Only one Spanish-language album made the cut for Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Albums of 2015, and it was Bomba Estéreo’s Amanecer. The lead single “Fiesta” was so hot that it prompted Will Smith to come out of rap retirement for the remix, though one might argue this benefits the Fresh Prince more than it does Colombia’s coolest electro-cumbia act. Either way, the album was a crossover smash for the Spanish-language group, who returned with a new album in August 2017. Backed by the radio singles "Duele" and "Internacionales," Ayo debuted first as a digital release and then hit music stores in physical formats in September. Ayo is the band's fifth full-length album overall.
Started by Bogotá-born multi-instrumentalist and producer Simón Mejía, Bomba Estéreo found the perfect front person in Santa Marta party girl Liliana “Li” Saumet, a rapper-singer justifiably described as the Colombian M.I.A. The duo initially broke big with the fiery 2009 track “Fuego” and cemented their rise with an equally dynamic live show. Bomba Estéreo recorded Ayo in Los Angeles, and PRØHBTD sat down with Li Saumet—a new mother with her newborn Astro at her side—to discuss music, cocaine, spirituality and her Carnaval party squad La Puntica No Más (Just the Tip).
I read that you previously wanted to be a writer. What type of writer did you want to be, and do you feel Bomba Estéreo allows you to tell the stories you wanted to tell as a writer?
I wanted to be… I think I am a writer. To write songs is one of the most direct ways to express my thoughts and to share it by singing to many, many people. I am thinking about writing a book. I wrote a long time ago in school, but now the professional way I am writing is with music.
Prior to Amanecer, you never worked with an outside producer. What is something you learned about the group and yourself by working with someone else?
We have worked with a producer before collaborating with the mix. The process has been very good because that is what Bomba Estéreo is, a mix of cultures, and a very strong culture as the American mixed with the Colombian culture get together to make this music. These different faces, very [Latin] dancey and nightclub and folkloric, are interesting, and I think the band has always liked to show these different facets of music and everything in general.
“Fiesta” is a nod to Carnaval de Barranquilla on the coast of Colombia. Tell me your favorite Carnaval memories from participating with your dance group, La Puntica No Más.
The best memories were that, when I was a little kid, I used to dance for a comparsa (i.e., a group of dancers, singers and musicians who take part in Carnaval) called La Puntica No Má’.
Li turns to her baby, creates a beat by pounding the table and starts to chat “la puntica no má’” (leaving off the “s” when she pronounces it) for about 30 seconds.
La Puntita is a comparsa we created with some friends. Almost all of us are artists, and the idea was to make a comparsa where everyone gets a costume, any type they want, and in different ways. It started as a comparsa called Disfrazate Como Quieras and then grew up into a rebellion called La Puntica No Má’, and we are there doing it [at Carnaval] every year. It is part of my life, and it is something that inspires me for my music.
Who created the name?
It was created for a guy named Daniel. I wasn’t there when they created it. I don’t know why La Puntica No Má’.
How was singing a part of your life growing up in Santa Marta?
I didn’t sing before. I started to sing when I started with Bomba Estéreo, but I don’t know, I wasn’t the girl who was going to be a singer. That happened on the way, for destiny.
I read an incredible story about how your grandparents met through your grandmother’s singing. Do you mind telling the story?
That is the story they have told me, and I want it to be true. My grandmother used to live in Aracataca, Magdalena [about 50 miles south of Santa Marta in Colombia] and work on the radio. My grandfather heard her voice and fell in love, and he told himself I have to invite this girl to have a date. He was standing in front of the radio station door every day until one day he was able to talk to her. They hung out, he asked for her hand and they got married.
What elements of African culture do you find on Colombia’s Caribbean coast that really appeal to you?
The African music came to Colombia and impregnated Colombian music with the happiness in the dance and the beats of the drums. That is what makes the music so interesting, [more like] a ritual.
What role does spirituality play in your life and music, and in what ways does your music provide healing for yourself and others?
