Words and images by Charlie Billups, edited by Don Macica –
“His strong cumbia beat with his very skilled accordion play reminded me of parties in my wife’s hometown of Corozal. I could close my eyes on Sunday and imagined that I was in Corozal or at the beach with his music on in the background and people dancing in a beach side restaurant. The atmosphere at the festival was exactly like that of a festival in Colombia.”
Agúzate photographer Charlie Billups is recalling his two days spent at Colombian Fest / El Gran Festival Colombiano, which took place at the Copernicus Center July 16-17 during a sweltering mid-summer heatwave. He’s speaking about the artist who closed the weekend, the 80-year-old cumbia legend Anibal Velasquez from Barranquilla, a port city on the country’s Atlantic coast. “His music represented the joy and fun of being Colombian.”
Billups continues, “The sounds that filled the festival represented several genres of music from different parts of Colombia, all of which are very popular. Cumbia, vallenato, champeta, salsa and merengue. When one of the many, many bands weren’t performing, DJs played vintage records to keep the energy high. The capacity crowd that packed the place on both days loved every minute of it.”
Experiencing Sunday night’s headliner was not the only time Billups felt himself transported from the northwest side of Chicago to the South American nation. He recalls Sunday’s late afternoon set by Charles King, who delivered a stirring performance with his champeta criolla, and how it brought him to another time and place. “The music was sweet reggae sounding but with deep roots in the Colombian coast town of Palenque and enhanced by Mr. King’s deep facial expressions. I closed my eyes and imagined that I was in Cartagena on a taxi ride to the bus station and the driver had the radio on playing Mr. King’s El Martillo.”
Two of Saturday’s headliners especially stood out in Billup’s memory as well.
“Sonora Carrusales, the last performer that night, is a salsa band from Medellin. La Sonora has an extremely powerful sound that evokes Fruko and many bands from Medellin and Cali. The crowd exploded as the band played non-stop for 90 minutes. This band represents the strong salsa legacy that Colombia has. Cali is called the salsa capital of the world. Passion ran high thru the entire place and people did not want to leave even after the three encores by La Sonora.
“Earlier Saturday afternoon Jimmy Zambrano and former Binomio de Oro member Duban Bayona delivered to me what represents the heart of coastal Colombian music, vallenato. People in the crowd were transfixed by the soulful melodic performance of Grammy winner Zambrano’s accordion with Bayona’s strong voice. I have to say that this was like going to Colombia and walking down the street on a Saturday night and listening to this duo on picos [Colombian sound systems] in the balconies.”
Charlie Billups’ great photos are a testament to his love of Latin American culture and community. Several illustrate this article, and you can find many, many more at his website. For his part, Charlie has just one more thing to say.
I’ll start by getting out of the way something that every article written about Ileana Cabra mentions: that she is the sister of Puerto Rican duo René Pérez & Eduardo Cabra, better known to the world as Calle 13, and that she has been singing under the name PG 13 with the massively popular group since the very beginning. Her music as a solo artist couldn’t be more different, though. Up until seeing her Chicago debut at the Millennium Park Summer Music Series last Thursday evening, I figured that the main relevance of that family connection was that when she launched her solo career, she instantly had the backing of music industry giant Sony, for whom Calle 13 has made a lot of money over the last decade.
I now see that all those years sharing a stage before thousands with Residente, one of the most charismatic performers in music, has rubbed off on her, because from the moment iLe strolled on stage, all eyes were on her and few strayed away for even a moment. She did it not through a manufactured sense of excitement, but rather by drawing the audience in with every gesture and with the power of her voice. This was a performer that clearly knows what to do in front of an audience.
She is also very sure of what she wants to express through her art. Her sense of the history of tropical music, especially from the 6os and 70s, is profound, but she doesn’t dabble in imitation. Rather, she locates the emotional core of longing that has embodied such forms as bolero, salsa, ranchera, tango and even American sources like girl-group pop a la Phil Spector or the ballads of Linda Ronstadt, who drew from her own Mexican heritage to inject sincerity and meaning into her string of her hits.
Her debut album, Ilevitable, is a survey of all of these influences, but this isn’t a historical retrospective. The sound may embody earlier eras, but with production that seems to simultaneously honor and mock its excesses; swelling strings, echo-laden percussion, overly punchy mambo-style horns. These dramatic flourishes lend a dark undercurrent, not unlike the way filmmaker David Lynch scores his hallucinogenic films, or, to use another cinematic example, the sometimes silly but always broodingly compelling James Bond themes, from Shirley Bassey through Adele. This is especially true on Caníbal, a song that describes how self-doubt can consume you.
On stage, the drama lies elsewhere. It’s just her and a quintet of backing musicians. All excess is removed to better focus on the artist and her songs.
And those songs! The family connections run much deeper than her famous brothers. Her sister Milena Pérez is the co-writer of three. Her grandmother, Flor Amelia de Gracia, wrote two (three, if you count the encore). Even her father, José Cabra, co-wrote one, the English language Out of Place. Ilevitable is very much a family affair, and Ileana Cabra made sure that everyone in the audience understood that as she introduced each song.
