Colombian band Bomba Estéreo has revamped the traditional Caribbean coastal music, infusing the folkloric cumbia of their grandparents’ generation with electronic music, rap and reggae. The result: a hipper cumbia that’s causing hips to shake on dance floors around the world and vaulting Bomba Estéreo to international fame.
“It’s like a renovation of Colombian music,” said the band’s lead singer and rapper, Santa Marta native Liliana “Li” Saumet. The music is very Colombian, “but with a new formation, younger and fresher,” she said. Their sound ranges from the percussion-filled rocking party song “Fuego,” with Saumet rapping and dubbing herself the “boss” of the party, to the sad, sensual, tropical-sounding “El Alma y El Cuerpo,” on their latest album, where she croons about loneliness and burning on the inside. Their videos are packed full with Colombian coastal images – colonial churches, artisan markets, lush beaches and dance parties you wish you could join.
In person, Saumet and the band’s founder, Simón Mejia, embody their young, fresh sound. Saumet is spunky, friendly and exudes hipness. Dressed in flashy gold high tops, a gold jacket, massive pink sunglasses and a bracelet with plastic skulls, she snapped pictures with her phone of the view off a Bogota balcony on a recent afternoon.
Mejia, a Bogotá native and every bit the cool, pensive, musician, donned a black jacket and black-and-white striped sweater, and sat quietly smoking a cigarette. The two refused to divulge their ages, but jokingly claimed to be 18 and 23 before confessing that they were over 30. The band swung through Colombia in June after a tour through Africa and before jetting off again to Mexico to promote their third album, “Elegancia Tropical.”
They met in 2006, when they were both playing the bar circuit in Colombia with other bands. They said their musical chemistry was great from the start. “I met Liliana here in Bogota and we started to work,” Mejia said. “We met and we started to make music and it was like a click,” he said.
Saumet called it was “something like fate,” that the pair met up. “It was something that wasn’t planned, wasn’t sought; it just was and it was perfect.” After their debut together on Bomba Estéreo’s first album, “Vol. 1,” Mejia and Saumet completed the band with Kike Egúrrola on drums and Julián Salazar on guitar. Saumet said she typically pens the group’s lyrics, and Mejia writes most of the music.
Bomba Estéreo has been labeled psychedelic cumbia and electro-tropical, but their music is hard to categorize, said Mejia. They grew up listening to Afro-Caribbean music and indigenous music from Colombia, music from the United States and Europe, reggae, rock, African music and rap from the 1980s, they said. That all influenced their sound. “It’s a music that has many influences,” with its roots in Colombia’s Atlantic Coast, but redefined in new terms, Mejia said.
That redefinition has always been fundamental to Colombian music, he added. “The music in Colombia isn’t black or white, it’s music that has always been fused, always been constructed by mixtures.” Their name, “Stereo Bomb” in English, came in part from the AM radio stations where Mejia used to listen to old cumbia music, he said. And “bomb” can denote several things, “pasando bomba,” means having a blast, as well as a bomb explosion.
When Bomba Estereo was taking off, traditional Colombian music and coastal music weren’t the beats of choice among young Colombians and in some ways that music was stigmatized, Mejia said. But the band started playing more and more outside the country and gaining popularity internationally. In 2010, they won MTV Iggy’s Best New Band Award. And with more and more international audiences grooving to the new brand of cumbia, the music got a second chance in Colombia, too. “When we started to leave and play more outside (Colombia), it created more of an acceptance too inside of Colombia,” Mejia said.
The band’s soaring popularity has coincided with a boom in investment, tourism and international cultural interest in Colombia. Saumet said Bomba Estéreo’s music is a part of that new phase. “I think that the country is going through a very important new stage, that is linked with music, art and all this movement of investment, people coming. The face of the country is changing,” she said. “Now, people are respecting Colombia, they’re speaking well of Colombia.”
In addition to Bomba Estéreo’s international fans, they say they can always count on at least one Colombian in the audience – no matter what part of the world they’re in. “Every time we arrive in a country – imagine a country far away and people don’t have a connection with Colombia – someone brings a Colombian flag, every time,” Saumet said. “They might not even know who it is, sometimes they ask us to play vallenato.”
After about four straight years of touring, life on the road has taken a toll on the band. “There are no typical days,” in their lives, Saumet said, since they might travel to four different countries in a month. “You have to sacrifice many things, like in your personal life, like your personal relationships.” And spending time performing in new countries isn’t a vacation. Mejia said that while touring, “you get to see the world, but in kind of a partial way.”
The longest break they’ve had from playing in the past four years has been two and a half months earlier this year, Saumet said. During their latest stop at home in June, they said they planned to eat well and rest as much as they could. Bogotá is their home base where they meet and make plans for the future. Mejia said it offered time to recharge, think and take off again.
There was a process of learning how to live together, but “it’s like a family,” Mejia said. They have found a balance, learning how to travel together. And while travel may take a toll, they’ve gotten used to life on the road, and they’re grateful they’ve gotten to know other cultures and music from around the world. Asked if they had a favorite spot to visit, Mejia and Saumet agreed enthusiastically: Africa.
“Our music is totally linked with Africa, it comes from Africa,” Mejia said. People who went to see Bomba Estéreo, never having seen Bomba Estéreo, still identify with certain rhythms or certain ways of the guitar … that was very cool.” They sometimes come across fans from unconventional places. Saumet was surprised to meet a fan from The Republic of the Congo during their travels to Africa, and when they performed in Capetown, South Africa, some members of the audience knew their songs, they said.
There’s a good chance more African beats will be showing up in their music after their visit. “In Africa we heard a lot of things that we liked,” Saumet said.
They’re already working on their next album while they continue their “Elegancia Tropical” tour. “The idea is to do it and we’re going little by little,” Mejia said. Saumet added, “we’re always working.”
The band and the international fame wasn’t what Mejia and Saumet were expecting back when they were playing the bar circuit. Mejia had studied visual arts in school, while Saumet studied publicity. “Life is doing what fate has prepared for you,” Saumet said. “Obviously there are many factors: luck, fate, a lot of work, a lot of responsibility. Destiny put the two of us in this path, we met, we had a good idea and the country was ready to hear it and wanted something new. But still, this is a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice.”
They’re not sure what the next five years will bring, either. “You never know,” Saumet said when asked about the future. “I suppose everything will change …we want to end up making culture with music.”