Bogota group Bomba Estereo (literally Stereo Bomb) is igniting a musical furor with their wildly and unexpectedly infectious mix of bouncy Colombian cumbia, one of that country's many folk musics, and funky electronic grooves.
Fronted by incandescent Colombian homegirl Li Samuet, who hails from the Atlantic coastal town of Santa Marta, a place with rich African and Indian folkloric traditions, Bomba Estereo sounds like nothing else that's come out of Colombia. In the last year they've been blowing up outside their country, playing hot shows at SXSW, appearing on taste-making L.A. radio station KCRW, and earning critical raves.
Bomba Estereo came out of a growing electronic music scene in Bogota, and have helped spark a new trend to mix folkloric music with electronica. It's similar in form (if not in sound) to what Carlos Vives did when he started mixing vallenato and pop music in the 90's, and to Sidestepper, another dance-folkloric project.
We talked to Bomba leader and bassist Simon Mejia in Mexico City, as the group got ready to play a free show on the city's huge central plaza with their musical cousins Nortec, the norteno-electronic combo, en route to Bomba's appearance at the Rhythm Foundation's annual Heineken Transatlantic Festival on Friday.
So how did Bomba Estereo start?
It started in 2005. I was working in Bogota with a friend who's a DJ, and we began mixing folk sounds with electronica, but it was more electronica, more instrumental. After that I kept working alone, and I began making the first record in my studio at home, and I invited some singers and I met Liliana, and we kept working together.
Bogota is not where most people would expect to find an electronic music scene.
There's a very strong DJ scene there, and many international DJ's go there, which is similar to what exists around the world. But there's a smaller, more independent electronic scene that's like five to eight years old, with producers making their own music, and it's growing.
How'd you get the idea to mix cumbia and electronica?
Just the music itself gave me the idea. I had worked with this hiphop DJ who was doing the same kind of mix, but with turntables. So he introduced me to it. It all comes from a dance scene. Our folk music is our dance music, and electronic music is the dance music of Europe and the U.S. It's the same energy that comes from Africa, the same groove.
How do you and Samuet write the songs?
It's a very organic process. I write the music, and I bring it to her and she writes the lyrics. We communicate without talking. She has the perfect lyrics and the perfect sound. It's been that way since the beginning, the first song we made we had this chemistry with each other, so it was a very natural flow. We fell in love, but musically - we've never been a couple.
So is cumbia becoming cool for young people in Colombia?
Yeah it is. Maybe five-six years ago it was not so cool, but recently it has become like a trend. When we began people saw it as kind of strange. Sometimes people deny their own culture - you can find people in Colombia who are ashamed of listening to folk music and dancing cumbia. But recently there are so many groups using these traditions that it's making it a little more cool.
For us it's a way of bringing all these folkloric traditions and putting them into a more contemporary context. Especially for young people who might say 'I don't like cumbia, that's for old people', but if you put in hip-hop or electronica they get into it. For us it's a way to rescue a tradition that's getting lost. These are our roots and our music, there's a cultural tradition that's important and really strong. There are so many external influences that come into Colombia that people forget about our own thing, our own tradition. Colombia's identity has always come from looking outside instead of inside. Some people are ashamed of being Colombian. I don't know why. Maybe people are scared because the image of Colombia outside it is so negative.
What you guys are doing is similar to what Nortec is doing with norteno, or Bajofondo Tango Club has done with tango - musicians in different Latin countries coming up with their own take on electronic music.
Actually we're planning to do a documentary about that. It's an interesting phenomenon to see that happening from Mexico to Argentina, each one in their own way taking their traditions and doing versions of it with different styles. And it's not only Latin - you see the same phenomenon all over the world in bands like Balkan Beat Box, they take the Balkan tradition and mix it with electronics. So it's more like a world movement of young musicians taking traditional and roots music and renewing them by putting them in a new context.
Fuego has been a big hit for you guys - what is that song about? Just about partying?
It has some of that, but at the bottom it's about the spirit. You can't ever turn it off. It's about always keeping your spirit up and trying to look for the positive in life, renewing yourself from inside.
What about La Nina Rica (The Rich Girl)? Some of the lyrics are pretty strong.
That's one of our most political songs. It talks about this whole trend of plastic surgery that's been very popular for like ten years. It's even a sickness, women began to operate on themselves, and they become like dolls. It's also very related to the [drug] mafia culture, and there's a business and mentality around it we don't like. We think that natural beauty is the real beauty, that beauty comes from inside.
How do you feel about all the attention the band has gotten in the last year?
It's a nice thing because it's very natural. We started Bomba Estereo because we had a great passion for the music. We were experimenting. We didn't know cumbia was going to be trendy or all this was going to happen. So when all the attention began to grow, it was like a reward for all the years we worked. When success comes like that, and it's not planned with a producer and a record company, it's very gratifying.
Li Samuet and Simon Mejia of Bomba Estereo