Que Calor Que Tengo Yo: Spinal Tap Moves South

One hot 8 a.m., recovering from a reggaeton hangover the size of Patagonia, I made the biweekly trek up one of Valparaíso’s steepest hills to the vocational high school where I taught my broken English to Chilean schoolboys — uniformed hooligans on a career path into construction, plumbing or air conditioning — without the slightest interest in anything but tripping each other in the aisles and scoring my MSN screen name.

It was likes/dislikes day. I like hip-hop, I wrote on the chalkboard. Me gusta heep-hope, they repeated, not forgetting (heaven forbid) to make fun of my accent for a good 10 minutes beforehand. As I fought the roar of restless youth to impart my university-scrambled understanding of an impossibly awkward tongue onto unhearing ears, one particular gentleman — with re-hardened pink candy in the cracks of his teeth — proposed, roughly translated, that we take a fucking load off and do something cool already.

The children proceeded to make the executive decision stop learning English — don’t blame them, really — and instead treat me to one of the coolest somethings I’ve witnessed in my short lifetime: an in-class freestyle competition between the most ambitious MCs of the bunch (who had apparently found some free time between air-conditioning cram sessions). With even more agility than it took to kick their soccer ball around the school basketball court — and more darty grace than I’ve seen in any rapper’s flow, anywhere, before or since — these kids blew this sour critic’s standards right out of the water. Granted, the Spanish language provides almost limitless opportunity for rhyme considering practically any verb can be conjugated to sound like another, but their shit was ridiculous by any measure.

A scattering of “producers” had gathered between the competitors, some breathing into hollowed fists for a simple beatbox, but one in particular standing at attention with a metal-spiral notebook, a single plastic pen poised above and the devil’s grin all over his flushed little face. Right there, along that coiled silver spine — as the MCs dove in, adam’s-apple drumsets right behind them — I witnessed the most simple, most beautiful of all Latin beats: the unrelenting trot of cumbia’s clean-then-filthy, nasty-then-nice plunk-chicka, plunk-chicka, wrist flicking its pen-strument to climb up and pummel down the metal rungs, recalling every Mexican beater I’d ever passed with its windows down and every summer I’d spent at my dad’s construction site with the radio on blow-out.

Leading up to this moment, a self-satisfying exploitation of the least thought-requiring dance music on Earth — that royal reggaeton — had apparently left my Hiatus-cranny craving something that made me grit and wince a little. Fortunately, the same oversized, underseatbelted carload of Chileans that whisked me nightly through Valparaíso’s official tour of ’ton (who called themselves las FARP in an alcoholic play on the revolutionary forces), had even more to offer within my next genre fixation, spinning a between-bar road soundtrack of the most well-loved plunk-chickas on the continent. Grupo La Noche’s “Es El Amor” and “Lastima” swelled in accordians and teary-eyed trumpets — the boys even used air-drawings to underscore the heartbreak — and ’90s ass-men Amar Azul sung of the most out-of-this-world mini-skirted hips they’d ever seen shake to the merengue. Even if my hips had no natural way of moving like that (especially under three other bodies in the way-way-back), I got the shoulder switchback down to a trade.

But by far the most-spun party music by our passenger-seat DJ — the roof-pounding Felipe, metalhead by day, king of cumbia by night — could be found in the glorious Dumpster dives of Argentine group Supermerk-2, modern-day pioneers of shantytown cumbia. What are the chances that the local expert on the most excellent of trashy dance cuts, something I in another lifetime might have devoted an entire thesis to, would be my personal babysitter?

The Supermerk-2 shout in jokey prehistoric grunts that can’t have seen a day of training, mouthing off about the 3 a.m. quest for more booze, driving a garbage truck (unless there’s some awesome metaphor I’m missing here), being super horny and wanting your mom. They throw out all instruments they couldn’t find in the local party store, bulging their eyeballs, tweeting on whistles and honking the kazoo until our eardrums develop a case of the hiccups, scribbling that waxy mess all over a downbeat — PLUNK-chicka — wrapped so close in cymbals and notebook spirals that we’re all but fly-trapped in a web of bungee. They prove once and for all that a Latin beat will always win the dance-off — more street, more spontaneous, more elastic, far more intoxicated and, most importantly, shaken to by the sexiest stuffs on Earth.