Fresh Blend

Legendary Latin dance-music pioneers Bomba Estéreo are back on tour, bringing their blend of cumbia, rave and rap to top clubs and festivals across Europe and the US. Founder and maestro Simón Mejía talks to Charley Allan about viral videos, getting Donald Trump to dance what it feels like to see Latin American culture take over the world.

As the summer sun teases out London's tropical spirit, it's time once again to welcome legendary Latin musical pioneers Bomba Estéreo on their annual tour – eight European countries and six US states over five weeks, playing some of the hottest venues and coolest festivals on the planet.

The London leg will see the Colombian "electro-cumbia" collective packing out shabby-chic super-club XOYO in Shoreditch after performing at Latitude, the Suffolk festival that famously blends rock and techno with opera, theatre and literary debate.

The band itself is another famous blend, with founder and maestro Simón Mejía reimagining traditional Latin and African beats through cutting-edge electronica while iconic vocalist Li Saumet weaves her sublime melodies into heavenly hypnotic raps.

Going to last year's gig at Koko in Camden it was clear that the band's popularity reached well beyond just Spanish-speaking communities. "Most people here don't speak Spanish, they don't get the lyrics but they get the dancing," Simón told me – in English. "They communicate through body language, a universal language, and that's pretty unique."

I was interviewing him before the show – the ultimate fan-boy's dream – and mentioned their concerts felt more like raves than gigs, with live remixes of hit songs merging into other classics in one long wall of sound. I asked him, was rave music and culture an influence on him artistically?

"A massive influence. I grew up listening to rock music, and then when the electronic scene came to Colombia, for me as a musician and artist I saw the strength it had – it had the same rock vibe and attitude. It opened a whole universe for me of making music at home. You don't have to go to the big studios and everything, but if you have a laptop and a few machines at home you can do the whole production. It's like an immense universe. And it's the music that inspired us – all the electronic and rave music mixed with our dance music."

In the same way that electronica swiftly took hold here in the '90s and then had fundamentally changed the mainstream by the new millennium, Latin music is now ubiquitous – from our TV screens to shopping malls and car stereos. Ahead of this month's London gig, I asked Simón if he thought the perception of Latin American culture was changing in the US, where he spends much of the year. His answer was sobering.

"We are still perceived as third world countries that are responsible for drug trafficking all over the world. Nothing in this era can be solved if drugs persist to be illegal. It's the main finance for arms and terrorism. But the world is crazy and we, third world countries, suffer from this absurd prohibition. And that prohibition is killing our country fields, our native forests, our communities – and causing tons of corruption. On the cultural side, a little bit brighter, Latin music has gone far, now becoming mainstream in the world."

Bomba Estéreo are a key part of this cultural shift. From their first album in 2006, Volumen 1, to their fifth last year, Ayo, they've seen their popularity and sales soar – but "Fresh Prince" Will Smith's 2015 remix of their bass-breaking psychedelic crowd-pleaser Fiesta gave their groundbreaking sound a whole new level of exposure.

"It was massive, just imagine! We released the album, we released Fiesta, and he called the label: 'I love this band, I love Colombian music and I want to get back to singing – and I want to do it over this song!' So that, for the label, was like, 'Wow, it's Will Smith, he's a world-famous Hollywood mega-star!'

"The band at least became visible for many more people than before. I don't know how many of those people are fans of Bomba Estéreo now, but we got on the radar. It was exciting, and meeting him and everything was really crazy and surreal. But it was beautiful, it was the best. It was organic, it just happened – and everything that has happened to the band has been like that."

The song's video is also crazy and surreal – like many of the band's movies – but it was another organic surprise when the video for Soy Yo, from the same album Amanacer, went viral after being hailed by the Huffington Post as "making grown brown girls dance proudly thanks to the star of the music video: a little brown girl who is as endearing as hell owning her differences" – 176 seconds watched 50 million times in the last two years.

"We were not expecting that," Simón admits. "It was a very accurate vision from the director. The message of the song was a more general or abstract message of self-acceptation – you're born some way or another, you just have to accept yourself as you are and don't mind if they are criticising you or bullying you or whatever. It's you, and be proud of that.

"And the director got this idea of a personal fight, with this little girl in the States from Latin parents, immigrants. So she became like an icon for all these movements that were happening before the election. Unfortunately Trump won, but it became a very beautiful movement."

The star of the video, Sarai Gonzalez, appeared shortly after on a Get Out The Vote ad for Latin Americans featuring Soy Yo as the soundtrack. So what was it like for the band to hear their music used to promote popular democracy like this?

"At the beginning it was strange, especially as it was happening in the States because were are from Colombia. We've always known that US politics has been fucked up, always, and now more than before, so we kind of don't want to be so directly involved in politics. But everything was so crazy that we were like, ok, hopefully they won't ban the visas for us!"

Did this experience help politicise the band? Ayo is their most explicitly socially conscious album, with quirky funk tracks like Money Money Money taking the piss out of materialism, and feminist floor-stomper Flower Power calling on women everywhere to stand up to discrimination and sexism.

"I don't know if it's a conscious thing. It's more like when you grow up – we're parents now, so you kind of become more aware of some things. We see some Latin music – especially in the reggaeton scene, all the lyrics are just about fucking and girls, and tits and asses. That can be good in music, but you also have to say some things because the world is passing through a difficult time. Not trying to give speeches to people, but to speak from oneself and try to make an individual change, and like that to change the world.

"For me, politics is failing now, and politicians are failing because everything that's happening today is due to bad politics and bad decisions by the people that are ruling us, so the change is not going to happen there. The change is going to happen in every person who decides to change his or her environment, or her or his attitudes towards some specific things – to each other, how you treat your close ones, your family, your neighbourhood, and that is where the change is happening."

I'd read that Simón wanted to make politicians dance – especially Donald Trump – so I asked him what song he'd play for the president.

"I would obviously play him Internacionales, it's a song about unity! You can build all your fucking walls but you're not going to stop the culture, the Latin culture, getting into your country. It's crazy because you see the guy wanting to build walls between Mexico and the States, and deny visas and deny immigration, but you go into the streets and everyone is listening to Latin music and speaking Spanish and, you know, the culture and the music is there."

So what does that feel like? "It makes me feel very proud. We in Latin America were a continent that was always looking outside. The culture that came from Europe or the States was always better. The English-spoken things were always better. We've grown up with that idea inside our heads. It's kind of a colonialistic thing – always looking outside. Everything that comes from Europe was better – the music, the arts, the cinema, everything.

"But now, well, we've been working for many years now, we have this strong musical and cultural expressions that come from Latin America, and we see the impact that they are having in the world. We kind of say, ok, what we make is also good, and it's also good for the world. And in spite of the language or whatever, the culture that we're making in Latin America is strong and it's having an impact on the world, and that speaks very well about us.

"We're a mixed culture – we come from the African, from the indigenous, from the whites and from the Spanish. It's a blend, no? We're a blend of cultures, and that, before, was like a shame for people, it was like, oh we're not purely white, we're not purely English or whatever. But now we're proud because, thanks to that, we have this amazing culture. It's a mix of everything, and that's appealing for the world because it's fresh – the culture and the music that comes from Latin America is a fresh sound."

Londoners are unlikely to find a fresher sound this summer than Bomba's tropical blend!

• Bomba Estéreo play XOYO, London on 16 July 2018. Tickets are available at