A Love Letter to Colombia: An Interview with Lido Pimienta

Lido Pimienta is an artist of contrasting edges. But perhaps, her most unique ability is to push toward the future of pop music, and honor the musical folklore of her ancestors.

Following her 2017 win of Canada’s Polaris Music Prize for her sophomore album La Papessaa first for a non-English language album — Lido returned to her native country, Colombia, to re-contextualize her Indigenous Wayuu and Afro-Colombian heritage through the lens of music. The result was Miss Colombia, a record four years in the making that blends textures from across the Americas.

But don’t call her the ‘new cumbia’. Her third record, Miss Colombia is a hybrid of inventive art-pop rooted in classic Latin traditions that reaches beyond genre labels. It’s a defiant and unified declaration of arrival that loudly confronts the structures of contemporary society and the format of the album.

As she passed the time in quarantine by hand painting limited-edition gatefold covers for Miss Colombiawe chatted with her about singing in metal bands, listening to Björk, and letting the voices of the Afro-Colombian culture sing for themselves.

Let’s jump in on the title Miss Colombia. It’s such a direct statement of owning your cultural identity. You’ve said that it is a reference to Steve Harvey’s flub on Miss Universe a few years back.

It’s funny because I don’t know how much of an impact the infamous Steve Harvey fuck-up was in North America or Europe. But in South America — and especially Colombia — pageants are a national sport, so people really took offense to it.

I wasn’t personally offended by what happened. I was offended by the reaction of Colombians, who finally seemed united when we’re a country that is usually so separated. I don’t know anything else in my country but division, so to have the worldwide Colombian diaspora united for this stupid thing… I just had to write songs about it.

Does it speak to a personal rebirth or reclamation of your heritage?

It wasn’t so much of a rebirth, as it was a declaration that I have arrived. When I did my last album La Papessa, I think I was still trying to shake off these false descriptions that follow me because I’m Colombian: “Oh, this is the spicy Latina that’s making this fun dance-y music… the new cumbia.” I guess I’m the new cumbia, but I don’t make cumbia. So no matter what I do, even if I release a metal album, it’s going to be: “Here’s a revolutionary album from Lido Pimienta, the new metal cumbia,” you know? I can’t escape it. For Miss Colombia, I thought, ‘how about I take these rhythms that I know very well and filter them through my universe?’ And I think that people are understanding it.

Look at the reverence that the electric guitar gets you. The reverence that men in blue jeans and plaid shirts get, the whole rock and roll aesthetic, those are the albums that get reviewed. Western music and “serious music”, you know? ‘Dua Lipa is not serious, that’s pop music. Normani? That’s not real music. Oh but, The Beatles, and any derivative of The Beatles is serious. That’s “real music”’. So, I make these conscious decisions like that I don’t have electric fucking guitar on my album. Unless that guitar is coming from the Sahara Desert, I don’t fucking want it on my album.

 

 

Yesterday I posted a photo on my socials, asking how people like the album, what their favorites are, what song they want me to make a video for, etc. And people want the proper roots sexteto songs! That makes me very excited because that’s what I wanted to do with the album.

I want the tambora, I want the alegre drums. I want those drums to have the same reverence. I want Afro-Colombian music to be respected and treated as such… so I put it right in the middle of the album. Just with all the synths and pop stuff that gets the reviews, and gets the shows, and gets toured around the world, and properly paid.

I need to understand my people because I’ve been away for so long. So that’s where those songs came from. I make those songs with Colombian people, and the black people & black culture of my country, it’s an act of revindication. That’s when I was like, ‘Okay we’re pieces of shit, but we’re also amazing.’ So that’s where Miss Colombia ended up.

Expanding that dichotomy, I noticed the first half of the record is rooted more in the current pop landscape production-wise, then the back half of the album is immersed in native Colombian instrumentation. Was that separation intentional?

When I was deciding the order, or rather the feeling of the album, I was consciously thinking of the physical action of putting an album on a record player. I needed to make it so you actually want to get up and turn the record so you can listen to the other side. I wanted to create a moment that was very specific. But, number one, was the importance of having Afro-Colombian music in the center of it all.

Like I said before, Colombia is a country of extreme contrast; we don’t have a grey area. You are either rich, or you’re poor. You’re either miserable, or you’re happy. It’s extremely violent, and extremely peaceful. It’s both things. That’s what I wanted to do. We start the album with a little tease, but then it goes banger after banger after banger after banger, stops on some dramatic shit, and then we take it down a notch again… and then we take it down a notch again.

