Illustration by Alejandra Cespedes.
“Each song tells one story,” says Eblis Álvarez, the man behind Bogotá’s tropical punk outfit, the Meridian Brothers. He’s talking about Salvadora Robot, the ten-track LP that came out last month on Soundway Records. “The song can be about a particular character or a special situation,” he continues, “but everything is surrounded by fantastic stuff. I wouldn’t call it surrealism—I would call it magical realism.”
The Meridian Brothers is Álvarez’s longtime solo project, one that transforms into a five-piece band for live performances. The group includes members César Quevedo from the classical guitar trio Trip Trip Trip, classical composer Damián Ponce, as well as Alejandro Forero and María Valencia, both from the Bogotá-based collective La Distritofónica.
Together they weave tropicalia and regional traditions into a fabric of noisy, electronically-tinged art rock. Salvadora Robot draws in particular from the chicha and huayno styles of Peru, as well as reggaeton rhythms, New York salsa, and the low-slung heartbeat of cumbia that pumps through the entire Latin American continent.
When Álvarez says that each song contains a story, he isn’t just being poetic. The album’s second track, for instance, is a song about a man sent to the electric chair for listening to too much reggaeton. It’s a ghostly, contorted little number that comments on the country’s condescending attitude towards the music of the poor and working class. The album’s title track, meanwhile, is about a depressed robot named Salvadora who can’t return to his home country. “He’s made in Venezuela, but he’s stuck in Colombia,” Álvarez explains when I ask him about the album title. “He can never come back.” The ditty’s mathematical rhythms and moments of otherworldly dissonance recall the whirr and whine of a lonely robot.
“El Gran Pajaro de los Andes” conjures the noodly surf rock vibes of 60s Peruvian psychedelia. He composed that one after taking a trip to Lima with his ongoing, parallel project, Los Pirañas. It’s a tribute to the huge stack of dusty Peruvian folk records he came away with after a day of crate digging at the city’s Galeria Musical Quilca, a “legendary place where everyone goes to buy old used records,” he says.
The LP’s closing track, “El Festival Vallenato,” draws heavily from vallenato, a style of folk music popular in the valleys of Colombia’s Caribbean region. More specifically, Álvarez plays it in the lightspeed puya style, which he explains is “how vallenato stars demonstrate their virtuosity” at the country’s hugely popular music festivals. Instead of accordians, guacharacas, and hand drums, Álvarez uses a combination of live instruments and MAX/MSP software to spin a digital rendition of the puya that stutters along at a nearly untenable pace, and by the two-minute mark you can hear the sparks and sweat flying.
“The idea behind the song is a fake vallenato festival that takes place at Matik-Matik,” he continues, referring to his favorite cafe and venue for experimental jazz, rock, and electronic in Bogotá. “We’ve been playing at Matik-Matik for seven years. It’s where all of our projects have had their first show, and most of the experimental projects from the Bogotá scene come from this place.” He even recreates the experience of a vallenato festival by stopping mid-song to heckle himself from the audience—only to then assume the role of the salty musician, threatening to come down from the stage and beat the heckler up.
Whether it’s one character’s tragic narrative, the story of a regional folk style, or the fantasy world of a magical parallel dimension, each of The Meridian Brothers’ songs is supported by a rich conceptual foundation. This depth of character and richness of intention is complemented by Álvarez’s technical virtuosity, a mastery that he accumulated through his years of studying classical and jazz music in schools in Bogotá, and later, at a conservatory in Copenhagen.
Music school was where he and his contemporaries, like Mario Galeano of the cumbia outfit Frente Cumbiero, first came together to experiment with bringing tropicalia into the jazz, rock, and experimental pallet. In the late 90s and early 2000s, incorporating popular music like vallenato, huayno, or cumbia—which are traditionally the purview of the country’s poor and working classes—was a bold move that scandalized the school’s formalist administration. Colombia is a rigidly stratified country, he explains, and the tastes of its post-colonial middle class have historically reflected that.
“We were kind of banned from the university,” he says of his early group Sexteto de la Constelacion de Colombia, also known as the Ensamble Polifónico Vallenato. “This was a key project that brought tropical music into our aesthetic and our ideas, but in the 2000s we were deeply criticized, like, ‘Why are these guys doing this awful thing?’”
Fourteen years later, those attitudes have finally started to loosen up, Álvarez explains. Middle class audiences are warming up to Latin traditional—rather than simply idolizing the rock and electronic music imported from the US and Europe. “It’s happening more and more in Peru and in Colombia,” he says. “High class, low class, it’s all mixed up, so this is the reason that there’s new music growing.”
With more recent tropical recuperations like la MiniTK del Miedo’s gothic cumbia or the “techno palenquero” of Bogotá duo Mitú, the movement has both matured and fragmented since the arrival of first-general electro-tropicalia acts like Bomba Estéreo and Systema Solar. The release of Salvatora Robot reminds us how tall Eblis Álvarez stands among his contemporaries—not only as an OG among upstarts, but as one of the most imaginative figures in the scene.