When Bomba Estéreo takes the stage at Neptune Theatre on Wednesday it will be the largest room on the indie rock band’s nine-city North American tour.
That’s no accident.
Seattle has been a big supporter of the Colombian band since 2009, when singer Liliana Saumet and company first visited the U.S. in support of their sophomore album, Blow Up.
The album did just what the title suggested and made the band a global name.
“Seattle is in the top three markets for U.S. album sales on Blow Up,” the band’s PR manager, Paul Dryden, told Seattle Globalist. “This is very unusual for a Latin artist.”
Bomba Estéreo’s popularity in the Puget Sound isn’t due to a large Colombian community, but rather the cutting-edge taste of Seattle’s indie music public radio station KEXP.
KEXP DJs were captivated by the four-piece band’s blend of Afro-Latin rhythms like cumbia and champeta with an indie rock sensibility on tracks like their signature “Fuego.”
“I remember when I first heard the song ‘Fuego,’ it was love at first listen!” KEXP’s midday host, Cheryl Waters, said via e-mail. “I could not play it enough! I love the melody and the rhythmic percussion. Those congas at the beginning are awesome and the beat is so infectious.”
“They are incredible. So much energy. They are a treat for the senses.”
Tracks from Blow Up entered into regular rotation on KEXP, which prompted the band to book its first show in Seattle in November 2009 at The Crocodile.
“To see them live – that’s a whole other thing,” Waters wrote. “They are incredible. So much energy. They are a treat for the senses.”
During that visit, they recorded their first KEXP live in-studio session. “Last week, Bogota, Colombia’s Bomba Estéreo dropped on Seattle like an a-bomb,” Jim Beckmann raved on the KEXP blog at the time.
In her in-studio performances, lead singer Liliana Saumet closes her eyes and clutches her headphones with a fierce intensity.
The recording of “Feelin’” went on to amass 1.3 million views. The band played from KEXP’s Bumbershoot Music Lounge in 2010 and sold out Tractor Tavern in 2011 and again in 2013.
“As a result of this KEXP support, Seattle quickly became one of the band’s biggest fan bases in the U.S., if not the world,” Dryden said.
The band returned to the KEXP studio in 2013 in support of its next release, Elegancia Tropical, and recorded a live version of “El Alma y El Cuerpo” which has nearly 2.8 million views, one of KEXP’s most watched sessions of all time.
“Bomba regularly has fans who approach them across the world that say they discovered their music from their KEXP session videos,” Dryden noted.
Their 2016 tour comes on the strength of last year’s Amanecer, their fourth studio full-length. Seattle remains one of the top five U.S. cities in album sales.
Lead single “Fiesta” was nominated for Record of the Year at the 2015 Latin Grammies, where a colorfully-attired Saumet performed a duet with Will Smith, although the band didn’t take home the prize.
As their popularity has grown, Bomba Estéreo has also provided a spotlight on the depth of Colombian music, beyond pop singers like Shakira and Juanés.
Particularly noteworthy is the band’s embrace of champeta, a polyrhythmic style of dance music native to the descendants of African slaves on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. While the light-skinned Spanish-descended elites of Bogotá and Medellín have historically looked down on Afro-Colombian music, Bomba Estéreo has helped spark a renaissance of interest in the genre.
Lest the band be accused of hipster fetishization, it incorporates the genre’s inheritors, too. Guitarist Julián Salazar now has a side project called Mitú, with Franklin Tejedor, a drummer from San Basilio de Palenque, a small town known as the cradle of Colombia’s Afro-Caribbean culture. The village was the first maroon (runaway slave) community in the Americas to be recognized by a colonial power.
Last year when I saw the band in Washington, DC, Mitú opened, and Tejedor later joined Bomba Estéreo on stage for a frenetic number. It was pure fuego.