Mi Herencia (My Heritage) Broadens Latin Roots Music
You may have an earlier example, but for me, ever since Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo teamed up with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie on “Manteca” in 1947 to bring an Afro-Cuban element to bebop, Latin music has become part of North America’s musical texture. The cha-cha and mambo crazes of the 1950s gave way to the music that immigrants from the Caribbean and South America brought to New York, their rhythms and styles absorbed into the city’s culture: salsa from Puerto Rico, merengue from the Dominican Republic, cumbia from Colombia.
These are dances as well as musical styles, useful terms for easy categorization. But they don’t begin to tell the complete story. The Queens, NY, centered Colombian band Grupo Rebolú’s new album, Mi Herencia (My Heritage) breaks the mold in so many ways that one way to start to describe why it’s different is that there is only one cumbia. (It was written by co-leader Ronald Polo’s daughter when she was seven; now 11, she sings it on the album). Ronald, the main singer, composer, arranger, and creative driver of the band, plays tambora, a hand-held bass drum, and the gaita, a traditional flute.
The rest of the songs are puyas and chalupas, and fandangos and bullerengues, and others identified tartly as “Rebolú groove.” These are rhythms most of the band learned growing up in the Caribbean coastal city of Barranquilla, where Polo and Morris Cañate are from, descended from master musicians and singers. (Polo’s partner, singer and musician Joanna Castañeda, was raised in the Colombian capital Bogota; Erika “Kika” Parra is New York-born, but also from an illustrious Barranquilla musical family.) The songs are almost entirely bracing up-tempo dance tunes built for celebration of the annual Carnival, anticipated year-round with the same devotion to costumes and endless partying as Mardi Gras is to New Orleans, as Rio de Janeiro’s carnival is to that Brazilian city’s identity.
“I’m from Bogota, we have 30 kinds of music, we’re normal,” Castañeda said jokingly about the overwhelming mélange of music she heard when she first visited Polo’s family in Barranquilla. Ronald said, “everybody was dancing, everybody knew the songs, knows the music, it’s all part of the larger culture,” with deep African roots.
“Somebody had to teach me those moves!” Castaneda said. And she was raised from childhood attending a school specializing in the music, dance, and folk traditions of Colombia’s Eastern plains.
One example is the song “Con Este Fandango” (“With This Fandango”). There was a fandango being played in the square in Barranquilla, and Castaneda said she wanted to sing one. Ronald, whose versatility is his essence, had never written one. A different horn section is used, distinct from the rest of the album: clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and bombardino, a smaller, higher-pitched tuba.
Here the other percussionists, Parra and Cañate, explain the slight predicament of doing a fandango. It’s possible, I suppose, for less perfectionist musicians to go through the motions and play a fandango, but the members of Grupo Rebolú need to understand the feel of the music from the inside out. “It’s very challenging to learn and record. The rhythm is 6/8, to learn the feel of it, the language of it,” Parra said, and I’ve seen Parra play rhythms in time signatures that might be a stretch for Sun Ra’s Solar Arkestra. Perhaps because on Mi Herencia, Parra was playing conventional kit drums, in addition to her more usual traditional Colombian drum, the tambor alegre. Castañeda agreed: “it’s very tough to get that rhythm, it took some effort to understand.”
We were chatting about all this at a lunch in the Colombian neighborhood of Jackson Heights in Queens, NY, at the traditional restaurant Pequeña Colombia. It illustrated how even regional roots music travels these days: it comes to New York, where these musicians, all raised or trained in their local traditions, find more to add by absorbing the city’s energy, intensity, and openness to new ideas.
“I’m a member of a family that sings, and at the music school, we learned only the traditional music,” Polo said. “We learned the flute, which we call the gaita, and all the percussion instruments, like the tambora. When we came to New York, we tried to put in everything we learned in New York.” Castañeda adds: “The roots came from their city, and they mixed it up with what they were hearing here.”
Sometimes the musicians are hiding in plain sight. It was only on the afternoon of our lunch interview that I found that the group’s two musical leaders and singers, the couple of Polo and Castañeda, had lived for 10 years less than a mile from my family, in the same neighborhood of northeast Queens. I recognized the Barranquilla-raised percussionist Cañate, the mentor of American-born Parra, from their frequent appearances at ethnic music mashups at Queens educational and cultural landmark, Flushing Town Hall. Also joining us was Ronald’s son Ronny, who lives in Connecticut, but joins the group for area concerts on maracas and “coros,” the call-and-response vocal sections that sustain excitement on the dance floor.
That excitement is on the album, too. There’s only one cumbia, and only one ballad, “¡Mamá He!” (“Oh Mom!”) because the producer, Felipe Fournier, who also plays vibraphones, thought it would be helpful to take the intensity down just a notch.
“Every time we’re in front of an audience, it’s hard not to play hard, you want to see everyone moving. The fast tempo will wake you up, you see the audience dancing, and we love that,” Castañeda said. “That energy makes us more hyper, as we interact with the energy.”
The album captures intensity of the live sound in the studio after years of self-produced recordings. The horns are arranged like punches to the gut in a closely fought middleweight boxing match. “Very short [phrases],” Ronald agreed. “The short bursts, the call-and-response [“coros”], the instrumentation is simple, a bunch of drums, voices, and horns. Drums and horns.” Yes, but pow!
Mi Herencia (My Heritage) appears on the Smithsonian Folkways label, itself an elite accomplishment. It was the folkloric roots and dynamic live shows that appealed to the label.
Still, Smithsonian Folkways, as avid music listeners know, is the discerning musical arm of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, dedicated to ethnic roots and traditional music. It requires a written grant application along with submissions. Its presence on the label reflects Rebolú’s versatility: they can play Colombian night clubs in Queens, community arts centers, and festivals like the Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City, where they were featured artists in February 2022.
“It took a long time,” said Castañeda, who also manages the band. “You’re knocking on a thousand doors, and maybe one opens. I truly believe in the music and I see the response whenever we do a concert, that people love the music. I’d spend hours on the computer, seeing, where I can take this band to? Then someone from the Smithsonian saw us at a festival, and requested some demos. Then I got a call from the Library of Congress, asking us to do a show there. I said, by the way, I sent music to the Smithsonian to be considered for any project; now that we’re here, is there a way to follow up?”
As a matter of fact, there was. “Dan Sheehy, our interim director and curator of the Tradiciones Series for recordings of Latino music is well connected, and had seen the group before at folk festivals and other events,” said Smithsonian Folkways marketing manager Jonathan Williger. “Their live shows are powerful, and he was moved to get them involved in the label. Mi Herencia is a perfect fit because it brings well-worn traditions into contemporary times, infusing them with energy and life.”
By the way, have I mentioned what “rebolú” means? Castañeda said it’s “a gathering of people having a good time.” But if you’ve heard Mi Herencia, or seen Grupo Rebolú perform, you already know that.
Wayne’s Words columnist Wayne Robins teaches at St. John’s University in Queens, and writes the Critical Conditions Substack, http://waynerobins49.substack.com.
Header image: copyright by, and courtesy of Michael G. Stewart.