Bomba Estéreo seemed to have come out of nowhere in 2010, creating instant buzz with their electro-tropical dance party of a live show. Led by the explosive spits from singer/MC Liliana Saumet and beat-clashing genius/bassist Simón Mejía, the Colombian band's universally appealing mix of traditional cumbia and afrobeats with electronic elements made them one of the acts to see at festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits. Their US debut album Blow Up and hit single, "Fuego" saw the band's music on American TV and film and garnering famous fans like Jane's Addiction's Perry Ferrell and German industrial rockers Rammstein.
It's 2012 and Bomba Estéreo is on it's way beyond buzz band status with their new album, Elegancia Tropical. The crazy kids we met years ago are now older, wiser, introspective this time around but without losing their edge. We sat down at the Bedford Cafe in Brooklyn with Liliana to discuss the band's journey from Colombia to the world, putting together Elegancia Tropical, and her ultimate dream collaborations.
Bomba Estéreo as we know it came together in 2008. How do you feel the group has evolved in that time?
Without a doubt, it’s been a great life change. I started [with the band] without any idea anything was going to happen. I just started singing with Simón and wonderful things began to happen, getting invited to festivals and to play in different countries. I grew a lot as person, I always wanted to travel but in Colombia it’s so difficult to do if you’re not rich. So I started to travel and learn about other cultures and music. It was like a game at first, in a way, but then it turned into my career.
You’ve had a lot success in the US with your debut album Blow Up and the single, ‘Fuego.’ What do you think attracts the Anglo audience to your music?
Bomba Estéreo came out at a time where something new and fresh was necessary, something Latino but not totally Latino. Neo-cumbia was becoming trendy and popular with DJs in the US and Europe [that had] electronic elements [Anglos] identify with. It was like the half of something Latino mixed with something Anglo. The Latinos on one hand feel they identify but not with that cliché Latino thing like tropical, salsa, merengue… I mean I love salsa but we aren’t salsa, we’re a bunch of things mixed together. We love rap, electronic, we love so many different kinds of music. It’s like at that time we needed something that was a little bit of everything and out of nowhere Bomba Estéreo came out right at that moment.
Do you consider your audience in Latin America any different than one in the US, Europe, or even Asia?
I always get asked this question and it’s the same [everywhere]. Sometimes the people you assume will be the most cold end up being the craziest crowd. The cumbia beats and the afro rhythms that we make go very well with electronic music, it’s extremely danceable. The language is insignificant and people just want to dance. The elements we have aren’t foreign for the audience and it’s simply made for people to have a good time. It’s music for everyone, you can see children dancing at our shows, older people dancing, it’s music that has no race or age.
Tell us about your new album Elegancia Tropical, how did you start to put it together?
It was a long process. We were coming from having a successful first album, playing in clubs around the world and a song that was heard from, I don’t know, Alaska to wherever. Being an independent band is difficult because the music industry is a business and you have to pay to be in it. You have to pay to get radio play, for the Grammys, etc. Not being a group on that mainstream path to stardom and to be part of something that had so much success in so many different countries was crazy. After all that, there’s pressure due to other people’s expectations of us but we did what did and we were happy with it. It’s an album that’s different from what people expected from us and has nothing to do with “Fuego.” I feel that it still has that experimental feel and the same drive to make something unique, which is what we are. Bomba Estéreo is not a cumbia group or an electronic group, it’s an experimental group and that continues with this album. It took a while to develop because we were all so busy with other things, traveling.
You began recording the album on the beach in Barranquilla, right?
Yes, the first stage of recording was in Barranquilla, Atlantico, it’s about 15 minutes away from the city. It’s where the most famous carnival in all of Colombia is held, it's also one of the most famous in all of Latin America. It was a very important moment for us because we were just tired of traveling so we stopped, rented an apartment by the ocean and we began thinking up song ideas, melodies and then rest for a bit and travel some more. Here is where ‘El alma y el cuerpo’ and ‘Sientiendo’ came from which are songs that say a lot on the album.
The lyrics on this album are more emotional, introverted. What inspired to write like this for the new material?
Everything that was happening at the moment in time. Love, conversations between Simon and I. It’s very much centered around the band, what’s happened with the band in the last few years “Sintiendo” talks about that. The album is full of songs very much about things we’ve lived and I think people can relate to that.
Where did the idea for the album name come about?
We decided to call it Elegancia Tropical because it felt like a new era, a step forward from what we were doing before. It was all somewhat mindless, kind of like whatever happens happens but now it’s more like we’re here, we’re playing, it all makes sense we’re more calm, thinking more it’s not crazy, we’re all good we’re elegant, big, more mature.
At first the album is not exactly what we expected from Bomba Estéreo.
That’s what so great, we love that this album is not what people thought it would be. It’s different and if we like it, the audience has to like it, too, because it’s who we are, it’s what we do.
As it plays on then by the middle you start getting that Bomba Estéreo we’re familiar with.
This album was made in different stages: The first was like an awakening to more interior things, a strong stage like the collaborations on this album are quite strong.
Tell me about the collaborations with BNegão and Buraka Som Sistema on the album.
We’ve loved Buraka Som Sistema for a long time. We played a few festivals together, became friends. They went to Colombia to record and they invited us to be on their album. Later we invited them to work with us, we had like a mutual collaboration. BNegão is an old school MC from Brazil that we’re also huge fans of, he’s my favorite. “Rocas” was meant to be a strong song, like with all that Brazilian power, all that energy and he’s incredible. We met in Brazil, he saw us play and I invited him on stage to sing with and with that sparked a friendship.
Was he someone you already had in mind collaborate with?
Yeah, he was among the people we had in mind. We had a lot of ideas for collaborations but we didn’t want to make an album just of collaborations or an album full of collaborations with famous Latino artists. We wanted to work with Buraka because they’re awesome and they’re doing what we are only in a different language using another form of music. It’s the same with BNegão, it was like sharing something different with our audience.
Is there anyone who’d like to collaborate with in the future?
[Radiohead singer] Thom Yorke, I’m going to write to him one day! I’d love to work with Grimes. One time I talked to Tricky and he wrote me an e-mail saying he loved the group and wanted to work with me but I think he forgot about it. Perry Ferrell has said he loved "Fuego" and the band. Also Rammstein told us that they loved "Fuego" and they wanted to meet us in Colombia. Bands that have nothing to do with anything we do, how can someone like that like a Colombian band? But I’d love to work with people I love to listen to like Massive Attack, all kinds of electronic artists. Azealia Banks, too, she’s great.
Have you listened to the album at all?
I don’t listen usually to our music, I feel weird listening to my music, it’s odd but I did listen to it recently and liked it a lot. There’s little things where I tell myself “that could’ve been better.’
Is it something that motivates you to fix those mistakes in the future?
When we did Blow Up I listened to it and thought “This album is great!” and I think it’s the same with this album. Yeah, it motivates me to do better but what motivates me even more is the audience. An audience that’s happy, connected, responding [to the music] that motivates me to keep making art and changing minds.
Bomba Estéreo's Elegancia Tropical is out now on Polen Records. Listen to "Sintiendo" below.