According to its members, the name Buyepongo means “to cause a ruckus”– which certainly describes the scene on the dance floors of Los Angeles whenever the band launches into its dizzyingly energetic, instantly infectious rhythms. But it also describes Buyepongo’s riotous mash-up of influences, which absorbs hip-hop, punk, funk, and jazz sounds into a delirious tropical blend of styles from across the Latin American diaspora. Like its name, the band is part hybrid, part invention, something untranslatable that nevertheless perfectly captures its uniquely vibrant spirit.
On their debut album, Todo Mundo, due out January 29, Buyepongo takes their Pan-Latin sound worldwide with a vivid collection of original music that is as hard to pin down as it is to resist. “Our music is going to get you moving and thinking,” says singer and percussionist Edgar “Meshlee” Modesto. “It’ll break you out of your comfort zone and connect you with other folks and cultures. If you come to dance and have a good time you’re going to get that, but if you come to hear great music with a lot of heart and technique, you’re going to get that too. It’s a very unique style.
The members of Buyepongo started playing together as friends in high school, at the time reflecting their early punk rock and hip-hop influences. But after the band’s original incarnation split apart in 2010, Modesto and a few friends embarked on a life-altering backpacking trip through Belize and Guatemala which exposed them to the Afro-Caribbean sounds of the region’s Garifuna culture. “That trip to Central America was really an eye-opener,” Modesto recalls. “I realized that we could do a lot just by changing rhythms and adding our funk and flavor from growing up in L.A. Since then our mission has been to keep improving our sound and creating a new style of music.”
The core members of Buyepongo came together shortly after Modesto’s return: multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Jorge “Yuka” Vallejo, bassist Randy Modesto (Edgar’s younger brother), and saxophonist Angel Hernandez. The membership of the band, which Vallejo says might be more accurately called a “tribe,” is fluid; on Todo Mundo, the line-up is completed by keyboardist Kris Castro and percussionist Larry Harvey.
Since then, Buyepongo has shared the stage with acts such as Quantic, Ondatropica, Ozomatli, Booker T, Celso Piña, Os Mutantes, Sister Nancy, Dead Prez, Cut Chemist, Beatnuts, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Antibalas, and Punta Cartel to name a few. They’ve performed on countless stages, including Grand Park, Levitt Pavillion’s Summer Music Series, Hollywood Forever's Dia De Los Muertos, The Los Angeles Music Center's Los Angeles County Holiday Concert, the Skirball Cultural Center's Family Amphitheater Performances, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
For those familiar with the Wu-Tang Clan, the choice of the word “ruckus” is no accident – the legendary hip-hop collective is a key influence, and their song “Bring Da Ruckus” is something of a mission statement for Buyepongo, who pride themselves on their ability to energize a room while still generating a wholly original sound. “We’re always looking for that thing that sounded like us,” Vallejo says. “We’re always moving on to the next thing and evolving, and this is what’s come out so far from trial and error and looking deeper and deeper into ourselves.
”Todo Mundo, then, is a snapshot of a band that continues to grow, diversify, and experiment. They draw on the traditional "roots" music of Colombia, Haiti, Belize, Honduras and the Dominican Republic while incorporating the wealth of modern sounds that can’t help but make up the tapestry of experience while growing up in an urban melting pot like Southern California.
While out with their friends, that might mean a steady diet of west coast hip-hop and hardcore punk, but at home they might be hearing ‘60s soul, classic rock, or Mexican folk music. As their musicianship developed, jazz and funk entered the scene. Nascent file-sharing technologies brought an even vaster world of music to their ears at the speed of an internet connection. The resultant fusion is something that the band refers to as “buyangu.”
“It comes pretty natural,” Modesto says of Buyepongo’s effervescent fusion. “I really think it’s as American as anything else. Growing up here in L.A., if you just open yourself up you’ve got the opportunity to interact with a lot of really cool cultures. It always comes down to flavors, and to me jazz and hip-hop are part of American history and culture, which created the environment for that music to exist. As the families of migrant folks who traveled in search of a better life, we’ve been put in a situation where we got to pick and choose the music we wanted to listen to.”
The same applies to a number of stylistically diverse bands around Los Angeles. Groups like Chicano Batman and La Santa Cecilia, which are very different but share musical attitudes (and in some cases members) with Buyepongo, are beginning to achieve success with similarly genre-smashing sounds. “We belong to a community of musicians and artists,” Vallejo says. “It just so happens we all get along and rehearse in the same place. We all have different scenes in our own right, but when we come together we mix it all up.”
So what does “Buyepongo” mean? Throughout Todo Mundo, it means energy, movement, boldness, rhythm, surprise, and celebration. According to Vallejo, “it means a lot of different things to all of us. The sound, the energy, the party, the travel - it fits into anything we want to do.”