You actually recorded a lot of the record in Colombia, most of it on your own. What was the recording process like?

Miss Colombia actually started in early 2016. I went to Halifax in Nova Scotia for an artist residency at the Khyber Centre for the Arts. After people would leave, I’d turn the gallery into a recording studio. I knew that I wanted the album to have the porro style, a style of Colombian music. It has a lot of snare and clarinet, so I thought, ‘okay, if I gotta escape being the new porro, the new cumbia, or the new merengue, then let’s do it proper’.

I went to Santiago, Chile in the fall of 2016 with my demos to work with Andrés Nusser, an amazing producer who was in the band Astro, to engineer the vocals. Then I called Matt Smith (aka Prince Nifty), my favorite producer in Toronto, to come down to Chile with me and hang out for a couple of weeks. We put all the elements together, added a little bit of synths & bass, and got to that point of thinking we had a record.

And then I remembered I had to put [my second record] La Papessa online because I had gotten a grant from the government. I thought La Papessa was just this cute record that a few hundred people were going to listen to, and that’s that. So I put it out, forgot about it, went back to Canada, and it was long-listed for the Polaris Prize. I’m like, ‘Oh nice… I’m gonna go to Colombia to work on Miss Colombia.’ But, then I got the award, and thought ‘Oh shit… we actually have to put Miss Colombia on the back burner now because I have to tour La Papessa. Finished the tour, gave birth a month after, & we built a studio at my house in Toronto and invited basically all of the musicians we know.

When I went to Colombia, I thought we were missing something. We’d recorded a beautiful choir and more in Toronto, all the beautiful brass in Nova Scotia, some of the electronic beats in Santiago. But I could not call my album Miss Colombia and not have proper Afro-Colombian music that has influenced my sound so much. I wanted to showcase Afro-Colombian music without any remixing or any weird anything to it. That music is perfect, so we recorded that! We recorded everything outside, so you can probably hear cars driving by, horses, children and people. We just set up shop, had our drinks and talked about life. Then we came home and put it all together.

I was so intrigued by the interlude with Raphael Cassiani of Sexteto Tabalá. It kind of took me off guard.

You think you’re listening to a pop record and then it jumps into spoken word. But, it provides a rich texture of place and culture.

Yeah. I also didn’t want to tell his story for him. Indigenous people, native people, brown people, black people… we don’t get to tell our story. For the most part, the majority that gets the opportunity to tell our stories don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. Or they do it in a way to please white mainstream media so they can continue to get a check, or feel like they accomplished something.

Latin culture is the same. We have a huge entertainment industry in Mexico and Colombia. They produce so many films, soap operas, shows, documentaries, etc. But the majority of people that they cast are white Colombians and there are very few roles for indigenous and black Colombians. There’s black face and all that stuff; why do we have to do that?

That’s why it was so important that I didn’t tell Cassiani’s story. He’s gonna tell it and I’m gonna give him all the time he wants. So, “Quiero Que Me Salves” is an edit of nearly 35 minutes of conversation. I took myself out — I think you can only hear me laughing a little bit — because I wanted him to introduce his band and his story. I wanted to leave an imprint of his voice so, way after he dies, people can still hear him telling his own story. Not just whatever I want to do, or however I want to say it.

Now that you live in Toronto, how has that city influenced your music?

I work with the best people in Toronto. I love my friends and they are very talented. My baby daddy has a project called Mas Aya and, to me, he’s one of the best drummers that Canada has seen. My collaborator, Robert Drysdale is an amazing producer. So, in that respect it’s great because I’m able to sit and just listen to my friends’ albums.

All the venues are closing and condos are taking over the city, so it doesn’t really feel like I am in Toronto anymore. I don’t really leave the house, but fortunately I’m able to keep in touch with everybody and keep up with what everybody is doing because of the internet. So the question should be, who are you inspired by online? Then I can tell you. As far as the city, this is a place where I’m raising my kids. And it’s safe. I didn’t have children, I’d probably be living, maybe in Colombia or Mexico or just travel every six months to another country. Because Canada… it’s not that inspiring, honestly.

What records have inspired you? Growing up, what were the first records that really got you interested in music?

When I was eleven or twelve years old, I was very much into Portishead, Radiohead, Tricky… all that trip-hop, Bristol scene stuff. Am still very influenced by the band Fear Factory. Actually, Dino Cazares, the guitar player, is actually doing a call for singers for another project and I’m very tempted send a video singing “Gutteral”. That’s basically how I started my career when I was like thirteen. I was in punk and metal bands.

