Simón Mejía believes music is a universal language, but his musical universe includes singers, instrumentalists, electronics, birds, insects, as well as rocks and the water that splashes on them. After a decade with his group Bomba Estéreo motivating dance floors with of-the-moment electronic music mixed with sounds from his native Colombia, he ventured into the timelessness of the natural world with his first solo album, Mirla.
Mejia moved out of his hometown, Bogota, a year ago, and fostered his relationship with the green world, adding to the recordings of natural sounds he had made on trips to remote jungle areas and the Amazon River. Just as he thought “why not?” when adding Colombian sounds to international electronic music with Bomba Estéreo, he decided to add the sounds of nature into his own sonic junglescape dripping and misty with electronic sounds.
In 2005, Mejia created Bomba Estéreo out of an earlier group called A.M. 770. “I wanted to make electronic music that was different than the electronic music invading New York, London, and Detroit and Berlin,” he said. “I wanted to make electronic music that sounded Colombian. I was just wondering what would happen if we blended our dance music with international dance music – house, techno, whatever.”
Bomba Estéreo have released five albums and has six Latin Grammy nominations, and Amanecer was lauded by Rolling Stone as one of the 50 best albums of 2015. One of its big hits, “To My Love”, was based on the call of a bird from Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
In 2010, Mejia was in the running to be a mentee of electronic music icon Brian Eno. He met with Eno in London and presented an idea of exploring the pre-colonial music of Colombia electronically, noting that it was based on natural sounds so it was, in a sense, ambient music. Though he was not chosen, Mejia said the experience was still an education and that he realized “sound is sometimes more interesting to explore than music – color, expression, atmosphere. It’s not just about structure and lyrics.”
He said that electronic music and the natural world are not so separated. He recalled once waking up during a trip to the jungle surrounded by a dense soundscape that reminded him of a “perfect synthesizer”. “The electronic music I most like feels organic,” he continued. “It doesn’t feel like a robot playing. [It’s] something that gets out of control and gets your mind also out of control and makes you think of many things at the same time. Instrumental music has more of that possibility because when you have lyrics it takes you to a specific place, but when you have instrumental music you can go to many places.”
Mejia created a new entity, Monte, for his environment-themed work, with Mirla being the first album, to be followed by a documentary on two Colombian conservation projects and an accompanying soundtrack called Sonic Forest. He noted in some of these remote communities, he has found musicians “doing amazing things with their instruments. It’s an endless investigation.”
Mirla is the Spanish name for the great thrush, a species native to the Andean region. One particular mirla visited his backyard and they began to develop a relationship. The species, he said, has a beautiful song, but is a “motherfucker” known to break car windows and eat the young of other birds. “They’re like a real gang,” he says.
The black bird with the orange beak in his backyard, though, began to study Mejia even as Mejia studied him and began to record him. “Every time he’d come closer, to give me a better recording,” Mejia recounted. “And do better melodies and to improve his singing like he was trying to impress me in some way. It was strange but beautiful.” One day, he found the bird had crashed into a window of his home and died. Mejia was struck by the loss, eventually burying him in a small ceremony, crying and thinking the bird’s death was some sort of sign punctuating their unusual relationship.
On the song “Mirla”, which he calls the “emotional center” of the album, the delicate plucking of the strings of the folkloric charango plink out a melody that counters the recorded curlicued whistle of the mirla as percussion and electronic sounds carry the rhythm forward.
Building on a rising, three-chord synthesizer drone, the song “Mar” is an homage to the ocean. With a powerful bass nailing down the rhythm; the cut swirls electronic sounds and whale songs along with an electric guitar. The song ends with a robotic voice reciting a poem that was written by a Colombian environmental activist that Mejia met at a conference at Harvard University. He said that when they returned to Colombia, she sent him the poem, telling him: “I dreamed in an ancient life you were a sailor.”
“Colibri” is named after another bird; the song reimagines the llanera rhythms native to an area between Colombia and Venezuela. Playing off the insistent beat is the ethereal voice of Natalia Helo who brings to mind the singing of Enya. Elsewhere, the club-like “Jungla” mixes the calls of crickets, frogs, and birds with synthesized responses.
While the album channels the calm of the natural world, it is, in a subtle way, a disturbing album too for its political implications. Mejia said that several years ago he and the band started to become politically attuned. He said he turned to activism, but then corrected himself: “I don’t like to call it activism; more like awareness.”
“From the moment I started doing field recordings of natural soundscapes,” Mejia said, “I knew it was kind of a personal library and archive of sounds that will eventually disappear – that we will not hear again in the future. So it’s really scary. I think the album — one can find it relaxing, but also nostalgic at the same time. With the videos we’ve done, we’ve tried to bring that scary feeling more upfront, trying to talk about this dystopia, that it’s the end of nature and the end of civilization.”
He notes that mining and the drug trade had harmful effects on the environment and life of rural Colombia. One nonprofit group reported that Colombia had the most killings of environmental leaders in the world last year with 64 murders. “It’s fucking crazy what’s happening here,” he said.