Traditions are kept alive by constant change. The roots music of the 21st Century is being created as much with electric guitars, sequencers, and laptops as with drums and flutes.
That's one of the ideas behind the Rhythm Foundation's Heineken TransAtlantic Festival, whose 2013 headliners include Argentine-Uruguayan electro-tango group Bajofondo and Colombian electro-tropical Bomba Estéreo, as well as the duo Zuzuka Poderosa & Kush Arora, plus Miami's own the Hongs, Krisp, Beat Machines, Psychic Mirrors, and Mr. Pauer.
"Simón [Mejía] started the group with the idea of mixing roots music and
electronic music before I joined," says Liliana "Li" Saumet, Bomba Estéreo singer
and lyricist, speaking from the band´s bus, en route to a show in San Francisco.
Saumet was born in Santa Marta, on the Atlantic coast of Colombia, a place with
deep African traditions. "It's not that I bring the folklore to Bomba Estéreo; the
idea was there. It's just that when I sing, you can hear la costa because that's what
comes natural to me. That sound is what I grew up with."
In fact, Saumet says her singing approach refers to that of the cantadoras, the
troubadour women in Afro-Colombian culture who, in their singing, preserve and
pass on the stories of their people. "They are my reference, especially La Niña
Emilia [1932-1993]," says Saumet. "And they have a distinct way of singing, very
deep but also without a musical training, and that's what came out when I started
singing. It's the singing of my roots. That and rap are my main references."
Now, in her work with Bomba Estéreo, Saumet might be also updating and
keeping alive the cantadora tradition.
Bomba Estéreo was founded by Mejía, a visual artist turned full-time bassist,
programme,r and producer, and released its first recording in 2006. It drew from
traditional music, most obviously cumbia, but also DJ culture, electronic, and hip-hop. The result was both substantive and danceable while also being fun. Since then, the group
has become a hit at festivals like SXSW and has just released Elegancia Tropical, its third recording.
Mejía, Saumet, and Bomba are textbook headliners for the TransAtlantic Festival, which the Rhythm Foundation started in 2003 as a way to connect with new audiences as well as
celebrate the traditional.
It was an "interesting time in Miami," says Laura Quinlan, director of the Rhythm
Foundation. "It was the time of the Internet boom and new media and there
were all these really cool people moving in from Latin America, interesting, creative people who were setting up companies, businesses, and art galleries. It was a real revitalization in the city. But our audiences were not reflecting that. As an organization we were not connecting with this renaissance.
"And there was also this new sound I personally loved, which was the mix of
electronica and world music," says Quinlan. "Now this sound has become kind
of standard but I remember the first time I heard [the Tijuana-based] Nortec
Collective, the birth of Latin-tronica, I couldn't believe it. Now it's not so
shocking, you hear it in car commercials -- but I still love it."
Since its first edition, the TransAtlantic Festival has featured artists and groups
such as Seu Jorge, DJ Da Lua, Bossacucanova, Chambao, Juana Molina, Ojos de
Brujo, Aterciopelados, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, and
"When you are programming and running a cultural organization you have to keep
your circle open, you have to stay open to new sounds, new collaborators, new
partners or your impact in the community starts to shrink," says Quinlan. "That
openness has always been central to TransAtlantic."
Meanwhile, Saumet sees the work and success of Bomba Estéreo as part of a
"It's something that's happening not only in Colombia but México, Perú,
Venezuela, Argentina, all throughout Latin America," she says. "We are looking to
our roots, to our culture not just rock and we coming to what is ours. And I think
the perspective has changed too. We used to look North, to the Anglo world. Now
I think the Anglo world is also looking at us."
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Heineken TransAtlantic Festival 2013. Presented by Rhythm Foundation. With Bajofondo, Bomba Estéreo, Zuzuka Poderosa & Kush Arora, Psychic Mirros, Krisp, Mr. Pauer, and Beatmachines. Thursday, April 4, through Sunday, April 7, at Blackbird Ordinary, 729 SW First Ave., Miami; North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; and Gramps, 176 NW 24th St., Miami. Admission is free at Blackbird Ordinary and Gramps. Tickets cost $23 to $35 for North Beach Bandshell shows. Call 305-672-5202, or visit rhythmfoundation.com.