Photo courtesy of Bomba Estéreo
Bomba Estéreo stormed international dance floors in 2009 with their explosive electro tropical anthem “Fuego,” off their second album, Blow Up. The Colombian band, whose principal members are bassist and producer Simón Mejía and singer and lyricist Liliana “Li” Saumet, initially grabbed attention and built a fan base with gritty, passionate dance music inspired by traditional Afro-Caribbean styles like cumbia and champeta. A strong psychedelic undercurrent and subtle political subversion added to their intense cool.
The next album, 2013's Elegancia Tropical, polished their sound with deep, atmospheric production, and did it without sacrificing and steam. The single, “El Alma y El Cuerpo,” is one of those rhythmic delights that makes for excellent company at the height of the party as well as on the long trip home. Their new album, Amanecer, takes that evolution even further. With its house beat and irresistible guitar hook, the title track spreads its arms to embrace big rooms and big festival crowds, without losing its sense of identity.
Out June 2 on Sony US Latin, the album is their major label debut and the first time the veteran songwriting duo has worked with an outside producer. Sony connected them with L.A. Based hit-maker Ricky Reed, who has produced for Jason Derulo, Jessie J and Pitbull. The result of their collaboration ups the euphoria and adds in more mainstream dance and hip-hop elements. It a broad and ambitious album that features some Timbaland worthy beats, but stays grounded in the band's South American identity. The shift in mood and absorption of still more musical influences opens a new chapter in the bands long career.
For ten years now, the musical chemistry between Li, a charismatic vocalist from the warm Caribbean coastal city of Barranquilla and Simón, a producer from the inland capital of Bogotá, has resulted in a stream of notoriously irresistible party music – music that they have put on blast through PA systems the world over, touring and playing festivals like Coachella and Glastonbury. But, as Mejía told me over the phone from Bogotá, it's become about something bigger than dancing for him. In this interview he looks back on a decade in a band and ponders life, roots, and music in Colombia.
Noisey: Why did you decide to make the move to a major label?
Simón Mejía: They came to us. There was a proposal and we wanted to try a little bit of the world outside of the independent world. Being a Colombian band and being independent is a very difficult path. We wanted to try a major's help, especially in promotion, in videos, the things where the majors are a little bit more developed. We signed just for this album and we're very happy with the results, especially with the producer that they proposed. Ricky Reed, who was the producer for the album, was a proposal from Sony.
Did you spend time in the studio with him in Los Angeles?
We shared. We did four sessions with him, two were in L.A. and two were here in Bogotá. We thought that it was important for him to come here to Bogotá and feel the energy here, because Bomba Estéreo is a very Colombian band. He'd never been to South America, so he was very excited. We took him to some bars and played him Colombian traditional music. We wanted to take him to the Caribbean coast but we couldn't make because of the timing. But he was here twice and he loved the place and fell in love with the music. It was very nice, beyond the album and the production and everything. It was a very nice sharing of energy and culture between him and ourselves.
So, you feel he got where you were coming from musically?
Yeah. We wanted to achieve a more global sound. This album, I think the Colombian influence is more in Li's lyrics and what she's singing about than in the music. For example, “Somos Dos” is a very Bomba Estéreo, Caribbean vibe kind of song. I think the most Bomba Estéreo, Colombian song is “Raíz.” The translation is “root.” That one is very strong, and “Fiesta” is totally Carnaval.
You know in Barranquilla here in Colombia, we have Carnaval in February, and it is one of the most important cultural festivals in Colombia. And Liliana is very deeply connected with this party. She has this group of people [her comparsa or dance customs group, La Puntica No Ma'] that go out and put make-up on and go dancing in the streets and everything, and this song “Fiesta” is about the Carnaval. We chose that song for the single because it's a very, very local song.
So, you have songs like that and then you have songs like “Amanecer” that have more of a global sound, with a dancehall influence, hip-hop influence, electronic influence. You have been making electronic music that mixes in things like cumbia and champeta for years. You have been pioneers in electro tropical music. What do you think about the way the music has spread and become a genre over the past decade?
