Interview: Bomba Estéreo

Bomba Estéreo merges traditional Columbian instruments and folk sounds with hip-hop, reggae and more. Producer Simon Mejia explains how.

Li Saumet (left) and Simon Mejia of Bomba Estereo
Photo by Leo Carreno

Just as many well-recognized Columbian musical groups weave elements of Latin American folk sounds into their own takes on rock or pop, emerging Columbian act Bomba Estéreo adds to the traditional-meets-modern movement with its U.S. debut, Blow Up (Nacional, 2009) .

But this Bogotá-based act, led by producer Simon Mejia and vocalist/rapper Liliana "Li" Saumet, does so with a constant foundation of classic percussive music, such as cumbia, while topping off its tracks with evolving touches of hip-hop, pysch rock and reggae.

After releasing Bomba Estéreo's mostly instrumental first album, Vol. 1 (Polen, 2006), in South America, Mejia began working with vocalists and found a new sound with the lively Saumet—one geared more toward the party atmosphere. As Mejia says of Saumet, "she became the charismatic force" of Bomba Estéreo. Along with the musicianship of Kike Egurrola on drums, Diego Cadavid on percussion and Julian Salazar on guitar, Blow Up became a universal reality.

Shortly after catching Bomba Estéreo's New York stage debut at the Latin Alternative Music Conference, Remix caught up with Mejia to dig deeper into the making of Blow Up and how Bomba Estéreo maintains Columbia's classic sounds while also looking forward.

What was your collaborative process for Blow Up? How did you and Li work together to craft the songs?
We have always handled the entire process in the most organic way possible, from the production of Blow Up until the present. I produce the tracks and the electronic bases, and then I show them to Li. After Li writes some lyrics and melodies, we both come together to create the song. As we bring the song to life, we incorporate new elements as the entire band vibes off of each other during rehearsal. At this point, we take the song to that third level, where it fuses with the entire band. Lately, we have also been trying to only produce songs acoustically during rehearsal. By not using electronic tracks, we give Bomba a different sound altogether.

How do most songs begin for you—what usually drives you to begin a track?
I generally begin with a base of folkloric percussion rhythms, and I later add a series of beats and melodies. There are also times that I begin with bass lines, but the essence, the principal inspiration, is the rhythm, from Afro beats to Colombian folklore. On occasion, I use vinyl disc samples and take them on an entirely different level after the mixing and digital production is complete.

Your gear list is pretty extensive. What instruments and software were the most integral in making Blow Up?
We mainly used the guitar, the bass and percussion and drums. We also used a traditional Colombian wind instrument called the flauta de millo. I often use a [Korg] Microkorg, '80s Casio keyboards and a Boss Dr. Rhythm drum machine. All of these rhythms, along with the synthesizers, are then programmed into Ableton Live. However, we always use [Digidesign] Pro Tools for our final mixes and studio recordings.

What versions of Pro Tools and Ableton Live do you use?
I use Ableton Live 7 and Pro Tools|HD.

Can you talk more about the consistent cumbia rhythmic structure in Bomba Estéreo's music? Why did you make that your foundation, and what instruments did you use to achieve that?
In Colombian folklore, the rhythmic aspect of the music is essential, and it consists, in the case of the music of the Atlantic, of a group of drums: alegre, maracas, guache and llamador. Bomba uses this base in almost all songs, in addition to adding more Latin elements like conga and timbal drums. However, we always want our base to come from our traditional instruments. Additionally, I always try to have our melodies and sounds resemble traditional folklore singers while adding more contemporary elements like hip-hop or reggae.

Which song on Blow Up do you feel best captures what Bomba Estéreo is trying to achieve?
I think that it could be "Feelin'," a song where we mix almost all of the elements that we are interested in—such as cumbia, hip-hop, some rock and some reggae—and also in the chorus, we pay tribute to Morrocoyo, a traditional cumbia choir. Morrocoyo means turtle and parrot, so the name can have many interpretations at the same time.