Systema Solar Talks 'Rumbera' Success & Moving Away From Samples on New Album
The Colombian band Systema Solar pulled off a neat trick to call itself into existence, orchestrating its inception in front of a sizable crowd: when Vanessa Gocksch, a DJ in the not-yet-formed group, was invited to play at an Art Biennial in Medellín, she came back to the booker with a bold counter offer. "I told the promoter, 'hey we've been thinking of creating a band, what if we create the band [for the festival]?'" she recalls. "He was like, 'sure. I won't tell anybody that you guys don't exist yet.'"
After a short period of frantic preparation, the seven-person group made its debut in front of several thousand listeners. "We had a month to pull everybody together," Gocksch says. "Everybody threw in their songs that they had on the back burner." "We never got to rehearse really until we got on the stage," adds Juan Carlos Pellegrino. "That's how we started."
That dauntless, madcap spirit still pervades the band's work ten years later. Systema Solar just released a new record, Rumbo a Tierra, and it shows a group on the verge of reaching a wider audience. The single "Rumbera" was picked as the theme song for the video game FIFA 2017; the Discovery Channel recently adopted Rumbo a Tierra's first track, "Tumbamurallas," as the theme for its Latin American programming; and T-Mobile has been using "Sin Oficio."
Rumbo a Tierra also provides the band with their first stint of sustained exposure in the U.S.: it's the second Systema Solar album to appear in this country in under 12 months. Last March's eponymous release -- on the independent, Los Angeles-based label Nacional -- cherry-picked songs from the group's previous records, showcasing their omnivorous tastes stateside for the first time.
Open ears and sonic curiosity played an important part in uniting Systema Solar a decade ago. Gocksch and Pellegrino were working together on the soundtrack for a documentary on Colombian hip-hop when they discovered a shared enthusiasm for Champeta, a strain of music from coastal Colombia that is itself a cross-cultural hybrid. "They started to get records from Africa in the '70s and make covers of these records, then they started a sound system culture like the one that there is in Jamaica," Pellegrino explains. "They would play on top of the African music and translate it into Spanish, and that's called Champeta." "It seemed like an amazing version of electronic music," Gocksch continues.
Pellegrino, meanwhile, was already collaborating with Daniel Broderick, another future Systema member, attempting electronic transpositions of cumbia -- "trying to get the Colombian, Caribbean elements into electronic music as a real fusion," he says, as opposed to just jury-rigging the combination via samples.
These three rounded out Systema Solar with John Primera, who sings and writes many of the lyrics, Walter Hernandez, another singer, Arturo Corpas, another DJ, and Andrés Gutiérrez, a percussion player. "We all come from different backgrounds," Pellegrino explains happily. "It wasn't [that] somebody had a concept to create a certain genre and directed everybody else -- it's a big soup."
The ingredients in the broth changed slightly on Rumbo a Tierra: Systema Solar attempted to minimize their use of samples. "When you're using a sample, in a certain way you're tied to a texture," Pellegrino explains. "Some of the new tracks don't contain samples at all, and that totally changed the color of the songs."
As did the sound of live drumming. "On the first two albums, the drums weren't an instrument in my construction set," Pellegrino says. "I didn't want to put in a live kit; that'll push us in sound towards rock or pop." He relented on Rumbo a Tierra, where Gutierrez thumps out a disco groove on songs like "Champe Tabluo."
A similar spirit infuses "Rumbera," which Pellegrino describes as "Kool and the Gang meets Vallenato [Colombian accordion music]." The track beat out roughly a thousand others to earn its role in FIFA 2017. "It's really upbeat and celebratory," declares Cybele Pettus, Senior Music Supervisor for EA. "It crosses so many different genres within the same song -- it has a very traditional Colombian sound, and then they bring in electronic beats, turntable scratching, all this stuff that really works well together."
The band has noticed the impact of the FIFA 2017 placement, at least locally. "It helped a lot for Systema Solar to get known in Colombia," Pellegrino acknowledges. "Kids play FIFA."
The group has also picked up fans in the country due to their topical lyrics. Systema Solar does not shy away from geopolitical concerns: increasingly antagonistic border policing ("Tumbamurallas") and mining by destructive international corporations ("Somos La Tierra"). "Colombia is a country where there's been a lot of repression of freedom of speech, so there's a general unwillingness to speak up about what's going on," Gocksch notes. "I think we've developed a way of saying things in Systema Solar which isn't too straightforward, but things are said. We represent a movement in Colombia of people who want to speak up."
Tomas Cookman, who signed the band to Nacional, suggests the movement will continue to grow. "We've been fortunate enough to champion artists who don't historically count on just one market," he tells Billboard. "They can and they have become bridges between markets, culture, people, formats -- whether it was Ana Tijoux [Grammy nominated], Nortec Collective [Grammy nominated], or Manu Chao [who has sold millions of albums worldwide]. It's only beginning."