Combo Chimbita transcends language barriers with the spirited ‘IRÉ’

The New York-based Colombian rock band visits Ace of Cups for a concert on Friday

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Combo Chimbita

Carolina Oliveros, singer for the New York-based Colombian rock band Combo Chimbita, delivers most of the words on the band’s 2022 album, IRÉ (Anti), in Spanish, though there are moments when she dispatches of language altogether. Such is the case on ““Mujer Jaguar,” a song rooted in the Black lives matter movement of 2020 and described by Oliveros as “a war cry from a deity” in a recent Zoom interview, accompanied by band manager and translator Oscar Diaz.

“The force of the movement opened a portal of energy among our people,” said Oliveros, who watched Black lives matter spill outside of the United States, reaching locales such as Colombia and Cuba. “[‘Mujer Jaguar’ is] a song with that feeling of the struggle in the streets, a war cry from a deity that’s following her instinct, headstrong in searching for a path forward. The song doesn't have a specific language, but it's decipherable through its energy and feeling.”

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The members of Combo Chimbita gathered in Puerto Rico amid the pandemic to write and record IRÉ, channeling the isolation, uncertainty and desperation of the last couple of years into music that somehow transcends these dark roots. The resultant songs, which flirt with psychedelia, dub, Latin American cumbia and more, flower into neon bursts with street-festival energy (“La Perla”) and dreamy, elongated sighs that capture a sense of release rather than the omnipresent tension of the COVID era (“Oya”).

Oliveros credited this transformative power at least in part to the healing properties of music, describing the creative process as one way of reconnecting with her raiz, or roots. “Each album we’ve made helps me grow,” said Oliveros, who will join her bandmates in concert at Ace of Cups on Friday, March 25. "The songs we make definitely play a key part in our healing, whether that’s from a place of empowerment or as a stand of resistance ... rebelling against the state or the racial and political paradigms of our time.”

The pandemic only intensified these feelings, forcing the musicians to work harder to mine beauty from the encroaching ugliness. “I think that moment was difficult because there was a lot of repression, frustration and fear that had the potential of dominating,” Oliveros said. “But for us, it was important to hold those emotions and transform them through our art. To say, 'OK, this is what we can say from our point of view and with our craft,' and in the end, help transform those thoughts to something positive or even dreamlike."

Oliveros returned to the word “dreams” frequently in our conversation, describing descents into this other realm as connective tissue, of sorts, that can be traced back through the band’s recorded history. “When I begin to sing, there’s an outline from which to connect ideas, but the mysticism is what connects the dots between all the concepts and brings them to life as they emerge,” she said.

Writing in relative isolation helped, with the band living holed up in a house in Puerto Rico that stood at needed remove from the buzz of city life. “I think it was more than we imagined, and we allowed ourselves to be influenced by the space because it spoke to us: ‘You came for this, so we're going to connect deeply with each other and we're going to let it flow,’” said Oliveros, describing the enveloping stillness as an ideal state “to create music for the soul.”

At the same time, the musicians remained attentive to and engaged with the larger outside world, channeling these various dreams and visions conjured in solitude into indefatigable anthems with global reach.

“I feel that artists have a responsibility not to be indifferent to our reality, to think about building a present and future as well,” Oliveros said. “Music has always accompanied our revolutions. That’s the work of an artist.”