The number one rule for a free concert by a band that you barely know anything about is to not arrive a few minutes before the concert starts. You could be in for an unexpected surprise.
As we walked up the escalators into the dimly lit, intimate BAMcafe, the place was already packed at least an hour before the show. The tables in the front were filled, those who could not get seats stood in groups at the sides or in the back around the bar and others who were just coming in tried to squeeze themselves into whatever space was available. By the time the main attraction arrived, the room was at full capacity with a long line of people waiting downstairs hoping someone would leave so they could enter.
Then Quimbombó hit the stage for their second appearance at BAM, and the discomfort of the crowd slowly faded away. The Afro-Cuban band, which actually has eight members, only had five Friday night: two Conga drummers, two guitarists and a trumpeter. However, the size of the band did not stop them from filling the entire cafe with excitement, laughter and joy with its smooth, lyrical melodies and lively, danceable rhythms.
As part of the ¡Si Cuba! Festival, a New York celebration of Cuban arts and culture from March to June, the legendary band, whose name is Spanish for “okra” or “gumbo,” specializes in the Afro-Cuban style of Son. The genre of Son, which Black Cubans developed in the early 20th century, mixes together the guitars from Spanish culture and the percussion, and vocal and musical rhythms (ex. call-and-response, syncopation) from African culture.
The freedom and sensuality with which the band plays and sings stems not only from that mixture, but also the history of the genre, which was illegal in Cuba before 1925 in an effort to suppress black culture. Quimbombó definitely follows in the tradition of other Son bands, like the innovators, the Sexteto Tipico Habanero band from the 1920s, and stands with the genre’s derivative, Salsa, including musicians like Tito Puente and Celia Cruz.
Audience members, some from the Brooklyn area and others who traveled from as far as Cuba to see the band, could not resist the band’s grooves, especially in songs like “Con El Trapo Rojo.” Couples found whatever space they could to dance with each other. One man loosely glided across the floor, embarrassing his friend, who eventually got up to move herself. Two old ladies joined in on the fun and shook their hips. Even the rhythmically-challenged could not help but bop their heads.
Quimbombó played an acoustic set with the guitars playing sweetly and softly against the slightly forceful pulsating drums, and although the trumpeter only had a few parts, his sound added flavor to the other instruments by giving the band a bigger and fuller sound. The singers flowed with the instruments, falling somewhere between rhythmic rapping and singing with their call-and-response technique.
Since the band’s formation in 1995, Quimbombó has released two albums, Quimbombó (2004) and Conga Electrica (2008), both of which received critical acclaim. Currently they are touring the city, playing at various venues and answering booking requests.
Which brings us to rule number two: have a party coming up, book this band!
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