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. Piña was in the midst of a North American tour, with a performance Saturday in Milwaukee and an Aug. 30 show scheduled in Arlington, Texas.
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 Piña’s group sings in Spanish: “From Monterrey, a Colombian cumbia for everyone.”
The truth of that statement was almost unimaginable when 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 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.
Rooted in a country thousands of miles away, 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 Piña “the accordionist of Hamelin,” a reference to the Pied Piper whose music lured away rats.