Reviews March 22, 2016
Supernatural Love

This Afro-Colombian roots pop outfit, cofounded in 1996 by British DJ and producer Richard Blair, made its mark pioneering the electro-cumbia movement. That has proven a rich vein over the years, inspiring some of the most satisfying and unconventional dance music out of Latin America, especially Colombia, from Bomba Estéreo to Curupira, ChocQuibTown and La Yegros. But here, Sidestepper lives up to its name with an unexpected move, a kind of ambient folk-rock album rooted entirely in hand percussion—no big electronic beats or even trap drums. The result—far from another clubby global mishmash—is a set of songs that are serenely tuneful and effervescently rhythmic, finding a new sweet spot between folklore and pop.

“Fuego Que Te Llama” sets the tone with an almost visual soundscape of crisp hand drums and cycling kalimba. There are distant voices, as if we were at a party or ceremony of some sort. Melodious call-and-response singing then takes center stage, with Erika "Eka" Muñoz commanding the lead. Eka’s voice and delivery are at times reminiscent of the great singer of Colombian folklore, Toto la Momposina. In fact, it was through working on Toto’s 1993 Real World album, La Candela Viva, that Blair first ventured to Colombia. Here, Eka sings with similar force and clarity, imbuing an indigenous-sounding melody with authentic edginess, but also near classical precision, as Toto does so impeccably to this day.

The sheen of modernity is subtle on this opening track, but more present elsewhere. “On the Line” opens with a loop of processed sound that becomes a polyrhythmic counterpoint to the song’s lilting highlife guitar groove. Elsewhere, Blair’s synthesizer adds celestial atmospherics. There are lots of looped and echoed sounds, as well as drones and hues, offsetting meandering flute melodies and ear-tickling, clean guitar lines. “Magangué,” another call-and-response song, features what sounds like a struck gong instrument, prominent amid a thicket of light percussion, layers of voices, and that meandering flute. Again the effect is inexplicably visual.

There’s a kind of rural innocence about these tracks. Some unfold using clearly Afro-Colombian rhythmic language. But elsewhere, we get ambling grooves that clearly reference country music and other forms of Americana. No Deadhead can hear “Supernatural Love,” a song with quasi-psychedelic English lyrics, without flashing on the Grateful Dead standard “Bertha.” And “Come See Us Play” has a kind of Tennessee shuffle, with low-pitched electric guitar and bass lines sliding amiably against one another while Eka lofts her voice into an angelic stratosphere. “Song For the Sinner,” another track where Blair leads an English-language vocal ensemble, drifts in with Dead-like spaciness but steadily insinuates an underlying Afro-Colombian groove while flute-like synth and chiming electric guitars converse.

It’s original and creative stuff, perhaps a little soft and dreamy for listeners keen on pounding club rhythms, but for others, a welcome respite from the same. Supernatural Love adds a new twist to the continuing flow of South American pop inspired and informed by tradition, folklore--and hell, just plain old down-home folk music.

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