Words by MARIA CRISTINA SHERMAN
Photographs by Dana Scruggs
Simón Mejía, founder of Colombia’s Grammy-nominated band Bomba Estéreo, talks to The Frontline about how music-making is inextricable from the Earth.
It’s 9 a.m. when I first meet Simón Mejía, and we’re the only people seated outside of Café Colette in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a locally sourced and organic American eatery—and one of the few sit-down spots open this early in the neighborhood. The celebrated Colombian musician looks impossibly cool: in sunglasses and a green crewneck, salt-and-pepper beard and tousled hair, a few crystals hanging from his neck. I almost feel guilty inviting him to meet in the concrete confines of New York City. We should conduct this in the rich greenery of… anywhere else.
And that’s because Mejía—in his Grammy-nominated electro-cumbia band Bomba Estéreo—has long made music that connects to the natural world. He utilizes computers and machines alongside field recordings and instruments of coastal Colombia’s Afro-Colombian and Indigenous populations all at once, foregrounding the environment in everything he creates. Over the last few years, his art has led to an incredible career in environmental activism—not just a cause he’s interested in but a passion, a belief at the heart of everything he creates.
Today, however, Mejía isn’t as well rested as he’d hoped to be. “I woke up at 4 a.m.,” he said. A day earlier, Colombian President Gustavo Petro, the country’s first leftist president, had called for an end to Latin America’s war on drugs in a speech before the United Nations. In an effort to protect the Amazon, whose deforestation is exacerbated by the region’s illegal drug trade, Petro is advocating for the decriminalization of cocaine to help combat the climate crisis. He’s taken a radical approach to politics, even naming Colombia’s first Black vice president, Francia Marquez. Mejía is a fan.
And all this before coffee.
“Petro’s speech at the U.N. conference in New York was, in my point of view, the opening of a new era of doing politics and caring about the environment in Colombia,” Mejía wrote in an email weeks after we met. “It’s very aligned to how many people, not all, think today in Colombia. The mission is now to work together to make all that poetry a reality and hopefully get rid of the war on drugs, which is the root of most of Colombia’s current conflicts.”
For the uninitiated: In 2005, Mejía founded Bomba Estéreo, one of the most successful bands to ever come out of Colombia. The band has been nominated for three Grammys and 11 Latin Grammys (and a few more for Mejía alone if you count his work as a producer on Colombian singer Juan Fernando Fonseca‘s Viajante released earlier this year—and you must). His group has billions of streams on Spotify with over 22 million monthly listeners alone. In Bomba’s nearly two-decade run, the band has toured the world, won awards, and collaborated with everyone from Bad Bunny and Arcade Fire to Will Smith and French-Spanish legend Manu Chao. If you’ve seen a particular GrubHub ad, played FIFA 16, or memorized the soundtracks to Pitch Perfect 3 or Dora and the Lost City of Gold, you’ve heard their most global single to date, “Soy Yo.”
Beyond those accomplishments, of course, is the genre-melding music itself: electro tropicália, psychedelic cumbia, or whatever you want to call it. Bomba Estéreo (and its mastermind Mejía) invented a sound all its own, taking experimental synth sounds and marrying them with the folk music of Colombia. In doing so, the group has challenged the popular understanding of electronic music as something that exists only in techno clubs in Berlin or EDM hotspots in London. Instead, the band developed its own distinctly Colombian electronic music: full of joyful, colorful folkloric percussions meant to inspire the listener to dance. Even a song centering climate change—like the group’s 2020 hit “Déjame respirar (Let me breathe)” featuring Afro-Colombian singer and songwriter Nidia Góngora, who hails from the river village of Timbiquí—will pull you from your seat.
“Folk music in Colombia usually happens where all the conflict has been happening,” Mejía said. “The war and the violence and the drug trafficking and the displacement, all that happens in those territories where festive music [is made], so the only way we can naturally do it is through joyful expressions.”
Since day one, Bomba Estéreo has been about experimentation. “I didn’t know the depths of cumbia,” said Mejía, taking a sip of an oat milk espresso. Fast forward nearly 20 years, and Mejía has taken the traditional Latin genre deeper than anyone may have imagined. And all he had to do was listen to the music already around him.
“It was after going to those places and realizing that those flutes were [created] to praise nature that I understood that music really comes from nature.”
Mejía grew up with “hippie parents,” he said, so he’s always loved nature—but traveling to Colombia’s remote rainforests over the last seven or so years jump-started something within him. He began engaging with environmental issues and visiting Indigenous territories.
