"Well, it's different now — the way we are coming to songs," says Bomba Estéreo guitarist Julian Salazar. "At the beginning, it started as just a solo project: the bass player and director of the band [Simon Mejia] mixing electronic music and folk music from Columbia. That was the way the first two albums came out, but right now we are working together — the four members of the band, we are working together. We just start to jam, and Li [Saumet] will write lyrics. In some cases we bring tracks from home, and that's the way we're doing it now."
Salazar is on the phone from the road, driving through Northern California on the first leg of a tour that will bring his band to Nashville. The Colombian quartet's music has been dubbed "electro tropical" and "psychedelic cumbia," but is really best described as "world music" — not because they fit into standardized, overcurated concepts of non-Anglo-American music, but because they pull influences from the entire fucking world. Equal measures of dub, electronic and hip-hop meet with the transcontinental roots of traditional Colombian folk styles to create a music that is truly global in scope.
Bomba Estéreo's stateside debut Blow Up is one of the most fully formed, damn-near-perfect records to cross our transom in years. It's like Blow Up fell from the heavens, a gift from the music gods for all our hours spent slogging through humdrum Americana records and boring indie-rock shows. Blow Up has an emotional resonance that's found in few records — it's the sort of record with which one's barely passing, middle-school-level Spanish comprehension can translate what's going on. Yes, there's a language barrier, but it's more like nylon barricade tape than a razor-wire fence — the literal translation is less important than the universal feelings it conveys. And it's got a beat you can dance to, which is the most universal of all vocabularies.
But how is this playing out across America circa 2011 — an era when, if you spend much time keeping track of politics, you'll notice that folks seem to be enthralled with extreme nativist posturing? If our, um, esteemed state legislature is any indication — and dear God, let's hope it's not — Americans at the moment are far more interested in stocking their bunkers with assault weapons and Andy Griffith DVDs, making bogeymen out of major religions and polishing their tinfoil hats, than engaging in dialogues with different cultures. Granted, all of this is coming from old white people who seem to think all of the answers can be found up their own ass, but they claim to be speaking for all of America. How is a fiercely political, fiercely progressive Latin band going over in a country that's, well, a little on edge about all things foreign and different?
"We didn't know what to expect," says Salazar. "For instance, we are going to Louisiana for the very first time, and we're going to North Carolina too. But in Texas, it was really well-received from the very beginning, as well as in New York and San Francisco. ... I don't know about Nashville — maybe all your friends are as excited as you are?"
Yes, Mr. Salazar. Yes they are. While the elected officials on Capitol Hill are working hard to codify discrimination and legalize the marginalization of people who fall outside of their warped Andy Griffith image of the state, those of us who actually live here — the folks who make up this diverse and increasingly cosmopolitan community — welcome you with open arms. It doesn't matter if isolationism and fear are the order of the day on the statehouse floor: On the streets and in the clubs of Music City, the vibe is all about inclusion and the interchange of ideas. There's a cultural cross-pollination that's fueling the creative explosion here. There's a thirst for art that acknowledges all of our differences and uses them as a stepping-stone to achieve greater things. Something tells us Bomba Estéreo will feel right at home.
And even if Bomba's boundary-pushing aesthetic didn't fit so nicely into our current creative zeitgeist, their musicianship would. This city loves a tight live outfit, and BE ranks among the tightest you'll ever see. Well, "tight" might not be the right word. "Fluid" or "flowing" might be more apt, because when Bomba Estéreo takes the stage, it's as if each musician has been subsumed by an otherworldly energy — as though the quartet has become a corporeal medium for a force of cosmic origin. The sound is bigger than the sum of its parts, channeling a whole world of energy and emotion through the PA speakers. Honestly, you're not likely to see a more exciting combo anywhere, anytime.
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