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Bomba Estéreo on returning to roots and changing the course of Latin music

With new album 'Ayo', the Colombian band stands firm in both sides of the Latin alternative and mainstream circuits.
16 Ago 2017 – 11:28 AM EDT

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Simón Mejía y Li Saumet son Bomba Estéreo.

In the age of 'Despacito' and 'Mi Gente', it’s rare to find artists who thrive in Latin music without conforming to the dominating, demanding rhythms of reggaetón.

Enter Bomba Estéreo’s tropical dance enigma—an intoxicating mix of psychedelic cumbia and electro-punk brilliance that resonates fiercely through the genre’s ever-elastic soundscapes. While the Colombian duo, composed of producer Simón Mejía and singer Liliana 'Li' Saumet, are largely responsible for pioneering and globalizing the electro-cumbia phenomenon that exploded in the late 2000's, their instantly-recognizable hybrid stands firm in both sides of the Latin alternative and mainstream circuits.

This feat hasn’t gone unrecognized. They scored a record deal with Sony in 2015, racked up handfuls of Grammy and Latin Grammy noms along the way, hold millions of views on their YouTube channel, and even performed an unlikely collaboration with Will Smith.

With Ayo—their fifth studio LP which permeates with the same bucolic radiance of the Caribbean coast (hear its earthy, rustic flair and drizzling electronic flourishes)—the horizon keeps getting brighter. For starters, they’ve sold out two nights at New York’s Irving Plaza for their album release, and they’re gearing up for a world tour alongside Arcade Fire.

“Those are things normally wouldn’t happen in Latin music,” Saumet tells U-LAB on their achievements. “Those spaces were reserved for [conventional] mainstream acts. I think what Bomba has accomplished is being an alternative band that is well known.”

We caught up with the fiery combo in New York’s Sony headquarters, where they boasted their new, spunky hair colors—Li Saumet sported a peachy bob, and Simón Mejía rocked a shaggy neon green cut. There, we discussed their return to their Caribbean origins, befriending Arcade Fire’s Will Butler, and shared their insight on the current global Latinx music invasion.

Isabela Raygoza for U-LAB Music: Your new album Ayo feels like a reconnection back to your roots, especially compared to the previous EDM-heavy Amanecer . Talk to me about the origins of Ayo.

Liliana Saumet: We realized that we needed to reconnect with our ancestors...

Simón Mejía: It goes back to our roots, and that’s what we tried to accomplish. Half of the album was recorded in Colombia [and the other half in L.A.]. There’s this friend of ours [ Christian Castagno] who is a music producer from New York who moved to Colombia five years ago. He set up his recording studio in a place called Minca, a small town in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. It’s this mountain in the Caribbean coast where Liliana was born, actually, and it’s been a sacred place for centuries. It’s an indigenous site for the kogies, the arhuacos and of many other indigenous communities. That’s where we began the recording process, in our friend’s studio.

U-LAB: I heard that a spiritual ceremony took place while conceiving the album.

Saumet: We asked nature for permission, for a voice and for energies to [help us] make the album. After that, I began to hear a song, and I started to write lyrics in my head. I began to sing 'Siembra,' the first song of the album. It all came after that ritual. I went into the studio, put on headphones, and just started singing it. I recorded that song in one take. It was amazing because when you ask permission, everything comes so natural, so organic. It was the first time we do this for this purpose.

U-LAB: In certain spiritual ceremonies, psychedelics are sometimes consumed during rituals. Did they play a role here?

Saumet: Do you mean yagé? In Putumayo, the Amazon, that’s where it is consumed, not in the Sierra Nevada. In the Sierra Nevada, [the indigenous tribes] chew coca leaves because they walk for hours and the leaves give them protein.

Mejía: The coca leaf is sacred. If you put an “h” to ayo, that’s the indigenous name for coca leaf.

