Interview: Simón Mejía, Bomba Estéreo – Breaking Musical Language Barriers (August 2017)

If they haven’t yet, Bomba Estéreo are ready to turn the last days of your summer upside down. With a new album (titled Ayo) on the launch pad and an ongoing world tour that will touch London on the 12th of September at Koko, they will bring their name to everyone’s lips.

And they fully deserve every shred of hype. If Colombia can claim today to have one of the liveliest and most exciting music scenes in the world, that’s because in the last 20 years it gave birth to bands that have been able to draw fully from the rich traditional repertoire of the Latin American country, translating it to the present and projecting it into the future with a dancy electronic attitude and influences from psychedelia to hip-hop.

A few days ago, we reached Simón Mejía (the nucleus of Bomba Estéreo, together with Liliana Saumet) during one of his sporadic breaks from touring, recording and producing new music and we asked him to introduce us to the sound of one of the coolest bands around.

Rhythm Passport: 12 years (16, if we consider your first steps) is quite a remarkable lifespan for a band in today’s music scene. How do you feel about Bomba Estéreo’s story?

Simón Mejía: “I feel quite honoured, especially coming from Colombia which is a beautiful but at the same time very difficult place to live and work in. Making alternative music in Colombia is a long and windy path, and besides Bomba Estéreo having a more international sound nowadays, it´s still alternative in comparison to how the music industry works here.

So, yes, it’s an honour to have achieved all these years making this type of music, and breaking language barriers every time we go and play abroad”.

RP: Despite your embrace of many influences from all over the world, it is possible to say that your sound is quintessentially Latin if not even Colombian. How did you build it and how has it developed in these years?

SM: “Yes, it´s definitely a Latin sound, a Caribbean sound blended with electronica. It came to life  12 or 15 years ago when I was making house music and thinking, why am I making house music if I live in Colombia and they make it better in London or Detroit?

So, I started to think what might happen if I blended that dance music, with our dance music from Colombia, which is folk music, cumbia and champeta, and that was the starting point for everything. Then I tried to include vocals and that´s how Liliana  came in”.

RP: Colombia has deeply changed since you started. How do you feel about your country and how has it recently changed?

SM: “It´s a love and hate relationship. I think Colombia is one of the most powerful and beautiful places in the world, but politics sucks and corruption is totally out of line. So, the result of that is having deep social problems and violence. Fortunately, we just signed a peace agreement with the main guerrilla group, but still, that doesn´t solve the problem which comes from corruption. Paradoxically, at the same time, we have one of the richest musical universes in the world. That´s my country, from one extreme to the other”.

RP: At the same time, how do you feel about taking your Colombian sound all over the world? How do the different audiences react and relate to it?

SM: “I love the idea of being part of a changing world were Anglo culture is not predominant all over, but other cultures are becoming part of these artistic scenes. Here in Latin America, we grew up thinking that everything that came from outside, from the cultural kingdoms, Europe and the States, was better. Nowadays, that concept is changing and we see the results in music. For example, Caribbean music, from reggaeton to other styles, is taking over the world and influencing musicians everywhere”.

RP: You mentioned that Colombia has one of the richest music universes in the world. What do you like about it? Do you have any name/s to suggest to us?

SM: “Colombian music is a huge universe, especially if you consider folk music. We have two coasts, Caribbean and Pacific, which were populated by African diaspora, so music in those areas is amazing. I personally like Systema Solar, Meridian Brothers, Abelardo Carbonó and Leopardo”.

RP: While if we go outside Colombian borders… what are you listening to at the moment?

SM: “I love Bonobo’s latest album and I also listen to a lot of music from Ethiopia”.

RP: Your latest album Amanecer is two years old. How was it received and what are your thoughts when you listen to it today?

SM: “It was very well received, it was an album that changed a little, from the styles we did before, but in a good way. People really liked it and everything that happened around “Soy Yo”, which is one of the main tracks. Then, the video of the song was totally unbelievable too!”

RP: Your videos have indeed become more and more crucial to your success. What’s your relationship with visuals and what do you want to communicate through your videos?

SM: “I studied visual arts so it’s a passion of mine as well as music. When I’m not working on Bomba Estéreo, I do music documentaries. Recently, I did a short documentary for Red Bull that you can find online, titled “Searching for Sounds: The Return to San Basilio”.

Concerning Bomba Estéreo, I’m involved with all the visual aspects: light, video, dress code, scenography. I think music hits the eyes as well as the ears. Actually, Bomba Estéreo started as a visual concept as well”.

RP: As a matter of fact, we know that your live shows are constantly a unique experience…so what should people expect from your forthcoming London show on the 12th of September?

SM: “We are going to share our new music and some of the old tunes. They can be sure that it’ll be a very energetic show as always, with lots of dance, vibes, and love, we´re working hard to get a good show from the new album. So this will be the chance to experience it, as we don’t visit London often”.

RP: How would you introduce Bomba Estéreo’s sound to someone in London who never listened to it before?

SM: “Take a bit of the Caribbean, a bit of the Colombian mountains, a bit of electronic music, a bit of dub music, and a bit of hip hop, put those in a pan, lots of spice, chilli powder, and put the fire on!”

RP: Finally, since the first 16 years have been so successful for your band, what have you in store for the next (at least) 16 years of Bomba Estéreo?

A: “Wow… Well, I hope I’ll still be alive in the first place! Because with this touring schedule one never knows…”

Photo ©: Elise Mesner