Everything. It plays a big role, every day even bigger. It has been a process where I am starting to discover all this spirituality and see how it flows through people. Anyway, you call it religion or whatever, but spirituality is the most important thing for human beings. It’s what makes you to believe and imagine further than reality. I think this is what saves you from the monotony, boredom and being like everyone else. I think this gives you the strength to face what is coming in life because sometimes life is not what you expect. This is the force to do things and grow up inside. It is a process.
In what ways has becoming a mother changed your views on life?
A lot. I think to be a mom is the best thing that can happen to a woman, and it has changed my life. Now I have a son. It is different.
What inspired the name Astro?
The idea for the name came from his dad. He was the first one who wanted that name, and then I thought that was a cute name, and every time I liked it more and more. Then the dad didn’t want that name anymore, and I did. I really love it because it is a very different name, and at the same time powerful.
And very spiritual.
You studied advertising and started a clothing company selling swimwear. Can you tell me about the clothing brand and how it reflected your personal style and taste?
I have a bikini brand. It’s called Banana Girl.
Li turns to her baby again and asks, “Do you want to talk? Do you want to dance? Do you want to be a Banana Boy?” before turning back.
I worked on this since I was in college. I put together my micro-company. I was painting, doing many different things. I had to sustain myself. I had to work, but I liked it, and I have always liked working for things to create. I was always very creative. With that creativity, I was always trying to make money. I was making artisanal backpacks. I sold shoes, bikinis, everything.
In a 2015 interview with [Colombian newspaper] El Tiempo, you said you dressed very colorful as a kid and people called you Rainbow.
Me? No. They never called me rainbow, but it would have been cool.
You had a specific way to dress that called attention?
Yes, I always dressed different. I think that was a confusion [in El Tiempo]. When I was in college, I used to dress as a rainbow—a rainbow shirt and a rainbow skirt. They maybe called me Rainbow because of the way I was dressing.
I read that you are working on an art and design project. Are you able to talk about it yet?
I have a lot of projects.
Including an art and design project?
All of my projects are art and design.
Okay, are you painting?
No, I have been always painting. I have the bikinis. I don’t know what [the new project] will be.
I wanted to ask a few Colombia questions. First, the government has embraced medical marijuana, and there are reports that many coca leaf fields have been replaced by marijuana fields. Do you support this?
I don’t think there is anything wrong with coca leaves. The problem is when it is done in a destructive way. There are many countries that plant the coca leaf and commercialize it like they do in Peru for medicinal purposes because the coca leaf is very healthy. Coca leaf tea, the chopped coca, is very medicinal as well. Everything that is done in a healthy and medicinal way for me is good. For example, in Peru, you can find many, many coca products that are very, very good. In Colombia, everyone is like, “Coca no! Coca no!” In reality, the coca is very beneficial if it is not used to make cocaine. I think that, for me, I disagree with using drugs in a destructive way, but I agree with using drugs in a healthy and beneficial way. Everything that works to heal [is good].
In the Sunday market in Lima, people sell coca pasta.
In Lima they are really advancing all these ways to advance the coca leaf.
Any thoughts on the attempted peace deal with FARC [guerrilla revolutionaries] that the Colombian citizens voted down?
In the beginning, I could never believe it. I thought it was a government manipulation. Our country is, unfortunately, very corrupt. I also think a lot of people were just relaxed about it and didn’t vote, but I don’t think Colombia doesn’t want peace. I think people who voted are manipulated by an ideal and something that is not true. I think it is not right how they are thinking, and there is a lot of ignorance, and when people go out to vote, they ignore what it means to forgive and sign a peace treaty. The people who voted “no” know that they are making a conflict that is civil and turning it into a political conflict, and I don’t think this is a political conflict. I think it is a conflict that goes beyond.
In the beginning when I heard the news, I cried. I couldn’t believe the “no” won, and I wasn’t able to vote because I was here in the U.S. However, I just saw with a lot of happiness that, when people noted that the “no” was the result and [former Colombian president Álvaro] Uribe was giving his discourse [against a peace treaty], the plazas got full of people, and you could note that in reality Colombia wanted a “yes.” So I felt joy seeing Plaza Bolívar as packed as it never has been, the streets full of people, showing support for the peace treaty.