In 10 years, Colombian salsa band La 33 went from doing low-paying bar gigs to being the country’s most famous salsa orchestra touring the world. However, the Bogota-based band is not done, the band’s director, Sergio Mejia, told Colombia Reports.
Why is the group called La 33?
The orchestra is called Orchestra 33 because it was born in this very house, and we’re on 33rd street with 15th avenue. Our salsa is very urban and so we’ve taken on the name of the streets
How did the group first get together?
I used to live in Montreal, Canada for a few years, and being so far away from Latin America and Colombia, I would listen to salsa music and it made me nostalgic. I used to play rock, a lot of rock, and some jazz, and these two genres are much more North American. It made me realize that I needed to get back to my Latin American roots. So I returned to Colombia and began to study folkloric music and also Afro-latino music like salsa. In Bogota I met up with my brother Santiago, and the two of us formed La 33. He called his college friend, Guillermo Celis, to come sing for us, and the three of us are the original members. After a year we started auditioning and others joined us and the current group has been together for 8 years. Our band is like a family, and let’s just say we’re like pieces that fit together. In the beginning it was hard to get everyone on the same page. We all had our defects and differences so over time we had to learn to understand each other so we can play as a group. But now we’re a family.
So the original inspiration for the group was to return to cultural roots?
Well, it’s really to have fun! The most important thing, is to enjoy life and have fun. We were having such a great time playing that we decided to dedicate our lives to it.
Tell me more about the musical style of La 33. Also, what inspires the lyrics for your songs?
Our musical roots come from the salsa that was popular in 1960’s and 1970’s in New York and Puerto Rico. Our songs come from life experiences. If I fall in love, I write about love; if I end a relationship, I write about falling out of love. They stole my piano, so I wrote about theft of a piano. When I was in Canada, I saw many people trying to achieve the so-called American dream. They dream about changing their lives, so they spend every day of their lives washing dishes, to earn more and more money. I write about this, and also other experiences that might not touch us personally but that happen all around us.
What do you think of the American dream?
I think that one has to live the way they want to live. To not think in terms of economic success but in terms of what feeds the desires of your soul. And if you do this well, then the money will come and you’ll live peacefully. The American dream is sometimes changing your real dreams in exchange for economic stability. So there are people who wash dishes or do other hard labor for 40 or 50 years to make money. This is swapping your life for money, and life is much more important.
You used to think it was impossible to make it as an independent musician in Colombia, what do you think now?
I changed my mind when I came back here. And I also realized when I was in Canada that it was just as hard to make it there. Actually it was harder for me there since I didn’t know anyone nor did I play rock or jazz at the same level as the other musicians. For example, I went to the jazz festival in Montreal and I left thinking “that’s it, I’ll never make it here.” But 8 years later, we returned to play at the same festival. It was an amazing feeling.
What has changed over the last 10 years?
Our first album was a huge turning point for us. The Pink Panther song on our first album became a hit worldwide. It turned us from a band playing in bars for very little money to a band that goes on world tours. When our second album came out, the album cover was nominated for a Grammy award. These two memories really stick out in my mind. And the first time we went to Cali was incredible, it was our first concert outside of Bogota and the reception was amazing.
As a 10-year old band, what are your plans now?
We want to travel more and get to know other countries. We have not yet been to China, Africa, and many South American countries such as Peru. But our goal is to continue being an independent group and to always enjoy what we do, to keep growing musically as well as individuals. Also, we want to send a positive message to the planet, to make the world a better place for everyone in some way.
Have many funny things happened to you guys during your world tours?
It’s hard to think of one off the top of my head. Though I remember when we were in Japan, our waitress spilled our beer on the table. And she was really apologetic, like oh I’m so sorry, pardon me, what a shame, so sorry! It seemed like in Japan it was a horrible thing to spill beer. We were like, it’s ok, don’t worry about it, but she kept right on apologizing.
Which places do you really want to go back to?
So many places, for instance New York, Japan, India, and London. Our tours were sometimes so fast we didn’t have any time to get to know the cities. In Japan we had 8 cities to go to in 10 days. One of my dreams is to live in many different countries, live a year in New York, and another in Asia. To crisscross the world.
If you couldn’t be a musician, what would you do?
I love movies so something in the film industry. I’d love to create music for movies.
After 10 years, what do you feel grateful for?
I’m grateful to be happy, to be making music, that people like our music. To be living off of playing music and not washing dishes. *laughs*