Meet Lael Llaverias, the Man Behind Merenpunk & Dark Dembow Label Bodega Island

These days, there are countless record labels and collectives that bring together diverse sounds into a deliberate, cohesive curatorial vision. Take the legendary UK label 4AD, who has hosted a roster of artists whose sounds range from cinematic 80s rock to abstract, avant-garde electronic music. Or Quemasucabeza, the Chilean label that is home to artists like folky indie rockers Protistas and Spanish-language rap legend Ana Tijoux. But we’ve rarely seen lineups as eclectic as Bodega Island’s, a Brooklyn-based netlabel/collective that supports everything from mambo metal to bachata punk to chiptune. Some of the project’s standout acts include dark dembow trio Mula and so-confusing-you-can’t-look-away viral sensation El Gallo Lester.

The project first caught our eye when we saw that they’d be hosting their first annual Bodega Island Festival at Baby’s All Right on August 7. Seven New York- and D.R.-based bands will grace the stage that night: BoomBoxRepairKit, El Gallo Lester, Mula, Hecho En Brooklyn, Dinais, Los Coulters, and Ricky Brugal. The fest is described as a “celebration of the birth of a movement” that will feature “the dopest, strangest, and most original merengue, bachata, and dembow you’ve ever heard.” Bodega Island will also drop The Bodega Island Invasion: Phase 1 compilation album for free on August 7, which includes tracks from the fest’s lineup, as well as three additional songs from Bandabarata, Concón Quemao, and Karibik Underwater.

“In New York, we have a bodega on every corner. DR is an island, so I wanted to combine city life with Caribbean life. That’s Bodega Island.”

To get a better of sense of the concept behind Bodega Island, we sat down with one of the project’s masterminds, Lael Llaverias, who is also a member of BoomBoxRepairKit. Llaverias is a wide-eyed, bearded, Brooklyn-born Dominican who walks into our office with a huge guitar on his back. The Sunset Park native tells us that the idea for Bodega Island came about a couple years back, after he saw artists from every corner of the city experimenting with Dominican percussive traditions and punk music. He cites our own Marcos Hassan, who wrote that “mixing merengue with rock is nothing new.” But he argues that people are still perplexed when they hear music like this. “Even though it’s been going around for 20 years or so, I don’t think a lot of people are familiar with it.”

That’s where Llaverias comes in. He was inspired by the eclecticism and rebellious spirit of grunge and Afropunk, but he has his sights set on something more concrete in the future. “Right now I’m pulling together a collective, but I’d like it to become a full-fledged record label, similar to Mad Decent, where they put out music but [also] have their festival.”

It’s hard not to notice the fact that most of the bands on the lineup are Dominican. And it makes sense, considering the fact that if anybody is crazy enough to fuse metal with merengue, it’s Dominicans. But Llaverias doesn’t plan on limiting the project just yet. “You don’t have to be Dominican. You just have to mess with the genres. There’s one band called Los Coulters on the compilation; they’re not Dominican. They do this weird, avant-garde jazzy cumbia and merengue.”

Llaverias slowly recounts the story of naming the project. “In New York, we have a bodega on every corner. DR is an island, so I wanted to combine city life with Caribbean life. That’s Bodega Island.” That fusion of cultural referents is how he set about curating the roster to match Bodega Island’s brand. “It was a little complicated because everyone was calling it something different. You know, [things like] merengue punkiao, mambo metal, perico rockiao. But there’s not too many of us out there. I just went with my favorites and narrowed it down.”

Over the course of our conversation, I realize that Bodega Island is a DIY project at its core. Even though the project is eclectic, the DIY spirit of punk is unapologetically at the foundation of this creative endeavor. Llaverias speaks of the project breezily but earnestly. He’s open to changing things up and keeping his vision malleable as Bodega Island evolves. “Right now, [the project] is taking a life of its own. I just want to let it do that. Everything’s just falling into place.” But that doesn’t mean he’ll compromise quality, as evidenced by the fact that he’s chosen Baby’s All Right as the venue for his launch. “We wanted a nice place – something that’s fairly new…as soon as we walked in, we were like, ‘this is it!’”

“Brooklyn is a brand within itself, and that’s why Bodega Island is here. But I want it to be global, collaborative.”

He envisions a collaborative future for Bodega Island as well, especially with artists based in the D.R. Aside from Stereoptico, which is the home of rap tigueres Whitest Taino Alive and future funk producer Marvin Marlyn, there aren’t many Dominican netlabels out there. It’s clear that Llaverias is charting unknown territory, both musically and politically. He knows that New York is the home of Bodega Island, but he’s not shaping the project just to rep NYC. “Brooklyn is a brand within itself, and that’s why I think it’s good that [Bodega Island] is here. But I want it to be global, collaborative.”

It’s too early to tell where Bodega Island is headed, and in a creative environment as volatile and unforgiving as Brooklyn, the project might not survive. But these are baby steps, and Bodega Island has the potential to carve its own space alongside well-established party series and labels in the borough. For now, at least, he’s got a promising start, one that will highlight New York’s underground and indie Dominican artists in a major way.