The smell of cloves and cinnamon, the taste of café con panela (sweetened coffee), the sound of cumbia, the warmth of the accordion, and plenty of glasses filled with rum and guaro (liqueur), are just some of the things that remind Stephanie Santiago of her land, all detailed in the opening lyrics to “Alma Carnavalera”, the title track of her new EP; it’s a song which sees her pine for the Colombia of her roots.
Born in South London to Colombian musician parents – her father an accordionist, her mother a singer – cumbia and salsa filled Stephanie’s childhood. But like anyone, she needed to find her own way, to discover London’s multifarious subcultures, to get lost in the energies of youth music. Her early work reflects this, with forays into soul, jazz, reggaeton, even punk, opportunities to experiment but also refine an inherent talent for songwriting and an ability to inhabit songs with her voice.
Glimpses of Latin music have emerged in her music before – it would be impossible for them not to – but this EP signals a new chapter in her career in which her heritage and search for identity are brought to the fore. “Alma Carnavalera” (“Carnival Soul”) is filled with an immigrant nostalgia for being in a distant place: “Too far from my homeland, a grey autumn in search of eternal spring” she sings, while always trying to bring a dose of home wherever she is, the verse ending “here we bring the carnival sabor (flavour)”. Echoes of carnival can be heard in the song’s make-up, its focus on vocals, percussion and bass indicative of traditional female-led bullerengue that is still performed along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, and the sound of gaita flute synonymous with cumbia at its most carnivalesque.
On “Activa Tu Cuerpo” (“Activate Your Body”) she once more conjures up visions of Colombia, the taste of fresh fruit, the smells of mountains and sugarcane, the serenades of the birds, but rather than pining for her homeland, this time she is “creating an inner paradise to get through the toughest moments”, committing her body to find peace, balance, both physical and mental. As with the title track, “Activa Tu Cuerpo” was produced by Andrés Pascua, this time allowing for a jazz-funk bass melody to lead the way while Santiago’s voice cannot hide its admiration for master female Colombian vocalists like Petrona Martinez, dancing around the melodies, powerful when it needs to be. Sampled vocals, cumbia flute and a hip-swaying coda bedevilled by a twisted guitar line complete the picture.
The Alma Carnavalera EP is the first in a series of releases from Stephanie Santiago that will see her explore her Colombian heritage, revealing a new sound informed by life in London and Latin American lineage. Home has always been in Stephanie’s heart, now we get to hear it.