By Omar Torres-Kortright, Photos by Charlie Billups
Last Saturday, February 8, iLe, the Latin Grammy-winning artistic persona of composer and singer Ileana Cabra, solidified her position as one of the most captivating and original music projects to come out of Puerto Rico in the last decade. Her Almadura Tour, which will visit 15 North American cities over the next month, had a dream start at Old Town School of Folk Music’s Mauer Hall in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood.
As always, the night offered an x-ray into the heart and soul of this highly committed artist. Wearing her heart on her sleeve, iLe invites the audience into a world inspired by the complex cultural and musical influences of her Caribbean identity. Every thought, every move, and every word had a purpose in this carefully-crafted, and highly personal artistic statement on the political and social struggles of her native Puerto Rico. Motivated and provoked by Hurricane María, her newest production provides context to the colonial status of Puerto Rico by delving deep into the island’s history with songs like Odio, inspired by the 1979 killings of two independentistas at Cerro Maravilla and Ñe, ñe, ñe; a clear dig at the island’s politicians using plena as its rhythmic driving force.
While many of iLe’s hits are made for the dancing public, I didn’t expect to see the audience standing from the first song to the last, creating a special bond with her Chicago fans that I had not witnessed in her previous visits. The intimate size and pristine acoustics of Mauer Hall allowed iLe to connect on a personal level with every one of the lucky 400+ music enthusiasts that filled the sold-out venue.
Ile’s performance included material from her Best New Artist Latin Grammy-winning Ilevitable (2016), as well as the multilayered and polyrhythmic 2020 Grammy Nominated Almadura (2019). Throughout the night she showcased the depth and range of her voice, capable of going from classic bolero in songs like Triángulo and Temes, to salsa (Te quiero con Bugalú and Déjame Decirte) and even Dominican palo in the closing song of the evening, the powerfully rhythmic La Curandera (The Healer). The healer, she explained before beginning the song, offers a deliberate pause to shake off bad energy and press the reset button… kind of like what many Puerto Ricans had to do after Hurricane María and, more recently, the January 2020 earthquakes.
ile’s performance showcased the talents of her swinging 9-piece band that combines an impressive mix of established and emerging talent from the Island of Enchantment, including musical director Ismael Cancel (drums and percussion), Bayoán Ríos (guitar), Adalberto Rosario (guitar), Jeren Guzmán (congas, percussion), Jonathan González (bass, percussion), Zacheaus Paul (keys, percussion), Jorge Echevarría (trombone), and Hommy Ramos (trombone). The impeccable sound was made possible thanks to the able hands and ears of Bobby Connelly-Nadal, who also came directly from Puerto Rico to nurture the distinctive sonic elements that make up iLe’s artistic DNA.
It has been truly amazing to watch Ileana Cabra’s growth as an artist over the course of just a few years and two albums. The timelessness of her sound disregards fashion in order to convey something deeper and more lasting. It’s easy to imagine a very long and rewarding artistic career to come.
Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which helps present the city’s many free festivals along with other programming throughout the year, has increasingly recognized the growth and diversity of Chicago’s many Latino communities. It was not only appropriate, but savvy, that one of the first major shows of this year’s World Music Festival Chicago, falling on a weekend in which Central America nations and Mexico both celebrate their independence, would draw from Mexico, Peru and Puerto Rico for its first ever all-Latin American show. Dubbed “¡Súbelo! – A Celebration of Pan Latin Music & Culture”, it took place at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park.
Summer-like temperatures and abundant sunshine greeted Mexico City’s “Electrónica Regional Mexicana” band Centavrvs, cumbia amazónica pioneers Los Wemblers de Iquitos, and Puerto Rico’s Pirulo y la Tribu, whose 21st century salsa borrows elements from Cuban timba, hip-hop, bomba and R&B.
Although a band like Centavrvs might seem to fall outside of Agúzate’s dedication to Afro-Latin music, their sound carries many tropical influences including cumbia, cha-cha-chá, danzón and even some vintage salsa, smoothly integrated into their widescreen corrido-like narratives. That’s not surprising, given the way that cumbia has migrated across Latin America and the Caribbean influences that enter Mexico through the port city of Veracruz.
