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What the Hell is ‘Leña Para el Carbón’ and Why is it Everywhere?

This summer's banger actually has a rather lengthy history.

By | [email protected] | February 12, 2019 8:26am

DJ AlexDJ Alex / Photo via Diario la Provincia SJ

Leña para el carbón (Mamasita)
Leña para el carbón (En el party)
Leña para el carbón (Mamasita)
Leña para el carbón (En el party)

Every year there’s a song that, no matter how hard you fight it, gets stuck in your head and just sits there for days on end. A catchy “why the hell can’t I stop singing this?” tune that plays over and over. You’re pretty certain you hate it, that’s for sure. But that’s not reason enough for the loop to stop. You’re completely drawn into it against your will; you even know the goddamn lyrics, for Christ’s sake.

It plays in the cab ride, at the boliche, at the bar, at the store… It’s known as the Despacito phenomenon (trademarked by yours truly for the purposes of this article). There’s a bunch of songs that fall into this category. La Bicicleta was one. El Taxi was another one. That Brazilian song that everybody sang and nobody really understood was a prime example. And this year, it the winner might just be this piece of… I want to say… music?

That’s right… Leña para el carbón (it roughly translates to “wood for the fire”) is the newest entry in this list of hits affectionately referred to as hits del verano or “song of the summer.” This one has a rather long, strange history behind it too, which makes it even more bizarre.

The catchy chorus line that’s the heart of the song was first composed by a Colombian cumbia band called El Combo Candela back in the 1980s to be used in the tune El Carbonero. A couple of years after that, it was covered by Peruvian band Los Continentales and it became a pretty popular song, going as viral as one could go without Internet back in the day.

El Carbonero went into hibernation in the mid 80s, popping up only at family Christmas parties and Peruvian weddings. Until J Mastermix got a hold of it. Who is this guy, exactly? Well, he’s a rap and trap composer from Fuerte Apache who idolized local cumbia bands like Pablo Lescano, Mala Fama and Yerba Brava and who has found moderate success in the last few years in Argentina with songs like Nada es para siempre. Mr. Mastermix somehow got a hold of the retro cumbia song one day while having breakfast with his wife and decided to remix it just for kicks. “I actually did it as a joke, I put a reggaetón base on it and began to improvise,” he explained in a recent interview.

Mastermix, whose real name is Juan Manuel Blanco, added a few pieces from local hits like Laura from Damas Gratis and Naty Boom Boom from Pibes Chorros and recorded an a capella version, with the hopes that DJs would remix it themselves. Long story short: a guy who goes by DJ Alex got his paws on the original track, added a beat, and the thing went viral.

As often happens with these things, Leña para el Carbón has also inspired countless YouTube videos, including a Ukelele version by user Valen Madanes that has garnered almost 2 million hits and countless dance routines. The song is, however, not without controversy, as it has run into several trademarking issues because it pretty much steals from a bunch of different other artists. As a result, the DJ Alex mix cannot be found on Spotify and J Mastermix’s YouTube channel was taken down (#scandal).

Plus, there’s that issue about the lyrics talking about chopping a woman down, using a penis as a metaphorical axe and perpetuating misogynistic stereotypes so often associated with cumbia culture… But let’s leave that for another occasion, shall we?