Lotus artist 2016: Palenke Soultribe's Afro-Colombian vibes



For the last 23 years the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival has brought some of the greatest musicians in the world to Bloomington, Indiana for an unforgettable weekend of musical performance. This year’s Lotus Fest artist roster is overflowing with incredible talent, making the Lotus 2016 line-up one of the strongest yet. If you’ve never attended Lotus Fest, this year’s edition is a perfect introduction.

I spoke with four of this year’s Lotus performers to give NUVO readers a taste of what’s in store September 15-18 at this year’s Lotus Fest.

Palenke Soultribe melds traditional Afro-Colombian music with contemporary electronic sounds. I recently caught up with the group’s producer and bassist Juan Diego Borda via phone as we discussed the roots of Palenke Soultribe’s style in Colombia’s "picó" soundsystem culture.

NUVO: You have a long a history of involvement with electronic music and DJ culture, going back to around the year 2000 with your first group Polaina Dinamita. I wanted to ask you a more general question about Afro-Colombian DJ culture. We hear a lot about early DJ culture in the United States with disco, or in England with the Northern Soul DJ scene.

But the coastal region of Colombia also had a very early and very important DJ scene with the mix of Caribbean sounds and Central and West African music that led to the birth of champeta music. Could you talk about that history of DJ culture in Colombia and whether that had any influence on the music you're making? 

Juan Diego Borda: It does have a large influence on the music we make. We can't really talk in the first person about DJ culture on the Colombian coast because this goes to back to the '80s when they were bringing the records in from Africa and Europe.

I think the DJ culture really picked up with the urban development of the music, like the champeta stuff. All these people coming from the barrios and the villages put together soundsystems and put together parties in garages or empty lots. They had a very defined way of decorating these things and they called it the "picó". So this colorful and loud soundsystem with a guy playing records and mash-ups started incorporating live music. So for example, one guy would do the beats on a Casio drum pad along with the record. So there would be a mixture of records and live performance.

So from then on a lot of bands started forming around champeta music and eventually started fusing cumbia sounds from the same region and that gave birth to a new music which is the one we are enjoying now with bands like Systema Solar, Bomba Estéreo, and ourselves.

NUVO: So, the music of Palenke Soultribe came out of this tradition of the picó?

Diego Borda: Not only that, there's other influences too. One of them is this DJ culture of champeta or picó. The other is a more folkloric or rural sound from the traditional cumbia with names like Totó la Momposina, and Petrona Martínez. There's a mash-up of this old traditional cumbia which is based on African instruments and indigenous instruments. The African influence can be found in the percussion and the indigenous influence can be heard in the gaita which is kind of a long flute. That influence of the old cumbia is being combined with influence from the North in the United States, like hip-hop.

NUVO: Building on that question I wanted to ask you about the popularity of remixing traditional Colombian music. It seems like the whole range of Colombian music has provided great sample material for DJs. I think of Petrona Martinez as you mentioned, with the New York producer Uproot Andy doing fantastic remixes of her work. But we also hear remixes of gaitero music, as well as Andrés Landero and all the Colombian cumbia masters.

What do you think it is about Colombian music that is so attractive for DJs to reshape into an electronic sound? Why are so many DJs around the world gravitating toward Colombian music and remixing it?

Diego Borda: I think the rhythm itself has a contagious and trancey feel. I can relate that to the origins of cumbia to demonstrate. When you see a musician like Lucho Bermúdez, and here we are talking about the 1940s, he was probably the first to take the traditional cumbia and arrange it for big band. For the gaita he would use the clarinet. He changed things around to make it more universal and sell it to audiences. He started spreading the cumbia and for some strange reason you'll find this rhythm has a natural connection to all the people of Latin America. Judging from the reaction at our shows, a connection with the entire world.

I guess it's the simplicity, and the right tempo — it's not too fast or slow. The chromatic and harmonic changes are into the easy listening kind of field without feeling cheesy. But it's never a music that has a dissonance or talks about something extremely negative or implies something dark. Even when there's a sad song there's a sense of hope.

All those conceptual elements make cumbia very easy to rework. Also musically, because the pattern is a defined 4/4. The accents are off, but really clear. If you put that together with a four to the floor kick drum and it just works.

From there you can start experimenting and combining things. It's a combination of concept and trend as well. I think right now Colombia is enjoying a little bit of a shining moment after all of the bad situations we lived through from the '80s to the early 2000s.

NUVO: Speaking of Colombia having a shining moment, you mentioned Bomba Estéreo earlier and they've been having tremendous success globally. Bomba Estéreo had a huge Billboard charting hit with "Fiesta" which featured a guest appearance from Will Smith. How has the popularity of Bomba Estéreo and the exposure they've given Colombian music affected the work artists like you are doing?

Diego Borda: Bomba Estéreo has been successful, but some of the other bands in Colombia are doing amazing work as well. It does help that there's a name people are starting to recognize and opening doors for the rest of us.

There are so many bands that have incredible musicianship in Colombia, I think it's only a matter of time before they hit the same places Bomba Estéreo is hitting now.

NUVO: I wanted to her your thoughts on the terms "global bass"and "tropical bass". These labels have become very popular for categorizing the sort of music artists like you are making that combine electronic dance music with traditional styles and sounds.

Are you comfortable with these terms or would you prefer your music be labeled with the proper names of the rhythms and genres they're drawn from?

Diego Borda: It's difficult because we also call it "electro roots" or "nu-cumbia". It's fine for me. I think it's difficult for people who are not musicians to identify what tropical bass is. If you say to a person off the street "hey, do you want to hear a tropical bass song?" They'll be like "what?"

For people who are writers, or musicians I think they are good terms. It is tropical music and there is a lot of bass involved. Global bass is good if you talk about African or Asian music combined with modern beats. I like the term global bass. It sounds very contemporary and it matches with the era we're living in now. What's the style that defines this era? What is it? We've lived through so many styles of music and now we seem to be combining them all in new ways. So I think it's probably a good term.

NUVO: Finally, I wanted to ask about your live presentation. What sort of group will you be bringing to Bloomington for Lotus Festival?

Diego Borda: The live show is really special for us. We put a lot of effort into it. We try to express what Carnival feels like. We'll have four people with drums, percussion, bass and keyboards. We all sing. It's not a band built around one voice or instrument. Each one of us has a task within the band and that's the message we try to convey. It's about everyone. It's about our tribe. Our show is a non-stop show, which we took from our DJ days. We try to link songs together. It's the idea of on-going energy, not dropping the sound to tune the guitar. We try to create a whole experience.

Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.