In concert, iLe replaces the maximalism of the album with the intimacy of subtle gesture infused with drama. She sits on the stage for her grandmother’s Dolor, a classic bolero. She dances with abandon, but not exaggeration, to uptempo rave-ups like Rescatarme and Te quiero con Bugalú. Extraña de Querer, were it not in Spanish, would be at home in a 60s era French café. The tango-infused Maldita sea al amor is belted out, aimed at the very last row of the cheap seats, yet she is nearly stock-still, head slightly bowed, for the ranchera and flamenco inspired Triángulo.
The evening ends with a simple and achingly beautiful duet for guitar and voice, the only song of the night not on Ilevitable. It’s another of her grandmother’s songs, No te detengas. Millennium Park is a huge place in the midst of a bustling city, but for a few precious minutes it’s as hushed as a midnight bedroom conversation.
About the author:Don Macica is Agúzate’s content manager, a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a contributing writer to several online publications. When not traveling, he lives a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He also writes Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.
“My experience totally comes from the folkloric tradition. My grandparents on both sides were musicians. My dad’s family is from Cape Verde off the coast of Senegal while my mom is Puerto Rican. I grew up in that environment so I was listening to and playing traditional Cuban, Puerto Rican and African music at an early age.”
I’m speaking with San Francisco Bay area percussionist, band leader and educator John Santos via phone from Washington, DC, where he is making several appearances in connection with the Smithsonian Institute’s Folklife Festival. From there he’ll travel to Chicago for two Latin Jazz Festival appearances this week: A lecture and demonstration entitled My Music is Who I Am at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and leading the John Santos Sextet at the Humboldt Park Boathouse. Both events are presented by the Jazz Institute of Chicago.
Santos had led several bands over the course of his four-decade career. The best known of them was the Machete Ensemble, which lasted for 21 years but dissolved in 2006. That’s the group I caught at HotHouse, the South Loop venue that closed its physical doors several years ago but continues as a still vital organization with programming in various locations around the city. As it turns out, that’s the last time Santos played in Chicago until now.
“The economics of that group were really difficult,” says Santos. “It varied from 12-14 members, and a group of that size is very hard to take on the road. It was hard to get decent paying work for that many musicians. I downsized to 9 members, but even that was hard to support.”
After Machete Ensemble broke up, Santos started a quartet, which has gradually built up to the sextet that will visit Chicago this week. Besides being a top-shelf performing Latin jazz ensemble, they specialize in educational presentations from lecture/demonstrations to detailed clinics focusing on any number of relevant subjects such as composition, arrangement, rhythmic development, stylistic interpretation, studio performance, etc. Their repertoire consists of arrangements from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the US, as well as original compositions.
The conversation turns back to the importance of tradition in Santos’ music. “After my experiences playing with my family and during my development as a professional musician, I studied all sorts of African influenced music. As a percussionist, I was drawn to the conga and batá drums, and from there to Congolese and Nigerian music. I started collecting instruments and vintage recordings. That folk tradition became a driving force in my career.”
Santos continues, “Those folkloric traditions form the basis of what I do, but then we apply that to original music using contemporary jazz harmonies and themes that talk about experiences that are relevant to what we’re living through.”
With that, our conversation moves to Santos’ educational efforts and programs, one of which he is presenting this week in Chicago. “Workshops, lectures and classes are nearly half of what I do, with performing and composing being the other half,” he notes. “I took the title My Music is Who I Am from a dissertation by the great Latin jazz bassist Andy Gonzáles. That title really resonated with me, so I created this presentation that talks about Afro-Latinos like myself and the way music is intertwined with our identity, history and culture. The music is an almost sacred document that tells our story in our own voices and the voices of our ancestors.” He continues, “I’ll be using a lot of historical recordings from my collection to illustrate certain themes of who we are, in our own words, and I’ll show how those same themes are relevant to our lives today. It will show how connected we are to these older traditions, but at the same time have contemporary examples that play the same role.”
It is mid-afternoon, and Santos still has one more Smithsonian Folklife panel to attend. As we are saying our goodbyes, Santos remarks, “I’m really looking forward to coming back to Chicago. I’ve done events before with Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center at the old location. I’m honored to be presenting there again and of course I’m excited to be performing at the Latin Jazz Festival. It will be great to see old friends and make some new ones.”
My Music is Who I Am, Thursday, July 14, 7:00pm at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage, Chicago. Free admission, but registration is requested. srbcc.org
10th Annual Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, Friday-Saturday July 15-16 at the Humboldt Park Boathouse. 1301 N. Sacramento, Chicago. John Santos headlines Friday at 9:00pm. Free admission. jazzinchicago.org
In the distance a tall, white party tent extends far above the fence line and into a cloudless sky. With every step the microphones and instruments being sound checked start to sound more like a Tejano band from Texas. Nearly in perfect unison, Jorge Ortega and his team of sound technicians are running around meticulously preparing for their latest event. With only a week until Colombian Fest one would think this had something to do with the festival, but today is just a typical birthday celebration for Ortega.
