NYC’s Combo Chimbita Search for the Future in Afro-Caribbean Psych on “No Regreso”

Photo by Itzel Alejandra Martinez. Courtesy of Combo Chimbita

Combo Chimbita describe themselves as “tropical futurists.” Their experimental psychedelic jams have cumbia as a starting point, but draw on everything from champeta and porros to Afropop, calypso, dub, and even Haitian kompa. The trippy “No Regreso,” off their forthcoming debut album Abya Yala, sounds like what would happen if Lee “Scratch” Perry produced a cumbia record with a little input from Ennio Morricone. “No Regreso” premieres today on Remezcla, and it sounds simultaneously forward-thinking and retro. There’s a certain freaky, punky energy that’s very New York City.

Inspired by Sun Ra and the concept of Afrofuturism, the members are envisioning a sound that broadly centers the global south: Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. “It means imagining a future with a cosmology derived from our ancestry, from our understanding of the world, instead of the Eurocentric version of how the future is supposed to be. It means seeing it and constructing it from a different perspective and a different way of seeing the world,” says guitarist Niño Lento, in an in-person interview with lead singer and guacharaquera Carolina Oliveros, and synth player and bassist Prince of Queens (In this band, they use stage names, though avid NYC-based music heads may recognize them from other projects). The band members don’t know what the tropical future looks like, but they are pretty sure it has more to do with reconnecting to the earth than blasting off into the stars. They are searching for the answers through their music.

With a lineup completed by drummer Dilemastronauta, the band is entirely made up of first-generation estadounidenses. Oliveros and Niño Lento grew up listening to metal in the musically rich coastal Colombian city of Barranquilla. Oliveros fronted a metal band while while studying opera in college. Meanwhile, Prince of Queens spent his youth listening to punk and ska further inland, and much further above sea level, in the capital city of Bogotá. The members each found themselves drawn to Afro-Caribbean music after moving to the city, inspired by the metropolis’ many record stores and vaunted cultural diversity. This omnivorous audiophilia has shaped the sound of Combo Chimbita more than anything.

“It means imagining a future with a cosmology derived from our ancestry.”

“For a long time, music that was written or produced in the 70s, 60s, and 80s was not super popular and was hard to find. Now with the Internet, people are finding the records, digitizing the records, and sharing them. Now we are able to hear recordings from the 80s that were really ahead of their time,” says Niño Lento. The guitar player cites Peruvian chicha and Cape Verdean funaná as especially visionary movements, and this is precisely the kind of stuff that the band turns to in order to divine their tropical future – records born of centuries of exchange between Africa and Latin America. Prince of Queens says that when he listens to old records, he is digging for “clues to the future.” “If I hear something, I wonder, where does that come from? I’m saying it gives me clues to the future because it inspires me to do new things now, and keep leaving more clues to the future,” the bassist explains.

Photo GIF by Itzel Alejandra Martinez. Courtesy of Combo Chimbita
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As the members explore the sound of tropical futurism, they are sketching one possible vision with their lyrics. The saga, which began on their EP El Corredor del Jaguar and continues on Abya Yala, tells the tale of a sacred jaguar that begins to appear to people of the New World in their dreams, calling them to gather and form guerilla-style cells, essentially nonviolent decolonial militias, that fight with music and ideas instead of guns. The people having these dreams, Niño Lento says, are “people in the ghettos, and people like us, who grew in the city but we have these ancestral connections.” Oliveros adds, “It’s not a true story, but we feel it.”

The singer’s powerful voice electrifies the band’s music. It’s the perfect element to solidify these Colombians’ gritty made-in-New-York sound. Combo Chimbita didn’t even have a name yet when New York City-based record label Names You Can Trust released their first seven-inch. The project became more physically incarnated when they joined the Names You Can Trust owners Monk-One and E’sE DJ residency at Barbès, with Niño Lento, Prince of Queens and Dilemastronauta improvising live, but the ad hoc combo was catalyzed into a true band when Oliveros stepped on stage from the audience to sing with them, a guacharaca in her hands.

Photo GIF by Itzel Alejandra Martinez. Courtesy of Combo Chimbita
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Her diverse musical background shows in her vocal control, raw rock swagger, and a soulfulness that would make Totó la Momposina proud. For her, Combo Chimbita unites the many different facets of her life as an artist and as a person. “It’s very freeing,” she says, “I connect with this with the same power as metal, but I can feel my ancestors in my voice.”

Combo Chimbita plays a record release show on June 22, 2017. To purchase tickets, click hereAbya Yala drops June 21 via Figure & Ground.