Over the last few years, the Brooklyn-based, Bogota-born duo Salt Cathedral has made intimate dembow-inspired electro-pop that practically slows down time. Again and again, Juliana Ronderos’ voice, high and pristine, curls into Nicolas Losada’s gentle production and rocks listeners into a warm, inviting lull. This is music that feels like beach ripples—swaying and constant, but disinterested in building up to a full crest.
Such steadiness is central to their latest album, Carisma, released on Friday, via Ultra Music. Salt Cathedral’s easygoing sound has become a signature by now, and the record is a defense of what a placid, interior approach provides during a period of noise and turbulence. Ronderos and Losada fold inward and take refuge in the subdued dance rhythms that have characterized a lot of their work so far. But here, it’s the fluency in their style and their ability to riff off of their past creations that pushes them toward self-discovery and new dynamics, all while they nail a serene sense of self-assuredness.
“The whole process was chaotic,” Losada tells Remezcla, describing the process of making Carisma. “Juli was going through a very tough emotional moment in a relationship and I was completely lost about what to do. This music is uplifting because it counterbalances what we were going through. We didn’t need dark stuff in our lives and this ended up being the product of that time.”
The record opens with “a lifetime with you,” an understated gem that starts with the band’s trademark vocal loops floating into an upbeat arrangement like bright helium balloons. It establishes the wispy, non-urgent pace of the record while also reacquainting fans with the consistent prettiness of Ronderos’ voice. (If you’ve ever seen Ronderos live, you’ll know her singing is just as unfailingly radiant on a stage.) She eventually slides into “muévelo,” one of the album’s standouts that seems to be a callback to El General’s similarly titled hit—and a brief acknowledgement of the Afro-Latinx roots that Salt Cathedral shapes its style around. So much of the song’s energy is a result of smart, careful choices from Losada, who blossoms as a producer. He adds a pitched-down refrain of “muévelo, muévelo” just after the chorus, which ups the tension and provides a satisfying contrast for Ronderos’ celestial coos to bounce off of.
The production swoops in and saves other moments that fall a little flat. “Rude Boy,” perhaps because of the Rihanna connotations, comes across a bit more like a derivative, dembow-lite piece of pop, until a tangle of synths and steel drums strut in to complicate the melody. And luckily, it’s immediately followed by “How Beautiful She Is,” a collaboration with the Queens soul singer duendita and the Brazilian rapper MC Bin Laden. The track, released earlier this year and inspired by “The Girl From Ipanema,” feels vibrant and spontaneous—in large part because of a quick Portuguese verse and the interplay between Ronderos’ and duendita’s lush vocals. It’s the only collaboration on the album and it roots Losada and Ronderos back into the local arts scene, which is worth noting on a label debut. Despite the bubbly easy listening and cleaner, more mature production on Carisma, the band’s impulses are still creative rather than commercial.
Losada tells Remezcla that while making the record, the duo “went and adventured with styles, the music industry, ways of recording” and sought to get out of their comfort zone. Still, the range between songs never stretches too far, which can appear a missed opportunity for a band that clearly has an expansive sonic vocabulary. Ronderos and Losada, both graduates from the Berklee College of Music, started out as part of the experimental group Il Abanico years ago. When they later morphed into Salt Cathedral, their first releases flaunted a gamut of deliciously weird jazz and indie rock inspirations.
But in many ways, the twosome has now landed on the terrain they want to explore, and they’re happy there. They’ve signaled that their decision to excavate familiar ground is intentional—and it comes with a cheerful curiosity. One of their singles from 2018, “No Love,” extrapolates the opening of their 2016 Matisyahu collaboration “Unraveling.” It’s a puckish self-reference that shows how much they enjoy tinkering within their confines and regenerating their inventions. Repeatedly, that’s what Carisma feels like: a commitment to frisk and discover in the playground of their own sound.
And there’s something lovely about that purposefulness. It’s reassuring to see—and hear—Salt Cathedral find comfort in their insularity, particularly in a time that begs for stillness. The real trick they’ve mastered is taking the peace of mind they’ve gained while creating the music and passing it to their listeners in happy, deliberate handfuls.
Listen to Carisma here: