We have an impossible mission: An Interview with La Mojarra Electrica

By 26 October, 2010

La Mojarra Electrica are an extraordinary 12-piece band from Colombia, taking in the traditions of that countries coastal regions, musics such as bullerengue, chalupa, chirimia, currulao and aguabajo. These roots are mixed with moments of hip-hop and reggae as well as modern production techniques to produce a spell-binding combination. They have released two great records; 2003’s Calle 19 and 2006’s Raza and regularly tour all over the world. They are definitely one to watch.

We spoke with the band to try and find out where the inspiration for their music comes from and why there is currently such interest in Colombian music.

First off, can you tell us a little about your history. How did the band come together?
In the beginning of the 21st century, on the cold asphalt of 19th street, in the middle of Downtown Bogota city, Colombia, a powerful band that is called La Mojarra Electrica was born. This is a band composed by musicians that, mostly have a jazz background, with also a folkloric background. They, without knowing, would become later the pioneers of a new style.

You have a very big band. It must be tough touring at times…
The difficulty lies in aspect of the promoters and the festivals don’t want to pay for the cost of moving the band, but the quality of the band makes it interesting to bear the cost.

Your sound is a mix of Colombian styles, with also an African influence and nods to salsa, hip-hop and other modern music styles. How did the sound come about?
The sound of the band is a good mixture of Afro – Colombian traditional music. The bullerengue, the chalupa and their derivatives are taken from the roots of the environment of the Atlantic coast. They have rhythms that are felt with the beat of the drum. These are styles of music that were born from the first free, afro-community of South America, San Basilio de Palenque. Going through the Colombian north Pacific, specifically in the department of Chocó, is found a land that is fed by the Atrato River and surrounded by the sound of a music that was born on canoes called aguabajo. The band has the form of a chirimia – a martial band which was inherited from Europe and led by the clarinet. Finally, arriving to the Pacific south, in the towns Guapi, Timbiqui, Tumaco and generally, the department of Cauca, the group is influenced and seduced by the aquatic sound of an ancestral instrument, the marimba de chonta, the main column of the currulao. With all these components, the band is able to establish a solid ground and roots that have grown strong in the afro music of its country.

All this is melted with elements of afro-American music. Coltrane and Miles Davis’ jazz, James Brown’s funk, and the powerful salsa hits from New York, going through the music of the West Indies from Cuba with its timba, and the songo of the Van Van and the Latin jazz of Irakere, until Jamaica with Bob Marley’s ragamuffin and reggae. This mixture culminates in an original sound that is full of passion, and full of traditional songs from the afro-Colombian culture, as well as new compositions by the group. An aesthetic communion that evokes mother Africa with the background of modernity.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the marimba de chonta and it’s relevance in Colombian music?
This instrument came from the south pacific coast from Colombia, and you can find this instrument in the north of Ecuador and Esmeraldas. Chonta is a variety of palm, it has a delicious fruit called Chontaduro. The instrument has a diatonic tune and is possibile to play in minor mode, major mode and dorian mode. The tuning is not temperate. The instrument has two bigs drums and two skins. The traditional names are Arrullador and Golpeador. They have two different kinds of drums, like congas, called cununos, (macho and hembra.)

It feels like La Mojarra Electrica is really a global band with a mixture of different influences. What other bands, either in Colombia or any other country, do you feel a connection with?
Bands like a Los Van Van, Irakere, Chucho Valdez (from Cuba), Tego Calderon, Parliament Funkadelic. In Colombia, sounds like Lucho Bermudez, El Bloque de Busqueda and Grupo Bahia all influence our work.

How big a part do you think African culture has had in Colombia? It seems only recently that some of this culture is being enjoyed by the masses.
We think afro-Colombian music is responsible for 60% of traditional Colombian music. In towns like San Basilio de Palenque in the Atlantic coast and Guapi in Pacific coast cultures are very marginalized. This fact has a big importance in our culture. Another part of the influence is the fact that the people in the big cities don’t have a identity, and so they feel the need to look at these traditions.

Bomba Estereo and Choc Quib Town are enjoying huge success at the moment and records of champeta and also of Anibal Velasquez are being re-released. Why do you think music from Colombia is so popular at the moment?
We think that Colombian music is having a great moment, and that this moment is something very different for Colombian music, like other musics in other countries have had, with important movements that have risen such as Salsa, bossa nova, jazz, etc.

You have been touring in various locations recently. How has the reception been?
I think the music was received with a degree of amazement, because we have something different, it’s not salsa, it’s not traditional music, it’s not jazz, it’s not timba, but is all of this, it is the new afro-Colombian music.

How is the music received in Colombia? Are people enjoying the fact that so much music at the moment speaks to their traditions, with cumbia in particular featuring heavily, but also some styles such as champeta, which were previously largely for the african descendants?
In Colombia we have problems because the people don’t want to take risk with the music they listening, but we have a impossible mission and this mission is to give the opportunity for people to listen to new music.

“El Hueco”

You can buy La Mojarra Elécrica’s album Raza at Amazon.

More info:
La Mojarra Electrica’s Myspace page

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