An Ecstatic North American Debut By Colombian Legend Emilsen Pacheco with Bulla En El Barrio at Lincoln Center
In his North American debut at Lincoln Center last night, legendary Colombian bullerengue bandleader Emilsen Pacheco – the guy who wrote the Ibuprofen Fandango – brought his relentlessly energetic personality and wry sense of humor to a sold-out audience of expats from his native Colombia along with many cognoscenti from the New York music scene (Innov Gnawa’s Samir LanGus and saxophonist Aakash Mittal were both spotted in the crowd). Backed by Bulla En El Barrio, New York’s only bullerengue group, Pacheco validated the herculean effort it took to get him here. Lincoln Center impresario Viviana Benitez explained that a grant from APAP and a Colombian record label, among others, were involved.
It was definitely a painkilling show. The men and women of the group took turns twirling in front of the band over hypnotic, echoing handmade drums (tambor alegre and tambor llamador) and handclaps, and quickly got the audience involved. Isn’t it funny how in this age of corporate hail-mary passes at monopolizing live music, it’s the most interactive, ancient styles that always draw the biggest audience response?
Bullerengue is the oldest African style of music in Colombia. Like its distant cousin gnawa, it’s a hypnotically pulsing call-and-response style with origins in sub-Saharan Africa. At this show, that meant an ever-increasing choir responding to Pacheco’s vocal riffs, demands, implorations and exaltations – and eventually, his masterful, hard-hitting beats on the drums. After he’d highfived the crowd on the way in, he held down the left side of the stage, swaying and half-crouching, decked out in a colorful print shirt and straw hat. It was a deliriously inspired collaboration, party music reflecting transcendence over the rigors of coastal working-class life and through centuries before, on another continent.
“I’m the guy for you,” was the message Pacheco used to get the party started. As the show built steam, the rhythms shifted through brisk triplets to a trance-inducing four-on-the-floor, to trickier polyrhythms from the group’s percussionists. Love, seduction, drinking and the precarious state of Colombian coastal family life were common themes: Pacheco and the group seem to love all of them equally.
Eventually, Bulla En El Barrio leader Carolina Oliveros – a protege of Pacheco during her time in Colombia – took over the mic and led the choir, which by now seemed to be half the audience. Once Pacheco had taken a seat behind the drums, it seemed that the giant wave of swaying bodies in front of the stage knew all the words by heart – and they responded just as feverishly to Oliveros’ originals. She explained that Pacheco is one of the few remaining keepers of the bullerengue flame – this was “A dream come true,” she said, thanking Benitez for believing in the craziness of staging a show like this in New York in 2017.
If you missed this party, Pacheco and the band are at C’Mon Everybody this Saturday, August 26 at 9ish; cover is $12. Then they’re at Barbes at around 9:30 PM on the 28th and on the 29th they’ll be at Terrazza 7 in Queens at 8 for $20.