Celso Piña, a self-taught Mexican accordionist who turned his hometown of Monterrey into an unlikely oasis for cumbia, the Colombian dance music, then became a Latin music superstar with his fusion of rock, reggae, ska, hip-hop, tropical music and Northern Mexican rhythms, died Aug. 21 at a hospital in Monterrey. He was 66.
The cause was a heart attack, his record label, La Tuna Group, said in a statement . Mr. Piña was in the midst of a North American tour, with a performance this past Saturday in Milwaukee and an Aug. 30 show scheduled in Arlington, Tex.
In what was apparently his last tweet , he wrote Wednesday in Spanish: “There is no one who resists cumbia.” The tweet included a video of one of his biggest hits, the semi-autobiographical dance tune “Cumbia Sobre el Rio,” in which Mr. Piña’s group sings in Spanish: “From Monterrey, a Colombian cumbia for everyone.”
The truth of that statement was almost unimaginable when Mr. Piña began performing in the 1970s, on a two-row accordion his father had once given him as a gift. In Monterrey, a sun-baked industrial city in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental, polka and waltz tunes had long dominated clubs, dance halls and neighborhood parties, brought by German and Czech immigrants a century before.
But Mr. Piña found himself enchanted by the music of Colombian accordionists Aníbal Velásquez and Alfredo Gutiérrez, masters of that country’s vallenato and cumbia folk styles. Listening to their records on repeat, he spent three months learning his first song — then was told by his father he needed three more months of rehearsal.
With his brothers Eduardo, Rubén and Enrique, he serenaded girls in his Monterrey neighborhood and, at 20, left his administrative position at a children’s hospital to become a full-time musician. Slowly, cumbia began to take hold, elbowing out the city’s traditional music during the 1980s, according to a New York Times account by Mexican journalist Diego Enrique Osorno.
Mr. Piña in 2008. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters) Rooted in a country thousands of miles away, Mr. Piña’s songs were initially scorned by local elites and authorities, with concerts sometimes shut down by the police. “My music provoked the madness of the people,” he said last year. They also spurred something like peace: Amid reports that rival gangs in Monterrey stopped fighting only at the sound of cumbia, the writer Carlos Monsiváis dubbed Mr. Piña “the accordionist of Hamelin,” a reference to the Pied Piper whose music lured away rats.
Nonetheless, he received scant airplay or newspaper coverage, according to Osorno, until a 2004 breakthrough — when Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, was filmed dancing to Mr. Piña’s accordion, drum and guacharaca band during an event at the Monterrey Museum of Contemporary Art. The moment drew wide coverage in the Mexican press and seemed to solidify Mr. Piña’s stature in the country. “The accordion rebel,” as he was long known, was now mainstream.
By then, however, Mr. Piña had stepped far outside the bounds of traditional cumbia, reinventing his band, Celso Piña y su Ronda Bogotá, as an avatar of Latin American musical fusion. In an interview with the Austin American-Statesman , he recalled being approached by Julián Villarreal, a former bassist with the genre-blending Monterrey rock group El Gran Silencio.
“How do you feel about doing something kind of crazy, funky?” Villarreal asked him.
Their conversation inspired Mr. Piña’s 2001 record “Barrio Bravo,” which received a Latin Grammy nomination and featured contributions from Mexican artists including Café Tacuba, Control Machete and Santa Sabina. The album opened with “Cumbia Sobre el Rio,” later featured on the soundtrack of director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film “Babel,” and spawned concert tours across Europe and the Americas.
1 of 52 Full Screen Autoplay Close Skip Ad × Notable deaths in 2019: Toni Morrison, Ross Perot, Doris Day, Tim Conway, and others we have lost this year View Photos Remembering those who have died in 2019. Caption Remembering those who have died in 2019. Chris Pizzello/AP Buy Photo Wait 1 second to continue. “In a way, the album is a perfect compromise between the worlds of roots and rock, two generations, classes and societies playing together with mutual respect and making music that sounds completely organic and unforced,” wrote a reviewer for Sing Out!, an American folk magazine. “There is none of the self-consciousness or pretension that such fusions tend to have north of the Rio Grande. . . . I wish I could describe it better, but there is nothing else that sounds like this. A true masterpiece.”
Celso Piña Arvizu was born in Monterrey on April 6, 1953. His father worked at the children’s hospital where Mr. Piña was later hired, and he made instruments for his children out of iron and wood.
By 8, Celso was dumpster-diving outside mansions and supermarkets, collecting fruit that he and an older man washed and resold in their neighborhood, according to the Mexican newspaper Milenio . He later worked as a smelter, a tortilla dealer, a corn miller and an upholsterer.
With songs such as “Reina de Cumbias,” “El Tren” and “Como el Viento,” Mr. Piña reached an increasingly international audience, performing almost everywhere but Oceania. He was featured on the Gloria Trevi pop song “Sufran con lo Que Yo Gozo” and planning a record with DJ and producer Camilo Lara, although he said he wanted to retire soon, before his faculties diminished — but only after performing in Australia.
“Celso is the last of the idols of the people, perhaps the only one who was loved and respected by all: the rockers, the pop fans, the rappers, the electronic music producers,” Lara told El País on Wednesday. “He experimented with everyone — that’s why his legacy is so vast. He was more punk than any punk, the rebel and savage that many rockers wanted to be.”
Mr. Piña had five children and continued to perform with his three brothers, even as the rest of his lineup shifted. “Family should always be united, at least that’s what Mamá would tell us,” he told the American-Statesman in 2013. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
In interviews, Mr. Piña recounted the difficulties he faced early in his career, including a restrictive recording contract that led him to go silent for several years until he was able to sign with a new label. Listeners in the 1970s often asked why he played music that no one else played, let alone heard on the radio.
But almost always, Mr. Piña’s response was the same. “Why am I going to play the same thing that everyone else plays?” he said, according to Osorno. “Music is music.”
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