I’m in the front room of an old house somewhere in Santiago and it’s a privileged place to be. Heavy bass lines and rolling percussive rhythms are bouncing off the walls while trombone and funk guitar melodies lace the beats with fervent spirit. I’ve been invited to a rehearsal of La Chilombiana, one of Santiago’s freshest and most vibrant musical collectives, and although there are only five members of the ten-piece band hitting the groove, it’s a fat sound that fuses musical styles and is charged with seething energy. On my little chair, in the corner and out the way, it feels good to be here.
Photo courtesy of La Chilombiana
It was in the Galpon Victor Jara where I first heard these guys and was instantly aroused by the dynamic vibe created both on- and offstage throughout the set. Pumping out a blend of afrobeat, funk, punk, ska and cumbia, the sound captivated and pulsated throughout the packed venue. While there are many excellent bands that make up the Santiago alternative music scene, the sheer diversity which courses through La Chilombiana’s sound sets them apart. It is that of a group focussed on continuous evolution.
The band was formed in 2008 by a mixture of Chilean and Colombian musicians (hence the name) and took inspiration in the Caribbean folklore of Colombia, the cumbia, merging traditional rhythms with other forms of musical expression and constantly blending in new sounds and styles. This breaking down of musical borders manifests itself in the wide range of instruments that form the band’s palette. Along with contemporary instruments such as guitar, bass, drums and sax, there is heavy use of traditional Caribbean and Andean percussive instruments such as the tambora (a large horizontal-lying drum), the tambor alegre (made from a hollow tree trunk and covered with animal skin) or the guache (a hand-held wooden cylinder that is rapped with a stick).
Hitting the groove (Photo courtesy of La Chilombiana)
After the rehearsal finishes, we head out into the warm night air of the back garden to have a chat about the group. Sitting around a large round table, the band members fill me in on the story of La Chilombiana. ‘We were a few musicians doing different things but shared interests brought us together’, says Tocori Berrú, bass player and vocalist. ‘We were heavily interested in the folkloric traditions of Latin America and Colombia in particular. So we began by doing versions of old Colombian cumbias which still form the basis of what we do today’.
The afro-rhythms of traditional Colombian cumbia lace the fabric of La Chilombiana’s sound, but as the band has grown in both size and scope, so its influences have broadened as each member brings his or her own ideas into the fold. This is plainly evident in the musical fusion that encapsulates the band. ‘When we started out we had our ideas but we were never restricted by any particular genre’, explains Papo Marchant, vocalist, trombonist and percussionist. ‘For example some of us are really into reggae so that’s what we bring, but then someone else might introduce a salsa or cumbia groove while another person might have a punk style. We always look to expand and grow and keep progressing’.
The band on stage (Photo courtesy of La Chilombiana)
Tocori continues the theme: ‘We have a deep focus on Latin American roots and through that we use Andean or Caribbean instruments but that doesn’t mean they have to be played in the traditional way. We’re keen to explore things musically which means adapting instruments to new forms and trying out new ideas. There are no rules or boundaries to what we do’. These words are borne out by the highly innovative edge which is a hallmark of La Chilombiana, whose live performances form a kind of musical journey as the many layers of the band’s sound pull its audience through numerous rhythmic and melodic contrasts.
In early 2011, La Chilombiana embarked on their first European tour, taking in Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany and Spain. How did they find European crowds in comparison to those in Latin America? ‘The impressionable thing about over there is that everything is in order. We really enjoyed it and people were very friendly, always interested in what we were doing’, says Tocori. What about during gigs? Papo has the answer: ‘Maybe people are more open here in South America and more expressive generally, but over in Europe, once we started playing the reaction was the same as here. People were really into it and dancing and having a good time. People appreciate good music everywhere so we didn’t notice much difference between Chile and, say, Germany’.
Next up is a trip to Colombia to play numerous gigs and festivals. As well as a tour, the trip represents a pilgrimage for the band as they visit the land which has inspired them musically. For the majority of the band members this will be their first time in the country, something which Colombian percussionist Gina De La Hoz is deeply looking forward to. ‘I came to Chile years ago but I’ve been back a lot but for these guys it’ll be a great opportunity to learn about Colombia and see our musical traditions first hand. As a band the trip will help us grow and of course it’s a beautiful place’.
The tambora drum (Photo courtesy of La Chilombiana)
While the band is branching out internationally and promoting itself on the foreign stage, it is Chile, and particularly Santiago, that is at the heart of La Chilombiana’s existence. Many Chileans have told me that the capital has changed a great deal in recent years thanks to a creative surge in music, theatre and art resulting in a cultural flourishing that is both fresh and easily accessible. How do the band feel about Santiago? There is that familiar mix of passion and antipathy that so many people feel for their home town. ‘It’s true that it’s definitely grown in a cultural context over the last few years’, says Tocori, ‘There are a lot more bands and theatres and for a couple of luca you can check out something new and interesting. There’s a good vibe about the place which wasn’t always the case’. On the other hand, support is sometimes lacking for new artists and musicians. ‘A lot of people are only into things they already know so as an emerging band it’s difficult to break into certain areas’, says Papo, ‘Sometimes promoters aren’t interested so you have to find other ways to reach new people’.
In spite of its faults, there is a general consensus that Santiago is home to a rich and varied alternative scene, with La Chilombiana now finding themselves as a key part of the musical movement that has established itself in the city over the last few years. While drawing inspiration from Latin America’s musical heritage, the band manages also to be progressive and innovative through a merging of styles and, crucially, fantastic tunes. An integral part of the Santiago underground and, along with the likes of Banda Conmoción, Juana Fe and La Mano Ajena, mainstays in la nueva cumbia chilena, La Chilombiana are one of the best contemporary groups currently bringing the continent’s roots to new generations.
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