Colombian Fest, the Midwest’s largest celebration of Colombian music and culture, returns to the Copernicus Center July 16-17 for their second annual festival. Coinciding with Colombian Independence Day, the festival will include legendary and contemporary musicians directly from Colombia as well as artists from Chicago’s thriving Colombian community. From cumbia, vallenato and champeta to currulao and salsa, the festival highlights the richness and diversity of Colombian music and culture.
Ortega, the festival’s director and founder, was born in the seaport town of Barranquilla, in the Atlantico of Colombia. Known for its enormous carnival celebrations equipped with costumed performers and cumbia music, Ortega had to rely on his parents and uncles to understand and experience that Colombian culture after moving to the United States at a young age.
Every weekend Ortega’s father would have loud music from every region in Colombia singing throughout the house, blasting until the wee hours of the morning. While he wasn’t taking notes on what his father had playing in the house, Ortega would be carefully combing through his uncle’s record collection filled with Colombian artists he had brought with him to the United States.
At family parties when his uncle got tired of being in control of the music, Ortega was left to command the sound system as the adults around him danced and sang into the night.
“My parents would have a party and the adults would be doing their thing and the only one left playing with the music was me,” Ortega said. “I was young, my uncle would just let me go ahead and play the music. I was always right there with the sound system.”
Since the age of 18, Ortega has been surrounded by music and has worked countless music festivals. With over 30 years working as a sound engineer and production manager, Ortega and his partner Luis Garcia decided that hosting their own music festival was the next appropriate step to take.
“Colombian Fest started about four years ago,” Ortega said. “We did a picnic in a forest preserve on Irving Park and Cumberland, I think it was for my birthday since it’s a couple days after Colombian Independence on July 20.”
After receiving positive feedback from the first picnic, Ortega decided to hold another picnic the following year, only this time with about double the amount of people. Before long, what started out as a small picnic transformed itself into a full blown music festival.
Colombian culture is anything but simple. From Colombia’s Pacific coast to the interior plains and mountains, and on to the shores of the Caribbean, to its African, Spanish and indigenous roots, Colombia’s diversity is showcased both geographically and culturally. Arguably the epicenter of Latin America, Colombia’s identity is unavoidably influenced by and exported to its neighbors. All of this leaves Ortega with one big question: How could he possibly incorporate all of this diversity into two days?
For Ortega, it all started with the verbenas in Colombia that his parents would describe in stories of their time spent enjoying them. Throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s in Barranquilla, Ortega’s parents would frequent the verbenas, popular street parties along Colombia’s Atlantic coast. At the verbenas in Barranquilla, it was as if all of the musical and cultural influences that had shaped Colombia had fallen onto one town.
“The music was introduced in the barrios and the streets of Barranquilla through these sound systems called pickups, or picos for short,” Ortega said. “And that music would come through the boats. With Barranquilla being a port town, a lot of the music that came from Haiti, Jamaica, the United States, Africa and France, all that music came in through the boats.”
Soon enough, Colombian verbenas developed a certain ebb and flow to them that Ortega saw replicated at his parents’ parties.
“Those were the early verbenas, they would play cumbia, vallenato, salsa, African music, and then the African music transitioned into champeta,” Ortega said. “It’s a mix, and I grew up with that mix.”
That mix that Ortega grew up with is showcased in the Colombian artists and local Chicago bands that are slated to perform at this year’s festival. One of the most notable musicians is 80-year-old Anibal Velasquez y Los Locos del Swing. Also a native of Barranquilla, Velasquez universalized the accordion and introduced a livelier form of cumbia known as the Colombian Guaracha. His innovations influenced music in Colombia and throughout Latin America. In Mexico, it’s known as cumbia sonidero.
Also accompanying Velasquez on the list of elite musicians and performers from Colombia are the salsa orchestra Sonora Carruseles and champeta master Charles King. All three of these performers will be receiving Colombian Heritage Awards at the festival for their lifetime of cultural contributions.
While some of Colombia’s native talent will be on full display, a variety of other acts from around the world and Chicago will also be exhibiting their abilities. Chicago’s own Diana Mosquera Ensemble, Ecos del Pacífico Afrocolombiano and Tierra Colombiana Folkloric Dance Company will be highlighting Chicago’s own Colombian heritage.
Ortega is particularly excited about a couple new additions to this year’s lineup, especially Explosión Negra from Colombia’s Pacific coast, representing a new evolution in Colombian music, mixing it with urban hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall, uniting three strains of African music in the Americas.
“Here in Chicago you have a Colombian community that’s pretty diverse,” Ortega said. “You have a mix of Colombians that are from the coast, from Bogota, Medellin, and so with the festival we try and have a little bit of everything.”
Representing all of Colombia’s different cultural and musical identities is important to Ortega and the festival’s organizers, but what’s more important is maintaining and providing the type of sound quality that’s needed to really appreciate the intricacies of the music being performed.
Producing the festival will be LD Audio, one of the largest concert and festival production companies in the Midwest. As head of production management, Ortega and LD Audio owner Luis Garcia have made a commitment to ensuring that the sound quality of the festival exceeds everyone’s expectations. In Ortega’s words, “it’s a ‘sound guys’ festival.”
