Photo: Joseph Buscarello
Jun 2, 2021
How Combo Lulo blends cumbia with rocksteady to create a new vibe
The Brooklyn nine-piece band's debut LP 'Neotropic Dream' offers a dynamic showcase for NYC's Caribbean music history
If you strolled past Prospect Heights nursery Natty Garden on an unseasonably warm spring evening, you’d have been treated to sounds of Colombian cumbia, Jamaican rocksteady and Ethio-jazz—all emanating from a single group. A less studied band might throw off the audience with such genre fluidity, but Combo Lulo’s all-star roster of players groove deftly, weaving the threads that form the fabric of New York City’s Caribbean music history.
The nonet—comprising four horns, keys, and two percussionists—began as an instrumental studio project but has since grown into one of the city’s most innovative bands, having cracked the formula for connecting sounds from the Caribbean diaspora. Combo Lulo’s debut LP, “Neotropic Dream,” was released on local label Names You Can Trust in early May.
Ahead of the Natty Garden gig in late May, musicians from Antibalas, the Easy Star Allstars, the Skatalites, Charles Bradley & his Extraordinaires, and the Far East sat in a plant-filled Crown Heights backyard—the studio where they recorded “Neotropic” over a couple years in the basement below. Keyboardist and bandleader Mike Sarason, who plays in several reggae projects and recently released his own album debut, says he consciously tried to “crossbreed the band” to stretch beyond everyone’s comfort zone.
“Everyone’s contributing their own thing to it and taking it to an even cooler level,” Sarason says of the band’s background in reggae, Afrobeat and Latin music. And while it’s fun to nail a style, “our heroes who invented these styles were always combining shit too. The styles never were just one thing to begin with.”
A virtuosic vibe
Over nine tracks of originals and covers, Combo Lulo pay a melancholy rocksteady tribute to Henry Mancini (“Para Mancini”), meld boogaloo and salsa (“Candela”), trip out on spacey Ethio-reggae (“Enter The Nethermead”), and bring a big band swing to moody dub-cumbia on “Hudsonica.” Some of the songs were pieces Sarason had laying around, while others were arranged in tandem with saxophonist/arranger Anant Pradhan (who leads his own eponymous instrumental reggae project).
“I come from sort of a purist mindset, where I want to do everything as close as possible to the original way it was done back whenever, and really absorb the language before we just walk into another musical territory,” Pradhan says. “[But] we figured out pretty quickly that rocksteady and cumbia are the same tempo, just minus the percussion, and a very similar feel. Adding the basic percussion over any rocksteady tune pretty much works.” The result is a sound, and a vibe, unique to Combo Lulo.
While the songs were recorded over time and mixed during the pandemic, the LP holistically tells the story of a particular pocket of NYC music. “There’s probably, like, two other cities in the world where a band like this can happen, with people that get all the shit that we’re trying to do, and are into it,” Sarason says. He and guitarist Matt Kursmark (both of whom are in lovers rock group the Far East) tapped their wide community for album sessions, bringing in members of Combo Chimbita to play traditional Colombian percussion on a majority of “Neotropic,” as well as several singers.
On “Culebra Menitrosa,” singer Alba Ponce De Leon of Alba’s Mighty Lions (a fellow Names You Can Trust group) tells a parable using the animal kingdom as a device. “She’s got such a classy and nuanced sound as a singer,” Sarason writes in a press release. “We tried to imagine what it might sound like if the classic Colombian cumbia singer Leonor Gonzalez Mina had flown to Jamaica to have King Tubby mix her album.” Emcee and DJ Jonny Go Figure laid down bars for “Rocking Harmony,” a rub-a-dubbed out, unifying rocksteady tune that riffs on the classic soul instrumental “Grazing in the Grass.”
The vocal tracks on “Neotropic” showcase Combo Lulo’s versatility as an instrumental group that can also service singers, says NYCT owner Eric Banta. “It’s just cool to work with all these people … taking up the family circle so to speak. I feel like that’s the New York way to do it; we all kind of collaborate and make it better by doing shit together.”
“Neotropic” is Combo Lulo’s third release with NYCT. Their first 7-inch, “Atlantico” b/w “Canto del Sol”, was released in 2018 and sold out quickly. (“Atlantico” remains the band’s most popular tune, particularly outside of the States, and “Neotropic’s” “Cumbia Fabuloso” takes a similar tone.) In 2019, they followed up with another single, “The Sieve & The Sand,” and a sweet reggae take on a cult classic soul song by Ralph Weeks. “Algo Muy Profundo”/”Something Deep Inside” was originally released by the Panamanian singer in 1969 and performed in a long gone Prospect Heights club called 4 Star’s; Combo Lulo transformed it into a rocksteady ballad that feels as natural as if Weeks wrote to Sarason’s lulling keys and swinging horns. In October of that year, the band performed at The Kennedy Center.
While Combo Lulo recorded “Neotropic Dream” before the pandemic, and had none of the attendant worries about the safety surrounding a large band, their debut was released into an uncertain world. As venues slowly begin to re-open and outdoor gigs flower with warmer weather, Sarason hopes to take the band beyond Brooklyn. They’ll play Green River Festival in Massachusetts in August but, as with much art, what lies ahead will be largely determined by Covid regulations.
In the meantime, Combo Lulo’s musicians will continue to hone their voices. “We are still at the tip of the iceberg for even as much as we do know,” Sarason says. “But the respect that you approach it with—the same way that we listened to old reggae tunes or old soul tunes or whatever it is—it’s the same. There’s just so much more to learn, which is kind of what’s exciting about the project in general.”
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