Bomba Estereo's Simon Mejia has found some new collaborators. The Colombian bassist and beatmaker has taken the soundscaping skills that underpin the group’s energetic electro-cumbia, set aside the restrictions of song structure, and carefully listened to the birds.
Coming out Sept. 18 under the name Monte, the resulting electronic ambient album instead takes inspiration from bird song and the ambience of nature, and the indigenous and folk musical traditions of Colombia that nature has directly inspired. Using field recordings, as well as samples of organic percussion and folk instruments played by himself and others, the album Mirla proves that, as Mejia says, there are no solo projects.
Mejia caught up with Afropop’s Ben Richmond in Brooklyn, via WhatsApp, from his home in Bogota to talk about Mirla, when a song is “finished,” and when it’s a Bomba Estereo tune. Edited for clarity and length.
Ben Richmond: I suppose we should start out with introductions. Would you introduce yourself to Afropop readers?
Simon Mejia: Hello, my name is Simon Meijia. I’m a musician, a producer. I’m part of the band Bomba Estereo from Colombia. I’m presenting now a new project, a personal project called Monte.
And how would you describe your project Monte, in contrast with Bomba Estereo?
I think it’s kind of strange, because they almost come from the same root. Because “monte” translates to “mount” or “mountain,” but here for example, “monte” is used to describe, for example, the jungle; the places that are not easy to enter, like savage and isolated and mysterious and far away places. For example the war here in Colombia happened in the monte, it happened in the jungle. So my idea with this project was to kind of translate that sound of the monte to electronic music. All the folk music, like the ancient traditions and folk music that is a blend of Afro and indigenous musics from here in Colombia which are communities that inhabit in the monte, in the jungle and isolated places. All the folk music that inspired Bomba Estereo—for example, the cumbia and the champeta and the Afro-indigenous traditions—all have the same roots, that is, nature. The ancient musics, and especially the indigenous music when it started, what they say, the people who made it were trying to imitate the sounds of nature. The flutes they built to try to imitate the sounds of the birds, and the maracas tried to sound like cockroaches, and their main inspiration was nature; it was the monte. So both Bomba and this music come from nature. I think music comes from nature, especially this kind with folk and organic music, everything coming from nature. That’s the origin of the inspiration.
I think about, especially on Ayo, the Bomba Estereo record, so much of the sound on there reminds me of liquid and movement. Something about it, when you make that comparison, it really rings true to me.
Yeah, for example on that particular album, we started a very deep connection with nature. We started that album with a ritual with this indigenous community that inhabits the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. That’s a monte in the Caribbean coast of Colombia, and they have really ancient indigenous communities that have been there for centuries.
We did a ritual with them before starting the record and after that ritual, we had a deeper connection with nature, and we started a new path of environmental activism and trying to spread the word that these communities have all over the world that even now is even growing stronger with everything that is happening. You need to listen to the indigenous and the African-rooted, and what they’re saying is the truth, what the world needs to do to solve the problems we’re living with today. So on that album we connected with that energy and here in Colombia before the slaves came, we had these really strong indigenous communities and they had their own music, their flute music and their more ambient music. Then, when the slaves came here and brought drums with their input, you have the birth of cumbia and the new rhythms and folk rhythms for all of Latin America, but everything comes from the indigenous communities and Colombia is a very indigenous country.
I’m curious, Monte is described as an electronic project but there’s so much organic percussion and instrumentation all over it. Is that you playing those instruments or did you sample and rework other players?
I worked with other players. There are other musicians all over the record, I always like to collaborate. It’s always much stronger when its done in collaboration and as a group effort. I don’t believe there is a solo artist, that’s a lie. Nobody does it all by themselves. For me music becomes greater when you collaborate. But I had different levels—I had field recordings that were mine and I also used some archival recordings from a friend of mine who has been recording birds a long time. He has bird song archives, and then some of the percussion and strings and charanga strings were from a friend of mine. Some of the guitar is from the Bomba Estereo guitar player. The people playing are also friends of mine. It was kind of a collective thing.
Bomba Estereo has such good soundscapes under all of the songs and when I was reading through the press kit, there was a reference to an “experimental introduction to the next Bomba album.” First off, I’m glad to hear another one is in the works, when do you think you’ll be putting that out? It sounds like the work is mostly done?
We were planning to release this year but we moved to January. But this year we’re releasing two singles, one stand-alone single that isn’t going to be on the album and then one from the album and then the rest of the album in January, February 2021. We’re waiting for the negative wave to come down a little bit. It’s really crazy right now to release music. It’s good [to release music] because it helps people to deal with the thing, but at the same time it’s a crazy time just in general.
I was talking to some other Colombian artists—do you know Salt Cathedral?
Sure! We’re collaborating and he’s doing a remix for Monte and I’m doing a remix for him.
No kidding! Well, they released an album in April-May and they got really good feedback. I know the situation is changing all the time, but when’s the Monte album coming out?
The 18th of September. The album I had from last year, I recorded it last year, but we’re releasing now. It’s getting old now.
