By Don Macica.
I’ll get the hyperbole out of the way right here: Bomba Estéreo are the Beatles of electro-cumbia. Too much? How about: Bomba Estéreo are the Clash of electro-cumbia. Hmm, OK, let me try one more: Bomba Estéreo are the Police of electro-cumbia.
Stay with me. Disparate as those three bands might be, they do share something in common. All three started out as something easy to peg: Carefree mop-tops. Punk rockers. Reggae-flavored new wavers. And all three quickly transcended their initial characterizations, showing tremendous growth in both songwriting and execution, so much so that by their third or fourth albums you could still recognize them, but it was on their terms as they leapt forward, trusting that you would follow them.
With their new album Amanecer (Sony Latin), Bomba Estéreo take that leap as well. What began as an engaging electro-cumbia solo project (BombaEstereo Vol. 1) by Bogotá DJ and musician Simón Mejía quickly blossomed when he teamed up full time with one of the singers employed on it, Li Saumet. The pair, along with guitarist Julián Salazar and drummer Kike Egurrola, formed a band and recorded Estalla, released as Blow Up in the U.S. It’s exuberant and in your face. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the video for Fuego. Li Saumet runs it, bringing hip-hop swagger and tons of charm to the streets of Barranquilla, letting you know that Bomba Estéreo is bringing it as well: “… here comes Bomba Estéreo, We come with everything, Champeta, Reggae music, Cumbia and Folk, Come on! ‘Cuase it’s power, ’cause it’s an atomic bomb. A bit of folk music with electronic music. Come on, come on! Get this party started! Come on, come on!”
It’s been like that ever since, although their second album, Elegancia Tropical, mixed in a considerable amount of introspection and seriousness, indicated by selecting the somber El Alma y el Cuerpo for the first video, in which Li seems to be searching for an answer to some existential quandary. The band also broadened their musical palate on that album by collaborating with Brazilian rapper BNegão and the Angolan / Portuguese group Buraka Som Sistema.
Amanecer means ‘dawn’ in English, and the optimism of that title plays out with the group achieving a new level of creativity, while at the same time nurturing their core strengths. Like its predecessors, the vibe of the album is signaled by the first video, the dizzying psychedelic carnival of Fiesta. For the first time, they are working with an outside producer, American musician Ricky Reed. Reed’s own records come out under the band name Wallpaper, and his thing is to parody the pop version of hip-hop culture, especially the get-wasted-and-party-all-night excesses celebrated in today’s radio hits. Underneath that, though, Reed appears to be a serious craftsman (in order to parody something, you need to understand it well) who clearly knows his way around a recording studio. Reed applies a sonic sheen to the proceedings, and it’s terrific to hear him utilize his talents in the service of serious artists.
Throughout Amanecer, Caribbean rhythms are skillfully interwoven with driving beats and studio gloss until it all becomes one thing, and the musicologist game of pointing out this or that source becomes somewhat meaningless. What could have been a case of bowing to record company pressure for a hit record instead results in a bright and sparkly collection of songs in which the tropical spirit, strength of the writing and the force of Li Saumet’s personality shine through. After toning down her swagger a bit for Elegancia Tropical, she emerges here fully confident and sounding playful. Amanecer is fun to listen to. And it is clearly no one else but Bomba Estéreo.
I had the opportunity to ask Simón and Li a few questions in anticipation of their upcoming Chicago concert. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.
DM: Soon after the Vol. 1 project, the two of you decided to work together full time. What was it that moved you in that direction?
Simón: When I started the band 10 years ago I was trying to achieve a sound that oscillated between electronic music and tropical music. Musically I got to certain points which were very interesting, but in terms of vocal and lyrics there was always something missing. When I met Li, we did a song together and I thought that finally someone was filling that gap, not only musically but with lyrics. She was the perfect match for the music I wanted to make.
Li: Simón was doing a very interesting mix between the music which I grew up to, cumbia, and electronics. I liked his style above many others at the time, and I thought it was a very interesting project.
DM: When Blow Up, um, blew up in Chicago, you made several visits here in a short period of time. What was it like to be suddenly touring the world, trying out all those songs on the road?
Simón: A big and amazing surprise! I like very much the idea of Bomba Estéreo being a band that has made its career on the road, playing and playing and getting surprised by life and by music in the middle of those travels.
DM: I’ve been lucky enough to hear you perform some of your songs acoustically, and they sounded terrific. As writers, do you work out your songs in advance, and then enter the studio?
Simón: The process always starts with music, instrumental. I start making tracks, electronic tracks, playing synths, bass and guitar along with beats, which later become songs with Li’s vocal. We then either finish them live or in the studio.
DM: Your aural canvas has expanded to feature more colors than Colombian music, and not only other Caribbean and Latin sounds. What do you listen to when you’re not “Bomba Estéreo”?
Simón: Lots of things… I like a lot the music from the 70’s, funky soulful groovy music. Motown stuff. African music, vintage and modern is always an inspiration as well as electronic avant garde projects. From Latin América I like exploring vintage tropical sounds from Colombia, Cuba and Brazil. Jamaican dub and reggae is also very inspirational.
DM: Amanecer is produced by Ricky Reed and was partially record in the U.S. How did you hook up with him? What were you looking for from his production and collaboration?
Simón: Yeah! Well, he was proposed by Sony, our label. We listened to his music, his productions, and we thought it was a great idea to work with him, especially because he was from another musical world, which could add a whole new vibe to the band. Then we met him during Lollapalooza ‘14 in Chicago, where we were both playing. The chemistry went really well! Now, looking at everything in perspective, I think we achieved what we were looking for: Making a new experiment with our music and transcending borders.
DM: I feel that Amanecer, like Elegancia Tropical before it, is leap forward for you. There is once again depth to the songs, but also an embrace of a more global aesthetic. I also hear an overall optimism. Are you simply growing more confident, or do you challenge yourself not to be complacent?
Simón: We’re always experiencing new stuff. Music is a changing living thing, as is life itself. We always listen to different things and that influences us also. Regarding the albums, yes, we like to challenge ourselves always to make a different album from the previous one.
Bomba Estéreo, Concord Music Hall, Sunday, July 26. Tickets at concordmusichall.com.
About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.