Say rebolú out loud, and you’ll find the word carries as much rhythm as its many meanings imply. Though it signifies a coming together, exact definitions range from “carnaval” to “chaos” depending on who, or where, you ask.
“Different countries use it in different ways,” explained vocalist Johanna Castañeda of the band REBOLU. “But in Colombia, it’s like a party. And that’s the way we’ve kept it.”
It’s a well-deserved title for the Latin-fusion group, whose latest album, Mi Herencia (My Heritage), was released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings earlier this year. The Queens-based band is a party as promised, one charged by the dynamic energy of their Afro-Colombian rhythms.
REBOLU (formerly Grupo Rebolú) formed in New York City, where Castañeda first crossed paths with the ensemble’s co-founders: composer (and now husband) Ronald Polo and percussionist Morris Cañate. Castañeda, who was raised in the Colombian capital of Bogotá, felt immediately drawn to their sound.
“I remember I was like, ‘Wow, I want to sing this type of music!’” she told me. “It wasn’t from my region, but I wanted to know more.” Castañeda’s own roots were in joropo, the traditional folk music of Colombia’s eastern plains that served as the soundtrack for her childhood. By the time she arrived in the United States in 1994, she was fluent in the fiery tempos of joropo dance and played the cuatro, a traditional small guitar native to eastern Colombia. Yet her introduction to Polo and Cañate became a window into a side of Colombia she had little exposure to.
“It’s funny—once you move away from your country is when you really want to learn more about it,” she confessed, laughing out loud.
Polo and Cañate’s journey together began many years earlier. The two were childhood friends in their shared hometown of Barranquilla, Colombia, a vibrant seaport nestled into the country’s Caribbean coastline. Today known for its vibrant arts and music scenes, Barranquilla has served since colonial times as a meeting point for Colombia’s intermixing African, Spanish, and Indigenous heritages.
Both Polo and Cañate were aspiring musicians from a young age, well-versed in the traditional music of Colombia’s northern Caribbean coastal region. The two trained for years at Barranquilla’s Escuela de Música. They performed first for audiences at the city’s carnavaland later at an international level with La Corporación Cultural Barranquilla before moving to New York in the hopes of sharing their joint creative project with the world. The colorful influence of Barranquilla’s converging musical traditions—including cumbia, chandé, and bullerengue—continues to shine through their songs today.
“Barranquilla is home to the second largest carnaval in the world,” Castañeda said. “People who live there prepare for it the entire year. It’s an expression of the culture, the dances, the rhythms, and a time to connect with people. It’s a very interactive environment. In a way, we try to represent that in our shows.”
Like carnaval, REBOLU is inseparable from the atmosphere of live performance. Their celebratory rhythms are made to be embodied, connecting diverse audiences through their uninhibited joy and danceability. Since returning to live shows in 2021, REBOLU has been a sorely needed medicine for disoriented audiences only just emerging from the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their well-received performance at the 2022 Smithsonian Folklife Festival lit up crowds of concertgoers across the National Mall. Today, the group’s live shows are a stage for education and conversation as well as a persuasive invitation a la rumba—to the party.
“We want people who are watching and dancing with us to learn a little bit about the music,” Castañeda explained. “When we’re doing shows, we’ll mention things here and there—where the music comes from, where the instruments come from, what rhythms they’re dancing to. We want to encourage people to learn more about what Colombia has to offer.”
The textures and timbres of REBOLU’s distinctive sound are achieved through a wide range of instruments. Electric basslines, saxophone riffs, and other recognizable modern sounds are interwoven with the woody accents of Colombian folk music. The song “Mi Mulata” foregrounds the resonating melodies of the gaita, a wind instrument first used among Indigenous Kogi and Ika people of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada. Known also by its pre-Columbian name, kuisi, the instrument is made from a hollowed cactus stem and comes in both “female” and “male” forms. The female (gaita hembra or kuisi bunsi) is used for melodies, and the male (gaita macho or kuisi sigi) holds longer notes. In “Mi Mulata,” these gaita arrangements are layered over the steady rhythms of a tambor alegre to evoke a genre known as chandé—a festive, folkloric style originating from the Caribbean coast.
Each band member brings their own traditions to the table. Cañate comes from a highly revered lineage of Afro-Colombian drummers originating from San Basilio de Palenque, the first community in the Americas to be founded by enslaved Africans. Among the most prominent tambor alegre players in the world, his style is deeply informed by his respect for ancestral knowledge and traditional communal practices from West and Central African sources. Other group members hail from Argentina, Mexico, and across the United States, each complementing and enriching the ensemble’s core sound with influences that range from classical Spanish guitar to jazz. The result is a layering of tradition which is impossible to replicate. But while REBOLU is forever growing, authenticity always remains at the center of their vision.
“Music has to evolve, but it’s important to maintain the message,” Castañeda pointed out, “Even when we’re playing electric guitar or bass, we’re using traditional rhythms. The traditional elements are there, but with a modern touch.”
When asked whether REBOLU belongs to any one culture, Castañeda considered the question with care. “At this point, we’re from everywhere,” she reflected. Her answer is as plain as it is precise. REBOLU is the Afro-infused rhythms of Colombia’s Caribbean coastline, the shared urban spaces of New York City, and the complex tapestries of immigrant experience. After all, their music asks, what does it mean to be from Colombia, a country often referred to as a several in one; or from New York City, where a dozen cultures might coexist within the walls of a single apartment? What does either sound like?
The group celebrates this diversity as an identity unto itself. Their Folkways album, Mi Herencia, is a direct expression of all they have carried with them from their Colombian origins, as well as everything picked up along the way. More than anything, it seems, their message is an invitation to keep dancing through it all.
Today, REBOLU tours with an impressive eight-person lineup. More performers help to protect their distinctive sound, but size presents its own obstacles. Castañeda admitted the added stress of organizing travel and booking events with so many members, a responsibility she has assumed for the last fifteen years as band manager. A larger group means heavier expenses, which, when coupled with the pandemic’s broader impact on the livelihoods of artists and musicians everywhere, has made for a particularly challenging few years.
But for Castañeda and her bandmates, there has never been any question of sacrificing sound for convenience. “Live music needs live musicians,” Castañeda stressed. “We’re always trying to make that part of our message. You need the musicians there if you want that full sound and the energy that comes with it.”
Recorded in 2020, Mi Herencia is an inspired response to the hardships of the pandemic. It articulates faith in the power of tradition to sustain community in good times and bad, using song to express hopes for a brighter future. Castañeda recalled the initial anxieties of lockdown in New York City, where the pandemic’s blows were felt with a particular poignancy. Like so many others, she and her bandmates found themselves shut off from the physical world, inundated by news of ongoing social and political unrest.
When it came to writing the album, this pause in life brought Polo and Castañeda to embrace their home as a joint creative space. “Ronald writes the music, and one of the best parts of being at home was getting to share in that process of creation,” Castañeda said. “While I’m in the kitchen cooking, I’ll hear him hum a melody and start to build it up. It’s an amazing process to watch.”
The artists share their home with their two young daughters, who are often involved in the songwriting process. Remarkably, Mi Herencia’s second track, “Cumbia Sabrosa,” is composed and sung by seven-year-old Melody.
“That’s how we came up with Mi Herencia, or My Heritage,” Castañeda explained. “This is what I’m leaving to my kids. The album is dedicated to our heirs: our children, who will carry our culture’s music for generations to come.”
Absorbed in the soulful vocals of Melody Polo, one is left with the impression that the traditions are in safe hands.
Tia Merotto is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She graduated from the University of St Andrews with a degree in art history and English.