I think it's a very interesting process because it's an expression of how young people around the world and here in Latin America are aware of the musical traditions from the past, all these traditions that we as Latin Americans inherited from Africa directly when the slaves came here and mixed with indigenous people. Amazing music happened centuries ago – amazing music in terms of rhythm.
So, young people like ourselves are everyday more aware of that very heavy tradition, but we are also aware that we are a new generation and grew up listening to electronic music, house or drum and bass, all the European and American influences that we grew up with. So, it's just another way of mixing what we grew up listening to: the very, very traditional expressions and the more contemporary expressions. It's a very interesting and organic process for this age in music.
Would you say that champeta has become a bigger influence over time or has it always been an inspiration?
I think it's always been an inspiration. Especially for Liliana, because she grew up with that musical background. Here in Colombia, the musical backgrounds depending on the region are very different. If you are from the Caribbean coast, you are very exposed to champeta or to cumbia or to folk music. If you are here in Bogotá, there is cold weather and up in the mountains you are exposed to other kinds of music. Champeta has been a genre here in Colombia since the '70s, '80s, '90s. Nowadays, it's more in fashion a little bit, but it has been here since a long time ago.
Is champeta an influence on the band from a political standpoint?
It's not so political. The political aspect of champeta is that, in the past, it was more or less a prohibited genre, because it came from very ghetto places in the Caribbean. Champeta parties were always ending up in fighting and shootings, a little bit like dancehall in Jamaica, a little bit like that kind of vibe. The lyrics are not so political, but the music itself was like opposition and the white people were rejecting that kind of music. But the lyrics were more sexual and party oriented.
On the song “Raza” at the end of your early album Blow Up, Li's lyrics talk about wanting to share your music with people all over the world. Now that you've done that, do you have any thoughts on the journey?
This album has a lot around that idea. We're not like a very old band, but it's been 10 years, and 10 years is some time, no? Over all these 10 years, we've learned, and we're learning still, that the process of making music and making lyrics and singing to people and sharing the energy of the music that we're making is way beyond the music itself.
Sharing energy and receiving energy is a communication that goes way beyond fashion or musical genre, or where you come from or where other people are from. It's just building a bridge between you and other people and sharing good vibrations. It's like a ritual, like a modern ritual. When you play in festivals or bars, it's kind of our modern ritual. You are elevating yourself to a more spiritual level with the people. That's very beautiful and, with the years, we've become aware that that condition comes with a responsibility for you as a musician or an artist. You have to be very careful with that responsibility and communicate to people that the music you are making is not just music, but it's energy, good energy that you are sharing. Here in Colombia, it's a very violent place. Every time we play we try to create this peaceful atmosphere that, only for the time that the concert lasts, can change the people.
You posted a picture to Instagram a couple of weeks ago. It's in the city and there's a police tank and clouds of smoke. What's happening there?
That's near my house! That happens, like, every week. Last week in Colombia, the teachers were asking the government to raise their salaries. They were on strike at the universit,y and that particular university is almost daily on strike, so they were fighting the police. Here in Colombia, we live in a very difficult context. Since the Spanish people came to Latin America, this continent has been at war all the time. And Colombia is like the oldest country in Latin America that still has a war going on, this guerrilla war against the government. We have to deal daily with this situation. Now they are in Cuba trying to sign a peace treaty, but Colombia's context is the context of a country that is at war. These people, [the FARC] they claim to be communists but they are just people that are making money and everything is fucked up. You can add to that equation that Colombia is one of the principle drug exporters.
So, if you grow up with this mess you can take the position of making your music political and try to divide people, or you can take the path that we are trying to take, to make music a way of generating peaceful environments and to try to tell people that, maybe if the country is still at war and the government doesn't want to sign the peace treaty with the guerrillas or whatever, what you can do as an individual is just change yourself within yourself and maybe that can help. I think that is the main message of the whole album: Instead of fighting against what is outside yourself, look inside yourself to change yourself and then maybe we can see some light in the future.