Regional rhythms ramped up for global dance floors: Bomba Estereo

Boston Globe, May 8, 2011

Train your ears southward, to the nightspots of South America’s capital cities, and it won’t take long before you start grooving to some form of electro-cumbia. The mix of electronica with cumbia, a folk-music mainstay of South America, has sparked myriad groups, collectives like Buenos Aires’s ZZK, and endless variants that weave in reggae or hip-hop. Fluid, vital, accessible, electro-cumbia has made it into the arsenal of a certain global DJ crowd that stays on the hunt for new, intelligent sounds.

The newest sensation in the genre, Bomba Estereo, is in a way, one of the most authentic. Cumbia took different forms in each country, but its roots are in Colombia – particularly the Afro-Colombian communities of the Caribbean coast. A Colombian band with a charismatic costena (coastal) lead singer, Bomba Estereo – which plays the Brighton Music Hall on Monday – has made a mission of unearthing obscure cumbia and other sounds and working them into dynamic, soulful tracks that could work as well in a London or New York club as at Carnaval in Barranquilla.

Watch the video for “Fuego,” the group’s big hit from their album “Blow Up” (previously titled “Estalla”) on Latin-alternative powerhouse Nacional Records. Shot on city streets under a blazing sun, it features singer Liliana “Li” Saumet rapping in a swift reggaeton cadence as images of daily life – men hauling carts, storefronts, painted street signs – go by. On “Aguasala,” by contrast, a meditative, white-clad Saumet calls out from an ocean beach to an emptiness that can’t help but evoke the traumatic Atlantic crossings of the slave trade.

The five-person group in its current formation is about five years old, says founder and bassist Simon Mejia, on the phone from a tour stop in Texas. That is when Saumet, in particular, joined what had been an instrumental project called AM 770. That earlier band was the first vehicle for Mejia – whose tastes previously ran to metal, goth, and new wave – to re-discover sounds lurking around him in Colombia’s folkways and on its AM radio airwaves.

“The inspiration came from AM radio,” Mejia says, describing a segmentation of the airwaves that American fans of country, gospel or old-time music would recognize. “AM in Colombia is where you hear the non-commercial music, all the cumbias and traditional sounds. I found very interesting music on AM, old records that you don’t hear anywhere else, music grandfathers listen to. It made me want to explore.”

Mejia found himself noting down the song titles he heard on these stations, then trolling old record stores and traveling to country villages to track down the music and hear it in its context.

“You go to places where there’s no Internet, no television, and people are still making their music,” he says. He became aware of regional differences, specific rhythms or local instruments found only, say, in parts of Colombia’s Caribbean or Pacific coastal zones.

Back in Bogota, Mejia worked to find the right mesh of electronica with the folk sounds he was immersed in. He got help from a friend who was a well-established local hip-hop DJ with experience mixing tropical beats. At some point, though, he realized he needed vocals. “Because the singer is the one who makes the connection to the people,” he says.

And does she ever. In Saumet, who comes from the coastal town of Santa Marta, Bomba Estereo has a kinetic, almost aggressively soulful frontwoman who brings not just charisma but also, Mejia explains, a deep background in the sound and culture of the region where cumbia was born.

“The way she sings is also the way she talks, it’s very local,” Mejia says. “It’s like the way Cubans speak, very rhythmic, very musical. And then she transposes that to her way of rapping. And combine that with a very strong tradition in her blood, the tradition of the cantadoras – women, often older ladies who sing, like Toto la Momposina – she sings in that traditional way.”

These days Bomba Estereo – the name conveys explosiveness, but also refers to Colombian slang in which “bomba” means good or fun, as in having a good time – still makes a few instrumental tracks, but most songs feature Saumet, her presence too brilliant to waste. As the group gains international traction, having played festivals from SXSW to Coachella, they’re also having fun with “Ponte Bomb,” a song that remakes the old club track “Pump Up the Jam.”

Mejia doesn’t claim to be a pioneer; he notes that other Colombian bands like Sidestepper were mixing regional and electronic sounds before them. He also doesn’t plan to get stuck in the rut of making one kind of electro-cumbia just because it has gotten popular.

“We need to keep moving and experimenting, otherwise it gets boring for us,” he says. “Cumbia is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s an immense mountain of Colombian sounds and rhythms for us to explore.”