In a multitude of local bands, percussionist Hector "Coco" Barez is often in the back but always at the heart of the music.
His debut album, "El Labertino Del Coco," leverages his local music connections in celebration of his folk roots in Puerto Rico. The titular labyrinth refers to a winding, sonic journey, both through the songs and the artist's brain — "coco" being Puerto Rican slang for "head." The musical context is bomba, a genre born in the Caribbean African diaspora. This is neighborhood music with local joys and dramas played out in a community circle.
"The tempo is set by the singer's maraca," Barez explains. "There are two kinds of drums, originally made from rum barrels. The big drum, the buleador, keeps the steady rhythm. The primo subidor has two names because it has two roles. It improvises, but it also has to follow every step of the dancer. In bomba, there can be a million buleador, but only one primo."
There are a variety of rhythms, some happy, some sad. Dancers wait for the style that fits their emotion, enter the circle, and lead the percussion with the swirl of their dresses and the details of their footwork. For a long time bomba was hidden from public view, played in private homes but not in clubs. Berez's first public performances of the music were with the official national traditional dance company of Puerto Rico, Ayeto Ballet Folklorico. The performances reached a lot of people, but they weren't quite the real deal.
"In the community, the music is organic," Barez says. "The stage show is structured, it doesn't capture the rustic-ness." While polishing his skills in a conservatory, he was marinating his concept on the San Juan streets, learning from the island's great players.
His career took off as a founding member of alt-Latin band Calle 13, a group popular enough to fill stadiums around the Spanish-speaking world. He fell in love on the U.S. leg of one of his tours and settled in Arlington. He joined Bio Ritmo in 2010 and when the relationship ended he moved to Richmond.
Barez quickly found a home, not only with Bio Ritmo-affiliated bands like Miramar and Mikrowaves, but also the Monday night scene at the Answer Brewpub with the Mekong Express, the Afro-Zen All Stars, the Flavor Project, Calvin Brown, and occasionally Dance Candy. "Sometimes it's just filling in a gap," Berez says. "Everybody helps everybody else. That's what makes Richmond so cool. This is a great base to play with great musicians and get all that knowledge you need in the wider world."
There are plenty all-star players on his new CD, including current and former Bio Ritmo brass players John Lilley, Toby Whittaker, Bob Miller and J.C. Kuhl. Also there's drummer Kelli Strawbridge, a string section featuring violinist Ellen Cockerham Riccio, Reggie Pace on beat box, and D.J. Williams on electric guitar. Along with musicians from Barez's native Puerto Rico, they navigate a cycle of songs that, whether joyous or pensive, float atop a propulsive, vital beat. Trumpet player Miller has always gotten good vibes from Barez.
From the first moment [we met], it's seemed like he can play anything he wants on percussion. He's a technical wizard and fits in seamlessly, always bringing something to it. And he and Kelli really lock up well," Miller says. "[Starting out] we learned the album four measures at a time. Toby is kind of our go-to arranger, he's really good so he ended up arranging the whole thing. But I had no idea how many layers would be added."
Rei Alvarez, the singer for Bio Ritmo and Miramar, agrees that Barez is known for his positive energy: "It's no wonder so many folks rallied to make his project a reality," he adds.
The CD came out just as Hurricane Maria reminded America of its tropical territory. Barez's mother and brothers still live on the devastated island. "The iconic palms are destroyed," the percussionist says. "Just like someone went crazy and started pulling out all of their hair. It's coming back, but it is going to take some time."
In the meantime, "Labertino" brings a musical resonance of Barez's native neighborhoods to the wider world. He's a bit concerned that the songs being sung in Spanish might be a barrier for some. "There are people who need to know what we are saying to know where the music is coming from," he says. "But I wrote the music first, and the singers provided the lyrics after.
"The music should speak for itself. Just because we don't know the words doesn't mean we can't hear the phonetics, how the voices blend in. They become another instrument."
The stories in the songs, whether of requited or frustrated love, or just someone who hesitates to attend a party because their water is cut off and they can't take a shower, those details are lost. All that remains is the most important part, that thing beyond language that makes music universal. S
You can catch Hector Barez performing every Monday at the Answer with Mekong Horns, and with the Mikrowaves on April 5 at the Camel.