Interviews July 8, 2024
Meridian Brothers turn to Africa on Mi Latinoamérica Sufre

The Colombian alternative act Meridian Brother, is a one-man-band in the recording studio, and a five-piece ensemble on stage. The one man in question is Eblis Álvarez, a veteran of Bogota’s underground music scene since 1998. The most recent in a string of conceptual Meridian Brothers releases, Meridian Brothers & El Grupo Renacimiento, traced the trajectory of “an invented veteran salsa band being reborn in a compromised state, questioning our obsession with truth and lies, illusion and reality.” Now, on the new Mi Latinoamérica Sufre, the inspiration comes from Africa, Congolese soukous and West African highlife. But if you’re looking for faithful renderings of these styles, you’ve got the wrong artist. In Álvarez’s hands, everything comes out Meridian! He’s an absolute original, deeply committed to his own self-imposed challenges.

Meridian Brothers will perform a free show at Celebrate Brooklyn on Friday, July 19.

Afropop’s Banning Eyre Zoomed with Álvarez from his studio in Bogota to talk about the new album. Here’s their conversation.

Banning Eyre: Eblis, great to see you again. We caught your great set at globalFEST in New York last year. And I've really been digging this new album.

Eblis Álvarez: Cool.

The last time we spoke, we were talking about acoustic salsa and your Grupo Renaciamento band. And now you’ve moved on to the likes of Congolese soukous, which is near and dear to my heart. How did you make that journey? What brought you to African music?

Well, it's music that I'm always into. You know, there is a style in Barranquilla we call rastrillo, which is to take all these African hits. I mean, there are some specific hits in Barranquilla and they change the names using the words they can catch and put it into Spanish. This was very popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and in Barranquilla, the hits are still spinning.

You’re talking about champeta where DJs merged African pop and Colombian music.

Actually, it's the Colombian version of African music.

I remember hearing that the DJs in Baranquilla used to scratch the labels off records so their rivals wouldn't know where they got the songs. Now, of course, everything is everywhere. Just pull out Shazam and you're done.

Exactly. So this has been in my mind for years. There are also artists, not only on the records, but artists that make covers of these records. This is a wave on the Caribbean coast and it's a very guitaristic music with two guitars and a lot of complex counterpoints and everything. This was on my list for ages. I have to do a two-guitar record with these inspirations of zouk music and rastrillo and champeta and so on.

When we spoke last time, you said your last three albums made up a trio that covered different kinds of Colombian music.


So is this a fourth edition?

I mean, it doesn't have the intention of being a group of albums. Like, okay, I have to do this and that, using that as an inspiration. My next album will be this and will be that. I use a concept as something that encloses the whole album, mostly for organization, I guess. I think I want to be organized and put everything in a good place and have an organized route.

Eblis Álvarez at globalFEST in New York City (Eyre, 2023)
Eblis Álvarez at globalFEST in New York City (Eyre, 2023)

Your early work was very electronic but on all these recent albums, you’ve been moving more towards live sound and acoustic instruments.


Let’s talk about your process. I watched that very interesting video where you build a song playing all the instruments. Is that how you recorded this album?

It's a continuation of that, yeah. It's a little bit of dramatization, of course. I just sit with my guitar and do experiments, then put it into the computer and play around, going towards the main idea. I mean, from outside, it looks like that.

But it's all you.

Yeah, yeah, I record always like this, yeah.

When you go out live, you have musicians that let you perform on stage, like what we saw at globalFEST.

Yeah, I have the band. They come and we put it together. We rebuild everything in order to make it like a new whole thing.

Inevitably it comes bit differently when you're doing it with the band. On the album, I hear the complex counterpoint. I hear references to soukous here and there, but I also hear a lot of cumbia rhythm, right? That's kind of a mainstay.