“My background is as a sound engineer and a production manager for many years, I’ve toured with many big Latin American artists,” Ortega said. “LD Audio and myself have more than 30 years of experience with sound engineering and production.
“We have a level of professionalism and expertise, and we have to bring that because it’s our festival, we’re representing our country, our Colombia.”
Colombia is African, it’s Spanish and it’s indigenous. There are foods and traditions that are entirely unique to a particularly region that can’t be found anywhere else in the country. Colombia is a fusion, a blending of cultures, tastes, and best of all, musical styles. Ortega isn’t focused on having the biggest festival that gains the most attention; he’s committed to having the highest quality festival that displays just how diverse his Colombian culture is. He wants you to experience his verbena.
“This is not a festival, it’s a verbena, a carnival. You want to experience our verbena, come to Colombian Fest.”
Colombian Fest / El Gran Festival Colombiano, July 16-17, Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Avenue, Chicago colombianfestchicago.com _____
The return of the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra to Millennium Park Monday night was a triumph by any conceivable measure. An audience of close to 10,000 people filled the Pritzker Pavilion seats and lawn on a hot summer night. The band rewarded the overflow crowd with a performance of epic proportions. Including Palmieri’s piano, there are 12 members of this orchestra, but if you closed your eyes while dancing with abandon (and trust me, there were many, many people dancing with abandon) you’d swear there were 50. The power emanating off the stage was the result of the very best Latin musicians playing at the top of their game for an adoring crowd and loving every minute of it.
Palmieri has been known by many nicknames over the last six decades or so since he formed La Perfecta, his first groundbreaking band: the Sun of Latin Music, El Maestro, El Rumbero del Piano. Or, a bit more obscurely, the Schoenberg of Salsa, a nod to the complex music of the contemporary classical composer. Over that time he has employed lo mejor de lo mejor of Latin musicians, and the current lineup stands with the best of them.
There were several standout moments from each and every person on stage. Hermán Olivera captures the spirit of original La Perfecta vocalist Ismael Quintana without resorting to imitation. Trombonists Conrad Herwig and Jimmy Bosch are band leaders and innovators in their own right. The congas/bongos/timbales Holy Trinity of Pequeño Johnny, Nicky Marrero and Camilo Molina-Gaetan kept everything on high burn the entire evening. Luques Curtis on bass anchored it all, and Nelson Gonzáles on tres was a constant reminder of the Cuban son foundation from which salsa emerged, particularly on Palmieri’s arrangement of the 1946 Arsenio Rodriguez classic Dame Un Cachito Pa’huele. All were allowed to shine repeatedly with solos during the entire 90-minute concert, and each brought 110% to every note and gesture.
Palmieri himself entered the stage first for a brief solo piano performance, then brought out the band, each of whom he introduced with warm regard before they played a single note. They kicked off with 15 delirious minutes of Pa’ la Ocha Tambó after which Palmieri, beaming with pride, remarked “This is how our music is supposed to be played.” A similarly lengthy Pa’ Huele followed, and then I lost track, because after awhile you surrender to the moment and simply become present in the joy that 12 musicians and 10,000 of their close friends can radiate. Once in awhile Palmieri would leave his piano bench to lead the crowd in clapping the clave, which I have to say (judging from the smile on Palmieri’s face) we all did flawlessly.
Words are pretty inadequate when it comes to describe music of this high caliber, so I’m going to turn it over to photographer Charlie Billups to tell the rest of the story. Thank you, Eddie. And thank you, Chicago.
I remember the first time my girlfriend played an album of boleros for me. It was classic stuff, an album that she said her parents owned. I swooned over those gorgeously melancholic tunes, deep in romance and longing. That was five years ago, and I’ve learned a bit more since then. I thought I knew all the classics—Sabor a Mí, Tres Palabaras, Dos Gardenias—but it turns out I was just scratching the surface, unwittingly confining myself mostly to boleros from Cuba and Mexico. Like cumbia, though, the bolero is a phenomenon throughout Latin America.
Miramar is a side project of sorts from the salsa band Bio Ritmo. The group will visit Chicago this weekend for a pair of concerts, and they have opened up another world to me that I knew little about. Their new album Dedication to Sylvia Rexach honors a Puerto Rican songwriter who is something of a cult figure. I know her name as the writer of two songs, including the title tune, on Miguel Zenón’s Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook, but that was about it. So, who is Sylvia Rexach, and why did Miramar dedicate an album to her?
Miramar consists of Marlysse Simmons-Argandoña and Reinaldo Alvarez from Bio Ritmo and singer Laura Ann Singh. Alvarez is of Puerto Rican heritage while Simmons-Argandoña is from Chile, and Singh was born in Tennessee but spent years singing in Brazil. Miramar was born out of a shared passion for boleros between Alvarez and Simmons-Argandoña that Bio Ritmo didn’t quite have room for. “We decided to start a bolero group because there were only so many boleros we could do with a salsa band,” says Marlysse.
They were particularly struck by a 1960s-era album of Rexach songs from Duo Irizarry de Córdova. In contrast to the Mexican trios that swept much of Latin America (Los Panchos, Los Tres Aces), this Puerto Rican duo featured male and female voices in unique interaction. “It was a new expression of pain and longing,” says Rei Alvarez. “It was a concrete manifestation of everything that I love about romantic music”. Enter Laura Ann Singh as the perfect singing partner, and Miramar’s duo sound was born.
