True to their name, Colombian band Bomba Estéreo—which translates to English as "Stereo Bomb"—experienced something of an explosion last month. Over a full year after the release of their most recent album Amanacer, founder Simón Mejía and his two bandmates released a video for that record's catchy, vibrant dance-pop ditty "Soy Yo." The clip finds a lonely little brown girl with chunky glasses and an uneven haircut discovering the power of self-affirmation with a recorder in hand and a groove in her step, leading some to refer to it as "an ode to little brown girls everywhere." As it nears its six millionth YouTube play in just a month since release, the single has become one of the band's wildest successes, but viewers in the America's higher latitudes shouldn't be deceived into thinking that this Bomba eruption is a recent phenomenon.
In their native Colombia, the trio of Mejía, Liliana Saumet, and Julián Salazar have been developing their nuanced take on traditional Colombian rhythms and more modernist electronics for a little over a decade. Over that period, they've become sensations in the Spanish-speaking world, releasing four albums that have netted them two Grammy nominations and a worldwide fanbase. Now, after years of contentedly working in their lane, "Soy Yo" has become something of an unexpected success in the States, which has resulted in coverage from mainstream publications like NPR. A slate of just-finished West Coast tour dates even included a few sellouts.
On October 6, the band took to the stage at Los Angeles El Rey Theater to a sold-out crowd of around 750 people. The trio opened their set shrouded in fog with an analog-techno movement that would have the chinstrokers at your local warehouse cooing. A few songs later, Salazar bulldozed his way through a feedback-drenched noise solo that flippantly wailed and crashed through his guitar's upper register. Between those disparate sounds flowed an energetic and earnest telling of the complex musical traditions of Colombia—a genre meld that's often been termed electro cumbia—punctuated by vocalist Saumet's spiky Spanish rapping.
That Bomba Estéreo can rove through so many musical languages without ever lapsing into hackneyed tropes is a result of the anthropological nature with which the band approach their music. According to Mejía, Colombia is a place where the culture, sounds, and traditions of Africa, Europe, its indigenous people, and American influence converge to create a delicate balance—in music and politics alike. It's in these frictions that Mejía earns his inspiration. With an inclination towards ethnomusicology, he's as prone to go deep into the Colombian jungles in search of music culture unsullied by commercialism—as he did for the 2012 documentary Jende Ri Palenge—as he is to hunt down rare synths in Bogotá. That's why the breadth of Bomba Estéreo's aesthetic is not some calculated attempt at crossover, but a creative manifestation of what's actually going on in Colombia.
THUMP spoke over the phone with Mejía after Bomba Estéreo's show in LA last weekend to discuss the surprise success of "Soy Yo," the genealogy of cumbia, and the tense political situation in Colombia.
THUMP: Did you know you had a hit on your hands with "Soy Yo"?
Simón Mejía: It's crazy. We didn't think of this song as a single. What happened with the video was totally unexpected. We're all kind of surprised.
I was impressed at Bomba Estereo's ability to pull off both rock and dance music live.
We come from both worlds. We grew up playing rock. We got into electronica nowadays. I've always had this idea that when electronic music is played by humans, it becomes more powerful. We try to make this idea of humans making loops, no? The loops are not exactly perfect. They have a human touch. We grew up listening to rock music and tropical music and to electronic music. Growing up in Colombia, we have been influenced by so many different styles. Our head is like a mixture of all this stuff, and when we play, it just comes out.
What aspects of Colombian heritage do you highlight with Bomba Estereo?
Colombia is a crazy country, man. It's one of the most particular countries in South America. After Brazil, we have the largest Afro-population in all of Latin America, so there's a really strong black influence in music, and we have our indigenous cultures that were there before Europeans came, so it's a crazy place with a strong heartbeat. Then, obviously, the European and then the North American culture. We're like sucking all those cultural influences. We're a very musical country, but we're a country that's been at war, for me, since colonial times until now.
What's the current political climate in Colombia?
We were just close to signing a peace treatment and it got pushed down. The government and the guerrillas, FARC, they have been fighting for fifty years. We live in a very unfair country, and FARC went to go to fight for communism, like, fifty years ago. Nowadays, they're obviously fucked up––they're drug dealing and are involved with other stuff that is besides politics. The government got to sit with them in Cuba. It took two years to make agreements around a peace treatment. Those agreements were put to a popular vote, an election, no? You could choose yes or no. And people chose to vote no.
Why do you think this happened?
Today in the world, the biggest business is war. There are many in power who don't want the war to end, here in Colombia and in all over the fuckin' world. We're just passing through some dark ages. It's the same thing that was going on in London [with Brexit]...It's like we're going back in time to the Medieval times.
Your music is anchored in cumbia, a has upwards of 20 variations over South America. What does it mean to you?
Cumbia was born in Colombia. It was a blend of African drumming and indigenous flutes and melodies. And then afterwards came the European people and they put in more traditional instruments like saxophone and bass. But the original version was Indians and Africans, both really struggling under colonial reign, hanging together to make music. It's kind of like what happened with the blues in America. Then the record business came in, it became more popular, more white, and it spread all over South America. Now we have different versions from Mexico to Argentina, but the roots are in Colombia. Each country appropriated the cumbia sound to its own context. That's beautiful!
We have this music in Colombia that is called champeta. It was born out the soukous from Africa, the guitar music of Africa. On that coast of Colombia, they took that music and made their own version. They came in the ships to the ports, so when you go to a block party in the small towns, they're playing African music.
It sounds like you pay a lot of attention to the relationship between music and culture.
I like to investigate. One of my main influences is the roots music of Colombia. I like to know what's happening deep inside the jungle. To me, that's the essence. That's where the magic happens for me. We did a project in Palenge. The Africans who were slaves, they escaped and founded this free slave town during colonial times. It's close to Cartagena. The music there is amazing. We did a project there and set up a community studio for recording and made a documentary. I just did a project there with Red Bull.
Do you see yourself as a songwriter? Social scientist? Cultural curator?
Music is not all about music, but about context. The music you play is deeply related with the context. It's not just magic. Everything is related. I just like to explore those contexts. In Colombia, we have so many layers. Not only the music, but the culture, the social and political situation, the violence, life and death, religion...All those layers come up and make a very interesting context to explore and to be aware of where the sounds come from. It's not just a computer and some synthesizers, you know? You have to go back in history, centuries ago. And it's our history and we come from that.
Do you ever wish Bomba Estereo could shed the 'Latin' tag, like at the Grammys, for example?
I think we just play music! We don't like tags, especially the "Latin" tag, that is so, how do you say in English—specified? Here in the States, you think about Latin and you think about salsa music, tropical, maracas, happy people. And it's more than that. We grew up listening to rock music, Motown, rap, electronic, heavy metal. When we make music, it comes from everywhere.
Jemayel Khawaja is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He's on Twitter.