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Two hours away from Puerto Rico’s capital of San Juan, Aguadilla is a haven for both crystalline Caribbean waters and perfect northwest swell surf breaks. Most of the city’s 60,000 people have been there for generations. It’s in stark contrast to the concrete-paved streets and subway commuter hum of Brooklyn, where Buscabulla’s Raquel Berrios and Luis Alfredo Del Valle lived for a decade and began to thrive as artists.
In 2014, the pair released Buscabulla’s debut EP of Latin rhythm-tinged electronic pop music, produced by Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes. They followed up a few years later with EP 2, released on Ribbon Music—a Domino imprint—where Berrios’ vocals shined even brighter over Del Valle’s organic electronica production and which featured a collaboration with their friend Roberto Carlos Lange of Helado Negro. Yet, despite establishing themselves with the surging Brooklyn indie community, the New York grind began to feel increasingly hollow, and they yearned for change. But it was much more than idyllic beachscapes and surf breaks that brought them back home to Puerto Rico.
“There was something deeper calling us,” Berrios tells Paste. “The island had been in a crisis for a while and it’s not the place that it was when Luis and I grew up. It needs good people here, since so many leave for economic opportunities. But there’s also something old school about it, where we have a mission that we owe to our country. Are these feelings antiquated? They are sort of patriotic in a way, but what if you sacrifice certain things about your life, because you want your country to be better?”
Before becoming Buscabulla, Raquel was a DJ who could sing, working at culti-ish NYC Brazilian record store Tropicalia In Furs. Luis Alfredo was an SAE-schooled multi-instrumentalist, producer and audio engineer scouring the city for a musical project that would stick. The pair met, started making music, fell in love and had a daughter.
Now, back in Puerto Rico, the pressure of building the band while working day jobs and raising a child in one of the most expensive cities in the world has eased. Their 2018 move effectively marked their pivot into making music full-time, and on May 8 of this year, they released a debut full-length album in Regresa (Ribbon Music). Written and recorded by Berrios and Del Valle entirely in Puerto Rico (with additional production and mixing by Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly), it reflects their journey, consciousness and culmination of the music Buscabulla was destined to make.
“This is complete,” Berrios says. “We took all these ideas and the sound we’ve been cultivating and took it a step further.”
If the dreamscapes and temperament of the first two EPs sounded like they had one foot in the Brooklyn indie door and one foot out, Regresa (which means “return” in Spanish) thrusts past the threshold to create indie music that is positively Puerto Rican. The album’s pulse is charged with gripping drum beats, sounds that howl like menacing winds and indigienous inflections that mirror the steadfast traditions of a resilient people.
On “Vámono,” (which means “let’s go”— like much of the album, it’s a reference to Buscabulla’s migration), a drumline beat opens into fervent layers of tropical sounds as Berrios’ ethereal delivery soars above it all. And while the big label reggaeton of acts like Bad Bunny and Daddy Yankee have become synonymous with the island’s modern music landscape, tracks like the episodic “Vámono,” the wavy tribal pop of “NTE” and the sun-scorched enchantment of “Manda Fuego” still feel like they could only have been born in Puerto Rico.
Berrios says the pattern of the “Vámono” beat is similar to that of traditional “plena” music, rooted in the island’s Afro-tradition and played with an oversized tambourine called a “pandero,” and on the upbeat, has elements of reggaeton. Throughout the album, Buscabulla also explored traditional bolero and guajira rhythms. Much of that instrumentation and samples are shrewdly tucked in by Del Valle underneath any given track, giving the music palpable richness and depth.
Listening to Berrios sing is a study in the beauty of the Spanish language. Her articulation exudes the emotions packed within the songs that address more the feeling of living in a land of tumult, than the tumult itself. The result is something more universal that can be felt beyond language barriers.
“It’s the beauty of Spanish, but it’s also the beauty of Puerto Rican Spanish,” Berrios says. “We have a way of eating our Rs and Ss. And sometimes when you hear music in Spanish, people tend to want to be more correct in their pronunciation, but I want to sing the way that I talk here.”
Of course, releasing an album in the midst of a global pandemic has had its ups and downs for the pair. Their music video for “Nydia” was supposed to be filmed in January, but it was thwarted by a 6.4 earthquake that rocked Puerto Rico. When it was finally re-scheduled, the coronavirus hit, so they got creative and reproduced the video’s concept from home.
And while their July tour has been cancelled, Buscabulla have been able to work on editing and producing a short film that will be subsequently released with the album. The film’s trailer is a window into the many facets of the band’s life in Puerto Rico. It vividly shows the gorgeous humanity of their island, and ultimately, sees them embracing a challenge that has shaped their identity and deepened their connection to their home.
“When we started making that first EP with Dev [Hynes], I remember us sitting in our living room being super influenced by him,” Berrios says. “It was an exciting moment in music with this DIY music scene coming out of Brooklyn and we were enamored by it. We were making music for the first time and in a way we kind of wanted to make something around the vibe of what was going on there. But when we moved back, we wanted to distance ourselves from that. To discover a side of us that was authentic, maybe not so referential—just something that we really respond to intuitively. And that’s the best place to make art. We just want to keep going there and pushing things and making music that people can’t really classify or haven’t heard of before.”