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Pachanga Society brings a new sound to polka country

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Drumming with Pachanga
The Stearns County Pachanga Society has just released its new album, "Pachanga en el Camino" ("Party in the Road").
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Pachanga is a style of dance and a type of music from Cuba, according to Mike Hasbrouck, a Spanish professor at St. Cloud State University who founded the Stearns County Pachanga Society in 2002.  

But he says there's one definition that perfectly fits his  band's performances: "Big party. Big, rowdy, public party." 

The Stearns County Pachanga Society
The Stearns County Pachanga Society concentrates on the music of Central and South America, with a few original songs thrown in. But what makes the group different is the way it interacts with the audience. The word "pachanga" means "party" in Spanish.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

It even feels like a big, rowdy party at the Pachanga Society's rehearsals.  Band members gather at a practice spot in a building on a lake south of St. Cloud.  From the outside it looks like a big, metal storage shed.  But inside it gives off a cozy, college basement apartment vibe, complete with garish secondhand couches and refrigerators full of beer. 

The Stearns County Pachanga Society concentrates on the music of Central and South America, with a few original songs thrown in.  But what makes the group different is the way it interacts with the audience.  The players offer a low-pressure invitation to join in.     "We don't tell people, 'Come up and try to do this.' We just say, 'Here's some instruments. Pick it up and play along if you feel like it,'" Hasbrouck says.

"We don't tell people, 'Come up and try to do this', we just say, 'Here's some instruments. Pick it up and play along if you feel like it.'"

The band has found that shows in bars aren't the best place to ask for the audience's help, though.  Hasbrouk says drunks play the instruments too loud and break them, spoiling the fun for everyone.  Now the group plays mostly at festivals and concert venues. 

Hasbrouck says even people who wouldn't normally get up and dance aren't afraid to pick up an instrument and help lay down a beat. Band member Stacy Bauer adds that from time to time, audience members even supply their own instruments.  The most unusual was a small wooden box.

"That was actually a rabbit breeding box," she says.  An audience member had been "banging on it in his shop, and he decided this wooden rabbit breeding box had just the right sound to bring to us." 

When people in the audience really get into their roles as fellow percussionists, Bauer says it's a beat that becomes a part of the show.

"I guess it's a fair amount of them playing along with us, as it is us playing along with them," Bauer says. "It all depends if they get louder than we are, then I imagine that there's a bit of us trying to follow the crowd just to keep it all coordinated." 

Lalo on the flute
Renaldo Quillo, or "Lalo" as everyone calls him, is the only member of the band from Latin America. Lalo is from Peru and plays the type of flute music you might hear in the Andes Mountains.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

While members of the Stearns County Pachanga Society say their goal is to champion Latin music for local audiences, they readily aknowledge most of the band's nine members are actually Minnesota natives. 

Renaldo Quillo, or "Lalo" as everyone calls him, is the only member of the band from Latin America.  Lalo is from Peru and plays the type of flute music you might hear in the Andes Mountains.  Lalo was skeptical when first asked to play in the Stearns County Pachanga Society a few years ago. 

"I thought, 'What am I going to play with these guys?' I play Peruvian music and I play flutes," Lalo says. 

But Lalo's flutes fit perfectly with the band's Latin mix.  He says the band has its own sound and he encourages other members not to worry about whether they seem authentic.  

"It's a different rhythm that the band has, a unique rhythm.  Latin?  Not quite. Peruvian?  Maybe.  But not quite Peruvian.  It's fun though," Lalo says.

The Stearns County Pachanga Society just released its second album, entitled "Pachanga en el Camino" ("Party in the Road").