This is, by my count, Centavrvs third visit to Chicago, the first one being at the much missed Celebrate Clark Street Festival in Rogers Park and the second paired with Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno at a 2017 Millennium Park Summer Music Series show. Each time the band comes their sound gets a little bigger and more compelling, and this time around they’ve added a Venezuelan percussionist to the mix to bring the tropical elements more to the foreground. Electronic effects and samples blended seamlessly with guitar, bass and drums to powerful effect.
When cumbia reached Peru from Colombia in the late 1960s, it found a receptive audience among the country’s marginalized, indigenous population, who blended it with local sounds and a big helping of rock guitar. This was certainly true in urban centers like Lima, but no less so in seemingly isolated towns deep in the Amazon. It was there that a genre variously known as chicha, psychedelic cumbia and cumbia amazónica was taken up in the town of Iquitos by Los Wemblers. The veteran ensemble made several classics in the 1970s, including one that served as yet another name for the genre:Sonido Amazonico. They were discovered by a wider audience earlier in this century after Barbès Records included some of their songs in their “Roots of Chicha” compilation. Collaborations with the Meridian Brothers and Dengue Dengue Dengue led to them recording the brand-new album “Vision del Ayahuasca” for Barbès and now a world tour.
After a mid-tempo start, Los Wemblers quickly picked up the pace, mixing their 40-year-old classics with new tunes that matched their exuberant spirit and experimental tendencies, relishing the opportunity to play in front of an audience diverse in both age and national identity. The band would have had the crowd dancing in the aisles had the Millennium Park security let them. Instead, they danced in their seats, enthusiastically singing along.
The sun was beginning to set behind the Chicago skyline when one of Puerto Rico’s hottest groups took the stage. Pirulo y la Tribu are a salsa band, but one that generously welcomes other influences, including its Cuban cousin timba, boricua sources both traditional (bomba) and more recent (reggaeton), and American style R&B and hip-hop. They are a perfect example of how a music moves forward and thrives without abandoning its roots. After all, that’s what salsa was in its early days, a new way of absorbing and interpreting diverse Afro-Caribbean and American sources into something new and relevant to an urban audience. It’s not all that different than what Los Wembler’s did back then and Centavrvs do today.
Francisco “Pirulo” Rosado is a percussionist by training and a showman by nature. In La Tribu, he’s assembled a 10-person juggernaut that he leads from his custom-made timbales. Pirulo keeps the pace accelerated with a clave that manages to squeeze an extra beat into the 2/3 form somewhere between the 4 & 5. The band’s lineup doesn’t stray too far from the classic: three horns, three coro singers, a conguero, keyboardist and Pirulo’s timbales. The extra jolt comes from electric guitar, bass guitar and Pirulo himself, whose gruff vocals exhort both the band and the crowd higher and higher. Once again, the audience was up and dancing pretty much from the first note. A standout moment occurred when the band switched gears to do a straight up bomba number led by coro singer Chamir Bonano’s powerful voice. There was a little tinkering for modernization’s sake, but the spirit and authenticity were a clear signifier of Pirulo’s reverence for his roots.
Pirulo’s set had people dancing throughout the park, and eventually security relented enough to allow some aisle dancing down in front. Ever the master of ceremonies, he peppered the songs with audience chant-along interludes, gradually building each to a climax before turning the band loose to keep up with his hyper-drive clave. At the end, the crowd got their “otra” without excessive delay, and the whole day closed on a very high note.
Puerto Rico, unlike the countries represented by the other bands at Súbelo, is certainly not celebrating its independence this week. There is an anniversary on the horizon, though, marking 2 years since Hurricane María devastated the island. Pirulo’s set, though, was the opposite of somber. Instead, it celebrated resilience, pride, determination, spirit, and even gratitude, all of it expressed in his audience chant, “Gracias… Thank you!”
