Known for their high-energy mix of traditional forms and modern electronics, Colombian group Bomba Estéreo put out no new music this year — but that did not stop their forward momentum. Quite the opposite, in fact: A remix of “To My Love” by the Puerto Rican reggaeton master Tainy, originally released in 2016, unexpectedly became the biggest hit of the band’s career, thanks to a quirk of the streaming-verse. And the band toured around the world, playing the biggest U.S. venues of their career to date. “At the beginning, it was just Colombians [at shows in the U.S.],” founding member and multi-instrumentalist Simón Mejía jokes. “Then Colombians with their American boyfriends. Then more Americans and more, and now it’s 70-30.”
Rolling Stone spoke with Mejía about the band’s year before they played a sold-out show at New York City’s Terminal 5. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Terminal 5 will be the biggest venue you have ever performed at in New York City. How have you worked to grow your tours over the years?
We’re the kind of band that the growth is gradual. It’s not from one record to the other, one song to the other. We’ve had sort of hit songs, but they’re not mainstream hit songs. There have been songs that have been popular, and songs that meant important things here in the States, like “Soy Yo.” That’s our biggest song here — it didn’t go to radio, but there was a movement behind the song. When the  election for president came, the song became an anthem for Latinos. Those help grow the band in a really positive, out of the mainstream way.
And Bomba Estéreo, more than making records and hit songs, is a band that’s meant to be playing onstage, a live band. We developed our career around that concept, going to lots of festivals, playing and playing and playing. Now you feel all those years of doing that.
You’ve able to bring more musicians on the road now — how does that enliven your show?
We’re not a huge band, a huge crew; we still travel small. But we have two new members in the band that have taken the music to a different level. They bring new elements that we had in the music but didn’t have live, the traditional elements — the percussion, the flute. We used those before more as samples. Now we have them for real, and people like that.
It comes from a very unique place in Colombia, the cumbia tradition. For people who are not into that kind of music, it’s totally new. And for Colombians that are living abroad, it’s a connection back to the land. The good thing about cumbia is it was born in Colombia centuries ago and then it expanded to all Latin America. I would say that cumbia is the one music that unites all Latin America. They have cumbia in Mexico, cumbia in Central America, we have cumbia in Colombia, there’s cumbia in Peru, in Bolivia, in Argentina. It crosses all over. And this time of the year, in December, it’s very emotional.
On your upcoming tour dates, you’re linking your shows to environmental advocacy?
The end of the cycle for this album [Ayo] is a tour in Colombia. It’s called “Siembra,” like the first song on the album. It’s an environmental, spiritual type of song, a connection-with-the-earth type of song. Our tour in February runs parallel with an environmental campaign to create awareness. We have really bad problems regarding deforestation in the Amazon. It’s really bad now, especially this year. It’s become an extreme problem — not only for Colombia, but for the world.
We are trying to, through the music and the kind of show that we’re making in Colombia, create an awareness around what is happening and push the government to take action. The fucking government is doing nothing. Now we have this other jerk in Brazil, the new president that is the same, taking away protection laws for the Amazon. We are in a critical time.
Especially in Colombia, what happens is there’s not much state presence in the region. So people are doing whatever they want with the land, and they’re tearing down the forest and everything. It’s sad.
We’re playing in a place we’ve never played before in Colombia. Colombia is a very centralized country. If you tour in Colombia, it’s very limited — three or four main cities. The south of the country or other parts that are not connected with the center are forgotten. Those parts is where the deforestation is happening. The first show of the tour is a symbolic show, a free show in the capital of one of the states where deforestation is really, really bad. First they cut the trees, then they burn through January. So the time we’ll be there is a strong burning time. It’ll be a statement to be there.
And we’ll talk with the young people, talk to the community. People are not aware what’s the potential for the forest. It’s a source of knowledge, sustainable development. People don’t see that. They only see it as something to be torn down for a coca tree or cattle ranch. We’re trying to share a different vision.
You believe music can still have a political impact?
Everyday people trust politicians less. You see it — the leaders of the world are a bunch of jerks. They don’t listen. But people trust artists. What has happened is that artists are more focused on the entertainment business. In the past, Roger Waters and those kind of artists were telling truths. Now it’s all about social media; it’s more light. As Colombians, we come from a country full of conflict. We have to speak about it. It’s a mission we have. We have to use music to try to improve the country a little bit. We have to contribute to that.
Pivoting to the “To My Love” remix: What was it like to have this song become a surprise hit — the biggest record of your career — this year, two years after it originally came out?
The whole story around that song is crazy. When we made the original track on the Amanecer album, the producer, Ricky Reed, he was always saying, this has to be the single. I was saying, I don’t know, it’s a love song. We tried to skip it. We always knew it was a song that people liked — people always like the love songs. We skipped it, and “Soy Yo” replaced it as a single. That became big in a strong way, a political way. So we forgot about the fucking song. Time passed.
We did the remix album, that was inspired by the Cure album that has all the tracks remixed [Mixed Up]. Tainy does lots of reggaeton and trap, he made a remix for the album. We’re like, it’s cool. One or two years passed, and then in Mexico, on Spotify, the song began to grow and grow. When it was not huge but medium[-big], the label was like, there’s something happening! It kept on growing and growing. The best thing was that there was no marketing money. No video. Then we did a really cheap video at Liliana’s house on the beach.
You don’t know why it started to pick up in Mexico?
Well first it’s a love song. And then the remix, in opposite to the original track, had a little reggaeton, and reggaeton is huge. It was a mixture — not a complete reggaeton song, but a Bomba Estéreo, Caribbean, danceable love song. In Mexico you heard it in the taxis. You heard it everywhere. I like that about music today. You don’t need the radio stations and the TV. If someone likes the song and starts sharing it on Spotify, it climbs without the need of anyone in the middle.
So you’re a fan of streaming?
At the beginning I was like, “I don’t know.” But I was reading this David Byrne book the other day, and he was saying this whole digital, streaming thing has given music back its original essence. It’s just something that flows. You don’t own the music. It’s ephemeral. You have access to lots of music that’s just there in a cloud; you don’t need to take the record home. It’s a huge wave of sounds there.
Do you worry that within the Latin market, the streaming services are focused on reggaeton and trap above all else?
Those genres have huge numbers. But if you’re a Spotify user, you’re able to search whatever you want. What you see first is that music because they have huge numbers, billions of whatever. But what I like about all the reggaeton stuff is first, it’s music from the Caribbean. Finally. Reggaeton comes from the Caribbean, as reggae did, as salsa did. It’s the third wave of Caribbean music taking over the world.
And second, it put the Spanish-language music on an international level. You don’t have that dilemma that you had before, where if you sing in Spanish you’re not going to be international. Now it’s like, all people listen to Spanish music. But yeah, below reggaeton and trap, there’s a huge universe of Latin music that is really interesting. Independent producers in Ecuador, in Colombia, in Mexico. [Whoever] wants to find it, they can search. I think Latin music is at its best now.
It seems like you’ve always been interested in promoting the diversity of Afro-Colombian sounds in your music.
That tradition that we have in Colombia is very similar to the tradition here with the blues. We had an African immigration mixing with a local indigenous population. In Colombia, that blend made this really strong connection, strong music. All the rhythms we have in Colombia on both coasts come from that. It’s a strong grounding for making music, for exploring music. It’s a huge universe: all Africa, all Colombia, in just one country. So you have endless inspiration, and finally, it’s original, it’s our music. When you are making music, especially in this globalized context, in a world that’s more homogenized, you have to speak for where you come from.