Cumbia Along the Autobahn: Rhizomatic Identities and Postnational Music Production

In 2000, Emperor Norton Records released El Baile Alemán, a tribute album of some of Kraftwerk’s greatest hits re-imagined as salsas, rumbas, cumbias, merengues, and cha-cha-chas, performed by Señor Coconut, the suave Latin American bandleader featured prominently on the album cover. Señor Coconut is actually Uwe Schmidt, a German composer, producer, and one of the most inventive and prolific personalities in the electronic dance music community in the past two decades. He has produced music under nearly seventy aliases, creating works that represent each character’s musical style and personality; yet, he has never released any music under his own name.

Señor Coconut was created in 1996 after Schmidt, who was put off by the insular European electronic music scene, relocated to Chile to explore his interest in Latin American rhythms. He has made four albums under this moniker, applying electronic techniques to stereotypical markers of popular Latin American dance music. On the surface, El Baile Alemán, (German dances) might appear to be just a gimmicky lampoon of Kraftwerk’s Teutonic veneer and dehumanized, machine-driven aesthetic. However, Schmidt’s border-crossing and genre-bending music might instead be considered a postmodern experiment whereby a musical identity is deliberately constructed as artifice resulting from a pastiche of musical references. Looking at El Baile Alemán as a multi-layered site of postnational musical production, I consider how Schmidt’s adoption of multiple personae and musical references call into question issues of genre naming, authenticity, identity, colliding stereotypes and authorship.

The “Kraftwerk-Effekt”

Schmidt’s multivalent musical forays can be seen as a direct outgrowth of the longstanding experimental inclinations in German popular music from the past 30 years. The omnipresence of American popular culture in postwar Germany and attempts to revive pre-war avant-garde modernism led a new generation of young musicians to attempt to recapture a sense of German identity. In the 1960s and 1970s, eclectic groups like Kraftwerk, Can, Faust, Neu!, and Tangerine Dream attracted an enthusiastic underground following playing what critics labeled as “krautrock.” These groups attempted to distance themselves from the blues-based origins of Anglo-American rock, opting instead to draw from German avant-garde and other experimental sources in order to emphasize a new sense of progress in their music.

Kraftwerk was arguably the most influential and certainly most successful of the early krautrock groups. Known alternately as avant-garde musicians and originators of electronic pop, they achieved international commercial success with their distinctive combination of repetitive rhythms, catchy melodies, and minimalist electronic instrumentation. Promoting an unapologetically artificial aesthetic, they projected a robotic collective persona in their live performances. Many of their songs juxtapose the convenience of technological amenities with a strong sense of loss and alienation created by those very innovations. Moreover, their emphasis on speed and mobility proved to be the key to their sustained global influence, and the relative accessibility of their aesthetics set the stage for the proliferation of electronic pop forms ranging from Detroit techno and house, to drum and bass, and electro-pop.

The connection between Kraftwerk and the sample-based music of Detroit techno is a significant instance of cross-appropriation and transnational musical exchange. As George Lipsitz has noted, many of Kraftwerk’s songs are in some ways an amalgamation of the electronic and sound collages of experimentalist European composers and the Motown and soul tradition from Detroit and other American cities. (Lipsitz 2006:246). Thus, in spite of Kraftwerk’s early rejection of American popular music, their brand of electronic experimental pop was a transnational and hybrid music from the start. In turn, the eventual appropriation of Kraftwerk by Detroit techno artists, can be seen an act of reterritorialization,[1] connecting Detroit to Düsseldorf in a multi-layered moment of transnational cultural exchange. This is a prescient example of what Alex Seago has called the “Kraftwerk-Effekt,” which describes the ways that advances in communication technologies and the increasingly complex global flows of people, capital, and images in the era of late capitalism have shaped the aesthetics, production, and distribution of electronic dance music around the world. This music, in all of its localized or hybridized forms, has come to epitomize an urban and cosmopolitan cultural stance with fans around the world (Seago 2004: 85).

Rhizomatic identities in an age of digital reproduction

Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of rhizomes, we might view performing identities as dispersed networks with multiple entry points through which musicians can create new soundscapes. Many electronic dance musicians commonly perform under various aliases or in anonymity, hiding behind pseudonyms and enigmatic public personas. The absence of obvious authorship has enabled them to subtly undermine the mainstream music industry’s attempt at genre and brand labeling. Schmidt came up with an attention-grabbing persona in order to stand out in a crowded field, but adopting a new name wasn’t simply about scoring a new recording opportunity. He views music as a means through which he can define a multiplicity of localities and identities by exploring new sounds and inhabiting the universes of each of his musical identities.

Sonja Hofer (2006) argues that recent musical and communication technologies have significantly altered the sense of subjective identity for musicians. It is quite easy for musicians to shift between and manipulate multiple musical styles and performance identities through the use of multi-track recording, sequencers, and samplers. Schmidt’s constant contextual shifts in terms of musical materials and his own multiple identities as a musician points to processes of deterritorialization.

Cumbia beats along the Autobahn

Autobahn, released in 1974, was Kraftwerk’s first bona fide hit. While the lyrics in Kraftwerk’s songs are usually very minimal, they do play an important role in the rhythmic structure of these songs. In “Autobahn,” the repetition of the phrase “Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn” underscores the repetitive, yet forward-moving feel of the rhythm, simulating the experience of driving along the Autobahn. The listener can sonically recreate the experience of travelling on the high-speed fast lane with sampled interpolations of cars and sirens whizzing by, as well as the driver flipping through the car radio trying to alleviate the monotony of a long road trip. 

