As of last week, I had never heard of Bomba Estéreo, despite the fact that they were busy tearing up stages at Coachella, SXSW, and working the club circuit. The Colombian group consists of five members: Simón Mejía, the founder of the group, works the electronic side of the sound, Liliana Saumet sings the vocals, Diego Cadavid works percussion instruments, Kike Egurrola is on drums and Julian Salazar rocks the guitar. Signed to Nacional Records, the group is currently touring in promotion of their second album Blow Up (originally released as Estella) and their 2011 EP Ponte Bomb.
Their sound is described as “electro-tropical” with roots in traditional Colombia folk music called cumbia. According to Afropop Worldwide:
Cumbia, Colombia’s most famous musical genre is actually a term for a number of musical rhythms including porro and puya, with its essence in African percussion. Its highly flirtatious dance is thought to be derived from the festival of La Virgen de Canderia, held every February in Cartegena. The dance is traditionally a couple’s dance. The men dress in all white with a red handkerchief around their necks, while the women wear long flowing skirts. The women also hold a candle, which follows the men in a romantic pursuit, and often fan the flames by fanning the long skirt.
As recently as the first half of the 20th century, the cumbia was considered a vulgar, lower class (i.e. black coastal) musical form by the Colombian government, who also shunned it for its foreign (especially Cuban) elements. It is ironic that in the decades since, it has gone on to become Colombia’s national sound. This coastal fishing music has gone on to incorporate waves of influences along the way, from mambo-cumbias of the 50s to hip-hop cumbias of today. It has also gone on to become one of the most popular genres in Latin America.
Interestingly enough, in some ways, Bomba Estéreo is in the business of both music and activism – using music’s ability to transcend cultural barriers to introduce more people to the sounds of Colombia and showcasing the lives of Afro-Colombians in their videos and songs. In an interview with Sounds and Colors, Simón Mejía explains:
It’s amazing to see how people who don’t talk Spanish get connected with our music, it’s a way of seeing how a so local music can be universal at the time, it’s all about Africa, and about dance music, which connects the whole world around one same feeling.
And in our divided times, it’s fairly amazing to see people consciously seeking connection. In the most passionate review I’ve read of Bomba Estéreo thus far, Sean L. Maloney writes for the Nashville Scene:
The Colombian quartet’s music has been dubbed “electro tropical” and “psychedelic cumbia,” but is really best described as “world music” — not because they fit into standardized, overcurated concepts of non-Anglo-American music, but because they pull influences from the entire fucking world. Equal measures of dub, electronic and hip-hop meet with the transcontinental roots of traditional Colombian folk styles to create a music that is truly global in scope.[...] Blow Up has an emotional resonance that’s found in few records — it’s the sort of record with which one’s barely passing, middle-school-level Spanish comprehension can translate what’s going on. Yes, there’s a language barrier, but it’s more like nylon barricade tape than a razor-wire fence — the literal translation is less important than the universal feelings it conveys. And it’s got a beat you can dance to, which is the most universal of all vocabularies.
But how is this playing out across America circa 2011 — an era when, if you spend much time keeping track of politics, you’ll notice that folks seem to be enthralled with extreme nativist posturing? If our, um, esteemed state legislature is any indication — and dear God, let’s hope it’s not — Americans at the moment are far more interested in stocking their bunkers with assault weapons and Andy Griffith DVDs, making bogeymen out of major religions and polishing their tinfoil hats, than engaging in dialogues with different cultures. Granted, all of this is coming from old white people who seem to think all of the answers can be found up their own ass, but they claim to be speaking for all of America. How is a fiercely political, fiercely progressive Latin band going over in a country that’s, well, a little on edge about all things foreign and different?
“We didn’t know what to expect,” says Salazar. “For instance, we are going to Louisiana for the very first time, and we’re going to North Carolina too. But in Texas, it was really well-received from the very beginning, as well as in New York and San Francisco. … I don’t know about Nashville — maybe all your friends are as excited as you are?”
Maloney is right in many ways – music, like other forms of art, finds ways of leaping across whatever boundaries or divisions we have drawn for ourselves. I don’t speak Spanish but that didn’t diminish the enjoyment of the album at all. When Bomba Estéreo headed through to DC, I grabbed a few friends and headed down to check out the concert. As soon as the set started, the club went wild with people needing to carve out space to move. The beats grab you by the hips and just don’t let go, so it was interesting to watch people meshing salsa moves, grind moves, and trance dancing all in the same space.
Unexpected surprise of the evening? Bomba Estéreo’s tribute to the Technotronic’s 1990s mega smash club hit, “Pump Up The Jam“: