Meridian Brothers

In the late 70s/early 80s legendary Columbian cumbia group Cumbia Siglo XX began their experimentation with the traditional cumbia music of the region – with it’s simple binary marching rhythm and short phrases of melody – through a twentieth century (XX) lens. Alongside other groups and influential labels this new 80s cumbia with its funky bass and newly evolved rhythms blended the style with disco and even rock music whilst incorporating modern urban context. Now with their new album Cumbia Siglo XXI Meridian Brothers take this style as a jumping off point and continue the experiment, thus the XXI iteration of cumbia music is born.

Following the success of his largely acoustic album ¿Dónde estás María?, Eblis Alvarez aka Meridian Brothers – technically a band but only in its live capacity – this time incorporates a multitude of drum machines, guitars, synths, algorithmic software and any other tech he could get his hands on to create Cumbia Siglo XXI. Just as the traditions of cumbia music evolve through generations so has the sound of Meridian Brothers. What started in folk and travelled through noise, rock and electronic styles, though always with an eye on Latin American music both traditional and modern, continues to morph and change while the core traditions of taking a cultural or musical template and creating their own unique abstract ‘picture’ of it remain at their core.

The result is a record rooted in tradition with an eye on the future but also one that is undeniably right in front of you now. For those unfamiliar with Meridian Brothers and their twisting, turning back-catalogue, this is a good place to start, with something entirely new. Right from the slightly off-kilter, utterly enthralling opening rhythms of ‘Los Golpeadores de la Cumbia’, down to the seemingly inconsolable wailing over simple synth melody of closer ‘Cumbia de los proletarios’; Cumbia Siglo XXI is impossible to ignore. There are times where you won’t quite know what you’re listening to but you’ll certain you want to listen to it again.

“I have different dimensions of relation to cumbia” Alvarez explains, “both innocent from my childhood and environmentally, because of the updated cumbia started in the last decades in Latin America. My main use of cumbia though is as a channel of communication – a frame where I can put all the other jibber jabber that sounds in my head as a composer”. In amongst this, Cumbia Siglo XX in particular have influenced Alvarez for most of his life. Though he acknowledges that there were bigger bands with perhaps more cultural influence he says that “in my taste, nothing like them is found through the Colombian discography, it’s so funky and futuristic. They made an enormous jump to the future. It’s impressive, such a way to approach the traditional but without losing any of the core of the musical universe of tambores, millo, gaita and all the rhythms and airs”.

Alongside influence from other 80s cumbia bands such as Grupo Folclórico and 2000 Voltios, whom the album’s striking artwork is a tribute to, Alvarez weaves in elements of early kraut drum machine pioneers Kraftwerk with whom he credits, “changing the aesthetics of modern pop music”. Taking the simplistic, repetitive beats of early drum machines and applying them to create strong, energetic Colombian rhythms was no easy task but is just one of the frameworks Alvarez confined himself within in attempt to break out in the making of this album. “I close myself to a kind of challenge or a strict way of doing things as I do on each album” he says, “like a set of rules, then I break them”. For this album those parameters were traditional rhythms made with the tricky kraut drum machines, the Brandos type of guitar and el-bass in the context of Columbian record labels like Felito and Machuca. “I really had a lot of problems to get the thing together” he laughs, “I was about to quit.”

Slotting together to form a whole, each track also sits within its own parameters. From the ‘sidechain’ technique used in EDM and techno, translated to the Puya rhythm on ‘Puya del Empresario’, to the journey between rock and Llamador drum rhythm on ‘Los Golpeadores la Cumbia’ and even the relocation of Dusty Springfield’s classic from American soul to the heart of Columbia’s Barranquilla and the musical style of the city. A lot of this really shouldn’t work, hence Alvarez’ struggle, but sheer belief in the experiment eventually leads to something new, magical and whole.

As well as these parameters, each track is representative of a different ideology. “Most of the lyrics of the album are about getting all these new / or neo-new ideologies of the mainstream and reducing them to the absurd” Alvarez explains, “mostly because these new ideologies are largely tearing social groups apart into smaller groups”. These very real concerns are made absurd and playful through the filter of traditional and modern cumbia slang as well as a dazzling array of swear words and impassioned yelps.

Cumbia Siglo XXI was written and recorded by Alvarez alone, as with all Meridian Brothers records. He plays every instrument on the record since his experiments mean that he is the only person in the world who knows how to play the instruments and wield the machines using the techniques he has dreamed up. Alvarez also mixed and produced the record himself. “I can be considered as a bedroom producer” he explains, though the reality is a little more than that. As for the rest of the band, they are currently wrestling with experiments of their own as they attempt to create a live show of a sound that shouldn’t exist played in a way that instruments aren’t meant to played.

It’s a complex formula but it’s not one that necessarily needs unpacking, these are songs that can be taken at face value, baffling and brilliant. Though complex and with endless contextual rabbit holes to follow, the sound of Cumbia Siglo XXI is not difficult to digest. The simple formulas that make cumbia so infectious and joyful are still there. The songs are playful and surprising, the singing style bizarre and endearing. Alvarez only has one aim for Cumbia Siglo XXI, “I really hope people can still understand the search of the Meridian Brothers”. The key to that understanding is simply to listen, and enjoy.


MeridianBrothers_1_Credit_Mariana Reyes
IMAGES: To download, click above. Photo credit to Mariana Reyes.

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