Nuevo Culture

Bomba Estéreo’s Vision of Harmony in Nature

It’s hard to make the overwhelming power and immense beauty found in nature seem subtle, but across Bomba Estéreo’s new album, Deja, examples of the earth’s grandeur gently peek out from the music. “Agua,” the first track, ends with the sweeping rush of a river; a choir of birds serves as the backdrop for singer Li Saumet’s spoken word verses on “Ahora.” A surge of wind closes out “Mamo Manuel Nieves,” a track in which a shaman from the indigenous Arhuaco group describes our “duty to take care of Mother Nature.” Such details are reminders of everything there is to appreciate in the environment — and what we stand to lose.

Many of the album’s found sounds came from field recordings that Simon Mejia, Bomba Estéreo’s co-founder and producer, picked up in different parts of Colombia. He packed a tiny mic with him as he hiked through lush green national parks filled with birds — Colombia is home to more than 1,920 bird species, which is about 20 percent of the global total — and captured the atmosphere of areas like Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where ice-topped mountains meet the heat of the tropics.

He’d used the field recording process in the past for solo projects; this time, it helped shape an organizing principle for Deja. He and Saumet split the album’s 13 songs into four sections themed around the classical elements, called Aire, Agua, Aire, and Fuego. The concept is in keeping with the band’s interest in nature, which dates back to when they burst out of Latin America in the 2000s with their signature electro-cumbia. But particularly after a deadly pandemic, worsening ecological degradation, and climate change consequences that become grimmer with each passing day, these themes cut deep on Deja.

“Beyond this album, we’ve been cultivating a relationship that we feel that art and music should have with nature for a long time now,” Mejia explains on a Zoom call from his home studio in Colombia. “Even before the pandemic, we had some strong ideas about all these things, and then, with the world being constantly thrown into chaos, we developed the concept more. It’s not something we invented, obviously — the idea of the four elements dates back centuries, from the Greeks to indigenous cultures — but we saw those elements as symbols, in a way, that link us to our planet.”

He and Saumet didn’t write the songs to fit under each element; instead, they let the music guide the framework. The blistering, percussive vigor of “Tamborero” made the most sense under Fuego, for example, while “Se Acabo,” with its cloud-grazing synths, worked best as part of Aire. The album’s lyrics evoke the environment more directly and are filled with sharp calls to change the course that humans are on. “They exploited the mines, they took all the gold, they came for more, but it’s all over,” Saumet sings on “Tierra” before landing an urgent call for change: “It can be different — it can be better.”

Before the pandemic, Saumet had insisted that she and Mejia bring several collaborators to her house in Santa Marta. They enlisted the talents of José Castillo, their longtime touring guitarist, and drummer Efraín Cuadrado. Lido Pimienta, the Grammy-nominated Colombian artist whom the band has known for years, helped steer the album’s direction and also brought along the Afro-Cuban duo OKAN to contribute. The energy seemed to bounce off the walls and created an environment, Mejia says, where they worked like a full live band. “It made me realize that Bomba really is a collaborative project,” he explains. “It’s not just Li and I. There are always people who have given us their musical input, and that’s made the music vary from project to project. It’s actually a beautiful process because each album has the energy of everyone who was involved.”

“Conexión Total,” one of the most intricate productions on Deja, also features the Nigerian singer Yemi Alade, whose smooth vocals buoy Saumet’s electric verses. The addition of Alade, along with contributions from Pimienta and OKAN and the seamless integration of Afro-Colombian rhythms, speaks to what’s been a longstanding imperative in Bomba Estéreo’s work: highlighting the African origins of their music. “In general, all the popular music we listen to today — from rock, electronic, rap, everything — comes from Africa. It’s the big musical root that we owe everything to,” says Mejia, noting that cumbia, in particular, comes directly from Colombia’s African traditions, reflecting one of the western hemisphere’s biggest Black populations. “For us, it’s important to keep drawing inspiration and expressing our appreciation and paying homage to that history.”

Ultimately, Mejia hopes Deja is a reminder of all the marvels of the world, and an encouragement for people to find harmony with nature. “To me, people are increasingly less engaged with the environment — there’s this idea that it’s something to extract from and extract from without giving anything in return,” Mejia says. “We’re not politicians or activists, but we decided that what we could do with our music is express what we’re seeing and feeling, and help people reconnect with nature around them and remember that we’re indebted to it.”