“He’s a larger than life figure. I’ve been connected to him for as long as I can remember listening to music. When I was a child, his music was always present around the house. This was before I had any thought of becoming a musician. When he passed, it was like a president had died or something, a period of national mourning. That really affected me.”
I’m speaking by phone with Miguel Zenón about his new album with the Miguel Zenón Quartet, “Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera,” the latest of several albums spanning almost 15 years in which the saxophonist and composer explores the emblematic subject of Puerto Rico, both musically and culturally.
“Later on, when I began to study music, I realized that
Rivera was a genius,” Zenón continues. “Since then, he’s always been my guy.
Over the years, I dabbled around the edges, arranging some of Rivera songs for
David’s group (Zenón played alto sax for nearly 5 years in a group led by
fellow Puerto Rican David Sánchez before forming his own quartet in 2005) and
later on for my ‘Alma Adentro’ album. I finally felt it was time for a full
The product of that investigation will make its Chicago
debut September 19 at the Jazz Showcase when the Miguel Zenón Quartet (Luis Perdomo,
piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Henry Cole, drums) begin a four-night residency.
Zenón has been coming to the historic Chicago jazz venue regularly for almost
twenty years, first as a member of David Sánchez’ group, then as leader of his
current quartet. In 2013, he brought his Rhythm Collective side project.
Although I’ve long known that Rivera was an important
figure, I didn’t quite understand the depth of that reverence. I knew that
Zenón was preparing this tribute from a conversation that I had with him last
fall at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center when he celebrated the release of
his previous album, “Yo Soy la Tradición”, with a concert there. I immersed myself in the music and story of
Ismael Rivera before calling Zenón. I believed it was necessary to understand
more about Ismael Rivera before I could approach a tribute to him.
The story is considerably more complex than this brief
outline, but Ismael Rivera’s career is roughly divided into two periods: His
work as lead vocalist in the groundbreaking 1950s and early 60s pre-salsa
output of Cortijo y Su Combo, led by his childhood friend Rafael Cortijo, and
the 1970s, when he formed Ismael Rivera y sus Cachimbos after the ascendency of
salsa in New York. In between those two periods are five years in prison due to
a 1962 drug bust, which ended Cortijo’s combo.
Rivera, nicknamed Maelo, is a genius in the way that
saxophonist Charlie Parker is a genius: employing an unprecedented and
innovative approach to art and technique so that their field (in Parker’s case
jazz, in Rivera’s Afro-Caribbean improvised sonero singing) is forever divided
up into pre- and post-eras. No less than the great Cuban singer Benny Moré
dubbed Rivera “El Sonero Mayor.” It was natural, then, that Zenón would study
Rivera’s vocal improvisations the same way he would study Parker.
“Rivera and Cortijo were grounded in traditional Afro-Puerto Rican music,” says Zenón, “and they brought that to the stage and dance floor, putting a specifically Puerto Rican spin to a sonero tradition that comes out of Cuba, Arsenio Rodríguez, Benny Moré. What Maelo built on top of that was unprecedented. Maelo’s melodic and rhythmic gifts of invention took sonero to another level.”
“Rivera is an important cultural figure,” continues Zenón. “Maelo and Cortijo were guys from the ‘hood.” Zenón is referring to Santurce, San Juan’s historic working-class neighborhood (where, many years later, Zenón was born as well) populated largely by Afro-Puerto Ricans. “They took street music like bomba and plena and built a modern, popular sound out of it that didn’t rely on Cuban son as its only reference. No one had done that before, and people loved it. The story goes that songwriter Bobby Capó, who was a big advocate, arranged for them to perform on a popular television show. When the band showed up, the producers saw they were these black guys from the streets and didn’t want to even let them in the hotel where the show was broadcast from, let alone put them on the air. Bobby argued that they’re here, what else are you gonna do? The producers relented, and Cortijo y su Combo became a huge sensation. People loved their attitude, their rhythms, their choreography, everything.”
“Later on, they became the backup band for Benny Moré, and
that took them to big stages everywhere, not only in Puerto Rico, but all over
Latin America and in New York.”
