New York (AFP) - With a sparkling smile and chic, refined poise, Mariana Yegros is merging Latin America's cumbia music with electronica and finding growing international success.
La Yegros, the Argentine singer's stage name, has been dubbed the "queen of electrocumbia." She brings a modern, club-music edge to the traditional genre of dance music that traces its roots to Colombia's African community.
She divides her time between Buenos Aires and the city of Montpellier in the south of France. She found a base there after winning fans at European festivals and nightclubs with her first album, 2013's "Viene de Mi," which brought in influences as diverse as reggae and Arab music.
For her latest album, "Magnetismo," La Yegros worked with the Argentine composer Gaby Kerpel, who has been active both in cumbia and electronic music. A two-month world tour included 18 cities in France and six in the United States.
In New York, La Yegros performed for free at Lincoln Center. The enthusiastic crowd there included a man in his 80s who got up, tossed away his cane and danced intimately with a young woman.
"I always dreamed of making music that gets people dancing," La Yegros told AFP after the show.
"When I was a little girl I dreamed that people would be singing songs with me, and now that it's happening it's really magical," she said.
La Yegros is in her 30s but her flowing hair and constant joy make her seem ageless.
- From slums to the posh class -
Cumbia, born on the Caribbean coast of Colombia when Africans and indigenous people intermingled under Spanish rule, began spreading to other parts of Latin America in the 1940s.
The genre, which combines African rhythms and expressive dancing with more melancholic indigenous elements, saw a rebirth in the 1990s among the marginalized of Buenos Aires in what became known as "cumbia villera," or slum cumbia.
"I don't think that the prejudice against cumbia is over yet, but we're going in the right direction," La Yegros said.
"It used to be that the chetos would look at people who danced cumbia and say it would be crazy to dance like that," she said, using slang for Argentina's posh class.
But she saw a change starting around 2008, when high-end parties in Buenos Aires, especially those frequented by foreigners, would play cumbia interspersed with electronic music.
Cumbia mirrors the path of one of Argentina's most famous cultural exports, the tango, which also had African roots and gradually won acceptance among the country's elite before going global.
- An Argentine wanderer -
La Yegros, who grew up in Buenos Aires but whose family hails from the subtropical Misiones province bordering Paraguay and Brazil, at first faced challenges in finding a following.
"I was living in Los Angeles and then in New York and then I went with my band to try our luck in Buenos Aires," she said.
"It was a time of great crisis in Argentina and many people had left. It was a very hard time. Things didn't happen.
"I was making electronic music and 10 people would show up, with five applauding and the rest falling asleep.
"It was a period of great frustration for me," she said. "I told myself, 'I wasn't born to be a singer.' I didn't think I could achieve it."
She decided to return to New York to join her husband and try to work in fashion, another of her passions.
- 'What I was born for' -
She remains known for her highly eclectic tastes in clothes. At her New York concert, she sported a mini-dress made by a Spanish woman in Shanghai, with a traditional folkloric design in fluorescent colors paired with silver slippers equipped with small LED lights.
La Yegros eventually found her way.
She now performs with three musicians: an accordion player, a guitarist and a percussionist, all of them Argentines who often rehearse with her over Skype or FaceTime.
"I like to compose, but what I like most is singing," she said. "Every night is like staking a claim that this is what I was born for and that I want to die like this."