Yeah, yeah. The idea was to take the format, the two guitars, percussion, maracas, mostly bongos, and then put different rhythms. I mean, it's like the journey, like a Caribbean-Colombian soukous. It's like after-highlife. There are two cumbias, there is even a funk tune. I mean my idea was to take the abstract format and then put it into new rhythms and new ways of doing things. There are vocals because in most soukous, there are choirs and some spoken language.

I want to talk about the lyrics in a minute, but first, I'm a guitarist myself and I noticed that you use a really dry guitar sound. You don't go with the delay that the Congolese guitarists use. Talk about that choice.

Totally. That was part of the experiment. I mean, when I do records, I just have a set of stuff that I have to do, like a checklist. I have to do this format with this sound. I use references. And one of the items this time was completely dry guitar. It has to be like that, completely dry. It was very difficult. Sometimes it sounded not good. I really had to move around and try to see how to produce two completely dry guitars.

It's a unique sound, very distinctive, but why were you so committed to that idea?

I just wanted to make it like that. Electric guitar is a very difficult instrument. I'm a guitarist all my life, but for me electric guitar is a dead instrument. It's just plain, metal against coil, just doing the transduction and it's very dead, you know? That's the reason a lot of guitarists use delays, distortion, compressors… a lot of coloring because the guitar itself is really dead. You don't have sustain. I mean if you want to pull something out of the guitar, I mean you have to be a total virtuoso. Like African guitarists, sometimes they pull with a plain dry guitar, and make a lot of rhythm, you know?


So that was actually the challenge, to be able to not use all these effects. Just see what can you do with a plain electric guitar.

Interesting. I'm also an acoustic player who plays electric sometimes, but I'm more coming from the acoustic side. I remember that you started with classical guitar.

Yes, me too. I'm acoustic. I'm a classical guitarist and you know, acoustic classical guitar is much more expressive. It has a vibration into the box and you can things to change the sound, but electric guitar is totally dead.

Well, you’ve managed to breathe a lot of life into it here.

That was the challenge, I hope so.

I think what attracted me to African guitar was the way single lines interact, that contrapuntal quality you mentioned earlier, with one line filling in the spaces that the other one leaves out. That whole conversation is just so beautiful in many African styles.

Yeah, the counterpoint.

You’ve done it in a unique way here. I mean, you're not following the patterns of normal soukous. You're creating your own rhythmic interactions between those parts.

I wanted to extract the format and use the two guitars in what I think is a traditional African way, which is the male and the female. In their drums, there are two sexes, two genders of the instrument. And in guitar—my definition at least, which I cannot confirm from any other source—is this idea that the dark guitar, the muted guitar, is the female, and the one that is really counter-pointing is the male. The male is the one who is jumping around and the other one is supporting.

That makes sense. Let’s talk about the sound of the voices. You mentioned that on your last album, the salsa album, you processed your voice to sound deeper. Did you use any voice processing on this album?

No, that was also a challenge, to do a plain voice. Of course, it has a little delay, some small stuff, but the idea was to sing totally clean, no effects.

Got it. Let's talk about a few of the songs. I love the opener, “Se que estoy cambiando.” It begins with one thing and then we hear a voice, and the music quickly changes to something completely different.

I know. I'm changing already.

What’s going on? What's the message here?

The voice says “this is one effluvium of progress,” but you know I got inspiration directly from Lee Perry or from Miles Davis. I mean like Miles Davis had that very scary voice. And Lee Perry too. I wanted to do like this like this, saying, [switches to growly, scratchy voice] “This is the effluvium of progress.”

What about that little musical intro, that clip we hear right at the beginning?

This sounds like advertising music, like from the 80s, “Okay, come to the Bahamas. Come to Iceland.”

What about the song “Mandala.” It also has this radical shift from one mood to another in the middle of the song.

