The debut EP by Austin, Texas-based Superfónicos is a feisty melding of styles—spanning early cumbia, Afrobeat and a surprisingly satisfying dalliance with Ethio-jazz. Their songs are smartly constructed along the lines where genres intersect, a fact that never gets in the way of their hip-shaking qualities.
Though based in Texas, Superfónicos have solid Colombian roots. They're led by bassist Nico Sanchez and his brother Daniel on drums, whose parents are from Bogota. Erick Bohorquez, who plays guitar, has a Bogota background as well, and singer Jaime Ospina found his place in the band right after he moved to Austin from the Colombian capital. Guitarist Andres Villegas hails from Medellín.
“Rio Negro” starts in a haze of dubby reverb-drenched guitar before the tune kicks into a bounding Afrobeat-inflected horn line. The vocals pitch from soloist to group as in a palenque tune, the Afro-Colombian style that developed on the country's Caribbean coast from the '70s to the present. But as with Afro-Colombian contemporaries like Brooklyn's Combo Chimbita, the melding of styles keeps the songs from ever sliding into a retro act. Superfónicos are onto something here; they've found a hard-driving overlap.
For “Ethiopian Dust,” the band slides into a Mulatu Astake costume, with funky dub guitar lines swirling into the echoing space that Astake would typically fill with his vibes. Ethiopian music primarily uses a five-note pentatonic scale, as do some indigenous musical traditions in South America. Oddly enough, this transcontinental convergence means that the gaita, a traditional wooden flute, doesn't sound at all out of place on “Ethiopian Dust” when Ospina takes a solo on it.
Ospina told the Austin Chronicle that Villegas called him the day he arrived in town, and the singer was in the band by the end of his first day in Texas. A stylistically slippery band needs a similarly fluid frontman, and Ospina definitely holds up his part of the bargain. On the EP's title track, “Suelta,” he verges on rap: Hip-hop is huge everywhere and, as the group Kombilesa Mi proved at Lincoln Center this week, Colombia is no exception. A capable vocalist, Ospina comfortably leads the old school call-and-response moments in the songs, freeing the band to explore long instrumentals.
“El Miedo” is hypnotically anchored by claves and a backbeat Rhodes piano line, within which that same flute and a deep-voiced saxophone chase each other up and down in between verses. “Sigue Pa'lante” erupts at the three-quarter mark, the funk growing heavier and fuzzier as the group vocals turn into a chant.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note I'm a sucker for cumbia and its offshoots, and I spent most of the summer listening to champeta tunes from the '70s, so Superfónicos feels almost made for me personally. Nevertheless, these are six tracks of very good music that have a lot of insight in every moment. I'm ready for six more.