“Fiesta,” off Colombian electro-tropical duo Bomba Estéreo’s new album, Amanecer, is a very personal song for singer Liliana Saumet. It’s about celebrating Carnaval in Barranquilla, something she does every year with her comparsa, a traditional dance group. “We get together and create costumes and dance. We go out and we party and that’s what Carnaval is for me. It’s a very important part of my life, and what Carnaval is about in Colombia,” she says over the phone from her hometown of Santa Marta, near Barranquilla.
With her manager translating, she explains that her group, La Puntica No Más, consists of renegade artists from all over the world — London, New York, and Barranquilla. “Our comparsa mixes traditional Carnaval costumes with how we feel about the Carnaval, the traditional mixed with the modern.” The mix doesn’t stop with the comparsa, for Saumet. “That’s what we do with our music in Bomba Estéreo.” An example of a typical Carnaval costume in Barranquilla is an elephant or a tiger. This past Carnaval, Saumet dressed as a neon vagina, “El Chocho Fluorescente.” In its psychedelic collision of the folkloric and the modern imagination, this might be the most Bomba Estéreo thing that has ever happened.
As far back as “Raza,” a track off Bomba Estéreo’s early album Blow Up!, Saumet sang about wanting to share her country’s rhythms with the world. Ten years later, she’s done that several times over with her pioneering group. With producer Simón Mejia and their band, she’s performed on some of the world’s biggest festival stages, from Coachella to Lollapalooza Chile. “It’s been incredible to share our culture and our music with the whole world. It’s something I never thought I would do,” she reflects.
Amanecer has a big sound that adds a mainstream dance music feel to their electronic and often psychedelic take on more traditional Afro-Caribbean styles, such as cumbia. On “Fiesta,” the champeta guitars twinkle like synths and the beats build and layer into a banger DJ Snake could envy. On “Amanecer” and “Soy Yo” Saumet delivers rapped verses with a new verve and variety of flow. She acknowledges that this direction is inspired by the big shows and tours that have become a permanent part of their lives, but she also describes their sound as simply and inevitably becoming more international. “When you start traveling and playing in other countries, your sound becomes more global,” she reflects.
Saumet is an occasional Brooklyn resident, having set up camp in Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Williamsburg at different points in between tours. “I spend time there whenever I can. It’s my favorite city in the world,” she says of New York. “When I got there I realized how international it was. I met people from India, from Thailand, from everywhere. I also met a lot of DJs from all over the world who shared different music with me.” Both members have been soaking everything up during their travels. Mejia found great inspiration in the Afro-house music and kwaito they heard while touring in South Africa.
A major contributing factor to the global quality of Amanecer was working with Los Angeles producer Ricky Reed, an experience Saumet calls “incredible.” This is their first album on a major label (Sony U.S. Latin) and the first time the band has used an outside producer. Saumet says that they went into the studio knowing what they wanted for Amanecer, and that Reed, who has produced hits for Jason Derulo and Pitbull, could help them achieve it. The resulting pop appeal is unmistakable; on July 11 the band posted that it had topped the list of U.S. Latin albums on iTunes.
It’s a credit to the talent on both sides that, rather than obscuring their sound, the chart-conscious production serves as a crystalline lens that magnifies their unique and already irresistibly danceable music. It’s perfect for creating euphoric moments with huge crowds, but equally perfect for keeping revelers company on the long trip home. Under the gloss lies a lot of heart. It wouldn’t be a Bomba Estéreo album otherwise.
Just as “Fiesta” is a song about partying and a song about an important part of who she is, for Saumet, Amanecer, loud and fluorescent though it may be, is a very spiritual album. “It illuminated part of ourselves,” she says. Indeed, the lyrics are often introspective, while the bright, uplifting sound of songs like “Somos Dos,” “To My Love,” and “Mar (Lo Que Siento)” evokes dance floor nirvana and speaks to a spirituality both effulgent and fully corporeal. Though a practitioner of yoga and meditation, she’s says it’s not inspired by her own personal experiences. She insists: “It’s something that’s happening in the world. People are looking more into their spiritual side and their emotional side.” Argue with that only if you’ve seen as much of the world as she has recently.
Bomba Estéreo headline the Highline Ballroom on July 24. For ticket information, click here.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 22, 2015