By Jacob Katel
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Colombia is a country known for its music. From vallenato to cumbia to salsa, to more modern styles such as pop and rock fusion, the sonic tapestry is colorful and intricately woven.
That's not all, though. Also popular in Colombia is reggaeton, a genre that has had a firm grasp on all of Latin America since its mainstream spread in the early '00s. Perhaps even less known abroad is the country's electronic music scene, which has grown steadily from the capital city, Bogotá, in recent years. Somewhere between the tradition and the progress is a growing number of artists searching for a form that bridges the gap. Enter Bomba Estéreo.
"One of the things I most like about Bomba Estéreo is that, apart from being a musical project, it's become in some way a form of rescuing that folklore that gets lost," says the group's founder, producer, and chief musical composer, Simón Mejía. "On its own, the kids might not be interested in it [folklore] like they are reggaeton, which is what's popular here. Or salsa. So a project like Bomba Estéreo, that takes that folklore and adds to it elements of hip-hop, reggaeton, reggae, dub, is a way that perhaps they can become more interested in it."
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Bomba Estéreo's sound was borne out of an exploration of different forms of fusion, Mejía says, and an attempt to make them danceable. But the progressive producer is quick to point out that the concept was not forced and the issue of combining these two worlds was never pushed.
"This was an idea I had while working in the studio, and mind you, it's not something I invented. There are many others in Colombia who've explored this sound too. It was something I started to experiment with while sampling old vinyl in the studio, digitizing that, and then creating loops to build the electronic tracks," he says. "It wasn't something where I said, 'I want to make an electronic cumbia.' It was something that was born very organically."
And while the project grew out of the studio, by 2005 Bomba Estéreo had become a full-fledged band with the addition of lyricist and singer Liliana Saumet. "Bomba Estéreo was originally me accompanied by a DJ — DJ Fresh — and a percussionist, and so it was mainly electronic and instrumental," Mejía says. "But then Liliana came along and brought with her a whole other element."
Mejía can't say enough about his fiery vocalist, who attacks Bomba's tracks with a passionate and aggressive delivery reminiscent of some of the more cutting-edge female lyricists, such as M.I.A. Of her contribution to the band, Mejía points out, "It's not just a feminine voice, but the tradition of where she comes from."
Saumet, you see, comes from Santa Marta, a region on Colombia's Atlantic Coast with a deeply rooted folkloric music tradition. "Without being a musician, or without ever having sung in her life before, she carried with her all those influences," Mejía says. "She brought all that and gave it a hip-hop flow."
With the lineup firmly in place, Mejía, Saumet, drummer Kike Egurrola, and guitarist Julian Salazar have continued their mission to combine the old and the new in a completely natural and organic way. Still, the question of what to call this new sound remains unanswered. Or at least undecided.
"Electro vacilón, psychedelic cumbia — those are names people have come up with to try to name this genre, which really is a new genre," Mejía explains. "The industry always feels the need to categorize, so coming up with these names adds a sense of humor to it. Progressive folklore, champeta electronica, champetronics — there are countless names we've heard attempting to encapsulate it. But in fact, it's a genre still under construction."
Indeed, the genre is a work in progress. But with the help of Bomba Estéreo and like-minded Colombian acts, it has a firm base from which to rise.