By Don Macica.
This is turning out to be a remarkable summer for Colombian music in Chicago. Ondatrópica headlines Millennium Park, Systema Solar graces the Celebrate Clark Street Festival, Bomba Estéreo celebrates their brand new CD with a show at Concord Music Hall, and El Gran Festival Colombiano brings both traditionalists Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto and champeta group Tribu Baharú to town.
But before we knew all that, though, we knew this. The Meridian Brothers make their Chicago debut at Mayne Stage on June 21 during their first ever U.S. tour. And that, friends, is news.
To clear a couple of things up right off the bat, there are no brothers nor is there anyone named Meridian in the group. It more or less started as a home-made recording project when Colombian guitarist and composer Eblis Alvarez started layering his guitar over drums, percussion and other folkloric instruments that he taught himself to play. After years of this, he went to Denmark to study at the Royal Danish Academy of Music and at the Danish Institute of Electronic Music. Returning to Bogotá in 1998, he began releasing these recordings of distorted tropical sounds, and a group was needed in order to perform them live. The Meridian Brothers (band) was born, even as recordings continue to be entirely created by Alvarez. Over the years, the group has evolved into a five-piece band focused on re-interpreting all manners of Latin Tropical rhythms (cumbia, vallenato, salsa, merengue, guaguanco etc..) with a pronounced psychedelic and experimental sensibility. In 2014, Meridian Brothers released their third album, the engagingly loopy Salvadora Robot.
Something that becomes apparent on close listen to the Meridian Brothers is that, despite the weirdness, psychedelia and surrealist lyrics, the tunes themselves are pretty faithful to their sources. A cumbia is a cumbia, vallenato is vallenato. But what comes out is something like Frank Zappa playing doo-wop or Captain Beefheart playing blues. Just as you can hear those artists’ deep respect for their sources, you can likewise hear the same from Alvarez once you accustom yourself to the overall sound.
When asked about the name Meridian Brothers in an interview last year, Eblis Alvarez replied, “I love pseudonyms, people not knowing who is making things.” Reading this, I was prompted to reach out to a Colombian friend who maintains a series of online aliases. He has one identity on his Facebook page, another on his enigmatic website, and still a third when he sends e-mails. And those are the ones I know about. None of these, of course, are his real name.
When I asked him what he heard in the Meridian Brothers, he was similarly enigmatic, comparing them to, of all things, the Violent Femmes. “Meridian Brothers play music within the leisure sense, not in the cerebral sense, without falling into the pop formula” he wrote, continuing, “Their lyrics speak of local things in a very local language, so local that [it] doesn’t sound like Spanish, without falling into the ghetto language formula.” He also advised me that “I should know what Chucu-Chucu music means and have [an] appreciation for the analog psychedelic sounds.” Well, I got that last one down (shoot, I grew up on that stuff), but the rest required some work.
Chucu-Chucu is, as best as I can tell, a rough Colombian counterpart to salsa in New York City in the 60’s and 70’s, a musical style with roots in the Caribbean but urban in character, with just a touch of silliness, like something a wedding band might play in Bogotá. (I could be wrong about this, though… a YouTube search of Chucu-Chucu also turns up children’s songs and booty-shaking dembow.) And the Violent Femmes… well, you can take them simply as wacky guys playing punk rock on acoustic guitars, or you can appreciate them as artists with a very particular sensibility, creating totally honest and plain-spoken art.
As for the Meridian Brothers, you can take them either way, too. Live, you are quite likely to experience a serious desire to dance to the tropical rhythms even as you grin at the skewed sonics and visuals. There will, if you want, be plenty to think about, but who ever spent time thinking at a Violent Femmes show?
Better to simply surrender to the fun.
Sound Culture presents the Meridian Brothers at Mayne Stage, Sunday June 21, 7:30pm (doors 6:30). DJs Agúzate and ((SONORAMA)) get the party started. Tickets and info at soundculturechicago.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.