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BOMBA ESTEREO: Mythmaking with Colombian Electro-Cumbia Act :: Spotlight on Latin’s New “It” Band
10 October, 2009, 10:27 PM
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Published 08/28/09 on

Liliana Saumet stalks the stage like a panther and the crowd at Central Park’s SummerStage chants “Fuego” with the huntress during the Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC) in July. For the thousands of onlookers, most were hearing Bomba Estereo for the first time. A look, a laugh or the purring cadence of her voice is all it takes to feel the band’s allure.

However, it’s Simón Mejía who is responsible for unleashing Bomba Estereo and their album Blow Up to audiences the world over—from the band’s hometown, Bogota, to London and Denmark. Mejía is the storyteller, weaving together guitar, synthesizers, and a drum machine with more traditional Colombian instruments like the flauta de mill, alegre, maracas, guache, and llamado to make the sonic landscape Saumet inhabits. Recording mostly instrumental work on his own, when the two came together, Mejía found the enchanting element that previously eluded him. Saumet remembers, “I really liked what he had to offer because it had a lot to do with my culture, so it was natural for me.” Bomba was complete. Since then, she says, “We cannot stop growing.”

Now the fans holler that they want to marry her. The sweltering den they transform concert venues into has brought them to the point of passing out. Mejía tells me the duo and their band get together to collect positive energies for a good show before hitting the stage.

It seems to be working. Saumet teases listeners on “La Boquilla,” singing in Spanish, “If you bite me, I’ll bite you, rawr rawr.” The track pays respect to the African part of her roots, and she can’t talk about her passion for music without talking about her hometown, Santa Marta, on Colombia’s Caribbean shore.

“Being born there meant not having any limits to my imagination,” she explains. “Since the town is right by the ocean and there is no horizon in sight, space is limitless, and in one way or another, it expands your physical and mental state of mind… everyone along the coast sings and dances.”

But Saumet says she didn’t plan on being a singer, though her mother, grandmother, cousins and uncles all sang. Bomba just happened when she clicked with Mejía.
A magical aspect seems to put the shimmer in her eye and give Mejía an impeccable ear and innate knack for music. When she is performing, Saumet says she tries to evoke the “magical and almost spiritual touch” that she loves about the indigenous people of her hometown. Her on-stage presence developed and she feeds off of the crowd’s energy; however, it seems like she’s been performing all her life after witnessing the confidence she exudes.

And when she wants to pounce, she goes full-force. On “La Nina Rica,” she mocks the wealthy, self-absorbed girls in Colombian society, calling them out, saying “they don’t die of hunger, they die of bulimia” and, more harshly, “they don’t know what they think because they don’t think.” By the time the chorus comes around, Saumet further distances herself from those girls, singing, “I am a rich girl, I am on the covers of magazines, television. I go out every night, and steal the show. My fans keep growing like water, and to buy is my profession.” The title itself is a double entendre, loosely translating to “the rich little girl” and “the prostitute.”

Bomba Estereo keeps their sound authentic, and Mejía lights up when he talks about recording two instrumental tracks for Blow Up—“Camino Evitar” and “Palenke.” He says, “they are very special to me—I even traveled to a place called Palenque to record with musicians from the local scene.” The location he refers to is a remarkable cultural landmark, recognized for the deep oral history and musical traditions of the escaped Africans who founded the tiny city hundreds of years ago. It’s the last of these walled cities, and no doubt the ancient spirits laced the tunes with good luck.

From the non-stop touring and traveling pace the band is keeping, it does seem like they are playing with magic and bringing to life the sounds of the old Colombian folklore tales. Bomba’s first stateside show was at this year’s SXSW, and Mejía fondly recalls the experience, saying, “SXSW reminded us about the rocker spirit of simply ‘plug and play.’”

Mejía admits that the album “took a lot of time, energy and effort,” and some songs were played live before they were recorded, making them more meaningful for the band. When they go on the road, their sound remains intact and comes alive because they record and tour with the same band. “That’s why the album is so energetic!”

His cinematic approach to music reveals a broad world-view, and the blending of cumbia, champeta, Afro-beats, dancehall and electronica is second nature to his impressionistic mind. Saumet, who tends to add lyrics to his music is another kind of visionary: she mixes colors and styles to create a look that’s all her own. This is a band without handlers and stylists dictating how to nail the next big thing; they are living out the stuff of myth on their own terms.