“Regional cumbia comes from the fruits of the Indigenous before colonial times,” he said. “Then the African diaspora came in, and that encounter between both created the cumbia that we know today in Colombia. Before, it was just flutes. It was after going to those places and realizing that those flutes were [created] to praise nature that I understood that music really comes from nature.”
So he grew to praise nature in his music, too.
“There’s a theory about the first form of music [being about] humans trying to imitate birds,” he said, referring to flutes and early Indigenous instruments. There’s one bird, in particular, he often sees outside his home in Colombia called the mirla, or the great thrush in English. “It’s a very famous bird because the singing is beautiful,” Mejía shared. “There’s an expression in Spanish: She or he sings as beautifully as a mirla.”
Once the musician began to learn about the bird—that it’s a bully, territorial, “kind of a motherfucker,” as Mejía put it—he realized that its power comes from its beautiful songs.
He started recording the bird, which eventually became the inspiration for Monte, his 2020 solo project under which he released his subsequent EP, Mirla. Projects like these are celebrations of land, but they’re also archives. Mejía worries about the soundscapes that won’t exist in the future: the chirps of birds and the hum of rivers. “As things are going,” he said, “they probably won’t.”
The urgency of the ongoing climate and ecological crises, which are especially pronounced in Mejía’s native Colombia, inspired Sonic Forest, a 2020 documentary presented by actor Joaquin Phoenix and Bomba Estéreo. The 35-minute film follows Mejía as he travels deep into the remote areas of the Colombian Pacific to both make music and draw attention to the necessary preservation of these territories. It takes only about five minutes into viewing the film for the natural sounds of Colombia’s Pacific rainforests—which includes the percussion of the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous populations who work every day to protect their communities—to become inextricable from the machine music that soundtracks the documentary.
That’s because Mejía, the film’s narrator, also scores it. He uses field recordings captured in some of the richest, most biodiverse regions of his country (and the Earth, more broadly), decoding their complex rhythms to marry them to the controlled structure of synthesizer music. For the viewer, that means listening to the film as much as watching it, doubling down on an indisputable reality technology so often distracts from: being mindful of the natural world is the first step in working to protect it.
These earlier projects make for an incredible catalog alongside El Duende, Bomba Estéreo’s latest musical film project in which Mejía traces the history of the marimba, its ancestral roots in Africa, and its ties to mythology. The film centers on the duende, an elvish, demonic creature that instructs locals on how to make a marimba and play it, not unlike American folklore that ties Southern bluesmen and their guitars to deals with the devil.
These stories showcase a belief fundamental to Mejía’s artmaking: music is from the Earth, and that is why we all must work to protect it.
In the beginning, Mejía simply thought weaving the sounds of nature into electronic textures (which can more accurately mimic such sounds than, say, a guitar could) was cool. Now, he recognizes that he should take those lessons beyond music. By doing so, he learned where music comes from: the land, altered by its relationship with colonialism.
“Colombia is a very racist country. They don’t teach you those things. They teach you to speak English,” Mejía said. “It was through music, through connecting with environmental people, that I came to understand the importance—how history has shaped us, how people in power tear apart those places and their profound knowledge and ways of relating to the Earth. A lot of things have been silenced.”
It’s 10 a.m. now, and Mejía and I head to McCarren Park, where we’ll meet photographer Dana Scruggs for the photo shoot. Much of the grass is dead—killed by the urbanization that planted it, trampled it, used it, and abused it—not something I’d be particularly mindful of in my day to day as a New Yorker, but after speaking to Mejía, it is unavoidable.
Mejía tells me that tomorrow, he’ll speak on a panel for EarthPercent, a charity cofounded by British musician Brian Eno in 2021 to push the music industry to donate its earnings toward conservation problems. Mejía is also on tour with Bomba and will perform later tonight at Palladium Times Square, which can seat up to 2,000 people.
Backstage, there will be no single-use plastics. Mejía will encourage both staff and fans to be mindful of their consumption: of meat, of water, of trash. The consideration he demonstrates on record and in his documentaries exists on the road and in his daily life, as well. That includes his music, especially.
“It’s always better to bring it to the positive because the world is fucked up,” he said. “The world now is in a dark era—but art, for me, is about light.”
Optimism is rarely associated with climate change activism. It’s life or death, an apocalyptic war where we’re all fighting for survival—what Mejía learns more and more each day. But he also recognizes that hope and art are tools for change. What if we embrace natural mysticism as fundamental to music—to joy? What if we really started listening to the light?