The WOMAD favourites tour Europe for the first time since 2015.
Thu, 27 September 18
Released 05 February 2016
La Candelaria is the prettiest, most historic barrio in Bogotá, Colombia’s high-altitude capital city. There, on its narrow cobbled streets, among the 16th century Spanish churches and low-rise colonial houses, the market stalls and late-night bars, life is lived on foot, among friends, to music. And it’s at dusk that Sidestepper headquarters —a terracotta casa on a hill at the foot of the mountain— resounds with rhythm and song.
It was here that Sidestepper crafted their stunning new album, Supernatural Love —a work that marks a radical change in direction for the acclaimed collective. Long acknowledged as the original progenitors of electro-cumbia, the cutting-edge blend of electronica and Afro-Colombian rhythms that has torn up dancefloors from Medellin to London and New York, the band’s sound has spawned such young groups as Chocquibtown, Bomba Estereo and more— many of whose members have played in Sidestepper over the group’s evolution. The new album befits the band’s reputation as innovators: organic, potent, rhythmic, and irresistibly danceable.
“It felt like the right time to go back to basics. A song and a beat, warm sounds and magic players,” says British DJ/producer Richard Blair, who co-founded Sidestepper in 1996 and spawned a phenomenon. “Global club culture has become totally mainstream; I’ve grown bored of hearing the same kick, snare and hi-hat. I wanted to try something new, to see if it was possible to make a record with just hand drums and traditional instrumentation like shakers, sticks and flutes.”
“As soon as we got started I felt this great sense of freedom. An opening up of space and possibility.” Richard Blair, producer
Featuring a core line-up of five musicians based in or around the Candelaria, the epicentre of Bogotá bohemia, Supernatural Love pulses with the joy that comes from music made naturally, effortlessly, with a little help from the cosmos. The band came together without fuss, with young virtuoso percussionist Juan Carlos ‘Chongo’ Puello and soulboy/vocalist Edgardo ‘Guajiro’ Garcés joining the band’s powerhouse singer Erika ‘Eka’ Muñoz, guitarist Ernesto ‘Teto’ Ocampo and Richard Blair —variously playing, singing, producing and mixing.
All shared more than simply a love of music. Bread was broken. Adventures and rituals were undertaken. Indigenous culture was respected and explored. Along the way, music became inner harmony made into sound. Timeless. Inclusive. Authentic.
“There’s always been something universal about Sidestepper,” says Blair, a former studio engineer for Real World Records who travelled to Colombia in the mid-1990s to work with Afro-Colombian folk legend Totó La Momposina and, blown away by the music, decided to stay. Impressed by the way New York producers transformed Seventies funk into hip hop, and by the way the Bristol UK scene had channelled soul, funk and reggae into trip hop (Massive Attack’s remixing of qawwali icon Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a game changer), Blair wanted to be part of this global beats and bass culture.
“It didn’t seem such a big leap to make the connection between the salsa tunes DJs were playing in Bogota clubs and what was going on at [London drum and bass club/record label] Metalheadz,” he says. “They way they fired up the dancers was the same: a repeating bassline as anchor, then the trance that built to take the tune up through the gears. I realised that drum and bass was a language suited to Latin beats— a sound that could compete with the heaviest dub plates being dropped in London.”
“Sidestepper was kind of pop music, too,” he continues, “but rootsier, more rhythmic. “And I was thinking about popular appeal, and the music that was the grail for me: punk, reggae, Afrobeat. Miles Davis. James Brown.”
“Bowie. Marvin Gaye. All the Fania stuff…” A smile. “Music that still stands up. And I realised that all of it has a base in archaic roots and folk music. Still beyond that you’ve got modal music and these incredible dance bands of the 70s and 80s who chose the right two or three notes and played them all night, riffing in one place for fifteen minutes, the great orquestas from Nigeria, Congo, Haiti and the Caribbean.”
“It all comes from this mystic place that I didn’t know I had access to.” He flashes a grin. “Until I started making this record.”
While Sidestepper’s illustrious back catalogue —which includes such landmark albums as More Grip and 3AM (In Beats We Trust)— was largely recorded in Europe, Supernatural Love could not have been made anywhere but Colombia, in a small community in the Candelaria: “We’ve tried to put a sound and a voice to how we live here. But most of all we’ve tried to put a call out to love in all its forms, and I guess we started with our love of music itself.”
‘Come See Us Play,’ the album’s first single, is a case in point. Sparkling with Anglo-soul melodies and imbued with a childlike innocence —with an unadorned groove that dances somewhere between gospel and cumbia— it’s a slice of positive vibes buoyed by the soaring voice of Eka Muñoz, Blair’s longtime friend and current songwriting partner.
“I’ve known Eka for years,” he says. “She’s now a mother of three who has blossomed into a wonderful cantadora just like Totó (La Momposina). The emotional range in her voice is breathtaking; it can make people cry. She’s a great writer, with an instinct for keeping the tone of the lyric rooted and folkloric.” Another smile. “She had a huge influence on getting me to sing.”
Indeed, while Eka, Chongo and Guajiro are the main featured vocalists, very often combining as part of a chorus (witness their backing vocals in ‘On the Line’, a shamanic trip given Anglo-Caribbean verve by guest singer Elkin Robinson), Blair’s resonating baritone on tracks ‘Hear the Rain Come’ and the album’s powerful closer, ‘Celestial,’ is a showstopper.
From rain to earth, wind to fire, there’s an elemental theme running through the album’s English and Spanish lyrics. Where ‘Song For the Sinner’ tells of summits and spiritual journeys, opener ‘Fuego Que Te Llama’ is an exhortation to light your internal fire, with Eka’s sensational voice responding to the insistent call of the chorus over hand drums, kalimba and a big bass synth: “The call-and-response form is one of the most archaic in the world, driven along by the perfect interlocking melodies.’
As for electronics on Supernatural Love? Well, they’re there. But applied deftly, transparently. “There’s looping, and basslines played with an old analogue synthesizer, and a bit of dub in the mix,” says Blair. “The challenge was to give it an organic sound, to play it all ourselves, only using electronics to keep it on the grid, if you like. Some tracks definitely have a sort of beat-head, dancefloor, looping 21st century mentality behind them.”
There’s cumbia here, of course. The cumbia of Colombia, grooving heavily through the trancey ‘Lover’ but with tambourines and other shakers instead of the signature hi-hat-style maracon. The only time a bass drum —a West African dundun— is used is on ‘Mangangué’, an abstract yet upbeat tune about oneness; while there’s bass synth and guitar on ‘La Flor y la Voz’, which sees Eka assuming the voice of Love, celebrating the natural cycle of creation and decline —the permanence of Nature.
Then, of course, there’s the title track. A feel-good tune with hints of gospel, soul, California sunshine and Latin boogaloo. Beautifully sung by guest vocalist Andrea Echeverri (of Aterciopelados fame), it tells of higher planes, spiritual paths and love that comes around, and around, and around…summing up the sentiments of this lovingly-crafted and groundbreaking album.
Supernatural Love, then. An album that marks a new chapter in the Sidestepper story, as they return home to Real World Records.
An album made in a terracotta casa on a hill next to a mountain, closer to nature, to the sky.
To the universe.
Released 26 June 2015
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