The resulting album is quite lovely and drenched in nostalgia. Seven of the album’s ten songs are Rexach compositions, with the remainder composed by Alvarez and Simmons-Argandoña. Inspired by bolero, they nonetheless evoke other sources, from waltzes to a Middle Eastern feel. While clearly anchored in the style and the era it pays homage to, the album’s nostalgia derives from its soulfulness, not imitation. I’m still curious, though. With songs as beautiful as this, why is Sylvia Rexach a cult figure, a term that implies devotion from a select but limited audience?
“In my opinion, it’s because she was a songwriter, not a performer. She only had one recording out [a simple and unadorned album of her voice accompanied by acoustic guitarist Tuti Umpierre] and while people may know her songs, they don’t necessarily know who wrote them, because they associate the song with the performer,” says Marlysse Simmons-Argandoña, speaking to me by phone from the road. “She gave songs away, so it’s possible that there are songs that we don’t even know are hers.”
Returning to the Miramar album, I ask about the Puerto Rican duo tradition that inspired the vocals. “We didn’t initially take the duo approach. Rei and I are both big record collectors. There is a café in Santurce right around the corner from a big record store that we would go to when visiting Puerto Rico. An older generation of musicians hangs out there. They introduced us to a lot of duo music, including Duo Irizarry de Córdova. We both loved the sound, but Rei was the only singer in Miramar at the time. We didn’t know Laura Ann. We met her and she joined Rei for a couple of songs at one of our concerts and we were like wow, that’s it.”
Instrumentally, the album has a classic feel: piano, guitar, bongos, maracas, strings – and one distinct feature that I’m not used to hearing in tropical music, organ. That last thing, I assumed, was sort of a hipster affectation, the way some indi-rock bands use ukuleles or toy pianos. Wrong. I found some Duo Irizarry de Córdova music on YouTube, and the organ is there in all its nostalgic glory. “Those albums are full of haunting organ,” says Marlysse.
There are thirteen songs on the one, rare Sylvia Rexach album (as far as I can tell – I’ve had to patch it together from YouTube videos containing the audio of old albums), so I ask Marlysse how they arrived at the seven that were recorded by Miramar. “The Irizarry de Córdova album of her songs was our starting point, so our sound and song selection originate there. However, we have since learned a few more and will be debuting them in Chicago.”
Sylvia Rexach will probably never be as well-known as Rafael Hernandez or Pedro Flores. But with Miramar’s help, some much needed recognition will surely come her way.
Miramar appears twice this weekend in Chicago, both shows presented by Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center
Friday, June 24 @ 3:00PM at Hermosa Park, 2240 N. Kilbourn Avenue – Free Admission (co-presented by Night Out in the Parks) Saturday, June 25 @ 7:00PM at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage Avenue – $20 Donation goes to SRBCC’s educational and cultural programs. Tickets and info at srbcc.org
Céu could have taken the easy path. She has a classically intimate Brazilian voice that lures you into listening to her every syllable, one that is easily marketed to folks who crave those soft summer sambas. But that’s not what artists do, and Céu is, above all else, an artist.
The São Paulo-born singer and composer shares a restless curiosity and drive with fellow Paulistas like Curumin, Luisa Maita and Cibelle. If you compare New York City to Los Angeles, then you have some idea of the difference between São Paulo and Rio. Compelling music certainly emerges from both places. In São Paulo, though, it has a bit more edge.
Céu’s fourth studio album Tropix, like its three predecessors, is a departure from the one that came before it. Whereas her 2012 release Caravana Sereia Bloom employed an almost alternative rock-like backing band to explore Brazilian music, Tropix is built almost entirely on electronics, using an arpeggiator to sequence beats and rhythms. Despite this, it retains the warmth and intimacy of an acoustic session.
The word ‘tropix’ is Céu’s amalgam of ‘tropical’ and ‘pixel’. She has described the pixel as the inspiration for this music: “A pixel is a small part of a big thing—defragmentation as a concept.” This idea is built into the lead off track and video, Perfume do Invisível. A synth pattern bubbles under a close up black & white shot of a rather sultry and elegant Céu singing of intoxicating, invisible perfume. Soon, though, the image flickers, splits and distorts like a digital transmission on a stormy night. After sixteen lines of verse, the beat kicks in along with funk guitar worthy of Nile Rodgers and the imagery switches to Céu disco dancing in in glittery clubwear. Funk break over, the verse returns but this time the singer is unadorned, no makeup, wearing what looks like a science fiction take on a monastic tunic. In the outro, the funk is back along with the dancing, but this time from what appears to be inside a strobe-lit cage.
Visually, it’s an avant-garde gem. Musically, it has the same adventurous spirit of Caetano Veloso’s work in the 80s and 90s, smartly balancing satiny smoothness with a grittier edge.
