The creative frisson sometimes kindled by cultural diversity isn’t a one-size-fits-all dynamic. In some cases, two large communities converge and create a new style, like the pachuco boogie sound that emerged in Los Angeles during the World War II era. But in the East Bay, with no particular nationality or group from the Caribbean or South America predominating, innovation is the child of muchas madres.
Bululú, a group recently launched by Venezuelan-born percussionist Lali Mejia and Mexican string expert and vocalist Jose Roberto Hernandez, exemplifies the way that various kindred cultural streams can flow together harmoniously to create something new. On Saturday, the trópico-Venezuelan band presents a Carnaval program at BrasArte, the vibrant Brazilian cultural center on San Pablo Avenue.
Drawing on folkloric styles from Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba and other Caribbean cultures, the nine-piece ensemble features Salvadoran-American pianist Ruthie Dineen, Venezuelan percussionist/vocalist Omar Ledezma Jr., Mexican-American trumpeter Miguel Govea, Peruvian violinist/vocalist Fernanda Bustamante, Chilean vocalist/percussionist Lichi Fuentes, Venezuelan vocalist Norma Kansau, and Berkeley-American bassist Ayla Davila (an early member of the Mexican roots ensemble Los Cenzontles).
A vernacular Venezuelan term, the band’s name refers to “a big gathering of people of different backgrounds and walks of life. That’s a bululú,” says Mejia, who lived in Berkeley for many years before relocating to El Cerrito. “The band reflects the great talents of the members. Every single musician brings in a tremendous amount of color to the ensemble. It’s a true melting pot of backgrounds and diverse musical contributions and ideas and exchanges that has helped us craft a unique sound.”
Born into a musical family in the northwestern municipality of Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city, Mejia grew up in a musical family. She came to Florida at the age of 17 to study graphic design at Sarasota’s Ringling College of Art and Design. After graduating she spent several years working in Washington, D.C., but had her heart set on the Bay Area.
She moved to San Francisco in the mid-1990s, and eventually connected with Venezuelan percussionist and cuatro master Jackeline Rago at La Peña. She spent years studying and performing with Rago in the Venezuelan Music Project, an essential nexus for Venezuelan musicians living in the United States (and Venezuelans contending with the increasingly dire situation at home).
Bululú reflects Mejia’s sense that there’s “a need for more music from Venezuela,” she says. “I always wanted to explore the possibility of having a Venezuelan project of my own, and no one is a more ideal collaborator than Jose Roberto Hernandez, who’s the music director and very open to bringing in fresh ideas. We carefully picked this dream team.”
The ensemble debuted at the Venefiestón Navideño event in San Francisco in November 2016 and has gradually gained steam. For Saturday’s show, the band is joined by several special guests. The show opens with Venezuelan singer, songwriter, journalist and comedian Alfonso Lopez, who often collaborates with fellow Venezuelans Eliana Lopez and Ivette Carolina Agudelo-Lopez in 3 Lopez Productions (like the radio show La Parranda).
Bululú follows with two sets of dance music and the concert ends with a samba party featuring Bululú with DeSanjines Batería and the dancers of Amor Do Samba. The non-profit air organization Venezuelans Without Borders will be collecting donations of medications, medical supplies, dried/canned food, and money for neighborhoods hardest hit by the financial meltdown and political crisis afflicting the country.
While Bululú is creating an infectiously grooving new sound, vocalist Kat Parra has forged a gorgeous repertoire by delving into the centuries-old Ladino songs of Spanish Jewry, music that flourished in Al-Andalus before the Christian Reconquista and the resulting expulsion from Spain in 1492.
Performing Sunday afternoon at Congregation Netivot Shalom with pianist Murray Low, who leads the Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, bassist Aaron Germain, drummer Dan Foltz, percussionist Katja Cooper, and Masaru Koga on woodwinds, Parra structures the concert as “a journey through the different stages of life in the Sephardic/Ladino traditions,” she says, “from the birth of Abraham, to the trials and tribulations of growing up and leaving home, to the many varied experiences of love and loss.”
She came to Sephardic music after many years singing salsa and Latin jazz. Interested in expanding beyond the genre’s foundational Afro-Cuban grooves by adding sensuous rhythms from Brazil, Peru, and the Middle East to her repertoire, she found a new creative outlet when she started exploring songs in the Judeo-medieval Spanish language known as Ladino. The rhythmically expansive arrangements give a whole new meaning to Latin jazz, a path she found when the great Cuban saxophonist Yosvany Terry presented his project combining post-bop jazz vocabulary with traditional Arará rhythms, an Afro-Cuban ethnic group whose ancestors hailed from the West African Dahomey kingdom.
“That’s the kind of concept I want to develop,” Parra says. “I’m very conscious of keeping the integrity of the melody, lyrics and storyline, but what’s wrong with evolving this music to another level? I’ve done a lot of research into this music, and there are people doing Sephardic rock, but no one’s doing Sephardic jazz.”