In the past decade, Bomba Estéreo—led by Simón Mejía and frontwoman Liliana Saumet—has become one of Colombia’s most exciting musical acts, infusing cumbia, champeta, and folk music with synthesizers, electric guitars, and electronic beats. Saumet, who raps and sings on most tracks, adds flavors with her punchy, irreverent vocals. Bomba Estéreo is renowned for its unique sound, but, alongside other Colombian groups like Systema Solar and ChocQuibTown, is part of a growing eclectic movement aiming to reinterpret and revitalize Colombia’s rich musical history. It’s an inherently political and countercultural position in an industry long dominated by reggaeton and pop, though the group has never shied from politics. In a dig at then-Colombian president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Saumet sings, “Sal de esa basura, mira no te quejes / Deja la mentira como Uribe Vélez” (“Leave the trash behind, don’t you complain / Stop lying like Uribe Vélez”) in Musica Acción, from Bomba Estéreo’s 2008 album, Estalla.
This month, Bomba Estéreo will launch a part-fundraising, part-public awareness campaign called Siembra Conciencia (Sowing Consciousness), aimed at preserving Colombia’s rainforests and tropics. As part of the campaign, which stems from ‘Siembra,’ the title of a song on their latest album, Ayo, Bomba Estéreo will be embarking on a month-long tour in Colombia, starting on January 26 in Guaviare, a department that lies some 250 miles southeast of Bogotá at the edge of the country’s vast rainforest. Proceeds from the tour will go towards building and maintaining community shelters in Guaviare, where deforestation has intensified in recent years—more than 38,000 hectares of forest were lost in Guaviare in 2017 alone, according to IDEAM, an agency under Colombia’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development.
Siembra Conciencia seems akin to a feel-good marketing campaign, selling bottled mineral water, “protect our oceans” t-shirts, and special water bottles with oxygenating and alkalizing crystals. Siembra Conciencia seems to both address and evade the urgency of global warming by enlisting popular support without explicitly calling for stronger government action.
In December, I spoke with Simón Mejía in New York City, before the band’s concert at Terminal 5, to discuss the rationale behind Siembra Conciencia and Bomba Estéreo’s larger political vision.
Miguel Salazar (MS): Where did the idea for Siembra Conciencia come from?
Simón Mejía (SM): The Siembra Conciencia project was born out of a conflict happening now in Colombia and throughout the world. I think that our environmental crisis is no longer limited to certain countries. It's universal. Colombia is a green country. We have part of the Amazon, we have a large part of the Andes mountain range, and a lot of water, many páramos, two seas. It’s a country with huge ecological and environmental potential. So any environmental crisis there becomes very extreme. And it happens that in the last two years, deforestation has increased to an emergency level. So, if the Amazon jungle is in checkmate, as it seems to be at this moment in Colombia—or in Brazil with their new president [Jair Bolsonaro]—this really is going to be a strong environmental crisis, because the role of the jungle in the natural cycles of the world is immense. That led us to think about how we as Colombians and as artists have to talk about those things. It is important and it is our contribution as artists, that it is good that artists get involved and create awareness because nowadays politics is no longer a very credible medium. People sometimes listen to artists more than politicians.
MS: Do you feel any social responsibility as an artist in Colombia, especially now, given the political situation in the country?
SM: Yeah, I think I’ve always felt that. Colombia has always been a troubled country. We’ve basically been at war for almost 600 years, because ever since the Spaniards arrived in Colombia and Latin America in general, the violence has not stopped. Let's say it has changed according to the historical context of each era, but the killing has not stopped. We’ve had our difficulties as a country, but at the same time we are one with very powerful cultural tools, and it’s no coincidence that music from Colombia is currently so strong in the world. Each artist makes the decision and the path they want to take. There are some who focus more on entertainment, but for us, this is important, and not so much politics, but rather the environment. You don’t necessarily have to be linked with any party to talk about environmental issues. Nature is above that, above politics, above ideologies and parties. We are part of and come from it. And it seems to me that even more so in the case of Colombia, music is intimately related to nature. Cumbia comes from nature, it comes from the drums, the flutes, the songs of the birds. The songs have to do with the earth, like the blues here. So in a reality in which nature stops existing, music will also die.
MS: What impact do you think the Siembra Conciencia project will have?
SM: I would consider myself accomplished if I manage to change a couple of minds. Fortunately, today we see that there is more awareness around the world about the environment. What we don’t know is what can be done. Sometimes people in cities are like, “OK, I know we’re in an environmental crisis, but what do I do?” But there are people who are not even aware of that, and it’s not even part of their day-to-day thinking. Then getting people to change that chip and become aware that everything we do as a human race, multiplied by billions of people we are, impacts nature in some way. If we manage to change a couple of people who connect to that and begin to think in a different way, I already consider it an achievement. If in Colombia we manage to generate media pressure and the government begins to take protectionist actions in the rainforest—with respect to the plastic-prohibition of single-use plastics and that kind of thing—that would already be a more concrete achievement. But that depends on the government, not on us. We generate pressure, but unfortunately the decision is theirs.
MS: Are there any other initiatives you have in mind? What do you envision for the future beyond Siembra Conciencia?
SM: Yes, for now, the immediate future is that several artists have joined our campaign, Juanes has joined, Aterciopelados have joined. The tour in Colombia, for example, is with Systema Solar, which is a band that has a creative process very similar to Bomba’s. The idea is to add more artists to the campaign, and that more and more artists at least spread the message or share it. I think that this is not just a campaign and a tour, but a long-term process. If in Colombia we’re able to create an initiative about planting trees, imagine, it takes a tree 50 years to grow, then in one way or another we are going to be linked with that and it is a lifelong project. Not even as a band, but throughout our lives.
