The Feminine Side of Latin Pop

Bomba Estéreo has paid its ‘derecho de piso’ and proved that it’s not just another ‘alternative’ Latin band adding funk beats to folklore. With a 20 year trajectory writing and producing innovative songs, founder and bassist of one of Colombia’s most successful bands, Simón Mejía, talks to Latinolife about their resounding 2016 success, their new album, and the importance of the feminine touch in an era of ‘banal and chauvinistic’ commercial reggeatón pop.
Santiago Oyarzabal

It’s raining in Bogotá when Simón Mejía takes a few minutes to talk to Latinolife, but Mejía’s energy contrasts with both the dark, stormy afternoon in Bogotá and London’s usual night-time drizzle. He sounds excited:

 “We’ve just finished the work on our fifth album 'Ayo' (just released) and are now rehearsing the tour. We spent most of this year concentrated on the album, so we’re really looking forward to playing it to audiences now.”

Bomba Estéreo – which according to Mejía, means "a really cool, awesome, bad ass party" - emerged in the 1990s as part of the new wave of ‘alternative’ Latin pop bands who added electronic beats to traditional popular folk. Some call their music ‘Cumbia for the 21st Century’, where Mejía’s innovative beats and loops and Liliana Sumet’s incendiary vocals set fire to an energetic fusion of Colombian roots and punk-psychedelia. The band had its detractors, but unlike some ‘alternative’ bands of that era which sounded pretentious amidst Colombia's sublime tradition of super musicians, Bomba Estéreo have, over the years, shown that their success is down to more than just style, albeit aided by some very useful fans such as Will Smith.

After a hugely succesful 2016, the Colombian band will spend the rest of 2017 in an extensive world tour alongside the release of the single 'Duele' which takes them to the US, Latin America and Europe, with two UK shows, headlining at the Bestival (East Lulworth, 10 Sept) and KOKO (London, 12 Sept). It’s been a long journey, admits Mejía:

“Before Bomba Estéreo I was doing electronic music but it was more like house, and I started to wonder what the point of it was when there were so many good people doing that in other places. So the mix with our Caribbean dance music like cumbia and champeta, was quite natural because both electronic and folkloric music were more connected that we’d thought. Since I started with it, the voice became a necessary ingredient because it gives spirit to the mix. And Li’s singing style worked perfectly, because her voice had a raw ingredient to it, which makes it unique: it brings all the traditional Colombian folklore into a urban context in a very energetic way.”

Since Saumet joined, the compositional work has been divided in the same way, with all the hits being the result of a recognisable collaboration. Mejía works on the beats, loops and bass lines, which he later sends over. Saumet then lets herself be inspired by the sound and creates lyrics and melodies accordingly.

Compared to previous albums ‘Ayo’ feels like a return home; more connected to the Colombia’s Caribbean roots which Bomba Estéreo’s music is mostly indebted to. The band is lucky enough to be able to draw on so many Latin rhythms such as salsa and rumba as well a huge resource within Colombia itself, which includes rythmns from the Pacific as well as the Caribbean still unknown to most musicians.

“Champeta is very interesting because it has a cadence similar to reggaetón. It originates from when the African soukous arrived in the Caribbean, in Barranquilla it took a specific form with a rhythm tum, dah, tum, dah…. quite full with guitars, synthesisers. It’s a music for dancing, super popular in barrios and streets, very Afro-Colombian”.

Mejía also admits that their ability to straddle continents has also benefitted the band’s evolution, incorporating the latest developments in electro, reggae, pop, rap as well as other music. The richness of influences can be heard on 'Ayo' more than in any previous.

“Because 'Ayo' was recorded in Santa Marta and Los Angeles, it has the energy of both those places. On the one hand it is linked to the land and our Caribbean roots and on the other, it has the electronic and very accomplished sound that is typical of L.A. studios,” Mejía explains.

Ayo comes after the success of Amanecer (2015) with such songs such as ‘Somos dos’, ‘Fiesta’ and the album itself being placed amongst the Rolling Stone’s list of the 50 best albums of 2015. Yet, Amanecer’s big bomb was last autumn’s single ‘Soy Yo’ (I Am Me), which went viral reaching 25 million views on Youtube. So great was the impact that President Obama invited the 11-year old Sarai Gonzalez who featured in the video to meet him in the White House. The ensuing covers in The New York Times, The Guardian and Vogue drew welcome attention to the band, if accidentally.

Ayo’s first single 'Duele' (Hurts), is the story of a truncated love which transpires Middle Eastern vibes although it was recorded with a flauta de millo, a flute from the Caribe region typically used by cumbia ensembles.

"The flauta de millo has been one of the most inspiring instruments in our career," Simon Mejia. "We've used it since ‘Estalla’. The sound is unique and beautiful with roots for the entire cumbia tradition. I remember once playing it for Brian Eno when I met him for a mentorship and he was like 'oh my god, I've never heard that kind of sound before in my life!'"

 'Internacionales' (International) reiterates the message that most artists ars talking about these days – unity, oneness, harmony and diversity. ‘Mixed, we’re mixed, the same history with different taste’, says Saumet’s sweet voice before inviting everyone to share the dance.

 “Liliana is very special in the way she writes and the things she says, and that has enabled us to make music which is to dance but also it invites you to listen, because the songs are saying specific things. Hopefully this album 'Ayo' will be received in the same way, because both sides to it are very important, in particular when so important things are happening in the world.

Bomba’s focus on lyrics may not make them superstars in an era where reggeaton pop is making huge inroads into the English speaking market, with less than sophisticated lyrics. But, as Mejia implies, Bomba Estereo have carved out their own niche international audience for whom, if  ‘Despacito’ were never uttered again it would be too soon.

“I think Liliana in particular has a sensibility that is appealing in its own way. I do like reggeatón, but the lyrics are mostly chauvinistic and banal. Women have a special sensibility, or they access it more than us, and that is very powerful.”

Liliana has said that her lyrics have moved from the social to more introspective aspects as well…and Mejía agrees

“We’ve never wanted to be too discursive. Of course eventually we’ve said certain things, but didn’t want them to become part of our style or extremely political. I think we’ve learned in all these years of making music, recording, playing live and travel that you lose control of the music you make once it’s out and we need to be very conscious of that because when we put too much ego into it that’s when magic gets lost. You share an energy with your audience and you need to take care of that and to take responsibility for that as well.”

Colombian’ techno-cumbia band descends on the UK this weekend to headline at Bestival and KOKO in London on 12th September.