MIAMI — Bogota group Bomba Estereo (literally Stereo Bomb) is igniting a musical furor with its wildly and unexpectedly infectious mix of bouncy Colombian cumbia, one of that country’s many folk musics, and funky electronic grooves.
Fronted by incandescent Colombian homegirl Li Samuet, who hails from the Atlantic coastal town of Santa Marta, a place with rich African and Indian folkloric traditions, Bomba Estereo sounds like nothing else that’s come out of Colombia. In the past year the band’s been blowing up outside its country, playing hot shows at the South by Southwest festival in Texas, appearing on taste-making L.A. radio station KCRW-FM, and earning critical raves.
Bomba Estereo came out of a growing electronic music scene in Bogota, and has helped spark a trend to mix folkloric music with electronica. It’s similar in form (if not in sound) to what Carlos Vives did when he started mixing vallenato and pop music in the ‘90s, and to Sidestepper, another dance-folkloric project.
We talked to Bomba leader and bassist Simon Mejia in Mexico City, as the group got ready to play a free show on the city’s huge central plaza with its musical cousin Nortec, the norteno-electronic combo.
Q: So how did Bomba Estereo start?
A: It started in 2005. I was working in Bogota with a friend of mine who’s a DJ, and we began mixing folk sounds with electronica, but it was more electronica, more instrumental. After that I kept working alone, and I began making the first record in my studio at home, and I invited some singers and I met Liliana, and we kept working together.
Q: Bogota is not where most people would expect to find an electronic music scene.
A: There’s a very strong DJ scene there, and many international DJs go there, which is similar to what exists around the world. But there’s a smaller, more independent electronic scene that’s like 5 to 8 years old, with producers making their own music, and it’s growing.
Q: How’d you get the idea to mix cumbia and electronica?
A: Just the music itself gave me the idea. I had worked with this hip-hop DJ who was doing the same kind of mix, but with turntables. So he introduced me to it. It all comes from a dance scene. Our folk music is our dance music, and electronic music is the dance music of Europe and the U.S. It’s the same energy that comes from Africa, the same groove.
Q: How do you and Samuet write the songs?
A: It’s a very organic process. I write the music, and I bring it to her and she writes the lyrics. We communicate without talking. It’s been that way since the beginning.
Q: So is cumbia becoming cool for young people in Colombia?
A: Yeah it is. Maybe five, six years ago it was not so cool, but recently it has become like a trend. When we began, people saw it as kind of strange. Sometimes people deny their own culture — you can find people in Colombia who are ashamed of listening to folk music and dancing cumbia. But recently there are so many groups using these traditions that it’s making it a little more cool. For us, it’s a way of bringing all these folkloric traditions and putting them into a more contemporary context. Especially for young people who might say, “I don’t like cumbia, that’s for old people,” but if you put in hip-hop or electronica they get into it. For us it’s a way to rescue a tradition that’s getting lost. These are our roots and our music; there’s a cultural tradition that’s important and really strong. There are so many external influences that come into Colombia that people forget about our own thing, our own tradition.
Q: What you guys are doing is similar to what Nortec is doing with norteno, or Bajofondo Tango Club has done with tango.
A: It’s an interesting phenomenon to see that happening from Mexico to Argentina, each one in their own way taking their traditions and doing versions of it with different styles. And it’s not only Latin — you see the same phenomenon all over the world. So it’s more like a world movement of young musicians taking traditional and roots music and renewing them by putting them in a new context.
Q: How do you feel about all the attention the band has gotten in the past year?
A: It’s a nice thing because it’s very natural. We started Bomba Estereo because we had a great passion for the music. We were experimenting. We didn’t know cumbia was going to be trendy or all this was going to happen. So when all the attention began to grow, it was like a reward for all the years we worked. When success comes like that, and it’s not planned with a producer and a record company, it’s very gratifying.