Cero39 may have just invented cyborg tropical bass. On the Colombian electronic production duo’s new EP Mis Tierras Calientes, the beats are are heavy, hard, and progressive, but don’t seem aimed at the dance floor – there’s too much going on for that. Sleek and bass-heavy, though still Caribbean, it’s a startling change from the dembow and cumbia soul food feast of last year’s party perfect full-length Moni, Moni. That followed a more expected format for tropical bass, with easily identifiable Latin American influences, and samples of, or direct references to traditional instruments. This EP features the sound of flutes, and what sounds like a cuatro, but this time around, tropical is more of a feeling or mood, and the bass is operative.
The familiar Cero39 shines through in places, such as in the playful clatter of “Múcura” and the late-night electropop fantasy of “La Cura,” featuring Dominican trio MULA, but most of the album seems to come from another world than their previous releases. This is a universe that has genetically engineered macaw, which shoot lasers out of their eyes, and bionic, all-terrain, jet-powered capybara. It is a new, new world: the land of cyborg tropical bass. Maybe this parallel dimension constitutes the tierras calientes the title refers to.
It might be dance floor poison, but the new material has plenty to keep the mind and ears entertained. The most interesting thing about the album as it hits the eardrum is the fresh mix of bright and dark sounds along one axis, and “natural” versus synthetic sounds along another. This is the essence of this brave new Cero39: A matrix of bright, colorful sounds derived from acoustic instruments plus hard, even glassy production, and the cleanest and most synthetic beats available, all rolling steadily over a dark, viscous sea of bass. It’s coldly futuristic while still feeling rooted deep in Afro-Caribbean culture.
This is interesting in terms of what we expect from Cero39, but also in the context of what we expect from tropical bass, and worthwhile as an exploration of the genre’s possibilities and boundaries. The hi-def treatment subverts the idea of South American music as inherently raw and organic, making it compelling as one possible definition of tropical futurism. The rhythms of Mis Tierras Calientes are inventive while still feeling rooted in South America, even in Colombia specifically. The beats are more cumbi-esque than anything else.
Of course, only someone like Cero39 founder Mauricio Alvárez, who has made such a study of cumbia and other traditional music from his native Colombia, could pull this off convincingly. This is a richer and more nuanced project than simply adding some marimba-like synth to a house track. Since Mis Tierras Calientes is an EP, it’s a little early to say that this is Cero39’s new sound, however, it is pretty safe to say it points to a fruitful direction for their chosen genre.