With the release of their third album Rumbo a Tierra, digital folklorists Systema Solar are celebrating more than 10 years of exploring rhythms old and new with their boldest statement yet. Founded in 2006, the seven-piece sound system with members from all over Colombia and the world is one of Colombia’s most celebrated bands. Along with Bomba Estéreo, who formed around the same time, they helped pioneer Colombia’s distinct psychedelic electro-cumbia movement.
Their version of it has always been a little more tactile than Li Saumet and Simón Mejía’s. Systema Solar’s penchant for bold porro horns, riotous chants, and turntablism has ensured the collective’s rhythms would always have a heavy, chunky texture to it, a solid wallop of funk. It’s one thing that makes their high-energy live show an internationally sought-after commodity. Rumbo a Tierra finds them doubling down on the big, rough-hewn beats as well as further investigating new harmonies between the popular music styles of their country’s predominantly Afro-Colombian coast, such as champeta, as well as globalized electronic dance genres, which, after all, also have their origins in the African diaspora. The disco-champeta inferno of “Champe Tabluo,” where vocalist John Primera’s growl acts as one more percussion instrument among many, is an example of the heady delights that await.
The album’s title could be translated as “on a course to Earth,” as if the band were swooping down on our big, green disco ball from space. It’s in line with the cosmic picó vibe that they cultivate, but it also frames the album’s strong environmental message. Like Bomba Estéreo, there has always been plenty of room for direct political commentary in Systema Solar’s music, particularly for appeals to protect the natural world and its resources, water especially. Rumbo a Tierra goes further with these themes, with even more specificity and timeliness.
“Aguazero” returns to the issue of water that the group touched on in their song “Malpalpitando,” this time from a more dire point of view. Water is an especially burning subject in Colombia, where in the north of the country, the indigenous Wayuu people are dying of thirst, since the Cercado Dam cut off their access to water to the benefit of foreign mining interests. “Somos la Tierra” is a bassified traditional cumbia warning of the destruction the planned La Colosa gold mine will bring about in Colombia’s Andean east. Indeed, Systema Solar could be calling on us to turn to the earth, and to our fellow earthlings, if we are to survive.
“Tumbamurallas” and “Qué Pasó?” stray from the subject of environmentalism, in favor of social statements. Even “Rumbera,” the single and one of the most light-hearted songs on the album, takes on a powerfully inclusive feminist message in the video, which, with its diversity of dancing rumberas, celebrates many different bodies, colors, and cultures. Systema Solar is as determined as ever to create party sounds that they can take on the road, but they have a message to bring with them too. It works well because their kind of party is rooted in the spirit of the costeño community. It doesn’t cost anything to dance to the picó sound system; it’s for everyone, and that’s kind of the point. This natural balance between their festive energy and the solemnity of what they have to say is something they’ve been perfecting for some time. On Rumbo a Tierra, it is an achievement worthy of their decade-long career.