This past evening a sold-out crowd packed the dancefloor at Lincoln Center to see Kombilesa Mi play a defiant, catchy set of live hip-hop with organic beats – and lyrics in both Spanish and Palenquero, a rapidly disappearing coastal Colombian patois. That there would be as many kids in this city getting down to this music and singing along – in both languages – as there were tonight speaks to what the real New York is: young, immigrant, Spanish-fluent and socially aware.
Everybody in the nine-piece group has an individual look: Busta Rhymes-ish dude with lights in his dreads, flashy guy in a silver jacket with multicolor stars emblazoned into his buzzcut, and in the back the most modestly attired member, dreads pulled back into a tight ponytail and rocking a leopard bodysuit. She hammered on a mighty standup kit with three big bass drums. Two of them looked like big oil drums; the other was a slightly smaller double-headed llamador. The rest of the four-piece live percussion backline included tambora and tambor alegre – the smaller, more rapidfire instruments common to bullerengue, another coastal Colombian sound – and the magical marímbula, which looks like a cross between a Jamaican rhythm box and a big cajon. Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez, who programmed this show, described it with a wistful sigh: “It sounds like a big drop of water.” At other times, it could be a big, low-register tabla. Just the beats alone would have been enough for this concert, and this crowd.
But this group is all about the message. Solidarity, resistance, struggle and preservation of ancient Afro-Colombian traditions were persistent, insistent themes throughout the night – with some party rap included. Hailing from San Basilio de Palenque, one of the first free black towns in the Americas, they’re one of very few hip-hop acts anywhere in the world to rap in Palenquero, a mashup of Spanish with African Bantu, Portuguese, French and even a little English. In other words, pretty much everything you would have heard in a portside town south of the equator, two hundred years ago. As with innumerable other indigenous traditions, the conquistadors and their descendants did everything they could to obliterate it: even native speakers take care not to lapse into it in the big city since it’s considered lower-class.
Kombilesa Mi (Palenquero for “my friends”) say the hell with that. They have as many different kinds of flow as any rap group could have: fast-paced party rap, machinegunning verses and singalong choruses with big shouts back and forth between group members and the crowd, and singalongs that draw as much on Mayan as African influences. The beats ranged from a jump rhythm that got the crowd going early on, to a cumbia beat that went over just as well. In over an hour onstage, this crew spoke truth to power, celebrating blackness, local autonomy, community and their own individual identity. Toward the end of the set, they took a handful of slinky detours into bullerengue, with its endless volleys of call-and-response. The result was like New York group Bulla En El Barrio, with an even more thundering drum section and that marímbula, with its irresistible, subterranean “plunk.’
Along with Terraza 7 in Queens, the atrium space at Lincoln Center is one of the very few places in town – and the only Manhattan venue – that regularly has Afro-Colombian music. There are sounds here that represent many other diverse New York communities as well, and the more-or-less-weekly shows at the space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. are free. The next one is Nov 3 at 11 in the morning, a bill designed for families with preschoolers which features violinist Elena Moon Park leading a band playing children’s songs in Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, Tibetan, Taiwanese, Spanish, and also English. If you’re up that early, you ought to get the fam to the space early too since these programs tend to sell out fast.