The back room at Barbès, a dark little hole-in-the-wall on Ninth Street in Park Slope, is separated from the front bar by a thin wall with a window cut out of it, the way a garage might be separated from a basement rec room. Depending on what night you stop by, the music coming from back there can be almost anything—“mangue beat” music from Brazil one night, a Hank Williams honky-tonk cover band the next night, and on the weekend, a guy who “explores and re-creates the music of the great French accordionists of the thirties.” You learn to be surprised.
“The music is painstakingly selected,” says Olivier Conan, the French transplant who opened the bar in 2002 and named it after a neighborhood near where he grew up in Paris. Conan’s own band, Las Rubias del Norte, recently completed a four-week Monday-night residency at Barbès, charming longtime fans and wanderers-off-the-street alike with their blend of Latin American folk songs, cowboy songs, and a few French café tunes thrown in here and there. At the end of their residency, in early July, they played one of their biggest shows yet, a sold-out gig at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan.
Las Rubias del Norte (“the blondes of the north”) are a self-described “gringo” band. Their two lead singers, Emily Hurst and Alyssa Lamb, met singing in the New York City Choral Society, and later dropped out to spend more time on Latin music. Hurst was a bartender at Barbès when it first opened, and now teaches seventh-grade English in Long Island City. Lamb teaches private piano lessons for a living.
As various members of the band have traveled to Cuba, Spain, Venezuela, Colombia, and Mexico collecting songs, their sound has developed into a delicate mélange that is as pleasantly and tactfully arranged as it is fresh to gringo ears.
In June, at one of their Monday-night shows, a mostly middle-aged crowd sat quietly in rows of chairs, as if at a house concert, and listened as the band played the Mexican cowboy song “Volver, Volver.” Conan sang lead in Spanish (his third language) and strummed his quatro at an indolent pace. Behind him, Taylor Bergren-Chrisman plucked a carefree walking bass line and percussionist Greg Burrows tapped bongos in the clip-clop rhythm of a trotting campesino’s donkey. Giancarlo Vulcano took a low-volume solo on electric guitar, adding a smoky campfire twang to the song. In the middle of the tune, Conan, Lamb, and Hurst held a few long notes in anxious three-part harmony, then let their voices drop pitch, perfectly in step, sliding beautifully to a new chord.
Another song, “Corazón, Corazón,” moved briskly to a melody played by Lamb on the melodica, an instrument that looks like a small section of a piano keyboard with a mouthpiece at one end to blow through. It sounds like a weak-winded accordion, and the tune that Lamb conjured from it was sprightly, but uneven, even a bit haunting.
“[Olivier and I] got that song on a trip to Peru last summer,” explains Alyssa. “We stopped into a record store in a medium-sized town, in Cordillerra Blanca, and there was this video playing on a TV screen of a band called Las Muchachitas del Amor…they couldn’t have been older than twelve or thirteen, and their music was charming.”
All of the Rubias band members live in Brooklyn, mostly in Park Slope or near the downtown area, and most of them have day jobs. Vulcano is a composition assistant to Howard Shore, the man who wrote the scores to the Lord of The Rings movies. Bergren-Chrisman plays in another band called Rare Bird Rhumba Ranch with Greg Stare, the other percussionist with Las Rubias. Conan runs his bar full-time, and produces a few bands on his tiny independent label, Barbès Records.
A lot of the songs that Las Rubias play come from discoveries of new Latin American bands, but Conan seems to be the real collector of the music. In 1980, he left home, an adventurous eighteen-year-old bound for London and eventually for Venezuela, where he stayed with family friends and became obsessed with the music of Simon Diaz and Francisco Montoya, as well as the fast-paced polyrhythmic joropos dances of the type of music known as llanera music, which comes from the southern Venezuelan plains. “Most of the musicians I saw were unknown,” he explains, “just working bands who would work the towns as well as San Fernando de Apuree, which is the big party hub where cowboys go have fun on the weekend. Something like Albuquerque in the 1880’s, I imagine.”
While there, he picked up the Venezuelan quatro, a miniature four-stringed guitar that he plays sometimes like a flamenco guitarist, raking his nails across the strings, and sometimes just as a rhythm-keeper, chopping out chords to the beat. “You will see bands in South America playing mountain pipe music, then salsa the next song, then _cumbia _the next song, and it’s not considered ‘genre-hopping,’” he says. It is with this spirit that Las Rubias choose their own music.
Their repertoire is made of various cumbias, cha-cha-chas, boleros, and ballads, all of which are included on their self-released CD Rumba Internacionale, which was recorded on a shoestring budget in Vulcano’s apartment, and which is truly international. (The title track contains the lines—in Spanish—“Girl, if you want me to love you again, learn English, speak French.”) They even cover a section of Mozart’s Requiem, although in a latino idiom with a cumbia rhythm. “It’s understood that every song belongs to everybody,” says Lamb.
Although the market is currently red-hot for Latin acts, with the success of Buena Vista Social Club and crossover genre artists like Yerba Buena and Daddy Yankee, Conan thinks that Las Rubias del Norte’s style is too traditional for the big audiences. “The whole ‘not-modern’ thing sort of bothers me,” says Conan. “It bothers me that we are not in any way a relevant take on this culture.”
But if you ask me, the band needs to start small. All of them are very much homebodies. Cosmopolitan as their music is, they love their community and are too tied to it to think about worldwide fame just yet.
“We’re not thinking about the big national tour at this point,” jokes Hurst, “but at some point, we plan to get out of Brooklyn, at least for a little bit.”
Robbie Whelan loves American and Latin folk music, dark, cramped bars, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. His work has appeared in Blender, Time Out New York, Baltimore City Paper, Urbanite, and Pittsburgh City Paper.
Whelan is a writer who loves American and Latin folk music and dark, cramped bars.