Colombia’s rich history of carnivals featuring wall-to-wall music isn’t lost on Bomba Estereo, a duo that has become a festival favorite around the world. Last year, the band was hand-picked by Arcade Fire to open its tours on two continents in part because the Montreal band knew Bomba could move a big crowd.
Arcade Fire singer Win Butler walked into a Bomba Estereo concert six years ago at the citywide Pop Montreal festival, and “the band just blew me away,” he says in a recent documentary of the bands’ shared tour. “It’s very rare that I walk into a show and I don’t know the band and leave being completely into it.”
The memory stuck with Butler. Bomba Estereo founder Simon Mejia says he had no idea of Arcade Fire’s passion for his band until he received an invite from Butler to tour with the Montreal band last year. “Touring with them was the best experience of our lives,” he says. “We learned a lot from them in terms of music, how to put on a show.” In addition, Mejia and Butler would take turns DJing at after-show parties, often showcasing each other’s music. Mejia also remixed Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now,” infusing it with a joyous dose of Colombian cumbia and champeta rhythms.
Long before Mejia and singer Liliana Saumet were hanging out with Arcade Fire and wowing fans at festivals, they were attending them in their home country and soaking in the atmosphere.
Saumet’s colorful outfits are as dynamic as her singing, rapping and dancing, a stylishness that she absorbed while regularly attending the Barranquilla's Carnival near her home in the mountainous north of Colombia. “Her perspective as a woman and as someone who grew up on the Colombian coast is special,” Mejia says. “Barranquilla is the most important carnival in Colombia, where all the musicians gather once a year, and the dancing and the costumes that go with it — it’s in her veins. Her way of singing is drawn from those cumbia melodies she heard as a child, and she was able to bring a contemporary attitude to them.”
Mejia had been playing in alternative bands in Bogota, Colombia, since the ’90s, then dove into DJing and producing in the early 2000s, and crafted electronic soundscapes on a foundation of African-derived music. “I loved all black music from Africa and America — Chicago house, Detroit techno, Motown, soul, funk, the African psychedelic music of the ’70s, South African township music,” he says. “And Chicago house and cumbia are especially compatible, totally related rhythms, like brothers, and putting this sound from Chicago together with cumbia — that was basically the start of my band.”
The producer had worked with a variety of vocalists in his projects when he met Saumet at one studio session for Bomba Estereo’s 2006 debut, “Volumen 1.” She became a full-time member with the follow-up, “Blow-Up,” which introduced Saumet to the world via the international hit “Fuego,” a cross-cultural tribute to Colombia’s dance traditions via Puerto Rican-inspired reggaeton.
The notion of diversity is ingrained in Colombian culture with its mixed-race society. At Barranquilla’s Carnival, the musical variety is enhanced by costumes and parades that honor the country’s mix of Indian, white and black ethnicities where samba, salsa, reggaeton and electronic music blend with native sounds such as cumbia, porro and merecumbé.
That message of inclusivity has been drawn with sharper distinction in the band’s music. Its 2015 single “Soy Yo” (“I Am Me”) became an international anthem of self-empowerment for minorities and a protest against bullying, particularly when the video’s star, 11-year-old actress Sarai Isaura Gonzalez, got a shout-out from Lin-Manuel Miranda and was embraced by then president Barack Obama.
“The girl became an icon and was invited to the White House,” Mejia says. “Especially with what’s happening with Latin immigrants now, the song and the video became part of a movement, and that was beyond our dreams.”
“Internacionales,” a track from the band’s most recent album, 2017’s “Ayo,” puts an exclamation point on the immigration theme. Some of the Spanish lyrics when translated to English declare, “I am a Colombian / I am an Americano / I am a world's citizen / I am a Mexican / I am Dominican / Same race, same color … Let’s dance at the same party.”
“We are a dance band, a party band, but we also came to the conclusion that people can also think and feel something beyond the dancing when they come to our shows,” Mejia says. “If we can open a door to a stronger understanding of other cultures, we should do it. We are Colombians — it’s a very tough country, a beautiful country with some difficulties. The world is not in a good place. We live in crazy times, and politicians are trying to divide us. Our main message is the exact opposite, that it doesn’t matter where you come from or your sexual or ethnic orientation, because we’re all human beings. We’re basically the same. Politicians are breaking the world, but we’re trying to heal it.”