Well, “Mandala” is a funky song. The idea was to imitate the label Machuca Funk, an artist like Brando Ortiz. Brando is a guitar player I admire so much, a very obscure guitar player. Nobody knows anything about him. The guy just completely disappeared at one point. But he’s on a lot of Machuca records. He played on El Grupo Folclórico, which is one of the records that I like. He has his own band, Brando y su Banda. I wanted to make this Machuca funky sound, you know, with this form of intermezzo. The guy is like Lee Perry, saying stuff in the middle.

I really the song “Me pregunta.” That's one has a very strong cumbia feel.

Yes, a total minimalist cumbia. Well, it is my question. This guy is making a soliloquy of political stuff. He's talking about politics. He says, “This is my question about politics…” But he never asks it. He says, “This is the question that I have. This is the right question. Before I didn't have this question, but now this is the question.” So the guy is talking politics, socialism, scientific stuff. But he never really takes a position. He's just making this sololiquy of politics, but without any sense.

Then there's one that comes after that, “En el Caribe estoy triste.” That's the most soukous-like track on the album.

Yeah, totally. This is the soukous. You know, this whole album is a journey of one guy. He even has a name. It's Junior Maximiliano Tercero, and each song is about his kind of self-pity. The guy is always lamenting about himself like, “Poor me. What am I gonna do?”

He tries to do something and it doesn't really happen. He tries to study folk music and he gets rejected. He tries to ask a question about politics but doesn't get to a conclusion. So then this guy goes to the Caribbean to try to find answers and still doesn't find anything. So he says, “In the Caribbean, I'm sad again.” Then he goes to the mountains and tries to do the genres there. Why not San Juanito [a style of Ecuadorian music]? He wants to be political with that. He wants that recognition and pride for San Juanito. But it doesn't go well, so you know, he’s always failing. The guy is always failing.

Always falling short. A real anti-hero. Let me ask about one more, a beautiful song, “Mis soledades,” another cumbia.

Yeah, the cumbia one. Well, it’s exactly the same thing. The guy says, “I'm so afraid because nobody understands me. I'm losing my juice because my friends are a bunch of yuppies. I’m losing my juice with these friends. Nobody really understands me…” So it’s also a total lament.

He's a sad case. I get it. So when you when you're performing live these days, with your band, are you doing this material? Are you working it out for the stage? You must have another good guitarist.

Well, the way we are making this music is I'm playing the lead guitar and then Alejandro [Forero], the keyboard player, will sample the second guitar and he will combine it with some lines of synthesizer or with a little bit of saxophone. So the second guitar will be like a hybrid construction. It will be contrapuntal but it will be split into parts. Actually, today we are doing “En el Caribe estoy triste” for first time. The guys are coming in like half an hour. I'm really looking forward to that, but it's really difficult.

I can imagine.

It's very, very difficult to sing at the same time. I'm kind of afraid. Not really. I hope I can make it.

I think you will. I look forward to catching that live at some point. You know, the last time we talked was two years ago, almost exactly. And it was right after the election and you were very excited about the result. How are things turning out two years later?

Well, I think the guy has done some good stuff. I mean, the guy is an okay politician. He's not as crooked as the others. In my heart, I pay attention to politics mostly as a theatrical piece.

I get that. It gives you a little distance.

For me, it's very nice and fun because I extract a lot of material to make art using those things. For me politics is like a game, a game that sometimes involves lives. That's the shitty part. But you know, if you get too involved in that, you will get absorbed and, in the end, sick. You get sick because this energy of anger poisons the body. And that's the idea. There are these right -wing politicians talking bullshit and really nasty stuff, and that you get angry, and that poisons your body. So then when you get poisoned, and you get sick, then you get into the medical system, then you pay all your money. So it's like a predator. It’s not biting your neck, but you get poisoned. You get absorbed.

It gets in your head.

It gets in your head, and then you lose your own life thinking about it. You slowly get predated by the system.

Well, Eblis, it's really great to talk with you again. Have a great rehearsal. I look forward to catching you guys doing this live. It's fun stuff.

Yeah, likewise, man. Thanks a lot.

Take care, my friend. We'll be talking.

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