Bámbula is the debut album from New York-based bassist and composer Alex “Apolo” Ayala. It celebrates his Afro-Puerto Rican culture, comments on his identity, and pays tribute to his late mother and grandmother. Over the course of seven original compositions and one interpretation, Ayala blends Afro-Caribbean styles with jazz traditions in a small combo that teems with percolating rhythms.
Ayala had obviously been thinking about his debut as a leader, determined to express his passions. His thoughts coalesced during the social unrest during the summer of 2020. George Floyd’s murder triggered reflections on Ayala’s Afro-Puerto Rican identity and heritage. The title Bámbula means “the memory of a forgotten place.” Ayala shares that the Kikongo (Bantu language) word is “the act of re-remembering who you are as a person, tapping into the collective unconscious. The Bámbula is the oldest known rhythm of the Bomba complex.” Bomba is Puerto Rico’s oldest and purest musical art form.
To render this music Ayala tapped the rich Puerto Rican diaspora in New York City, recruiting impressive improvising saxophonist Ivan Renta as the main melodic voice, supported by the vigorous drums and percussion of Fernando García and Nelson Mateo Gonzalez. The small size of the unit makes for intimacy and allows ample space for soloing and interactions between different combinations of players. The bomba drum and use of percussion is stunning throughout, and as strong as Renta and the leader’s playing are, the drumming is so over-the-top, that it becomes the salient feature of the album.
The beginning of the album is especially rife with percussion. On “Bozales,” one can hear Renta doubling bass lines with the bandleader and playing rhythmic background parts while García and Gonzalez play intricate drum breaks in perfect unison. Another highlight is “Jíbaro Negro” which features an outstanding solo by Ayala and displays the excellent locked-in chemistry between García and Gonzalez.
Midway through, they introduce the pure toned, bright vocals of Anna Louise Andersson singing “Café y Bomba.” Her vocals mesh wonderfully with the ensemble, to the point where she playfully spars with the rhythm section in a couple of sequences. The tone of the album changes here. The first ode, “Matriarca (For Esther Pastrana Audaín)” has Renta on soprano in elegiac form, followed later by a profound bass solo from the leader. Renta remains on soprano for “Agosto,” taking flight to driving beats before Ayala steps forward with another articulate solo.
“Ma, Bendición (For Cirita Berrios Pastrana)” is the second ode, begun by an extended bass intro and developing into a more celebratory tone when Renta enters, playing to spirited rhythm patterns from Garcia and Gonzalez who then deliver their own animated dialogue before the reverent melody closes.
The combo delivers a lively arrangement of the “Tite” Curet Alonso Catalino classic “Las Caras Lindas,” initially played tenderly, consistent with the tone of the album’s latter half until Ayala’s bass solo and fiery exchange with his percussionists takes it up several levels. When Renta re-enters, the combo is at full throttle, going out in style as the sparkling percussion tandem steps forward again, bringing this heartfelt, auspicious debut to a rousing close.
- Jim Hynes