Interview: Q&A w/ Meridian Brothers – Cumbia from the Future (August 2020)

Since 1998,  they’ve been bringing the sound of cumbia forward. Meridian Brothers and their founder Eblis Álvarez have helped to radically shift the image of the Latin American style, from a traditional, and in some cases old-school, inherent aspect of the Latin culture to a dynamic, experimental and even challenging expression of the ingenuity of its interpreters. 

Cumbia Siglo XXI, Meridian Brothers’ fresh from the oven eighth album, is there to prove it. In its 10 chapters, Eblis and music partners take, dissect and rebuild the Colombian coastal cumbia of the 1980s opening up to a broad spectrum of influences and a more urban attitude.

A few days ago, we reached cumbia “reformer” Eblis Álvarez to somewhat dissect his band as well…

Let’s start with these mad days… I’ve just read that the Bogotá mayor is thinking about lockdowns once again. How is the situation there and how much is the pandemic affecting your work and everyday life?

Colombia is following the protocols established by the Latin-American economic lobby groups in connection to OMS. Almost nobody finds any complete sense to these regulations which are driving people crazy with endless quarantines. At this point most of the art circles and businesses are broke. 

Even if it’s pretty hard to foresee or think about the future in the current situation, how do you think music, and more specifically Colombian music, will come out of this? What will be “left” of music after Covid-19? 

Well, we’ll find out. Most of the time people do one way or the other. In my point of view, after several years of injustice and corruption, it’s important to realize that institutions who are presumably in favour of the people, aren’t. I have this feeling that institutions, government and education in a great percentage are designed to damage our true potential as people through all kinds of bureaucracy, protocols and excuses of “security”. 

Everything is left, all the potential as musicians, artists and human beings, who always rebuild everything after the powers search to destroy our souls and our spirits once more. I don’t think  they’re gonna win.

Cumbia Siglo XXI, is going to be released in a few days’ time… Willy nilly, it’s hard to abstract it from the present. So, how do you feel about releasing a new album in the middle of a global pandemic?

Well, I composed the album for normal times. But it came out in this situation. It happened by chance. Let’s see if the music has to say something in difficult times. I guess the listening process of music got slower, maybe it’s the time for detail. Meridian Brothers’ music has a great deal of detail that is overlooked in normal times, due to the speed and amount of information. Maybe it helps! Who knows…

At the same time and despite all, I’m pretty sure that the album is the fulfilment of a process or path started after ¿Dónde estás María?, so back in 2017. Can you let us know where the inspiration for Cumbia Siglo XXI comes from and how the project developed?

The album was composed in 2019. After a long pause of nearly three years. I had a couple of different ideas for a new album for the Meridian Brothers; among them, was the inspiration of taking on several music labels operating in Barranquilla in the 70s and 80s that approached the production on music by a different angle, superimposing the traditional with cosmopolitan styles of pop music, such as funk and disco.

I started the process of finding what I liked about those records and how I wanted this inspiration to take shape in 2019. What it got me through was Cumbia Siglo XX and 2000 Voltios, among others, which took me into the path of blending once more these two big ingredients, the traditional and the cosmopolitan. I decided to work as they did, but in the over-communicated XXI century. Taking what we understand as “cumbia” right now and trying to get into the traditional from this standpoint.

Cumbia Siglo XXI is your first release with Les Disques Bongo Joe. How was it to work with the label, how did you get in touch with them and what do you like about the project? 

I’ve been in contact with Cyril, from Bongo Joe for a long time. They are friends with Soyuz Music, the agency I’ve been working for already eight years making the tours in Europe. We were talking about making a record for a long time. So I felt that this time was a good opportunity. Besides, I really think that Bongo Joe is a very edgy label. All its releases are carefully curated and with extremely good taste. I am really happy that we could make this through.

Meridian Brothers’ story started back in 1998. After more than 20 years, how can you still find something new to discover and how can you always spot a new direction to lead your band’s sound?

