Alberto Jamaica Larrota a.k.a. El Rey Vallenato Beto Jamaica really is a king: he won the Leyenda Vallenato Festival in his native Colombia. He was also reputedly the big attraction at the final night of this year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival, a big event that this blog unfortunately had to miss. Trying to come up with words to describe his slinky, slashing, virtuoso performance this past evening at Lincoln Center wasn’t easy: this guy puts on a party. An all-ages Colombian massive filled the dancefloor and packed the seats at the Broadway atrium space to watch the accordionist/bandleader and an unusually small five-piece lineup – bass, guiro, tambor and vocals – run through a set of hits that even got the people in the press seats up on their feet. Good luck trying to write, or text, or do much of anything other than dancing, in the middle of that.
The former construction foreman, who sold off his wardrobe and prized cassettes to buy his first accordion, is a pretty shy guy: he doesn’t even front his own band. But he shreds, building his way to a fullscale vallenato inferno. He and the group opened with a merengue-flavored tune, the bassist puncing his way up the scale to an enveloping solo. The clever shift from a circling 6/8 beat to a pretty much straight-up clave wasn’t lost on the dancers.
Tthe percussive attack of the second number more than counterbalanced the blithe tune ,Ironically, it was on the third song of the night, a slowly swaying cumbia anthem, where El Rey got shreddier. The one after that belonged to the bass player, slamming out booming chords and swooping octaves over the bandleader’s staccato attack.
A thundering cumbia hit by the late, great Celso Pina was lit up with hypnoticlly circling upper-register accordion riffage, as the rhythm shifted again to a straight-ahead dancefloor thud. Then they went lickety-split through a vampy two-chord number where it seemed like Beto Jamaica’x axe might burst a button or three. As these guy proved earlier during the show, they can slow the show down, just as they did at this point, and still drove the energy higher, this time around with sizzling minor-key accordion riffs, bass all over the place, haunting vocal harmonies and a thorny thicket of percussion.
From there the rhythms followed a roller coaster of dynamic shifts, El Rey paying his respects to his big Mexican influences as well as several squeezebox favorites from his home turf. Anyone in the house who was hearing vallenato for the first time got as solid an introducion as anybody could want.
The next free concert at the Lincoln Center atirum space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. – New Yorks best place for discovering new sounds from around the or world, or just revisiting them is next Thursday, August 29 at 7:30 PM with the Haitian funk band that started it all, Boukman Eksperyans. If you’re going, get there early.