The often-asked question at the recent Bogota Music Market (BOmm) held in Colombia’s capital city was, “How can my music be heard outside the country?”
It is, of course, a question for the ages. All artists aspire to have their music succeed internationally and transcend their own borders.
But at the BOmm music fair, the question was particularly poignant. The third annual event, sponsored by Bogota’s chamber of commerce, was surprising in the sheer amount of talent it attracted. More than 1,300 acts submitted their music for consideration to the fledgling music marketplace. Of those, 220 were selected to partake in one-on-one meetings with more than 70 local and international buyers, and 14 were chosen to perform at showcases for the nearly 1,000 attendees.
As for the answer to the question, it was repeated by each event speaker: “Be unique and sound different.” That may be a pretty pat answer, but in Latin America, it translates to something very concrete: Whatever music you do, fuse it with traditional, indigenous elements in order to attract international attention.
That sentiment translated to most showcases at the event, with standout acts ranging from Herencia de Timbiqui –a traditional group from the Pacific coast that now incorporates electric guitar and bass in the mix — to Grupo Cimarron, which also adds a rock edge to its traditional music from the Colombian plains.
It used to be that Latin acts who wanted to break past their borders would go to Miami (and, to a lesser degree, Los Angeles) to hone their sound and make it palatable for a more international audience. That still happens, but increasingly, the sound arrives with solid, home-grown roots as its foundation.
In the past decade, the majority of acts who have broken out have boasted sounds — or at least, songs — that are steeped in fusion.
From Colombia alone, according to former MTV Tr3s GM/executive VP Jose Tillan, Carlos Vives had success with his pop/vallenato; Juanes’ breakout hit was ‘La Camisa Negra,” a song based on traditional mountain music; and Shakira’s big crossover hit was “Hips Don’t Lie,” which blended reggaetón with the Caribbean beats of her native Barranquilla.
Beyond Colombia, the story repeats itself. Argentina’s Los Fabulosos Cadillacs bring roots to their ska/rock; Don Omar’s breakout hit, “Danza Kuduro,” is a remake of a Lucenzo hit infused with Brazilian beats; and, of course, Ricky Martin’s true international success came in the wake of the Brazilian/tropical beats of “The Cup of Life” and, later, the danceability of “Livin’ la Vida Loca.”
Fast forward to today, when breakout acts like Romeo Santos and Prince Royce have their roots in traditional bachata, a blazing new act like 3BallMTY blends its own tribal guarachero music with dance beats, and up-and-comers like La Santa Cecilia bring Mexican roots to their alternative sound.
So, what’s a straight-ahead, up-and-coming traditional Latin pop or rock act to do?
First, write great songs. No amount of fusion can trump or replace that. Second, establish a foothold in Mexico, the one Latin country that is consistently exporting Latin pop and rock. (Think Camila, Rio Roma or, in the alt world, Carla Morrison and Zoe.)
Beyond that — for now at least — traditional-grounded fusion has the upper hand.