Well, I love to release records. It has always been my dream and I work accordingly. Anyway, at one point I realized that if I was to release tons of records I had to be systematic. My first album, that I recorded in 2000, was full of all ideas. Then I came to the thought that ideas are not infinite. If ideas are to be kept long, they need both feedback from the environment and to be austere. So I did that.

Most of the materials I found through the years are taken from what happened in the collective of colleagues and the very scene. Other materials were taken from the industry itself and the suggestions of friends and co-workers. And in order to be austere I had also to very carefully plan every album with a strict plan of development in order to not lose any creative material unnecessarily. This is the reason because every album has a concept behind. The concept of the album is the one which guards austerity of the disorganized impulses of raw inspiration.

There are a lot of inspirations out there, in records, in colleagues, in information, that if they are taken carefully, these inspirations can produce more albums to be released!

You never made secret in your works that the recent past (the 1970s and 80s in particular) is a huge inspiration and interest of yours. How do you blend the music of those decades with more contemporary and even futuristic sounds?

I personally think that the 60s, 70s, and 80s were the golden era of the over-communicated societies. The over-communication in combination with speed is the corrosive energy that consumes the inner-human inspiration and knowledge. The process works when all this information, external to the human mind, replaces the inner.

Both extremes are bad in my opinion. When information is too slow or scarce, the mind submerges into itself feedbacking with its own whirlpool. That results in a lack of communication with the collective mind. On the other hand, the over-speed and the excess of information results in the very same, a whirlpool of a rather sterile inspiration. The decades we are talking about, had a very good balance in culture, a good combination of the cosmopolitan, public, and the local/inner in a lot of places in the world, therefore most of the styles of music we consume nowadays are a result of this era, in one way or the other.

Since I have this fixed idea of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, I just try to take the media nowadays to keep this balance in place.

Meridian Brothers are one of the few bands who are decisively bringing forward the image and sound of cumbia. How do you relate with the so-called cumbia scene and what does it mean to bring cumbia into the present and project it into the future?

Cumbia right now is on the verge of being a global style. It’s a known process, where a cultural tendency generated by a ghetto or a particular human collectivity goes public into the system of communications. As I stated in the previous question, there’s a time where both the inner and the outer gets balanced, giving a very good piece of art and culture.

I personally take advantage of the state of the art of cumbia to communicate certain ideas, but it doesn’t mean that Meridian Brothers brings cumbia to some point. Cumbia exists by itself, it’s a representation of the collective imaginary that at one point can play against its very nature of localism. Most of the music that I release navigates this wave. What I try to do is to slow the process of degeneration as far as I can, being specific, being detailed.

This is the reason to research deeply into the universe that cumbia can be, both in its global cosmopolitan idea and the inner, the local, where the resources are being generated. At one point I guess, this has to be kept secret, otherwise it will become a trend, and trends are dead pieces of culture inoculated into societies.

Since you are also keen on unearthing and promoting a Pan-Latin musical identity blending, for example, tropicalia with Latin rock and cumbia psicodelica with salsa… Can you spot a trait d’union between the different Latin American music scenes? What does playing Latin music mean?

Actually, I’m not much of a fanatic of identity. But don’t take me wrong, I’m not either a fan of globalism, or a pan-American identity.

I personally think that keeping things divided in culture, is more a strategy against the powers of economy, politics and publicity, and even the dictatorship of lobbies in music and art. Because societies are dominated by a common myth, law, idea or in these days, intellectuality and education, the more fragmented the ways are of living of the people and its cultures, the more difficult the powers have to enslave the people.

I think every human society has to defend itself from these powers through identity, through making things on its own. Unfortunately, these concepts of identity are hijacked in terms of patriotism and nationalism that immediately are related to fascism, due to the historic and dramatic events of the XX century, even putting in the people’s minds the idea of “My culture is better than the one of my neighbour”… This, of course is the strategy of global economic powers (through its corporations, and even through intellectual ideas in universities and education centers), discrediting the fact of countries doing their own business in their sovereignty.

