Bulla en el Barrio is a New York-based Colombian Bullerengue collective led by singer Carolina Oliveros.
Bulla en el Barrio featuring Emilsen Pacheco performs a free concert at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center on Thursday, August 24, 2017 at 7:30pm.
The African roots of Colombia are deep. Bullerengue is one of the oldest African rhythms in the Americas. It comes from Colombia’s Caribbean coast near Cartagena where slaves escaped to the Palenque of San Basilio.
Cartagena is a colonial town that was the main Colombian port for the Spanish transatlantic trade. It was a major regional slave port like Havana, Cuba; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Charleston, South Carolina. The Africans were Bantu peoples from Central Africa.
A Palanque is a walled village of escaped slaves and Native Americans hidden in the interior. If you have no idea what that means, watch the excellent Colombian telenovela La Esclava Blanca (The White Slave). It may be available on Netflix with subtitles. The story isn’t perfect, it’s a telenovela. But it provides a small window into that time and place.
Imagine you were kidnapped by aliens, taken on a terrible journey to their planet, and forced to work under brutal conditions. If somehow you escaped, you would probably sing the songs of your former life to comfort your soul and to teach your children who they are.
This is Bullerengue. It’s a rhythm and dance that originally celebrated a girl’s transition to womanhood at puberty.
The dance is done in the Pollera, a peasant dress with origins in Andalusia, Spain that African and Native American women were forced to wear in the colonial period. We may love the Pollera now, but it was originally a servant uniform.
Palenque of San Basilio
Palenque of San Basilio is a small town that is important because the townspeople helped more slaves to escape from Cartagena. They were so successful that the Spanish granted the people of San Basilio freedom in 1691. They were the first free Africans in America.
San Basilio de Palenque is the only palenque that survived to the present day. There African traditions were preserved. Some people still speak Palenquero, a unique Spanish-Bantu language with roots around the Congo River in West Africa.
Ms. Oliveros was born in the Caribbean city of Barranquilla, the native port at the mouth of the Magdalena River, the great river of Colombia.
Bulla en el Barrio is New York’s first and only Bullerengue group. It started in 2014 as a group of women who would sing and dance in Central Park.
The group is Drummers: Camilo Rodriguez, Juan Ospina, Andres Jimenez, Gabriel Benavides, Andres Fonseca, Victor Cruz
Dancers: Victoria Tapias, Rocio Jaimes, Julissa Maldonado, Beatriz Lopez, Martha Herrera, Roxane Kasegari
Singer: Carolina Oliveros
Ms. Oliveros learned to sing Bullerengue in Urabá, a region a little further south along Colombia’s Atlantic coast. Her master teacher was drummer and composer Emilsen Pacheco. He is one of the best bullerengue musicians in Colombia and will join this performance.
The spirit that enabled the people of the Palenques to survive, to escape, and to preserve their traditions, lives on. The first free Black Americans would be very proud to know that their traditions carry on. Let freedom sing.