MS: Your music has a tropical feel, and seems very connected with nature, but at the same time it’s also electronic and serves as a sort of bridge between two worlds. How do you see the identity of the band and how has it changed since you started?
SM: I think that our music represents who we are, a meeting between two worlds, like you said, which is also Colombia in one way or another—even though we have cities, Colombia is ultimately a rural country, of farmland and jungle and nature. Ultimately, I think the future of humanity is to find ways to reconnect cities with nature, without having to go to live in caves or the jungle, but for cities become more sustainable and begin to be more aware that they have to play a part in nature and be sustainable within the context of a world that needs that. And you are already seeing it—go to Europe and some countries are already making green buildings, they are making green energy, renewable energy, saving water, prohibiting different kinds of plastic. So it’s a whole cycle and a path where cities are finally reconnecting with that green world. And for me, that’s also what our music is, it's how those two worlds meet in a harmonious way.
MS: You’ve said before that thanks to globalization you’ve been able to mix so many different styles of music and share your music with audiences around the world, but at the same time, globalization has also contributed to deforestation, to mining, to the extraction of resources in Latin American countries. How do you reconcile that?
SM: I think that globalization has both positive and negative aspects. What I don’t like about globalization is seeing it as an advanced form of capitalism, like, the world is so well-connected that any mining company has the flexibility to go and enter a country like Colombia. It’s is an advanced form of capitalism in which there are already companies that aren’t national but are transnational, they’re global, and they are doing an infinite damage to the planet. Maybe the owners of those companies are the ones who should be in jail, not the people who are dealing drugs in the streets. There’s a sort of erroneous vision of things: who does more harm, someone with few resources who is selling drugs on the street, or a multinational company mining and exploiting Colombia? These are issues of late capitalism that I think are already in decline and will definitely reach a breaking point. It’s already clear that capitalism is not sustainable and there will a point where that will be a clash, whether it’s financial, whether societal, or environmental. When that happens, these models will change.
MS: You’ve said that you don’t want to take political positions, but that you’d rather focus on the environment. But at the end of the day, the people that have the most influence on these issues are politicians. How can more artists and groups like Bomba Estéreo get involved in a progressive political movement?
SM: I think that, in general, politics, as it’s traditionally played out, is in decline, and has been totally distorted. Just look at the leaders of the world—they’re clowns, and it seems like a comedy, but they’re people that are taking the world to a very dark and ugly place. It’s not just here in the United States, it’s in Latin America—just look at the president they elected in Brazil—and in Europe too. We’re entering a fascist era that is very, very frightening. So I think that the answer to that and for the future of politics, when that model falls because at some point it has to fall, is that it has to come back to civic movements and small movements of people in small communities trying to achieve change. That idea of world leaders is the same—we return to the theme of late capitalism with an evil leader on top of the horse. It comes down to the people, the people themselves, knowing their needs and choosing leaders in their communities who really represent them, and creating those small networks. That, for me, is the future of politics, not these people that they put as presidents who only really represent are the interests of corporations. That’s the problem of politics, they don’t end up representing the interests of people.
MS: What message would you send to the public? What do you want to leave with the public on this tour?
SM: It seems incredible to me that Latin music and music in Spanish no longer have that blockade, that if we don’t make music in English we won’t reach an international audience. That barrier has already been broken. In that sense, I have to thank our reggaeton friends, who helped make this music popular all over the world, and people no longer care if it is Spanish or English, but listen and dance. That seems incredible to me. And with respect to our campaign, the message I leave is simply what we have to do according to my vision as a human race is to consume less, consume everything, from water, energy, electricity, etc., to things. There is no need to consume so much and if we lower that consumption rate a little, we will impact less, it will impact less on the planet, because the problem of the planet is that we are consuming a lot at a very high rate, and generating a lot of garbage and a lot of energy and spending a lot of water, and this is what is killing the planet. We return to the topic of capitalism at its peak. The model is to consume, to consume, to consume and then the earth and mother nature cannot stand, cannot stand that. By 2050, it will not continue to endure that.
MS: Do you think of ways in which Bomba Estéreo can voice its opposition to or can help in some way with the situation social leaders are currently experiencing in Colombia?
SM: Yeah, in Colombia we’re now seeing a very difficult situation, which is that we are in a post-conflict scenario but we’re also entering a new conflict. I think that conflict will never end in Colombia because it’s a strong country that has grown alongside violence—it’s as if it were in our DNA. So what’s happening now is that yes, the war is over, but there are still very fascist factions afraid of an extreme left model that in reality is just people fighting for their communities, and so they’re killing them. It’s more intense now, but that has happened throughout Colombian history.
So I don’t know, I think that as musicians and artists, what little we can contribute is simply to share messages of respect and equality, and to say that no one can discriminate or kill someone because they think differently from you, because they have a different sexual orientation, or because they are black or Indian or white, and that is what’s happening in Colombia with our social leaders. And I don’t say it only from white people towards others, but from others towards white people as well. It’s a mutual thing. And that’s the problem in this world, that there is no acceptance, there is no respect, and we are simply trying to end any differences. We don’t tolerate those who are different and who don’t share the way we think, and we finish them. So we don’t know what we can say because to achieve real change is a process that involves many more people as well as the government. So as artists, we share that message through our music, our videos, and our campaigns.
Miguel Salazar is a Colombian-American writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @miguelxsalazar.
Simón Mejía is the founder of Bomba Estéreo.