Words by David C. Obenour
For over the past two decades, Eblis Alvarez has been exploring the bounds of music through Meridian Brothers and a number of his other projects and productions. Based out of Bogota, Colombia, his work is an evolving project that expands and contrasts with his limitless creativity and his scholarly and street knowledge of music and its traditions.
For Meridian Brothers latest release on Bongo Joe Records, Cumbia Siglo XXI, Alvarez and his collaborators have taken on the music of coastal cumbia in the 1980s – but filtered through both the decades that preceded and proceeded it. Thoroughly arranged but with a sense of sweat and passion, the sounds of disco, funk and early electronica are produced through guitars, synth, software, drum machines and whatever other tools and instrument fit the need.
Off Shelf: How have you been holding up? Have you been based in Bogota throughout the pandemic?
Eblis Alvarez: Well, situation in Bogota is pretty much the same as in the more enclosed regions. Some of the neighborhoods are totally closed and we are trying to wait for “the curve” of contagion to fall. Anyway, information about the pandemic is pretty contradictory and meanwhile the city is beginning to tear apart, mostly due to the small businesses being closed, but not the big businesses. That’s kind of worrying. Protocols are guiding everyone towards an economic crisis and further monopolization of the economic powers.
OS: Meridian Brothers has been active for more than two decades now, what keeps you interested this far in? What is different about what interests you now as compared to when you began?
EA: I’m kind of in love with producing and making music. So to think, plan, compose and produce new projects are always in my routine. I have tons of plans, side bands, new bands and ideas. So I’m always projecting new stuff and looking forward to put it out. As far as I can! Recently I’m also a lot in studio work, mixing and mastering other bands, and restoring old recordings. The studio is my home.
As for what is different, I don’t think things have changed at all. At 13 years old, I was doing the same, with multitrack cassettes. Of course, styles are very different that these times…
OS: Being trained as a classical and jazz guitarist, what interests you about experimental electronic pop?
EA: I started as a classical guitarist, then I took up on jazz and then classical composition/electronic music. What I saw in the late 90s about pop music was that it functioned as a broader channel of communication. I was tired of the extremely intellectual mood that academy put into music. Tje more I studied, the tendency to become intellectual and isolated from normal people also grew. So I realized that I liked song-writing, taking all these other “academical” genres and exploring them in the context of pop music. Of course then these channels of communications took me to traditional Colombian and Latin American music with its discography that is huge!
So I kept the song writing but within the traditional urban genres in Latin America instead of pop music from the 2000s and on.
OS: Originally or perhaps more widely known as more of an imported genre, what do you think your training and cultural background allows you to bring to the genre?
EA: Recently I am thinking about the negative sides of communications, the veins where pop music runs. Communications are generally regarded as good for almost all of us… You know, communications are seen as democratical, technological, something related also to the evolution of humans but….
I grew up as a cosmopolitan city inhabitant. What happened with modern cities in the era of electric and electronic communications, from the telegraph to the internet, was communicating faster and broader took good things to cities, such as technology advances, more forms of art and more culture and exchange. But then I discovered that this very fact also destroyed the native rural cultures, as it happens with local economies in Latin America and Africa for instance. What happened with Colombian traditional music in the 90s, was that music was regarded as bad taste for the very system of communication, trends and central tendencies.
Inadvertently or in a conscious way – I don’t really know, the fact of communicating that took more culture to the cities, also destroyed a slower pattern of native culture development. That is, development based more in oral traditions than in the system of publicity and general electronic communications and publications. This is true even in Europe and the US, owners and center of this system. The culture was replaced for a kind of an “international culture” represented in jazz music, classical music or rock-pop music. I know those genres grew up locally but then got cosmopolitalized… I can see this phenomena in almost every city of the world or in any genre.
This fact took good things, such as formats, groovy music and an established record industry, but also a negative side, which is the one we are experiencing in the world nowadays. The destruction of seeds of culture, the standardization – given by education too, such as music careers with protocols and standards, where I grew up – and the sterilization of human thoughts. The acceleration went even faster with the internet, and the artificial intelligence… I hope humans are not replaced in the arts in a near future.
With this negative background I developed myself as a city musician not having too many choices other than entering an academy and education, one of the axises of this phenomena I explained. I was naive, but through the time I discovered all those facts, keeping just techniques and skills taken from the academies. Now with my own ideas and critical thinking, this was also a common thought in my colleagues, I developed these thoughts abstractly in my music.