U-LAB: There are previously unexplored sounds in Ayo. 'Química' has Middle Eastern melodies, 'Money Money Money…' channels EDM à la Major Lazer, and 'Taranga' explores sunshine reggae. What influences played a part this time around?

Mejía: It’s very diverse. I think Bomba has always been very eclectic, and we like to make albums that are eclectic, but still keep the same concept. It’s crazy... the 'Química' song was with Balkan Beat Box from Israel. They are close friends of ours from many years ago, and we hadn’t made anything with them [before]. But before that, we made 'Duele,' which by chance also has Middle Eastern sounds. Lots of people collaborated [on this album].

U-LAB: The title track sort of expresses how we exist on this planet. Where were you at mentally or spiritually when writing this particular song?

Saumet: Ayo...I wrote that song in Minca, with the same approach as 'Siembra.' It was beautiful because that song is so beautiful. It’s about finding your place in the world, not limiting yourself. Many people think they have limits, but the only limits there are are mental limits. You need to be proud and comfortable with yourself, and you can make whatever you want because you can do whatever you want.

U-LAB: Both your style and music combine indigenous flourishes with an urban touch. How do these two worlds collide in Bomba Estéreo’s universe?

Mejía: That’s what we are as Colombians and as Latin Americans. Actually, everyone around the world comes from a roots place, but in indigenous cultures, it’s much stronger. We come from an ancient root, but at the same time we are also people that grew up in the city who listened to music from the States and Europe. So it’s a blend, and that blends in your mind. When you make music, it just flows naturally because it’s part of your culture and how you grew up. The important thing for me is to always be conscious that you come from a root—where you were born and the music that happens there.

You’ll be touring with Arcade Fire later this year. How did that come about?

Mejía. We were playing in a Montreal festival about three or four years ago in a small venue of 200 people. The Arcade Fire singer [Will Butler] was there, and he saw the band. He liked it a lot and started following us [on social media]. Then years passed by and we met again through agencies. They were looking for an opening act for their European tour [in support of their new album, Everything Now], and they invited us. We played in Europe and there was chemistry, so they asked us, “Hey, let’s do this whole tour together!”

U-LAB: This is your second album released via Sony. What are some differences working with a major versus an indie label?

Mejía: There are more people involved in the process. We have more money to make music videos. More promotion and more support. It’s a bigger team, and when teams are bigger, in some way, everything is better. It’s like a movie. There are so many people involved, so they push more energy. We try to keep the music intact, but it’s not always 100 percent because we are part of a big corporation. So we fight to maintain our style.

Saumet: We’re always fighting with the music. Everybody tries to judge you, but the good thing is that you have a bigger team… with a lot of opinions, so you have to deal with that. But we always do whatever makes us happy.

U-LAB: Back in the day, Latin artists had to sing in English if they wanted to cross over to the US. But today, music like reggaetón goes mainstream. As prominent players of the Latin scene, how do you see the future of Latin music?

Saumet: 'Despacito.'

Mejía: I think there’s an amazing future with it invading the whole world. It not the Spanish language, but the rhythms and the dancing. Everything that we have coming out from Colombia, the Caribbean, and Latin America is really strong and fresh, and people see that. It’s not just one genre but a blend of things, and that’s amazing. It’s amazing to be a part of it as well.

U-LAB: For Bomba Estéreo, how does success look for you?

Saumet: When we started the band [in 2005, success to us] was to make music. Everything was different then, and it was [surreal] to play outside of Colombia. Not many Colombian bands did that. It’s more than the fame or the money, but when you make something that transcends fundamentally for Latin music… I think that Bomba and other bands have done things to change the course of Latin music.

To play big festivals around the world, to go to Japan, to tour with Arcade Fire, or to collaborate with Will Smith—those are things that normally wouldn’t happen in Latin music. Those spaces were reserved for mainstream acts. I think what Bomba has accomplished is being an alternative band that is well known, and that’s success. Not fame or money— la plata de pronto si aguanta—but we are not so interested in fame.

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