At Coachella, duo makes Puerto Rican music ‘slightly weirder’

Buscabulla were among the performers at Coachella. (AFP pic)

INDIO: The Puerto Rican husband-and-wife duo of Buscabulla is taking the music of the Caribbean to audiences far beyond.

With dreamy chillwave synthesisers layered over salsa and bachata rhythms coupled by the smoky, sensual voice of Raquel Berríos, Buscabulla describes itself as creating “the Caribbean music of the future.”

Buscabulla’s songs breathe the cool vibes of the indie scene in the duo’s longtime base of New York, but the couple just moved back to Puerto Rico – an act of defiance after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

The duo, featuring Berríos and her husband Luis Alfredo Del Valle on a psychedelic guitar, introduced itself to a fresh crowd at Coachella, the premier music festival in the California desert that closed on Sunday after its two-week run.

Buscabulla played a smaller stage that showcases rising acts – a comfortable spot for the pair.

The band “might be considered more on the fringe, it might be more alternative, but that’s what we want to do because there isn’t a lot of that in the Latin music scene,” Berrios said, saying Buscabulla was part of a Latin movement that is “slightly weirder, slightly coming from other places.”

While fully bilingual, Berríos chooses to sing in Spanish, feeling her English lyricism would sound “generic” and instead enriching the songs with Puerto Rican idioms. The name of the band itself is slang for a mischief-maker.

Puerto Rico, if often overlooked by the US mainland, last year produced the year’s biggest hit -“Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. A pop take on reggaeton, the once-underground music associated with the Afro-Puerto Rican community, “Despacito” was accompanied by a racy video that has become the most-viewed ever on YouTube.

“I’m happy that ‘Despacito’ was what it was. It’s always good to celebrate Latin culture and music, and reggaeton is the Latin music of now,” Berríos said.

“Do I really feel that it’s the best representation and the smartest thing that could be done at this time? No.”

Berríos, who herself shows off body-shaking dance moves on stage, voiced unease at how “Despacito” portrayed Latin women and Latin culture more broadly.

The song perpetuated “the stereotypes that Latin music always has to be happy – a fiesta, dance – and that always gets to me, because even though we like to make music that is danceable, we want to stir other emotions and don’t need to necessarily play into that,” she said.

“Luis and I always like to play with those stereotypes and really want to manipulate them in a way that serves our message,” she said.

Making music together while raising a three-year-old daughter, the couple increasingly found New York to be a challenge. They kept day jobs in design, with Berríos earlier working in a Brazilian record store.

A month and a half ago, the couple returned to Puerto Rico, setting up a studio on the west coast where Buscabulla will record its first full-length album after its two EPs.

“There’s definitely a softening of the sound and at the same time a more primal approach to it, almost like we are trying to reconnect with our roots,” said Berríos, who grew up listening to everything from her father’s vinyl obscurities to Top 40 US radio.

The duo, who played post-Maria benefit shows around New York, feels the effects of the disaster constantly from the blackouts to gaping potholes.

The duo’s return marks an exception amid an exodus of Puerto Ricans, with the Pew Research Center estimating half a million have moved to the mainland in the past decade and migration only accelerating with the disaster.

Berríos said that Puerto Rico’s quasi-colonial status had created a “defeatist” mindset with so many people choosing comfort in the mainland rather than fixing problems at home.

“We want to inspire people, to tell people ‘you can go back’.”

She hopes Puerto Ricans notice that Buscabulla has been able to play Coachella.

“People have been told that if you’re from Puerto Rico, you’re going to have to make ‘Despacito.’ And I want to make stuff that is not ‘Despacito’ that can still be played at Coachella and that other people can appreciate.

“That means the world to me – that people don’t have a one-dimensional understanding of who they are.”