Founded 10 years ago in Bogotá, Colombia, by visual artist and guitarist Simón Mejía and singer Liliana Saumet, Bomba Estéreo was always a little like an anthropology study that picked up influences at will along the way.
“Our music is electronic music made in Colombia and with a taste of Colombia,” says Mejía. “The music that most inspires us comes from Africa—all its folklore—and electronic music. And in our shows we try to strike a middle ground by performing with bass, drums, guitar and vocals.”
But for Amanecer, their recently released fourth album, Bomba expanded their music even further. Working with new producer Ricky Reed of California group Wallpaper (and who has also worked with Jason Derulo and Pitbull) and newly signed to Sony Music U.S. Latin, the group has amped up its sound with slicker production, more pronounced melodies and farther-reaching influences that delve deeper into the African roots of their sound. It’s also an album that goes beyond the brash, up-tempo “electronic cumbia” that has become synonymous with Bomba Estereo and is at the heart of their hugely successful, rave-like shows.
“It’s our most spiritual album,” says Mejía. “It’s been 10 years, we’ve been through a lot. This is the beginning of a more mature stage in our careers and our lives.”
Clearly, mixing folk with electronica is not new. Dozens of acts up and down Latin America and beyond have taken their most nationalist expressions and spiced them up with beats; witness Mexico’s Nortec Collective, which experiments with Mexican genres like banda and norteño, or Argentina’s Bajofondo, blending tango with electronica.
Bomba did the same with Colombian music at a time when the country was just awakening to the possibilities of fusing its rich musical heritage—genres like cumbia, vallenato and champeta—with pop and rock and yes, electronica.
At the time, Mejía was looking for a singer to complement the sound he was experimenting with. Saumet was just discovering her voice. A native of Barranquilla, in Colombia’s Caribbean coast (and, coincidentally, also Shakira’s hometown), Sauemt, now 35, didn’t sing professionally, but she sang well enough that a friend recommended her to Mejía.
From that point on, working together (as musical partners, not as a couple) was “magical,” says Saumet. “There was chemistry. We wrote our first song in 45 minutes.”
The music they made together struck a chord. It was folklore, but it was cool. It was authentic enough in its replication of Colombian rhythms and patterns that more “serious” critics took note. But it had the whimsy and throttle of EDM. And while Bomba Estéreo were hardly alone in their experimentation, of all the similar bands that launched around that time in Colombia, they’ve resonated the most.
“It’s not like we discovered it or we were the first,” says Saumet. “We got there at the right time.”
The “right time” was when social media and platforms like YouTube were beginning to take off. The Bomba gospel, led by its off-kilter tech savvy members (which, aside from Mejía and Saumet, also includes Julián Salazar), took off like wildfire beyond Colombia’s borders. Despite the fact that the group was decidedly alternative and releasing its music independently, by 2009, Bomba Estéreo was playing a steady stream of international festivals, including Coachella, Rosklide and Womex in Denmark and Fusion Festival in Germany.
At the heart of Bomba’s success is Saumet’s charisma as a diminutive frontwoman with a piercing, almost nasal voice and alternative attitude who can definitely move to the infectious beat of Bomba’s music. And that, precisely, is Bomba’s edge.
“Our goal has always been to make people dance,” says Saumet.