The distance between Seattle and Buenos Aires, Argentina: 6,900 miles. Grant Dull and his ZZK Records posse have traveled a long way to bring their music to the wider world, and the last stop of their 10th-anniversary tour is this Sunday in Seattle, featuring three Argentinian artists—Dat Garcia, King Coya and the Queen Cholas—and Dull himself as DJ El G. Dull founded ZZK after watching his weekly underground dance party Zizek blow up in his hometown of Buenos Aires. In the decade since Dull has signed artists from across South America and beyond—more than 20 in all—and established ZZK as one of the leading ambassadors of electro-cumbia, an expansive, time-warping sound that brings modern Latinx folklorico elements into the 21st century via experimental electronic production. It’s the style played by Seattle’s own Terror/Cactus, one of City Arts’ Best New Music artists of 2018, who opens Sunday’s show.
The whole crew—plus an infant!—have been sharing a van as they tour the U.S. Dull (pronounced duel) answered questions via email in between tour stops in Pittsburgh and Chicago, detailing the origins and intentions of the label and the fascinating backstories of Dat Garcia, King Coya and the Queen Cholas, all of whom have long dwelled in the fertile artistic underground of Buenos Aires.
City Arts: I was unfamiliar with ZZK until Martin from Terror/Cactus told me about the label. Since then I’ve been delving into your SoundCloud to familiarize myself with the music, and man it’s fucking good! Can you give me a brief rundown of the label—I understand you started from a recurring party, but how did you initially find the music you played there?
Thank you! Big ups to Terror/Cactus for spreading the love. Yes, the story of the label starts from the weekly party we were doing in Buenos Aires from the year 2006. Most of the music we played at the club was either tracks from the producers who’d play at our club, mashups and edits of local Latin American folklore stuff refixed for a 3 a.m. dance floor or other stuff that was coming out of the region—Chile, Mexico, Colombia—that fit our vision. We’re talking about a scene that was starting to form in Colombia and Mexico and Chile and around Latin America in the mid 1990s, one where folklore sounds were being reinterpreted by DJs and electronic music producers.
When did you know there was enough of a scene to justify a record label? What was your first release?
About a year into the weekly party, in mid-2007, we had all these amazing tracks that didn’t have any proper space outside of the club or online. We wanted to give them some proper release, so we organized our first release, ZZK Sound Vol. 1: Digital Cumbia. It featured all the artists playing at our club night. We wanted to promote our club night and test the waters to see if internationally people found it as awesome as we did. Yep, they did: A year after our first tour, we were playing at Coachella and a bunch of forward-thinking festivals around Europe.
Are you named after Slavoj Zizek?
Yes, kind of. We thought it would be funny to name a club that mixed and mashed all sorts of sounds after a contemporary Slovenian philosopher with a rockstar cult following. When the club night grew beyond the four walls of our party, we shortened the name to ZZK. Charlie Rose actually asked Slavoj about the party on his talk show; it’s hilarious.
We remixed it, of course.
How do you describe the sound of ZZK and its artists? Has that sound evolved since the label’s inception?
ZZK is electronic producers exploring Latin American sounds, ideas, traditions and rhythms for the 21st century. The sound has evolved and grown, but the original vision remains the same. It’s gotten more sophisticated and as the producers in the scene have continued to evolve as producers. Every year it seems to get better, bigger and more interesting.
Cumbia is such a wide, varied style of music, but the artists you work with are mostly (entirely?) Argentinian. Is the sound of ZZK artists specific to Buenos Aires/Argentina?
The label was born in Buenos Aires and originally featured mostly Argentine artists, of whom many explored more Argentine variations of cumbia. Though artists like Chancha Via Circuito and King Coya, two of the original crew, also drew upon sounds from the Andes, Peru, Colombian and Mexican cumbias, Jamaican dancehall and more. After our first album we became more international and pan-Latin American, as we called upon a smattering of artists experimenting with the sound from around the world, via our travels, shows and collaborations of the first year of touring. So you had someone like Uproot Andy from Brooklyn doing cumbia, Ghislain Poirier from Montreal doing a sort of reggaeton, Sonido del Principe from the Netherlands doing some heavy cumbias and Douster from France doing a sort of futuristic dancehall with some Chilean hip-hop kids. The point of that album was to show that the sound was global, not confined to just Buenos Aires or Latin America. It’s truly a global scene and sound.
What is it about cumbia that makes it so popular—and so malleable?
Cumbia probably the most listened to music in Latin America. From the north of Mexico to the tip of Patagonia, cumbia is listened to at parties, weddings, bars, car speakers, celebrations.
It’s a pretty simple rhythm when you break it down. I think in the simplicity lies the magic.
What is the music scene like in BA and how do ZZK artists fit into it? Do they play traditional concert venues or house parties or dance clubs or…?
