The first time I heard about South by Southwest was last year. I was in Brazil, hanging out in Rio de Janeiro on Ipanema Beach. Our band, Bomba Estéreo, was finishing up an amazing Brazilian tour, and we were very relaxed in this place, staring at the blue/green and perfect waves. It's an incredible scene, a kind of nirvana. Suddenly, the phone rings with a call from Colombia. Juan Carlos Losada, a very good friend of mine, is screaming and very excited about this crazy music festival in Austin, Texas, a place I had no reference for.
I tell him: "Juan Carlos, first of all, we don't have U.S. visas, and we are one week from that. Besides, we don't have the money for a visa nor the money for plane tickets, hotels, food, musicians, nothing. Maybe next time."
Before I knew it, I was standing in a line of a thousand people, freezing to death, hearing police officers giving orders over the P.A., seeing warning posters about drug traffickers, cursing the whole world and its politics. Welcome to Bogota's American Embassy. Fortunately, we all got the visas.
When we got to Houston, we rented a van to Austin. We were sharing it with another Colombian band. The scene was more or less like this: 10 people in a van fit for six, plus instruments and personal bags. I had one guitar case on my head and my bass and suitcase between my legs. Felipe, Bomba's manager, had to put half of his body out the window because there was no space for his other half. Li [Saumet], Bomba's singer, had to lean down pretty much on top of the stick shift.
Looking at this circus scene, with a quiet laugh, I said to myself: "Man, this is it. This is the real 'rock & roll on the road' experience that's almost a cliché now. But it's real. This is what it's all about, being in a van full of instruments, heading to play."
And it was like that. Once we arrived, we didn't stop listening to great bands that we had never seen in our lives. All in one city. All at the same time. It was like taking MySpace to a physical setting but even better.
It was our first gig in the U.S. and, still now, one of the best. So we came back again in 2010. We have our visas in order, a little more budget, and better traveling conditions. But our expectations are quite the same. We are very pleased with being part of the SXSW family.
See you this afternoon at Levi's Fader Fort, 5pm.