Los Güiros

Spreading Cumbia Fever from St. Roch to Saturn Bar

“What is cumbia?” The year was 2015, the place was Montevideo, Uruguay, and as a bit of a music rube, I was asking my friend. “TS-tsts-TS-tsts-TS” he responded. And in a nutshell, that is the backbone that holds up cumbia, an expansive genre that began in Colombia and can now be found all over the globe. Cumbia’s influences and history are complex and date back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade in South America, when music and dance steps from enslaved people mixed with instruments from Native Americans to create a new style of music. Since then, the genre has bloomed with fractalian complexity into many substyles—for instance, cumbia began to incorporate psychedelic elements in the ‘70s, in Amazonian oil-boom towns, where surf rock and other new styles melded with the centuries-old cumbia rhythm.

Los Güiros, New Orleans’ premiere psychedelic cumbia band, has brought that signature beat to their residencies at St. Roch Tavern and the otherworldly auspices of Saturn Bar, where their monthly cumbia nights pack the house with people dancing on the floor and balcony of the St. Claude landmark. When you hear their set, which I have on more than a few occasions, you are listening to a group that is clearly singing, percussing, synthesizing, and accordioning their hearts out—with joy and in great harmony, as the crowd responds in kind by dancing with wide smiles. Los Güiros (pronounced “GWEE-ros”) is only a couple of years old, but has managed to record a single, released in 2022, and an EP, to be released this month, and have played Blackpot Festival & Cookoff in Lafayette, as well as French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest, and are returning to the Jazz Fest stage this year. On a sultry day in mid-April, I sat down with Corina Hernandez, frontwoman and singer, and Greg Northwood, Los Güiros’ electric guitarist, to discuss Los Güiros’ music and the road ahead.

How did Los Güiros get started, and how did it get its name?
Corina Hernandez: We started right after the COVID shutdown [ended]. I got asked by Galaxie Tacos to perform for their anniversary party. I used to have a Forró band, it has a lot of the same instruments [as cumbia] and we put together the set, and we really enjoyed playing cumbia, it was received very well. So people started calling us, and we started getting invited to events, and playing our regular gigs.

What is Forró?
CH: It’s like Brazilian two-stepping. It has an accordion, a triangle—so I switched the triangle for the güiro.

What’s your relationship to cumbia?
CH: That’s a funny question. I grew up listening to different Latin American music, and cumbia is a very extensive genre, it’s more like a rhythm. There’s distinct subgenres: There’s Peruvian cumbia chicha, in Mexico there’s vallenato cumbia. Totó la Momposina has been a big influence for me, she’s a traditional percussionist.

So when would you say you started listening to cumbia?
CH: Oh, that’s hard. From my childhood, I guess? And definitely since we started performing I’ve been studying up for my cumbia repertoire.

Can you talk about going from the single to the album, the recording process and the writing process?
CH: We started writing originals at the beginning of 2022. We have six so far, and we decided to put them together in an EP. The recording process is expensive, mostly the mastering and the mixing, so we were very blessed to get offered by Material Institute, they have a program called Open Studio, where they sponsor local artists and offer free recording and free mixing, so that’s been amazing. And also we’re recipients of the Threadhead [Cultural Foundation] grant, which is giving us a chunk of money to finance the production of the album. It’s been a great help.

And how did you get connected with the grant?
CH: We saw it online and applied for it; and Material Institute, we went to a workshop they put on with a Puertoriqueñian artist. He did a bomba workshop, and the organizer is also the director of the recording project, and she offered us to submit for it.

Can you talk about your residencies at St. Roch Tavern and Saturn Bar, how did that get started? I’ve seen you at Saturn Bar a few times, and I caught you at Blackpot.
CH: Yeah, Blackpot we got invited last year to play, and we’re gonna be there this year as well! In October, they offered for us to join again. That’s a really magical festival. The residencies, Saturn Bar, it’s right across from Galaxie, so they heard us play and they were like, “You guys wanna play here?!” [laughs] It has a really good turnout, and we’ve been doing it regularly since then. And St. Roch, we’re friends with Sonya, the booker there, and she offered it to us… We do some double-bills with bands that come to town… We did Jazz Fest and French Quarter Fest for the first time last year, then we were invited again this year.

What stage will you be on?
CH: The Jazz & Heritage Stage and the Cultural Exchange tent. They’re celebrating Colombia this year and they’re bringing 13 bands from Colombia, and they also invited us!

How did it feel to be invited to these festivals?
CH: It’s great! I know a lot of great bands that applied, so to be selected to be part of the program is a huge honor, and I love that they are supporting live, Latin music.

What is the name of your new album?
CH: It’s called Alma de Cumbia,  which means “soul of cumbia.” A friend Magda [Boreysza] allowed us to use her artwork for the album. It’s a very beautiful piece.

Is there a particular story or message in the album?
CH: A lot of my lyrics are about community, and the joy that cumbia music brings to people, and how encouraging it is to dance. One song is called: “Together We Create Magic,” about how community comes together in hard times. One of the songs is called “Corazón pesado,” which means heavy heart, which is how we felt through the pandemic, and then we started playing cumbia and dancing with y’all and everything got better, which is basically the lyrics. One of the songs is called “Mezcal,” which is the single. It’s based on a Mexican saying which says, “When things are bad: mezcal. When things are good: mezcal. And when there’s no solution: two bottles!” And we added a cumbia to it.

Are there any influences for the band that you want to talk about?
CH: Definitely Peruvian chicha, which originated in the ‘70s, and is kind of psychedelic, electronic; Los Mirlos, Los Destellos, Los Hijos del Sol. We also love traditional Colombian music, some Mexican music, like Celso Piña from the north of Mexico.

