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When Peter Gabriel coined the term 'world music,' he never meant for it to be put in a ghetto. It was supposed to be the world's music for the world, without distinctions," explains Richard Blair, the front man for the Colombia-based electronica band Sidestepper. Blair should know. He worked as an engineer at Gabriel's Real World Studios in England during the global music boom of the early Nineties, before running off to make Latin electronic music in South America.
Listen to Blair describe Bogota's steamy underground nightclubs, where his band romps out its vibrant tropitechno, and you can understand why he's never looked back. "If you're not up for joy and laughing and dancing and sweating until six in the morning, you don't go out," Blair reports during a recent phone call from his adopted hometown. "How could you possibly leave when there's an open bottle on the table? How could you be so rude?"
Manners aside, it's physically impractical to slip out of a Sidestepper show. The band's fans pack themselves in so tightly that they seem to move as one giant, pulsating body to the funky rhythms. All, of course, while belting out a chorus of wacky phrases such as "bacalao sala'o!" ("salty codfish").
While decidedly Latin in tone, Sidestepper's sound is rooted in the many cultures Blair mixed during his engineering career. The Brit first stumbled onto the global music scene back in England in 1989, when he got a job recording reggae and "Bhangla" (Indian-Anglo) music at Sinewave Studio in Birmingham.
Before long he was tweaking music from Cambodia and Senegal to Venezuela and Pakistan at Gabriel's Real World Studios in Wiltshire. "It was an extraordinary education, and I suppose the feeling that Gabriel brought to all of this was that it's all music and we're all musicians," Blair says.
He passed that same message onto colleagues in Colombia, where he went to visit in 1993. He never managed to repack his bags.
"There was something that I felt as soon as I got off the plane here like I'd been missing something in life and hadn't realized it until I got here," Blair reflects. "It starts with the people. Everything can be done with a smile, which is ironic in such a violent place. It did feel like the öexotic other' at first, but then I could see all the usual parallels between the way music is played and the effect it has."
Blair first jumped into the scene by recording artists such as Colombia's folk-rock prodigy Carlos Vives, and Mexican funk band Azul Violeta. In fact it was through the production of Vives's album La Tierra Olvidado that Blair met songwriter and fellow producer Iván Benavides.
In 1997 the two joined forces to form Sidestepper, a collective of fusion artists who hoped to push traditional Afro-Latino music into mainstream dance clubs. As the band's DJ, Blair immediately issued a challenge: He wanted his Colombian comrades to stretch the boundaries of their imaginations the way their music had stretched his.
"Any outsider who comes into a culture can see it and not have to respect its rules, so I was asking them to do things they might not have thought possible like putting great thumping beats over salsa and the usual vocals," Blair says.
It's more than salsa, actually. The band plays a range of traditional Latin genres, from cumbia to boogaloo. Teto Ocampo works the guitar, Kike Egurrola pounds the live percussion, while Benavides and a shifting cast of vocalists belts out the catchy, oft-repeated lyrics. Blair then programs electronic drum 'n' bass around the traditional clave rhythm to beef it up. Jamaican-style dancehall reggae and even some Afro-pop harmonies also find their way into to the mix. Which is why it's impossible to sit still while listening to the Sidestepper's three internationally released albums 3 a.m. (In Beats We Trust) (2003), More Grip (2000), and Logozo (1999).
"It's a full-on Western club thing," Blair says. "In order for this music to be accepted in a first world context, you gotta push the first world buttons, but the whole point was not to throw out the Latin life and spontaneity in the music. It wasn't something that anybody could have done here."
At least it wasn't anything Colombians had thought of doing, in those early days of Internet and northward migration. Blair and other Anglo world music fans helped Latin America's bohemian types put the cool factor back into their own traditions, the same nifty trick the Beatles performed with American rock and roll.
"The British Invasion saved the blues as an art form in America by giving back all this reverence for original blues players," Blair observes.
When New Times last wrote about Sidestepper in 2003, their musical concept was still considered edgy, though today the fusion can be heard in everyone from the Spam Allstars to Yerba Buena. Sidestepper has long understood that many of today's tastemakers can't be bothered with complex lyrical content. They need beats and more beats, chanting, sound bytes, and anything that will get the head bobbing and the body gyrating while still distinguishing itself from the drab tendency of Anglo club music.
The concept has landed Sidestepper a loyal following in places like California and Miami, and not just among the Spanish-speakers who can pick up on catchy phrases like "Hoy tenemos, mañana no sabemos" ("We have today, we don't know about tomorrow"). Blair credits Benavides for developing what he calls an ironic "post-attitude" in spite of language barriers. "With two or three words he can convey all this humor. Words fall nicely with the melodies he writes," Blair explains. "It's a dance band, we just need the flavors."
In turn, Blair's Colombian bandmates credit him with revamping their nation's musical image overseas, by serving as kind of a musical ambassador. Blair was the mastermind producer behind the 2005 self-titled album by Andrea Echeverri, front woman for legendary Colombian rock band Aterciopelados. Benavides, meanwhile, is so busy as a producer and composer for his own electrocumbe band, Bloque, that he barely has time to tour with Sidestepper.
Sidestepper's invitation to this year's Coachella Music Festival put it on the same bill as the Pixies, Radiohead, and the Cure. The band, in fact, got wedged onto a side stage during the Cure's performance. No matter.
"When we got back to Colombia, we literally went on the evening news to talk about our experience. They can see that there's a Colombian band that's proving that Colombia is more than guns and violence," Blair says.
With the new Sidestepper album Buena Vibra Soundsystem arriving in the U.S. this summer, a slew of recording projects underway with international artists, and tentative plans to establish a monthly residence in Miami, Blair seems to have found his place in the world. But what most enchants him is the way he's been adopted into Colombia as a kind of honorary citizen.
"Now we're referred to in Colombia not as an international band, but as a local one. There's a great deal of affection; people are genuinely grateful," he notes. "There's nothing I love doing better than being onstage with this band."