REVIEW: Bomba Estéreo - "Ayo"


Bomba Estéreo - Ayo
Sony Music
August 11, 2017

"Despacito" has been the song of the summer. And, in the last few weeks, the think pieces have been landing, wondering what this Spanish-language mescla means for the US in the Age of Trump. The most popular YouTube video of all time is shot in La Perla in San Juan, Puerto Rico in the midst of a crippling financial crisis. It's a testament to the growing popularity of Reggaeton and Caribbean music and a global musical culture, which seems to fly in the face of the politics of racial resentment.

While "Despacito" has been championed as a path-breaker, the uncomfortable fact for many of us who love independent music is that we often travel in some of the whitest areas. Indie music plays to particular niche with little incentive to break out. For me, that realization hit hardest back in 2012 with Pitchfork's infamous "People's List." The "people," it turned out, were mostly like me: white dudes. As much as we may cringe at "Despacito" on repeat, or the general misogyny of Reggaeton, we also have to recognize that the demands of a commercial market, one which has now regularly created Latinx stars from Pitbull to the rising star of Kali Uchis, often create a greater motivation toward inclusivity.

Colombian band, Bomba Estéreo is one of those groups that I think has fallen in the cracks of US musical consciousness. They've been a pet project of mine since seeing the group at SOB's in New York a few years ago, when Li Saumet established herself as one of the most dynamic MCs working. In their early albums, Saumet and Simon Mejía, Bomba Estéreo's founder, seemed to forge a new path through the history of Latin American music by mixing traditional Colombian forms like the Cumbia with 1970s South American psychedelia, like Aguaturbia, and with a splash of contemporary electronica thrown in for good measure. In many ways, the music matched the Colombian nation with a wildly diverse and vibrant social and musical life mixing the indigenous, African, and European cultures. 

The success of Bomba Estéreo's Estalla and Elegancia Tropical left the band in somewhat of a bind. Well-known enough to take a next step into a wider audience, there was a good chance to take this leap they'd have to start dueting with Shakria or leave their carefully cultivated sound behind in order to play to an Anglo audience. Amancer, Bomba Estéreo's 2015 album, attempted to answer this conundrum by expanding their sound into a world party. Will Smith guested on the remix of Amancer's single "Fiesta." Yet, on cue, the indie media lamented Bomba Estéreo playing to a wider audience as a turn away from their musical roots. 

Ayo, this year's offering, is a markedly more subtle affair than Amancer. The big guest isn't Will Smith, but Balkan Beatbox, whose contribution to "Química (Dance with Me)," turns the track into a minimalist organic club hit. And while this record does seem to have more in common with the Elegancia Tropical, there's no doubt that Amancer has left a big effect on Mejía and Saumet. The chorus to "Duele," the lead single, creeps up on you like "Fiesta," but rather than going hard on the synth, the hook repurposes a flauta de millo, a traditional woodwind used in Cumbia, with a sneakily earworm effect.

Throughout the album, the bombast that had been the signature of Bomba Estéreo's style since "Fuego," feels like it's seeped into the instrumentation. The most explosive track, "Money Money Money...," cuts against its sound with a critique of the global one percent and the soullessness of consumption. Similarly, "Flower Power" appropriates and critiques Caribbean sounds with a call for women to enjoy themselves rather than be objectified. Saumet addresses women saying the track isn't Reggaeton, but it's here to make you move your ass. 

"Flower Power" follows on a long trend in Saumet's lyrics of greater consciousness toward personal power. The standout video from Amanacer, "Soy Yo," later adapted into a great voting video during the 2016 election, shows a young Latina  delightfully reveling in her own personality. If Amanacer was a reach toward a more popular audience, then Saumet and Mejía came with their own brand of woke, conscious music to make you shake your ass. 

The standing of Bomba Estéreo echoes a conundrum of many "world" or "global" musicians--their music, formally, has to be both tied to their particular cultural identity, but in such a way that the form is also exceptional enough to be notable; however, if the band strays too much from their particular formula, the record is discounted. Another way to put this is that we're always judging from the vantage of indie rock without taking the band's interest into account assuming that groups have to address the preoccupations and desires of the US-based listener. 

What's clear on both Amancer and Ayo is that Bomba Estéreo's is working their music toward an explicitly empowering angle, confronting assumptions of social roles. Ayo continues the band's formal explorations while drawing on their widening catalog. The album's ending track, "Vuelve" is a psychedelic instrumental mash that would make Andrew Bird and Susana Baca proud. It's just the sort of music that should be making bigger waves in the indie world for its politics and invigorating musicality. It's not simply a political act or a way to make a stand in the face of more and more explicit xenophobia and sexism. But, as Saumet reminds us in "Internacionales," music transcends by returning us to the root of what it is to be human.


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