Proof of globalism being wrong emerges in every corner of the world. The Earth is being torn apart and destroyed because of global uncontrolled over-production, pollution and destruction of local ways of doing things, poor countries such as mine are being dismantled in their economies because of globalism and commerce threats. Culture is suffering from the very same standardization. We must defend against its fake “human reunion” through self-identity, self-economy and self-politics.

Back to music, I guess it works in the same way. If I go towards the “pan-reunion” I would make things easier for the domination of the musical language succeeding through simplification. I actually try every time to divide, more and more, to be more specific, to search limited, so the languages keep their essence, without converting themselves into a transnational rootless music. Over-blending, pan-converting are the enemies of fertility in every aspect of life.

We humans are connected, that’s a fact, but the wire of connection doesn’t belong to institutions, politics, global culture, ideologies or in the most vulgar and repulsive form, corporations, nor even pan-whatever-The-Stuff-It-Is.

Division is a misleading negative concept predicated by the nowadays pan-global world and the whole scaffold of misinformation, humans are united. We are part of one thing, but we don’t need anyone who tell us through public culture.

What have you been listening to lately? Is there any musician/band who is currently inspiring you?

I’m kind of a variable listener. I review my old records from time to time. And search for the new. Right now I’m very into several local bands from Bogota. For example I’m very into a naïve rock band called Marta Rivera, a band of a friend of mine. Or some other local new tropical acts such as La Sonora Mazurén.

Before Covid, the music scene in Bogotá was “simply” thriving. There are not many places in the world so rich and lively when it comes to music and there are not many places where you can find traditional and contemporary musicians going hand in hand. Is there any particular secret behind the fertile soundscape and smooth relationship between the old and new school?

I think the secret is the one I explained in previous questions. 

The balance between the local and the global. The Bogotan scene was isolated enough at the end of the 90s to be able to be self-meditative, searching for the traditional. And at the same time, the scene was cosmopolitan enough (exposed to the system of global communications), to take the cosmopolitan garbage in a proper amount. The cosmopolitan stuff doesn’t belong anymore to someone, it belongs to trades and publicity, those things are not human anymore, although generated by humans. But the cosmopolitan in its positive way brings air and new elements to the traditional. 

Anyway, everything that goes up, goes down, so our task is to slow that process through slowness, through reasonable shortage.

Can you suggest some new acts from the Bogotá or Colombian music scene? Anyone we must listen to…

I mentioned above the naïve rock band Marta Rivera. They form part of a new generation of local artists. Actually this band is released through the label In-correcto. A local label which in my point of view will release the new generation of the Bogotan talent in its more genuine expression. These guys are not only doing the tropical acts, they are going through the whole spectrum of styles. You can listen to their pandemic compilation, done virtually, the Cuarentemas. 

Next to Meridian Brothers’ new album, you have recently worked on another project. What can you tell us about Grupo Renacimiento?

At one point I realized that I couldn’t give to the Meridian Brothers the whole spectrum of ideas. It would be too much. So I decided to put more paths of expression to different “fake bands”. I’ve slowly done a little catalogue. Among them is Grupo Renacimiento, which is a group devoted to “Class B” 70s salsa.

But I also work with Los Pirañas, Chupameeldedo (synth metal), Grupo Sanfrancisco de Asis, a punk Christian band, and soon I will release El Último Meridian a post-perreo project.

What are your and Meridian Brothers projects for the future?

As I said above, the next will be El Último Meridian and for the future I guess I would like to keep on with the second album of a trilogy for Los Suicidas, an organ album I released in 2015.

We usually close our interviews with a tricky question… In a few words, how would you introduce Meridian Brothers to someone who had never listened to your music?

Meridian Brothers is intended to be a band for a curious listener. A listener who enjoys details. If you are more of a detailed listener, or a meticulous fan of music, Meridian Brothers can be your thing.

Photo ©: Mariana Reyes