But I’ve been listening to this album while working around the house and I guess this is the appeal of ambient music but it’s got a great energy and it’s been really ideal for right now for me, at least.
Thank you. Yeah, I see it as ambient music in a way and I also think a way to connect with nature is through sounds. Finding a different way to listen to and hear those nature sounds. The landscapes there, the soundscapes that I recorded, I did it in a way of making an archive—recording the sounds of birds that maybe in the future we won’t have.
I think people are feeling that it’s time to get closer to nature. It’s enough, we’ve done so much harm, so people are getting back to the basics, I think.
And birds are such charismatic species, something people are familiar with, and they’re also musical.
It seems like one of the first forms of an expressions of music—if you really listen to bird songs, in terms of melody it’s really evolved. It’s from another world.
One year ago I moved away from the city and became even more aware of that, that every morning at 5 or 5:30 you have lots of bird activity that you wouldn’t hear in the city. It’s a beautiful way to wake up, better than horns or cars.
Are you a birder yourself? Do you research and identify species?
Not really! With this work I got a little more involved with some of the real birders who, just by listening to a bird song can name the species, but I’m not on that level yet.
I’m working on that myself. I don’t even own binoculars yet.
Yeah, just a binocular and a book, you can do so much. But there’s so much here to see here in Colombia, we’re like number one in the world for birds. We have the local birds and then the migrant birds, who come down.
Getting back to the album—would you call this an ambient album? How do you characterize it?
I like to call it ambient, because it’s ambient but in Spanish environment is ambiente, so you can play with the word. It’s ambient like the ambient of Brian Eno and all this music I really like, but at the same time it’s environmental, so yeah, I’ll say “electronic ambient.”
Both of those are just such wide categories—ambient runs from soothing, Brian Eno Airports to pretty harsh droning. Is venturing out into something that widely defined feel like freedom? How do you find that affects your creativity? Is that openness nice or intimidating?
I like to have it because its kind of, for me, in contrast with Bomba which is more pop. It’s song oriented, while this is more open and open to experimentation and you don’t have to stick to a structure or lyric but it’s just experimenting with sound. I think the interesting thing about ambient music is that it’s an experiment with sound itself, not with a song or a lyric or commercial structures, but just being open to experiment—doesn’t matter how long the track is.
Is it ever a relief to get back to more pop structures? Having something to work against or within?
Yeah, I like leveling between the two things. You always learn from both worlds.
And you guys have a lot of flexibility in Bomba Estereo. I can see the connection between the projects, but you’ve carved out a lot of space to follow what the song calls for.
Yeah, Bomba still is more song-oriented but we have the freedom, always, because we’ve always liked to experiment in both sides, so I think that the best thing about making music is to have freedom. If you’re attached to structures or commercial structures, I think music loses a bit of interest and experimentation and for me music is experimentation. That’s when it’s best.
How do you know when the song is done and how do you know when to reach for another element—another backbeat or vocals?
That’s one of the most difficult things! To know the so-called “end”—because you can keep on forever with a song. It can be a forever process. But with this, the songs are different between them and I just felt that it was just a general vibe of connecting myself with nature and with the original field recordings and try to have those experiences reflected in the songs, the travels I’ve made and the birds. It was just like a portrait of a particular time when I was doing the songs. It’s difficult to explain, but I think it was more or less that—to reflect the moments when I recorded the soundscapes.
When you started the project did you think these might be Bomba tracks or did you know it was time for something different?
Some of them I meant them to be Bomba tracks but then they... got moved to the other side. Not all of them, but some, because it was a parallel when I was making this album we were making the Bomba album as well. Sometimes the paths split and the Bomba one had a character and this one had a different character, so I split music for each.
I think I saw Bomba last summer in Prospect Park? Or was it the year before?
Yeah, it all seems crazy now, but yeah, that was last summer. We had a tiny tech problem at the beginning of the show…
Yes! I remember.
One of the boards [for the main house speakers] died!
I was pretty far out and we could hear that there was still music going—did you guys know we couldn’t hear you anymore?
We..knew but like after five minutes. People were waving hands and the crew was like “stop!” because we were still coming through the monitors.
If you’re standing in front of the amp, how could you know?
So you’ve got a Salt Cathedral remix coming out—any other creative projects in the works?
I’m doing remixes for a couple of artists and some production, just studio work. Since we can’t tour, we have to focus in the studio. But it’s good also—I like that part. Music is half-half. Some people like more of one than the other, but half-half compliments really well—half studio, half playing live. Now with everything happening it’s 100 percent studio for now.
It’s time to get in some good practice, I think. Is there anything else the Afropop audience should know about these releases?
No—it’s out on the 18th, the whole album with a new video we shot at a great location here in Bogata, a natural location. We’re releasing a video for each single for this album. But not so much besides that!
I’ve been enjoying it very much around here. Like all good ambient records, you can just keep listening to it and there keeps being more to uncover. It really makes the room better.