The remaining eleven songs on the album stay in this warm, highly listenable space. You could put this album on while cooking dinner and it would sound great. At the same time, a closer listen will reward you highly. The lyrics continue their exploration of a fragmented world, but viewed intimately, not from afar. I probably don’t have to translate Amor Pixelado for you, but I will tell you that it is as beautiful and honest a love song as I’ve ever heard.
Only a few of the songs sound ‘Brazilian’ on first listen. The ones that do, Minhas Bics and especially Sangria, are gorgeous. Still, even a propulsive anthem like Chico Buarque Song or a dance workout like Etílica/Interlúdio are clear descendants of the Brazilian Tropicália movement. When acoustic sounds (guitar, bass, drums, a string arrangement) intrude on the electronic soundscape, the effect is beguiling.
And, of course, there’s that voice. Along with the overall strength of her songwriting, it is the constant that powers all four of her albums. Caetano Veloso once sang “Some may like a soft Brazilian singer. But I’ve given up all attempts at perfection.” Veloso, of course, has one of Brazil’s all time most marvelous voices. Céu possesses an instrument that is similarly captivating, but like Veloso, she, too, is not content to get by on charm.
Céu is in concert at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St, Chicago on Friday, June 24. Tickets at citywinery.com.
Melvis Santa has been a professional musician for over half of her life. At the age of 14, she and a group of friends in Havana, Cuba formed the all-female vocal ensemble Sexto Sentido. No less than Chucho Valdés called them “the best Cuban vocal quartet of the past 30 years.” After 12 years of success, she left that group in 2008 to try her hand at a solo career. She spent some time touring and recording two CUBADISCO Award-winning albums with Interactivo, a all-star fusion band in Cuba lead by pianist and composer Robertico Carcassés.
She then formed her second group, Santa Habana, that was a bit more jazz oriented, but with a pop feel permeated by deep Afro-Cuban grooves. The debut album was released internationally via the BIS label.
Meanwhile, she launched a second career as an actress, appearing in a number of short Cuban films and the full length feature 7 Days in Havana in a segment by Spanish director Julio Medem.
In other words, Melvis Santa is kind of a big deal in Cuba. Why then, in 2014, did she move to New York City?
“In Cuba, you get to a point where you are in a comfort zone. It’s a small country, so you get recognized, people like what you do. It’s very easy to forget that you have to continue to push yourself and grow. That’s what I like about New York. I have to push myself there.”
I’m speaking with Melvis after a rehearsal for her performance later that evening at Sabor a Café, and intimate music venue in Chicago, where she will present her new Ashedí Project with a hand-picked group of some of Chicago’s best jazz and Latin musicians, including trumpeter Orbert Davis, guitarist Mike Alemana, bassist Brett Benteler (who recently left Chicago for New York as well, but returned for this show) and conguero Frankie Ocasio.
Steeped in Afro-Cuban tradition, Melvis is also fully immersed in the wider music world. She cites Cuban artists like Merceditas Valdés and Marta Valdés as influences, but also Erykah Badu, Billie Holiday, Shirley Horn, Rosa Passos and Ella Fitzgerald.
“New York is the best platform for a creative artist. Not only are the great living jazz artists there, but also important Cuban artists as well, like Roman Diaz [a master Afro-Cuban percussionist who made his own Havana-New York transition in 1999], a deep repository of Afro-Cuban knowledge and rhythms, who I now get to learn from first hand. Not only do I get to learn the old ways, but also the new, because in New York even traditional musicians are very open.”
I ask Melvis what the Ashedí Project is.
“Ashedí is an idea that I had. In my case, it’s a new stage in my career where I’m embracing influences from my childhood such as Afro-Cuban tradition, and connecting them with jazz and other genres of music in Cuba and the world. Ashedí is an Afro-Cuban Yoruba word that is used as an invitation. In a Yoruba ceremony, when we talk about the ashedí, it is an invitation to other practitioners to be part of the ceremony. And that’s exactly what I want to do with this project. So what you hear today, in this music, is an invitation to these particular musicians. I told them in the rehearsal, yes, look at the notes on the paper, but then play and do what you love. I’m looking for that vibe that is ashedí.”
The performance later that evening validates this approach. In rehearsal, the basic structure of each composition (almost all of them are new, although she did dip into Santa Habana for Inmensidad, a gorgeous evocation of the orisha Yemayá) was sketched out as Melvis directed from behind a piano, allowing each musician to find their way into the melody. In performance, it was quite literally night and day as the musicians found their footing. Bentler and Ocasio were subtle and effective, keeping the pulse grounded in Afro-Cuban tradition, while Davis and Alemana were given free reign to improvise and did so with incisive and sometimes spectacular solos. Depending on the needs of the song, Santa split her time between supporting the melody from the piano or out in front, where her voice and charisma riveted the audience.
Santa is a very good songwriter, but two of the highlights of the evening came in what were essentially tributes to the two sides of Santa’s ashedí: An alluring duet between Santa and guitarist Alemana on Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life and the encore, an incandescent cover of Marta Valdés’ En la Imaginación.
Orbert Davis, who is not only a trumpeter but also a composer, bandleader and founder of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, summed it up perfectly the next day: “It was one of the most musical nights of my life.”
