There was no particular sign that the New York City-based Fulaso was going to be a party band when it took the stage at the International Festival of Arts and Idea’s first big show on the Green Saturday evening.
The trombone player blew a few notes into his microphone. The band members took their positions. Someone counted off. “One, two.” And boom: instant groove.
“Now I like salsa, and I like the mambo too,” singer Erica Ramos crooned. “but nothing gives me that fever like doing the bugaloo.”
Fulaso, which is an acronym for “funky Latin soul,” does just what its name implies. It combines Latin rhythms with funk and R&B to produce a sound that lets the band roam from beat to beat while still keeping things tight. But the “fu” in Fulaso also stands for “fun.” The people in the 10-piece band — Erica Ramos on lead vocals, Juan Sebastian Bowens Rodriguez on keys, Patrick Hall on trombone, Michael Irwin on trumpet, Mario Padrón on bass, Charley Rodriguez on timbales, Dawn Drake on congas, Maria Eisen on baritone sax, Stefan Feniuk on tenor sax, and Juan Carlo Lampreia Rodriguez on percussion — flashed one another smiles constantly as they dug into their set, encouraging each other as they soloed, and moving about the stage to be closer to one another when the music got particularly knotty. But Ramos also proved a consummate frontwoman. When she wasn’t singing, she danced across the stage, engaging the audience every second of the way.
And Ramos’s banter in between songs was almost as entertaining as the songs themselves. To introduce a song about, yes, bodega cats, she began: “I haven’t been to a lot of corner stores in Connecticut, but I was wondering if they have cats in them.”
“Yeah! Yeah!” someone yelled from the front of the crowd. By then, halfway through the set, Ramos had her audience in the palm of her hand.
“And they keep out all the rats!” she said, to widespread laughter, before launching into the song itself — one of the strongest in a strong set that ended with an old-school R&B call-and-response singalong, followed by a smoking cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.”
If Fulaso kept the crowd on the Green through tight musicianship and exuberant showmanship, headliner Troker, from Guadalajara, Mexico, kept them there through sheer musical inventiveness. Leonel Nájera, the band’s DJ, started on stage alone, crafting a frantic, menacing march that brought Samuel González on bass, Christian Jiménez on keys, and Juan Carlos Mares on drums to their stations to join him. They turned it into jazzy funk, augmented by Isaías Flores on trumpet and Diego Franco Chico on sax, until they were creating a sound that rolled funk, out jazz, hard rock, hip hop, prog, and in time, a touch of Latin music, into a heady stew that didn’t so much entertain as transfix.
Without a front person — except for special guest Solange Prat from the Williamsburg Salsa Orchestra, who lent her vocals to one song — Troker held attention through its set through virtuosity and musicianship. The six members of the band, always smiling at each other like Fulaso had done, passed around melodic and rhythmic ideas, executing starts and stops so seamless that they at times felt telepathic.
To mix up the sound in the second half of Troker’s set, Mares unscrewed one of his cymbals and took it in his hand to use it alone as a sole piece of percussion, Jiménez stepped away from the keys to pick up a cowbell, and Chico took over organ duties. Flores danced like a madman as bass, keys, and DJ held down all the melody with a percussive bed as backdrop. Each member got a chance to show what he could do. Their set ended with two blistering jams. Those who weren’t dancing just stood there, staring, until the band finished and it was time to go home. Troker’s band members didn’t use a lot of words with the audience. They let the music do the talking.
The beginning of the evening had seen visits to New Haven’s new stage from Mayor Toni Harp, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, and Consul General of Mexico to New York City Diego Gomez Pickering, who lauded New Haven for its reputation as a sanctuary for immigration. But a quote from DeLauro, in turn quoting civil rights leader and former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan from the 1970s, proved most apt: “Art has the potential to unify. It can speak in many languages without a translator. Art does not discriminate.”