They call it “tropical futurism,” this intrusive, boisterous sound they’ve created. The term almost, but not quite, fits what I hear in Combo Chimbita’s debut LP “Abya Yala.” It’s innovative, to be sure, here and there tinged with science-fictiony bursts of electronica. But it’s too aware of the past, too in love with the past, in fact, to really want to leave it behind. What Combo Chimbita offers is rather a new approach to syncretism, deliberate and erudite and more than a little mischievous, though always rooted in the traditions that gave it its shape.
As befits four young musicians with Colombian roots, the primer coat is painted with Caribbean sound. They’ll then add more layers on top – – African drums, twanging metal strings, psychedelic whistles – yet almost always allow the underlying rhythm to remain in charge. In some tracks, such as “La Raíz” (“The Root”) or “Dame Tu Mano” (“Give Me Your Hand”), it’s mesmerizing cumbia. In others, like “Pachanga” (“Dance Party”) and “Ampárame” (“Safeguard Me”), it’s frenetic merengue. The arrangements are full of surprising twists and turns; here a crashing cymbal irrupts into the action dominated by pounding drums, there an electric guitar will play the part of the claves or the horns. On occasion, the party will turn wild, to the point that one fears the band has lost its grip on its own creation as in the hyper-frenzied climactic last third of “Cachimba.”
It’s in their approach to vocals that Combo Chimbita most clearly betrays their fondness for the traditional genres they’re purportedly trying to transcend. Vocalist Carolina Oliveros can seemingly do anything with her voice, so it’s particularly noteworthy that she favors that pitch and intonation of much older singers. Were it not for the borderline lunacy of the instrumentation, she could pass for a contemporary of Chavela Vargas. The background vocals are equally vintage sounding, calling to mind the old ditties that campesinos sang together on their way home from the fields and during leisurely Sunday family get-togethers after church.
As they’ve grown musically they’ve incorporated a wider collection of sounds: kompa from Haiti, Jamaican reggae, funk, comparsa, and on and on. For now, their exploratory eclecticism is held in check by a powerful sense of rootedness, which can best be seen in “Pájaro” (“Bird”), the most rocking track and perhaps the highlight of the album.
May Combo Chimbita keep growing and changing and trying new things. May they break molds and icons and have fun doing it. But may they never lose their sense of history, their love of the past, which is what makes their music truly substantial.