Colombian Bullarenge music is a living history of the African diaspora in Latin America.
The fourth Afro-Latino Festival of New York brought hip-hop, house, mambo and reggae to Brooklyn over the weekend. Bands representing a wide range of countries and Latino neighborhoods from a cross New York City performed. But a less familiar sound took the stage on early Saturday afternoon: Bullerengue.
This Afro-Colombian beat offers a small window onto the history of the African diaspora in Latin America. Bullerengue was born in Colombia's Caribbean coast, in maroon communities like San Basilio de Palenque, where former slaves escaped exploitation in the city of Cartagena.
“San Felipe´s Fort [Cartagena's colonial fort] was built by slaves,” were some of the first lyrics sung by Bulla en el Barrio, the group who brought Bullerengue to Brooklyn. Bulla en el Barrio translates loosely to Noise in the Neighborhood. It is a group consisting of 13 Colombian immigrants in New York who started jamming together three years ago in Central Park. “But we are no longer slaves,” their song continues.
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Bulla en el Barrio is composed of two drummers (one follows the vocals, the second one keeps the beat), a chorus of four women beating small wooden boards as they sing, behind a lead singer named Carolina Oliveros who arrived to New York three years ago and started the noise.
“We are the first and only Bullerengue group in New York,” she tells me. Bullerengue lead singers are normally women. The genre originated as a celebration of the moment young women reached puberty, but it is now played for other festivities.
“What we want with our music is to share with others and ourselves, to make noise, and to recognize the role of women in our dances,” Oliveros says. “Bulla en el Barrio is the noise of the people, people who can't afford to return to Colombia, but who want to connect with la tierra.” Oliveros says Bullerengue is under appreciated in Colombia, “because of the regional differences, people don't want to approach our sounds, our Bullerengue.”
She was born in the Caribbean city of Barranquilla, but she learned to sing Bullerengue in the rural region of Urabá, under the tutelage of an elderly musician named Emilsen Pacheco. This drummer and composer lives in the San Juan de Urabá municipality, and he is one of the best bullerengue musicians alive in Colombia.
In an interview Pacheco gave to a local newspaper last february, he said that times have changed for Bullerengue musicians like him: “Now you can't just leave and play for three or four days straight, drinking rum. Now, the land belongs to the rich, and you can´t say ‘give me some rice for dinner’ or ‘cut some plantain’ to exchange.”
Urabá, the land where Pacheco and many other families play Bullerengue, is also a hot spot in Colombia´s Civil War. It is an area of the country where several right and left wing armed groups have displaced hundreds of peasants since the eighties. Decades later, their lands are now in the hands of cattle ranchers or banana companies (see more about the history of Urabá). The history of resistance of the bullerengue dancers and singers, in other words, did not end after slavery in Colombia.
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Carolina Oliveros honored Pacheco´s legacy on Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn, by naming the small rural towns where he played and wrote about. “From Necoclí, to María la Baja, from Puerto Escondido to San Juan de Urabá,” said one of the last songs the group sang in Bed-Stuy. The spectators might not have known the long history behind those lyrics and towns, but all happily danced along.
Bullerengue is known not only for the infectious beat, but also for the dancing that accompanies it. Women dancers, usually dressed with long colorful skirts, take turns on stage each song, extending the long sides of their skirt with their hips and arms, until the fabric simulates the wings of a bird. Sometimes one of the men dances around one of the dancers, as if he were chasing the bird.
Camila Osorio is a fact-checker for The New Yorker and a freelance journalist in New York and Colombia. Follow her @camimi68