The latest development in Santa’s career is joining the dynamic all-female Afro-Cuban jazz group Maqueque, led by Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett. Bunnett has been traveling to Cuba and working with Afro-Cuban musicians for several decades, recording the landmark album Spirits of Havana in 1989 with Yoruba Andabo, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and the very same Merceditas Valdés that Santa cites as an important influence.
“Because Jane has spent so much time in Cuba, she knew of my work with Sexto, Interactivo and of course Santa Habana. It’s almost like a family, we are very close. I am a bit older than the other members [of Maqueque], but when their singer Daymé Arocena, who was once a student of mine, left to concentrate on her solo career, Jane called me. I went to see Maqueque at the Blue Note in New York and it went from there.”
Santa tells me Maqueque is recording a new album with her, so I ask if she is recording herself.
“Moving to New York was a very big step, and I only did it two years ago. I spent the entire first year just absorbing everything and going to concerts of musicians that I had always admired. So, yes, I am thinking about recording again soon, but I am still learning and there is still a lot of work to be done, and I don’t want to rush it.”
It would seem that Melvis Santa has some pretty big artistic ambitions, but is willing to take some time in getting there. The rest of us will have to be patient. Meanwhile, though, we can hope for more perfectly musical nights like the one at Sabor a Café.
About the author:Don Macica is a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a contributing writer to several online publications. When not traveling, he lives a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.
Chicagoans are a hardy bunch. We suffer through what seems like endless winters because we know one thing: Summer music in Chicago is awesome! Nearly every weekend has one neighborhood festival or another. There’s the city-owned world class concert venue Pritzker Pavilion downtown, but in recent years the neighborhood parks have stepped up big time too. Besides all the free stuff, there are also a few privately run festivals where the music to dollar ratio is especially high.
There’s something for everyone, but we have a mission here at Agúzate that keeps us focused on places where the Afro-Latin quotient is high. Here then, is our guide to where we want to be this summer.
Of course, you’re invited too!
The 606 Block Party, June 4: We start in the ‘hood, or more accurately, the four neighborhoods that Chicago’s urban trail park runs through: Bucktown, Wicker Park, Logan Square and Humboldt Park. They are celebrating their first anniversary by throwing a huge party, and the Latino flavor of the trail’s western half leads to some pretty good music. Humboldt Boulevard between Cortland and Wabansia is where you’ll find salsa orchestra Luis Palermo and the Brasa All-Stars, the Latin ska of Los Vicios de Papá, and Bomba conBuya with special guest bomba maestroLeró Martinez. More action can be found in the smaller parks along the trail, including rumba Cubana from Iré Elese Abure, booming Brazilian samba from Bloco Maximo, Tango & folkloric music by bandoneón player Richard Scofano and even more bomba and plena with Leró Martinez, Jerry Ferrao, Arawak’Opia and saxophonist Roy McGrath.
Night Out in the Parks, various dates: Speaking of Roy McGrath, we’ve been following his Julia al Son de Jazz project ever since he premiered it at The 606 last year. McGrath reports that it is still growing and refining, and the public will get three more chances to check in on its progress in three spots around the city: June 24 at Fred Anderson Park in the South Loop, July 29 at Riis Park and August 26 at Gage Park. More 606 celebrants return as well, including Bomba con BuyaJuly 25 in Blackhawk Park and Iré Elese AbureAugust 27 at Julia de Burgos Park. Miramar, whose new album is a tribute to Puerto Rican songwriter Sylvia Rexach, performs June 24 in Hermosa Park. Finally, AfriCaribe brings the bomba y plena to three spots as well, June 23 in Churchill Park, July 11 in Wicker Park and August 10 in Foster Park.
Millennium Park Summer Music Series, various dates: There are many reasons to spend a summer evening here, but for us, none are more essential than the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra on June 27. Opening for El Maestro is Afro-Colombian folkloric ensemble Ecos del Pacifico. Other promising shows include Brazilian singer-songwriter Rodrigo Amarante (you might recognize him from his haunting theme to Netflix’s Narcos) on June 13, Afrobeat heir Femi Kuti and Positive Force on July 11, Congolese band Mbongwana Star with local favorites Dos Santos Antibeat Orquesta on August 11 and, making up for last year’s State Department visa meltdown, highlife legend King Sunny Ade on July 18. UPDATE: Puerto Rican singer Ileana Cabra Joglar, better known as iLe, has been added on July 14.
Square Roots Festival, July 8-10: The street fest version of its predecessor, the glorious Folk & Roots Festival, may never quite hit those heights of communal bliss, but the venerable Old Town School continues to bring in excellent music, and this year is no exception. We’ll be checking out roots reggae from Taj Weekes, the Ethiopian pop of Debo Band and the classic New York Latin sound of Los Hacheros.
Chicago SummerDance, various dates: A tradition going on 20 years, this globally generous three month dance party on Chicago’s front lawn will present several local and international artists, including Angel Melendez & the 911 Mambo Orchestra, Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca, Los Hacheros, Ola Fresca and Carpacho y Su Super Combo.
Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, July 15-16: Make sure your Uber account is in good standing, ‘cause you’re going to need it this weekend! We’ll start off Friday night with a festival that, without fail, presents the absolute best in Latin Jazz. And though we don’t yet know what they are planning for this year, it’s a sure bet that you’ll want to see some of it. UPDATE: Legendary San Francisco percussionist and bandleader John Santos has been announced as the Friday night headliner. Juan Pastor’s Chinchano opens.
El Gran Festival Colombiano, July 16-17: Back for its second year, they are working hard to build on last summer’s great lineup with 79 year old cumbia legend Anibal Velasquez, champeta master Charles King, salsa dura from Pibo Márquez’ Salsa Caribbean All Stars, Lucho Morales y Su Fiesta Vallenato, Afro-Colombian rising stars Explosión Negra and the old school salsa orchestra Sonora Carruseles. On the DJ side you’ll find Geko Jones from the Que Bajo?! collective and festival organizer Jorge Ortega himself spinning classic vinyl.
Celebrate Clark Street, July 16-17: Back for its eleventh year, the music at this humble and slightly gritty festival (I can say that ‘cause it’s in my neighborhood) always turns it into something of a mini-World Music Fest. This year is no exception. We’re especially excited about Palenke SoulTribe, Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars and the El Freaky collective.
Evanston Ethnic Arts Festival, July 16-17: Uber goes to the suburbs, right? It is, as they say, cooler by the lake, and you can’t get any closer than at this summertime favorite. This year, check out the Cuban-Arabic-Flamenco-Gypsy Swing of Sultans of String, the Chicago Afrobeat Project, and the hard hitting Johnny Blas Afro Libre Orchestra.
Festival Cubano, August 12-14: No lineup has yet been made public, but in the past they have showcased such giants as Willy Chirino, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico and Alfredo de la Fe. Last year brought the first visits of Cubans directly from the island, and there’s no reason to think that will stop now. UPDATE: Reunited hip-hop trio Orishas plus Albita and La India have been announced as headliners.
Chicago Jazz Festival, September 1-4: There are few better ways to end your summer than by immersing yourself in jazz at this 38 year old tradition. The Big Papi of jazz fests promises something for everyone, but we are especially excited about two performances: The experimental Afro-Latin collective James Sanders’ Proyecto Libre on Friday and the closing night concert, a Latin Jazz All Stars 95th birthday tribute to legendary Cuban congueroCandido Camero with Candido himself.
You have to come indoors sometime, and the early part of the summer provides a few excellent opportunities to do just that, including:
Venezuela by way of New York hedonists Los Amigos Invisibles hit Bottom Lounge June 9.
Darwin Noguera & Victor Garcia’s CALJE(June 10) and Colombian/New York band leader Gregorio Uribe(June 12), both at Sabor a Café Steakhouse.
Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez Trio at the Jazz ShowcaseJune 16-19.
Triple Threat! Dos Santos Antibeat Orquesta with funk/soul/reggae band Fatbook and global jazz beatmaster Makaya McCraven at Martyrs June 17.
By Don Macica,
Photos by Charlie Billups
A long awaited community event took place last night in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. Saxophonist and MacArthur fellow Miguel Zenón, visiting the city to present his Identities are Changeable project at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center, came to Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center to share his motivations and processes behind Identities and explore different facets of Afro-Puerto Rican music with local musicians.
We were there, and it was truly a once in a lifetime experience, requiring the collaboration and mutual respect of many individuals and institutions to make it happen. Miguel Zenón, of course, but also the University, SRBCC’s executive director Omar Torres-Kortright and several Chicago musicians who help keep Puerto Rican culture alive: jazz saxophonist Roy McGrath and his quartet, traditional bomba ensemble Buya, and SRBCC’s own youth ensemble, Arawak’Opia.
Zenón opened the evening by talking about the process of creating Identities are Changeable, a multi-media big band project about the idea of identity among Puerto Ricans born in the United States. The concepts were illustrated by video excerpts. He then took several questions from the audience, which he answered thoughtfully and at length.
The music that followed was wonderful, starting with Zenón playing with the young musicians, singers and dancers of Arawak’Opia. A little loose, perhaps, but genuinely inspirational. McGrath, who was born in San Juan but now lives in Chicago, joined Zenón for a jazz take on three Puerto Rican classics, Obsesión, Perfume de Gardenaias and Capullito de Alelì. Finally, Buya took the stage with their usual energy and spirit while Zenón improvised in and around their powerful drumming, singing and dancing. The group learned Zenón’s composition Esta Plena especially for this occasion, and they nailed it.
Equal to the music was the sense of shared community in the room going back and forth between the performers on the stage and the people in the audience as barriers between the two dissolved. In just a couple of years, SRBCC has established themselves in Hermosa after over four decades based in Wicker Park. They have gone where the community needs them most, and bringing a world class talent like Miguel Zenón and presenting him for free is a testament to their commitment to the neighborhood. They have a huge summer of activity planned, starting almost immediately with programs presented in collaboration with The 606 and Night Out in the Parks. Visit their website srbcc.org for a complete schedule.
Photographer Charlie Billups, who has been documenting Puerto Rican and Latino culture in Chicago, was at the Zenón event and took the pictures below. You can view more of his work at his Tumblr blog or at charliebillups.com.