We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Colombia is a country that lives through music. It’s hard to go anywhere without hearing the distinctive strains of salsa, cumbia, or vallenato blaring out at you. Buses, corner-shops and taxis become more like nightclubs, and the people have an enthusiasm for dancing that is pretty unrivalled. However, if this isn’t really your thing, don’t let yourself be put off; there is a lot more to Colombian music than these classic genres. Bogota is the home of a thriving group of independent musicians creating some of the most interesting, challenging and enjoyable alternative music being made anywhere in the world right now (in this writer’s humble opinion anyway).
Whilst there are a huge number of bands playing music in Colombia’s capital, I’m going to focus on a small group of them who, working together and playing in each other’s bands, have created a fascinating music scene focused around experimentation, the subversion of traditional genres, and a loving devotion to Colombia’s musical heritage. These bands (some names may be familiar, some less so) include Frente Cumbiero, Ondatropica, Meridian Brothers, Los Piranas and Romperayo; and most of them can be seen playing in Bogota on a fairly regular basis. The ‘scene’ (for want of a better word) is focused around popular bar Matik-Matik (Cra 11 #67-20): a small night-spot and vinyl store tucked away in an unobtrusive street corner in Chapinero. These bands all sound very different, but they share a common talent for making challenging and exciting modern Colombian music.
The most familiar band will likely be Ondatropica, who caused a global splash with their sprawling, startling eponymous debut album in 2012. This project was curated by Will ‘Quantic’ Holland and Mario ‘Pretty-much-all-the-other-bands-I’ve-mentioned’ Galeano, and included the contributions of some of Colombia’s most legendary tropical musicians. Also featured on this record were Pedro Ojeda and Eblis Alvarez, and it is the work of these men, and the aforementioned Galeano, which I’m going to focus on.
These guys all feature in Frente Cumbiero, and make up Los Piranas. Born out of a passion for Colombia’s musical heritage, Frente Cumbiero make an exciting, modern form of cumbia. Galeano has this to say when asked about the importance of cumbia to Colombia: “The bus rides to commute, the family reunions, the vacations, any shop… it’s a music that transcends situations and social classes. It may be something popular somewhere else, but for the Colombians Cumbia has a touch of elegance, that’s the reason why it’s always been here.” Galeano also lectures on music in several Colombian universities, and his passion and expertise regarding Colombia’s musical history is inspiring to see.
Los Piranas is a different animal entirely (excuse the bi-lingual pun…): a three-piece ‘tropical noise’ outfit, whose debut album Toma Su Jabon Kapax, intermittently recalls Peruvian psychedelic ‘chicha’ music, New York No-Wave, and German Krautrock, as well as the more familiar cumbia rhythms. It’s a demanding but rewarding record, made even more dramatic when seen played live. Here’s the video for their latest single, Salvemos Nuestro Folclor: it’s pretty crazy so get ready…
Galeano is absent from Meridian Brothers, and Alvarez steps to the fore. Very much the experimental group of the scene, Meridian Brothers have released a few albums to much critical fanfare. Their last release, Desesperanza, was a fascinating meld of electronics, ever-changing vocals, and traditional salsa sounds. This group is very much a product of Alvarez’s avant-garde inspirations, and his more amusing take on the tropical music traditions of Colombia.
Finally, there’s Romperayo, which is essentially Pedro Ojeda’s project, although Alvarez still features on synths and samplers. Very much a drum-led ensemble, I was lucky enough to see Romperayo in Matik-Matik this past weekend, and, let me tell you, they didn’t disappoint. A propulsive, rhythmic group, they’re almost impossible to listen to without wanting to move your feet.
So, if you’re interested, check out these bands and get down to Matik-Matik on a weekend when they’re playing, you won’t regret it. Watching talented musicians at the top of their game is rarely a bad experience! Alternatively, if it’s not your cup of tea, no worries: it’s Colombia, there’s more musical variety than you can shake a stick at. Just get involved, don’t be shy and, most importantly baila! That’s what it’s really all about.