Although El Baile Aleman is credited to Señor Coconut y Su Conjunto, it’s actually entirely the work of Schmidt on synthesizers, samplers and three vocalists.[2] Using Akai equipment, he created a database of sounds, loops and grooves made from recordings with a live band before constructing the songs by cutting and pasting the samples together. The Coconut version of “Autobahn” is based on a shorter remixed version of the piece, and while it retains the formal structure of the song, Schmidt changes the grooves and instrumentation to transform Kraftwerk’s cold aesthetic for a hotter “Latin” sound. Both pieces begin with a sample of a driver starting a car. However, while the car speeds off on the Autobahn in the original, it sputters to a stop in the Coconut version. Here, Coconut and his band get out of the car, begin intoning “Autowahn” instead of “Autobahn”—Wahn in German, meaning a fantasy or delirium—before launching into a cumbia-inspired dance party, presumably at the side of the Autobahn.

The relative simplicity of cumbia proved to be an ideal template for experimentation and export.  It was popular with audiences throughout the Americas, particularly in Peru, Argentina, and Mexico, where cumbia in its various localized forms, became an embodiment of popular nationalism. As such, cumbia is a vivid illustration of how transnational flows create local meanings. The cumbia pattern, which is in duple meter and features a quarter note followed by two eighth notes pattern played on the guacharaca (a type of scraper), is the main inspiration in the Coconut version, but there are quite a few deviations from the cumbia form. Notably, Schmidt opts to sample a marimba rather than the more typically used keyboard. There’s a brass section that points to North American jazz influences, while the melodic style of the male vocals invoke both the Beach Boys and reggae. The song also features a sampling of various Latin American popular musics including salsa, merengue, and Tejano conjunto. There is another break away from the cumbia pattern in the instrumental bridge section. While both versions evoke traffic noise on the Autobahn, in the Coconut version, Schmidt manipulates the brass and percussion samples to emulate street noises instead of sampling actual traffic noises, as in the Kraftwerk version. He also uses samples from Latin radio, and snippets of popular Mexican melodies like “La Cucaracha,” commonly used for car horns in Mexico, and the lullaby “Duérmete niño, duérmete ya.” The overall effect is that of a salsa or Latin jazz band playing cumbia tinged with various Latin American influences, in what is a fairly faithful rendering of Kraftwerk’s song.

World musics and postnational soundscapes

Is Schmidt’s Señor Coconut effort just some sort of gimmicky marketing ploy trading on kitsch, irony, and exotica? On the surface, this charge can certainly be leveled against Schmidt. We might view El Baile Alemán as an updated Latin take on exotica, a genre popular in the 1950s-60s specializing in depictions of ersatz paradises and conventionalized natives from a non-native perspective. Coconut takes us on an armchair journey into an imagined Latin America via essentialized representations of ‘exotic’ locales created by easily recognizable sonic signifiers. It is a process of what Veit Erlmann (1996) has called the fetishization of marginality: an effort to seek out cultures or places that are relatively unaffected by processes of commodification in order to reify and romanticize the extent to which this culture or place is isolated from others. As Ignacio Corona and Alejandro Madrid observe in their study of postnational musical identities:

It is almost too easy to compare these procedures with earlier imperialist economic systems, where raw materials were acquired from the colonies, manufactured in the West and commercialized in both the West and the colonies, but profits staying mainly in the West (Corona and Madrid 2008:10).

On the other hand, I wonder if it might be possible to consider Schmidt’s efforts in a less negative light. Schmidt’s music exists in a postnational space, one where the composer, artist, and listener are no longer part of the same cultural context but instead occupy a new and shared space. Here, cultural meaning and aesthetic values cannot be taken as a given. It might be more fruitful then, to view the transnational work of Schmidt and others like him as an instance of what Josh Kun calls an audiotopia. As a play on the Foucauldian heterotopia, Kun defines audiotopia as “sonic spaces of effective utopian longings,” where several sites that are normally considered incompatible are brought together not only in a particular piece of music, but in the mapping of geographic spaces and production of social spaces (Kun 1997:289). El Baile Alemán is after all, a German musician’s imagination of a Latin American re-imagination of a quintessentially German pop culture icon, and as such, it is a contact zone between disparate sonic and social spaces. This album is, to borrow from Baudrillard, a musical simulation of something that never existed in the first place—a hyperreal audiotopia where a transnational exchange is made possible. This is complicated further by the fact that Schmidt is working alone. There is no actual exchange between him and any Latin American musicians beyond the initial recording of some sounds, and none of these musicians are involved in the final mixing process.  Like other electronica musicians who are the direct heirs to Kraftwerk’s syncretic “man machine” musical tradition, Schmidt revels in this newly decentralized and deterritorialized soundscape where ties between culture and place are weakened, creating border-crossing music for a similarly cosmopolitan audience. In this way, Schmidt’s audiotopic work can be read as a meta-commentary about the global flow of localized musical traditions which are co-opted and marketed around the world, mirroring a similar flow of peoples and capital around an increasingly decentralized world.



[1] In this context, by reterritorialization I mean that while this exchange is made possible by increasingly deterritorialized global networks of cultural production and consumption, each appropriation of this music—from Motown to Germany and back to Detroit--doesn’t necessarily point to a weakening of ties between place and culture. Instead, this music gains special meaning in each new place it travels to, and these meanings are not lost as they travel from place to place.


[2] Jorge González (vocals), Lisa Carbon  (background vocals), Atom Heart (keyboards), producer Argenis Brito  (vocals), Ricardito Tambo (shaker, MIDI). Lisa Carbon and Atom Heart are two of Schmidt’s other aliases.




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Jennifer Chu is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at Yale University. Her dissertation engages with critical studies in voice, identity, and embodiment through an exploration of the sonic and visual representation of musicians who adopt alter egos in performance.

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