejía, marimba player Carlos Mejía, keyboardist César Rodríguez, drummer Fabio Buitrago, and guitarist Omar Suazo become household names, and not because they catered to what was acceptable or popular.
At first, in fact, their music had a hard time finding an audience. Their early songs were characterized by abrupt jump-cuts from Latin sounds to hard rock guitars and back, in surprising patterns that were more likely to elicit complicit laughter than dancing. But as their music has developed, the mix has become smoother. Their third and most recent album, “Mondongo,” which was nominated for that coveted Latin Grammy, is chock-full of would-be hits in a musical environment that has become saturated with assembly line hip-hop-reggaeton mashups and “Despacito” wannabes.
They range from the album’s title song, which is the 21st-century salsa the world didn’t know it had been waiting for, to “El Chikungunya,” a brilliantly irreverent take on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” about a deadly mosquito-borne hemorrhagic disease, to the triumphant “Juanita,” an exuberant dance anthem made up of a potluck dinner’s worth of sounds and styles, and for my money the best single the band has put out.
La Cuneta Son Machín is currently touring the United States, including a recent stop at the South by Southwest music festival.