When we were doing the album, my producer Prince Nifty and I would just go into my home studio with the baby, and we’d look at the files, what’s ahead and we’d just talk about life, about love, about loss and then we’d put Visible Cloaks. [Their album] Reassemblage was very key for us. That and Tirzah‘s Devotion were basically our soundtrack. When you listen to those albums they don’t really sound like anything that we did in Miss Colombia, but they opened up different parts of your brain and emotion that you’re not utilizing. Right now, I’m listening to Luboš Fišer‘s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders soundtrack every single day. But, I’m writing another album though, so I think that’s the main thing for now.

I don’t believe in listening to the same thing over and over again, but I think biggest influences — the ones that I’d listen to and decided I was an artist too — go from Lauryn Hill to Fear Factory to Martina Camargo to Sexteto Tabala to all the music that’s made on the banks of the Magdalena River in Colombia along the Caribbean coast. It’s a lot. It would be like a three-page essay.

It’s cool you mention Portishead because I can definitely hear that in the record. I also hear a little Björk in there as well.

I’ve been getting that a lot! I think that’s a great compliment because Björk is really the mother of the freaks. There’s some territory that I will never enter simply based on our geographical regions. She’s from the fucking icicles, and I’m from fucking palm trees and coconuts. Just because of that we’re different. But, if you think about 99% of music made by women, most of that music is about hetero love. If I took something from Björk, it’s that you can do a love song to a forest, you know?

When I got to studying her body of work, the music she was making when I was little, I felt that I wasn’t alone. She made it okay to sing the way that I sing. The training that I have is not classical. I didn’t go to music school. All the singing and performing I’ve done is because I started when I was very little. We had black outs in our neighborhood all the time in Barranquilla, so my father would have all the neighbors come to our apartment and we’d do shows. Since I was four years old, I’ve been singing for people.

There is an ambiguity to the love you sing about in the lyrics – is it a person, or a country, or an entire people?

I’m speaking to my country. These songs are love letters — cynical love poems — to Colombia. I have a very toxic relationship with my country. I love my country and I hate it. I miss my country, but I don’t fucking want to go back. It’s like Colombia itself, that dichotomy and extreme contrast I mentioned earlier.

I can’t sing for a fucking man. I can’t give them more power. But, I can sing to my country. I can sing to a nation that gave me everything, but also took everything from me.

On that note, one of the lyrics that really struck me on the track Nada, is the line “I’m not afraid of it, ‘cause I’m a woman and carrying pain is what I do.” That line is so powerful and encompasses a lot of what you’re saying.

Yeah. You know, that song was the last song I wrote for the record. I was really worried like, ‘shit I only have eight songs and I should have ten,’ and then my baby was born. Being a mother is fucking hard and giving birth is even harder. It’s been almost two years since I gave birth and there’s some movements that I do with my hands or I’ll get a pain as a sequel to the pain that my wrists went through. My knees, my feet. It’s real, pain is real. So, glad you like that.

Another track that speaks to those struggles is Pelo Cucu. It might be the most up-front song on the record. I love how it speaks to that pressure of beauty.

It’s a strong statement, but it’s through the voice of little Lido — the little girl that was like ‘Oh yay, I’m going to marry god! It’s my first communion! I’m gonna straighten my hair!’

During the teachings for your first communion, I remember the nun saying ‘You have to look good for God.’ I never forgot that. So my father, God? I have to look good for him? Isn’t that fucked up? A little perverted?

In that way, the cover reads as a religious commentary as well — referencing the Virgin Mary. It’s cool that you’re kind of almost reclaiming that religious tradition as your own. Though when I first saw it, it kind of reminded me of a quinceañera.

I love the color all the color in the artwork. Where did that direction come from?

Well, I made the dress at my house. There are dresses that have all these crazy colors, but of course they’re like 5,000 dollars, so I just made a ten dollar version. For the art direction of the cover, I worked along with an amazing Colombian artist Orly Anan.  She helped me put the whole vision together, especially the idea of the brides on the motorcycles.

It’s so amazing!

Now, for someone jumping into Latin or Colombian music, beyond Miss Colombia, what would be some of the records you would recommend?

Okay so there’s three albums. The first one is a compilation called Cantaoras from Alé Kuma. It was put together in 2002, and it’s this beautiful compilation of cantaoras, or traditional singers, with some like jazz arrangements. Another beautiful compilation is Tambora: Baile Cantado en Colombia, put together in 2003. And then anything by Sexteto Tambala.

Adding them all to the list…

Thank you very much! And I can hear my daughter calling me now…

 

Miss Columbia is out now on ANTI-

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