Colombian Fest Chicago 2016 in words and pictures

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Words and images by Charlie Billups, edited by Don Macica –

“His strong cumbia beat with his very skilled accordion play reminded me of parties in my wife’s hometown of Corozal. I could close my eyes on Sunday and imagined that I was in Corozal or at the beach with his music on in the background and people dancing in a beach side restaurant. The atmosphere at the festival was exactly like that of a festival in Colombia.”

Agúzate photographer Charlie Billups is recalling his two days spent at Colombian Fest / El Gran Festival Colombiano, which took place at the Copernicus Center July 16-17 during a sweltering mid-summer heatwave. He’s speaking about the artist who closed the weekend, the 80-year-old cumbia legend Anibal Velasquez from Barranquilla, a port city on the country’s Atlantic coast. “His music represented the joy and fun of being Colombian.”

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Anibal Velasquez y Los Locos del Swing

Billups continues, “The sounds that filled the festival represented several genres of music from different parts of Colombia, all of which are very popular. Cumbia, vallenato, champeta, salsa and merengue. When one of the many, many bands weren’t performing, DJs played vintage records to keep the energy high. The capacity crowd that packed the place on both days loved every minute of it.”

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Experiencing Sunday night’s headliner was not the only time Billups felt himself transported from the northwest side of Chicago to the South American nation. He recalls Sunday’s late afternoon set by Charles King, who delivered a stirring performance with his champeta criolla, and how it brought him to another time and place. “The music was sweet reggae sounding but with deep roots in the Colombian coast town of Palenque and enhanced by Mr. King’s deep facial expressions. I closed my eyes and imagined that I was in Cartagena on a taxi ride to the bus station and the driver had the radio on playing Mr. King’s El Martillo.”

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Charles King, El Rey de La Champeta

Two of Saturday’s headliners especially stood out in Billup’s memory as well.

“Sonora Carrusales, the last performer that night, is a salsa band from Medellin. La Sonora has an extremely powerful sound that evokes Fruko and many bands from Medellin and Cali. The crowd exploded as the band played non-stop for 90 minutes. This band represents the strong salsa legacy that Colombia has. Cali is called the salsa capital of the world. Passion ran high thru the entire place and people did not want to leave even after the three encores by La Sonora.

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Sonora Carruseles

“Earlier Saturday afternoon Jimmy Zambrano and former Binomio de Oro member Duban Bayona delivered to me what represents the heart of coastal Colombian music, vallenato. People in the crowd were transfixed by the soulful melodic performance of Grammy winner Zambrano’s accordion with Bayona’s strong voice. I have to say that this was like going to Colombia and walking down the street on a Saturday night and listening to this duo on picos [Colombian sound systems] in the balconies.”

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Duban Bayano y Jimmy Zambrano

Charlie Billups’ great photos are a testament to his love of Latin American culture and community. Several illustrate this article, and you can find many, many more at his website. For his part, Charlie has just one more thing to say.

“It was good to go to Colombia for the weekend!”

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Meridian Brothers lead off Colombian musical invasion.

By Don Macica.

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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.


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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.
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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.