What I’m talking about could be seen as colonization, but not in the sense everyone talks about. The communication is colonizing the whole world and its culture. Replacing the native cultures – even in the so-called “first world” for a cosmopolitan near-dead art expression. It was not noticeable at the beginning, but I think everyone is now discovering the corrosive effect of communications in the negative side. Communications might be good, but power plus communications plus money might be not.
OS: Cumbia Siglo XXI is an experiment that uses the group Cumbia Siglo XX as a jumping off point. Can you talk about them a little and what led you to create an album inspired by them?
EA: After the last album “¿Dónde estás María?”. I decided to try a new experiment taking as a reference “Cumbia siglo XX”. The group takes on a futuristic vision of coastal cumbia in the 80s, together with other groups such as “Grupo folclórico”, “2000 voltios” and others, mainly under the label Machuca and Felito Records. This new 80s cumbia was a combination of funky basses and a further evolution of the rhythms, blending this style with disco and even rock music and superimposing the traditional versus the urban context and the modernity. There we can see a positive side of global communication!
This was a departing point and inspiration, trying to make the same experiment but in XXI century, using the modern media; all kinds of drum machines, guitars and synths, algorithmic software etc, and also taking into account the global exposition of modern cumbia in the 2010s. So all kinds of influences and genres are blended around this cumbia axis. Urban beats, synthy grooves, glitches and all kinds of swear words and its censorship, and all kinds of slang language are included in the songs of the album.
All these elements are filtered and passed through the traditional train of thought of Meridian Brothers, which is the figuration of an abstract picture of sound put within a concrete context or cultural tendency.
OS: Do you have a process for experimenting with new instruments and equipment? Are you much of a gear enthusiast?
EA: Yeah! Gear enthusiast, instruments enthusiast, studio enthusiast, I’m just very curious about the production of sounds. I just love to learn new instruments, or develop new techniques of playing in whatever I find, or buying new gear, or learning new studio techniques in terms of mixing and mastering. I like also to copy old styles and put them in a new fashion!
Also I like to fabricate fake concepts of known culture, such I did in Cumbia Siglo XXI and other albums of the past.
OS: Listening to Cumbia Siglo XXI there’s a sense of volatility and an almost ramshackle energy, though the compositions are complicated and well-thought out. How do you balance the control and energy of your music?
EA: That can be difficult to answer. Although I’m kind of thorough with techniques, at the end I just feel. I love ramshackle, because it kind of lowers the glamour of stuff. I hate glamour. Vulgarity is my world.
OS: What inspired you to cover “Son of a Preacher Man”? How did you feel your version took the song in a new direction?
EA: I’ve been obsessed with this song for years. Actually I’ve taken this song as a model for previous compositions on and on. Many compositions use “Son of a Preacher Man” as a model for harmony, mood or other parameters. This was the time to make it real! to make the cover version!
OS: Cumbia Siglo XXI’s cover by Glenda Torrado is really striking, can you tell us why you chose it? I’m imagining there’s a great deal of symbolism in it.
EA: We discussed with Glenda all the symbols. Well, something I explained earlier, the invasion of technology, cosmopolitanism into traditional music and so. As I said, it has a good and evil side. It brings change, but going to where? Not really sure, I have a bad feeling about this where… There are other symbols like the paintings, mostly present in the lyrics of the songs, actually, there’s a symbol per song if I remember well.
Glenda is a tremendous artist. One of the most expressive drawers I’ve seen, and she loves rooms and paintings in the rooms, so we discussed to put her at its best.
OS: Reading some of your past interviews, you seem to have an encyclopedic knowledge of a number of genres. I’m curious, is there any music old or new that you’re currently finding exciting?
EA: Actually I’m not a very wise collector. I just imitate my close friends that really are incredible collectors and wise music knowers. I learn a lot from them. But I discovered in recent years that I like deeply to classify stuff. So I did with my collected records. That saved me. Inspiration and resources were a bit dry towards the end of 2010. Classifying got me into a new world of inspiration and renewed the resources for the meridian brothers and its side projects.
OS: Do you have any thoughts on what’s next for Meridian Brothers?
EA: Yeah! I am about to engage into the second part of an instrumental organ album I did for 5 years ago “Los Suicidas”, which is supposed to be a trilogy. I’m also working into the LP of Grupo Renacimiento, which is intended to be a 70s classic salsa group. I’m also about to finish an album we did with Los Pirañas in Spáin last year, with a trio of winds, and also, I will release the dark brother of Cumbia Siglo XXI, “El último Meridian”. It’s an electronic album more into post-perreo fashion, I have to finish it soon!