L.A. band Buyepongo are synonymous with world-spanning sounds. They’ve long been recognized as one of the most creative acts in the fertile, cumbia-heavy scene gravitating around certain venues in Boyle Heights and East L.A., but in recent years, they’ve seen even greater success blending those foundational rhythms with East African, Caribbean, and Central American influences.
In 2016, they released "Todo Mundo," their first full-length and the summation of six years of genre fusion. It's the chief document of the meta-style the band calls buyangú — a rhythm-heavy, pan-tropical sound that has the tendency to turn any venue the band plays into a feverish party. (The video for their 2015 Ethiopian jazz-influenced ode to Mulatu Astatke, “Mulatu Para Ti,” airs this week on Border Blaster.)
"When Buyepongo first started,” says Edgar “Meshlee” Modesto, a founding member of the band, who contributes vocals, conga, and guacharaca, "we were focused strictly on cumbia, a lot of Colombian rhythms. But as the band has evolved and changed, we’ve kind of cut the chains off our music and incorporated a lot of other things we like."
The band’s global sound, of course, starts in L.A. Meshlee grew up in Long Beach and has played music for years in Los Angeles. In their own way, both cities heavily factor into the buyangú.
"We consider our sound to have multiple roots, and L.A. is a key part of it,” Mesh says. “I was raised in Long Beach during the whole blow-up of G Funk and Death Row Records, and I remember being in elementary school and middle school and every track that came out was representing Long Beach. I felt like we were it.” Later, in L.A., the band absorbed — and joined — the city’s worldly scene; Mesh mentions everyone from Kamasi Washington and Dexter Story to Quinto Sol and Quetzal as influences.
"Buyepongo is L.A., but Buyepongo is from L.A. for the world,” he says. “We want to be able to build bridges amongst communities. The buyangú is our vessel to travel those bridges."
Another important factor in the development of the buyangú, and perhaps the most formative, was a trip Meshlee took with a couple other band members to Belize and Guatemala a few years back.
"At that time, we were really into the punta music” — the hyper-rhythmic and synth-heavy music performed by the Garifuna people, or Garinagu, of Central America — “so we went down there and got to experience a whole culture, and a whole lifestyle that we could never have imagined,” he says. "We didn’t go in there as tourists, but as other human beings. And we were accepted into the inner city communities and into the drum sessions and the late night parties, and up into the Mayan ruins.”
In that spirit of cross-cultural discovery, Meshlee has created a special Border Blaster mix, spanning some of the farthest reaching tendrils of the buyangú sound, from Indonesian gamelan to scrappy Ghanian Afrobeat to breathless Honduran punta. Stream the mix below, and read some of Meshlee’s thoughts and stories behind his favorite cuts. “To this day, we’re on that hunt,” he says of Buyepongo’s ongoing musical journey. “This mix is sort of a little map of where we’d like to go to."
Buyepongo Border Blaster Mix Tracklist
Tirta Sari — "Tabuh Sekar Jepun"
Otli — "Danza del Venado"
Super Maya Baikoko — “Ngoma Ya Tanga”
The Pyramids — "The River Ganges"
Arthur Verocai — "Karina'
Orchestra Baobab — "Ndeleng Ndeleng"
Canadoes — "Oga Sorry"
Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou — "Cherie Oyo"
Almendra — "A Estos Hombres Tristes"
Jorge Ben Jor — "Errare Humanum Est"
Chatuye — "Ahmuti"
Aurelio Martinez — "Disses Santa Fe"
Fuerza Garifuna — "Milagrosa"
Joan Soriano — "Mujeres Ajenas"
Racin Mapau De Azor — "Kanaval"
Sexteto Tabala — "Reina De Los Jardines"
Yoruba Andabo — "La Gozadera"
Tirta Sari - "Tabuh Sekar Jepun" (Indonesia)
“This is a track that was presented to me by a friend of mine, Roberto Navarro. The music was first made thousands of years ago, and it was a way for folks to reach out to the gods, to make it easier for the gods to hear them. It’s a very folkloric sound. You have at a 20 to 30 piece gong ensemble, at least, and everyone moves in unison in the chaos of the sound. It blew my mind when I heard it. That, to me, is the same thing with Buyepongo — you play your part and stick to your part, and together we make this sound."
The Pyramids — "The River Ganges” (U.S.)
"Idris Ackamoor is a well-known American multi-instrumentalist, and after he formed his group the Pyramids, the band traveled through Africa, going back to their roots. They picked up other musicians and instruments, and learned them along the way. That really connects to the way Buyepongo does it — most of us are of Mexican or Central American descent, but at the same time we consider ourselves human beings, and I feel like if we open our hearts and minds, we can pick up a lot of things. If it’s in the pocket, or it’s funky, we feel it. Ackamoor was able to take his roots back into the U.S. and share this experience, and that’s what we want to share with these experiences and sounds from our travels."
Canadoes — "Oga Sorry” (Ghana)
"Canadoes are one of my favorite groups coming out of Ghana — their songs are like 20 minutes long, but you don’t get tired of it. This guy is talking to you through the bass and the drumming and singing, and it's always in the pocket — it’s amazing what they do. I wish I understood the language, but I almost feel it has to be something about love."
Fuerza Garifuna — “Milagrosa" (Honduras)
"Fuerza Garifuna is a very popular Honduran punta band, and they are kind of the perfect example of what folks have done with the Garifuna and the Paranda music from Central America. Garifuna is a mix of indigenous and African influences, and they sing it in the Arawak language. The Garifuna are very proud and independent people, and to this day, in little pockets in the U.S., but especially in Central America, punta music is number one. You’ve got bands like Garifuna Legacy, who are based out of New York, and all these other bands who you will never hear on the radio, but are amazing bands. And a huge part of the new buyangú. This song, is beautiful, beautiful music."
Sexteto Tabala — "Reina De Los Jardines” (Colombia)
"Sexteto Tabala are a key group that really brought us together. One of our homies bought their record at Amoeba — one of those compilations from France someone put out. Sexto Tabala played in L.A. like four years ago, and they told me that the person who recorded them for that record never gave them credit or paid them royalties; they just went in and recorded it and put it out."
Yoruba Andabo — "La Gozadera” (Cuba)
“The last song, Yoruba Andabo from Cuba, is rhumba-heavy, with some heavy drumming. It’s modern; they’re still around. They say their music is not from the school or the street corner; it’s from the ancients, it’s in their DNA. Buyepongo, we weren’t raised in the culture of the rhumba, or the clave, or the palenque, so this is music we’ve learned about from downloading, and digging for records, and from 20-plus years of doing music. It’s definitely a part of us now. I will always pay tribute to groups like Yoruba Andabo. If it wasn’t for them, Buyepongo would not exist.”
Top image: Los Angeles band Buyepongo combine a melange of global styles into a mix they call “buyangú.” | Edgar Robles