Can you talk about the songwriting process for the album?
CH: It usually starts with the lyrics—I write some lyrics, then some lines for the accordion, or the guitar, and make some voice memos and share them with the band, and then we sit together and just come up with the forms based on that. It’s a very collaborative process. We had two days of recording at the Material Institute, then we met with the engineers for the mixing and then we started doing the mastering.

Have you done any touring with the band?
CH: I would love to go to New Mexico, or San Diego or like Baja California with the band. It’s just hard with a big group, you know? Accommodation… we would need a good chunk of gigs. We played Bonnaroo, we went to Lafayette for Blackpot, but we mostly play local. And now that we have recorded the originals, we’re excited to go back to the drawing board and write some new songs. This festival season is so busy, we’re playing Bayou Boogaloo, and I don’t want to overplay what we have. I like the regular gigs that we have and the festivals.

Where are you both from?
CH: I’m European. I was born in Germany, raised in Spain.
Greg Northwood: I’m from Oklahoma City originally, then Santa Fe, New Mexico; I studied music there and was introduced to flamenco guitar, then from there I spent five years living in southern Spain and studying flamenco guitar. I also learned to speak Spanish there. I lived in France for a little while, then moved back to Oklahoma City. I was in a band there that was Latin rock called Tequila Azul.
CH: Then on percussion we have los hermanos Cruz: Miguel and Gabriel, from Puerto Rico [by way of] Miami; their family is from Puerto Rico—they were born in Puerto Rico, grew up in Miami, they come from a musical family, they grew up performing Latin music since they were small. Shaye Cohn does accordion and synth. Tuba Todd [Burdick], he plays tuba, which is not an instrument that is usually featured in cumbia but if you want to party, bring a tuba, you know? He puts the NOLA on the cumbia. And then Howe Pearson, the other percussionist, he’s a beautiful singer and percussionist.

 I know in New Orleans, a lot of bands have instrumentalists sub in and sub out a lot. What is that like?
CH: I think it’s fun, and convenient, to have a lot of musicians that can play with us. Because of our schedules, a lot of people play in a lot of bands and cannot make all of the dates. Jake [Gold] and Ben [Hillier] have been playing regularly with us, and everyone brings their own style, brings their own strengths and flavors to the group. And we have three percussionists, unless it’s like a big stage we rotate.

I think a lot of people who aren’t musicians in New Orleans wonder what it’s like, what the challenges have been, since the pandemic, and what keeps you going?
CH: Well, I feel very blessed in this town that there’s enough work, always. Music here is  extremely appreciated, and we’re very versatile and a part of different groups. We’re well versed [in] salsa, trad jazz, so there’s always opportunity to keep working. It’s a special place, New Orleans, you don’t find this everywhere. And it’s such a blessing to make a living doing what you love. What keeps us going is the love for it.
GN: Developing a passion and being able to follow it sometimes can be more difficult than others. Summertime can be a hard time for musicians and the service industry, everywhere in the city. For me, I don’t know what else I’d do. I don’t want to do anything else.

What brought you both to New Orleans?
CH: The music. I was in New York, I couldn’t really make ends meet. And I came down here and saw the richness and the abundance of live music, and I’m very lucky, since I’ve moved down here I’ve been able to just make music for a living.
GN: I moved down here from Oklahoma City in November of 2019, so right before the pandemic. But honestly I was very happy to be here. I’ve been very fortunate to connect with people to make music with in that short period of time. I came down here to visit multiple times, and couldn’t turn back.

I feel like, when I’ve come to cumbia night at Saturn Bar, people are just so excited to be there with you. It feels like a lovely connection.
CH: Yeah! Latin music can sometimes be a little challenging to dance to, like there’s styles like salsa where you feel like you need to know the basics to the “right way” of dancing it, and we like to say, “There might be a ‘right way’ of dancing cumbia, but there’s no wrong way.” Everybody just feels the groove, and it’s really easy to feel connected to the music, even if it’s your first time experiencing it.

There’s this song you play, an adaptation of “Cariñito,” that is a hit. Can you talk about making it your own?
CH: “Cariñito” is a song from the Peruvian band that I mentioned earlier, Los Hijos del Sol. It’s a chicha staple. I learned it because I’m a part of this brass band, Wit’s End Brass Band that’s led by Shaye, and that’s how I learned to play it on the baritone horn. It’s a beautiful song, people know it, and that’s one that we sing in harmony and we have a lot of fun with it.
GN: All of the energy that people bring to the shows, it’s really humbling and motivating, and it helps us really feel the music.

I was trying to explain to my dad what cumbia is, on the phone, and I was like: TS-tsts-TS-tsts-TS, and he was like, “What are you saying?”
CH: That’s the güiro! Oh yeah, you asked me about the name! The rhythm that you just described, that’s the rhythm that the güiro does. The güiro is an instrument, I have a metal one, which is usually more for merengue, a güira. Güiros are made out of a gourd, which is also called güiro. Güiro also means middle child; in Mexico and other countries güiro also means like a kerfuffle, or a fight. So “no hay güiro” means like, everything is chill. Or “tremendo güiro” means, like, “Whoa, that was a big thing.” It has different meanings, we just have fun with it.

Los Güiros will be performing at Bayou Boogaloo on Sunday, May 19; every second Saturday at Saturn Bar, and the last Thursday of each month at St. Roch Tavern. For more info check out losguiros.com.

Photos: Los Güiros performs at Toulouse Theatre, May 2023
Photos by Tamara Grayson


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