The music scene is Buenos Aires is insane. I actually come from a communications/journalism background before I started throwing parties. I had a website called What’s Up Buenos Aires which was like a Time Out but more in the know, more day-to-day and focused on emerging arts and culture. We would explore everything—rock, blues, jazz, tango, cumbia, electronic, punk, hip-hop, experimental and everything in between. And we’d find excellent shows and artists in every genre. Argentines are some talented artists and Buenos Aires is a world-class city.
The ZZK scene originally was embraced by those looking for something new but never really went beyond the underground. Years later, it now has some legitimacy and gets some bigger stages—festivals, city programming, etc—but is still a niche in Buenos Aires. Rock and cumbia are king in Argentina. We’re still kind of the weird kids messing around, which is fine by us.
I hadn’t heard of Dat Garcia until I started looking into ZZK. She seems like an Argentinian Bjork—eclectic, defiantly experimental, feminist, beautiful singing voice that she’s not afraid to distort… What can you tell me about her? How does she fit into the larger music scene in BA?
Dat Garcia entered my life in the most unassuming fashion. I went to the southern suburbs of Buenos Aires to a house party and she was one of the early shows. People were sitting around picnic style, maybe 10-15 of us, and she came on and rocked my world. Afterwards I told her I loved her music and would love to hear new stuff when she had it. A month later she sent me her new album.
Dat wrote Maleducada while fighting cancer. She was diagnosed with a strange cancer where doctors had to give her chemo for months and she finally beat it. While going through this process she also consulted a spiritual healer and got her body and mind in line with her inner self. In this process Maleducada manifested. She realized how society, parents, schools teach us to not feel, to not be in touch with our inner feelings. The album is a rebellion against that, against everything she knew before cancer. She had a friend bring her synths to her hospital bed where she wrote songs.
Dat’s mother is a musician. Her family were objectors to the military dictatorship in the ‘70s and ‘80s and she had an uncle killed (they killed dissidents by the thousands). Her music is full of political, social, societal, feminist, spiritual, powerful messages.
She fits into a huge cast of amazing women artists in Buenos Aires. Argentines are very forward-thinking in politics and society—they create art and culture and music and film that impact the region (you and jump in a cab in Mexico and hear Argentine rock blasting from the speakers, Argentine films are nominated for Oscars, etc., etc.) so you can imagine what the feminist movement is like: It’s fucking intense. They’ve had enough and they’re not afraid to voice their opinions. Last week hundreds of thousands poured into the streets to support the legalization of abortion (they won the first phase) and the “Not One More” movement (Ni Una Menos), taking on femicide and domestic abuse, started in Buenos Aires. This sentiment is very present in music, as you can imagine. Dat is a part of this scene, and quietly becoming a spokeswoman as well.
There’s a new crop of female producers and musicians who are starting to mess with this “digital folk” sound. It used to be mainly a boy’s club but (thankfully!) it’s now becoming more of an even playing field. She’s the first female beat-maker at ZZK.
Tell me about King Coya and the Queen Cholas. What’s their story?
King Coya is Gaby Kerpel, a true giant of the Buenos Aires music scene. Gaby comes from an experimental music background and with the group La Organización Negra was a part of the vanguard theater, performance, music scene in the 1980s, right after the dictatorship ended. You can imagine what Buenos Aires was like when artists were once again free to express themselves: It popped, hard.
Gaby did an album on Nonesuch Records in 2001, which was kind of the precursor to the whole ZZK sound. He’s also produced all the albums for La Yegros, who was the first ZZK female artist and now lives in France and sells out shows around Europe. King Coya is another mutation of Gaby Kerpel and his show with the Queen Cholas is another one of his theatrical performance-musical inventions. King Coya’s album Tierra de King Coya is dropping this summer, so it’s perfect timing for a tour.
The Queen Cholas are a trio of young female dancers who, together with King Coya, explore different dance styles from around Latin America. They blend murga, cumbia, candombe, Afro-Brazilian, dancehall and more with different Latin American native dances to create a show that’s both contemporary and folkloric at the same time. They started working with King Coya about two years ago and now the show is at its most exciting. Super stoked to bring this show to different audiences, it’s truly an experience. It’s the first time they’ve performed in the USA.
You have Terror/Cactus on the bill in Seattle—how did you find each other? Are there local artists performing at every stop on the tour?
Terror/Cactus reached out to us via Instagram when we posted months ago that we were working on a USA tour. I checked out his page and dug his sound, seemed like a great fit. Local artists are performing at just about every stop. You’d be surprised to see how much of a scene there is around this sound in many USA cities.
I’m really glad you’re coming to Seattle. As a nation, America is like an ignorant child—we need to see that strangers and other people are good and smart and worthy of our empathy. I hope the tour is positive and that people are greeting you with love.
Thank you. Seattle has been very good to us in the past. This show is going to be our last stop of the tour and we’re excited to end with a bang!
ZZK Records showcase featuring Dat Garcia, King Coya and Queen Cholas, DJ D and Terror/Cactus happens Sunday, June 24 at Barboza.