In early September, Simón Mejía and Liliana Saumet, one of half the electro-tropical quartet Bomba Estereo, stood on a stage in Bogotá and accepted a framed gold disc for the band's 2008 sophomore album, Blow Up!, which had sold over 10,000 records in Colombia.
The timing of the recognition was ideal from publicity standpoint since the quartet was launching the break-through record's follow-up, Elegancia Tropical. But its symbolism was also apparent. If Blow Up! was Bomba Estereo's introduction of their Colombia to the world, Elegancia synthesizes all of the sounds, ideas, and lessons from their global gigging back to Colombia.
On this album, the band draws from Afro-pop, dubstep, freestyle, psychedelia, cumbia, and champeta, among others. Two years in the making, Elegancia finds members singer-MC Liliana (aka Li), bassist/producer Mejía, percussionist Kike Egullorra, and guitarist Julián Salazar globally-informed and a bit more serious.
"Elegancia Tropical is a new phase for Bomba Estereo," Li, 33, explained in Spanish, over coffee in Williamsburg recently. "It's a bit more elegant because it's more mature and tranquil; less jovial than before and more introspective." Li Saumet in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, November 2012.
When the Bogotá crew first emerged at stateside music showcases in 2009, the world's burgeoning interest in digital cumbia and other electronic-folkloric fusions had created a receptive audience for their kinetic, party-starting blend of cumbia, champeta, dub, and psychedelia.
Bomba's most popular (and iconic) song was a radio-friendly cumbia called "Fuego," in which its singer-MC Li introduced herself and her outfit with a flow that recalled Spanish rapper Mala Rodriguez and legendary Colombian singer Joe Arroyo but with a tropical swagger and asymmetrical haircut that was all her own.
The group, like its fiery hit, was raw and fresher than anything by any of Colombia's established musical ambassadors (Shakira, Juanes, Fonseca, Carlos Vives). Bomba struck the right balance of folk and electronic music to defy "Latin" or "world music" labeling. The band would spend the next four years playing hundreds of dates and festivals like Coachella, Vive Latino, Roskilde and more.
But to fully understand where they've gone on this new record, it's worthwhile to look at where they come from. Because Bomba Estereo's origin story is emblematic of a new generation of Colombian musicians Artists who've grown up in the shadows of a violent past, honed and incubated their art in local scenes and harnessed the DIY power of the Internet as well as the country's increasing stability to help them gain international exposure and success on their terms.
Vol. 1: Early days
Simón came up in Bogotá's fertile underground scene around 2003 at a time when music-makers like Aterciopelados' Hector Buitrago (through his electronic label Entrecasa), Sidestepper, and, Simón's earlier group, AM 770 were beginning to fuse traditional Colombian rhythms with electronic music. Young people from all parts of the diverse country were living and studying in the capital and bringing the sounds and cultural elements of their lands into the city's cultural milieu.
"It was a very nascent style," said Simón, 35, in Spanish, during a recent phone interview from Bogotá. "Today it's a very established sound and popular but at that time, it was totally new."