Many an academic study has been written examining Rivera and
Cortijo’s significance to everyday Puerto Ricans, and I won’t quote them here,
but suffice it to say it’s a big deal. It’s no surprise, then, that Zenón was
drawn to Maelo for personal, socio-cultural and artistic reasons. To drive the
point home, Zenón brought in one of those scholars, César Colón-Montijo, to
write Sonero’s liner notes.
“I didn’t make the album to expose Rivera to a wider
audience, especially among jazz fans,” says Zenón, “but if that happens it
would be great. His music deserves it.”
Before listening closely to Zenón’s album, I researched and
assembled the original versions of the source material in the same order as the
tunes appear on “Sonero”, then committed them to memory as best I could. It’s
worth noting that neither Rivera nor Cortijo were songwriters. Some of Puerto
Rico’s best, including Capó and the great Tite Curet Alonso, took care of that,
often writing tunes expressly for them. Rivera’s genius was in his improvised
singing, essentially “composing” in real time much like a great jazz musician.
For “Sonero,” Zenón and his quartet take those written and
improvised compositions, examine them, break them down, reassemble them and
build new themes on top of them. The album’s 10 tracks are divided equally
between the early Cortijo material and the later sides that he recorded for
Capó’s 1975 tune “Las Tumbas”, as an example, begins with Rivera’s verse (his “prison blues” according to Colón-Montijo) played gracefully by pianist Luis Perdomo and then gradually picked up by the rest of the quartet. The simple melody is lovingly spun out over the course of 3 minutes until, just as the coro is briefly hinted at, Zenón and company abruptly take on the original’s opening horn fanfare before exploring variations the coro for several minutes, returning to the fanfare at the end.
The 1958 Cortijo y su Combo classic “El Negro Bembón”, also
penned by Capó, once again starts by taking Rivera’s vocal as Zenón’s initial
theme, only this time it’s one of his exuberant improvisations, which is then
played against the band’s ensemble work. A similar approach carries Curet
Alonso’s 1978 “Las Caras Lindas”, Rivera’s ode to the varied and beautiful
black faces of the Caribbean.
The rest of the album continues in this vein, with Colón-Montijo’s liner notes helpfully providing the social and personal context of each song. [Author’s note: Yes, I am suggesting that you buy the CD for its beautiful and informative packaging rather than simply streaming the audio. You won’t regret it.]
Zenón and the rest of his quartet, while all fans of salsa,
resist the urge to “salsify” the tunes. “Although salsa and jazz both emerge
out of popular traditions and the music of the people, they took different
directions,” remarks Zenón. “But the source is the same.”
The Miguel Zenón Quartet may be masters of modern jazz, but the heart and soul of Puerto Rico embeds its spirit into every note of “Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera.”
Miguel Zenón Quartet, Jazz Showcase, September 19-22, two shows nightly plus Sunday matinee. Tickets and information at jazzshowcase.com
If you go to the Facebook page of Ashedí, the group led by Melvis Santa that consists of her and three master Afro-Cuban percussionists, you’ll see it’s titled “Ashedí – Afro Cuban Jazz Meets Rumba”. But to hear the Cuban singer, pianist and composer explain it, they knew each other all along. If fact, they’re family.
“Afro-Cuban traditions are, for me, the spiritual cousins of blues and jazz,” Melvis tells me by way of explaining how Ashedí came together, first as an exploratory concept and later solidifying into the ensemble that will perform twice in Chicago this weekend, including their debut at the Chicago Latin Jazz Festival and a return visit to a venue that has been something of her Chicago home, the restaurant and intimate music venue Sabor a Café.
It was at Sabor a Café that I first met Melvis Santa in 2016. She had a show there later that day that went under the name ‘Ashedí Project.’ I interviewed her after a rehearsal with the Chicago musicians who, for that day, were Ashedí. The four split the difference between jazz and Latin, with trumpeter Orbert Davis, guitarist Mike Allemana, bassist Brett Bentler and conguero Francisco Ocasio.
I ask Melvis how Ashedí transitioned from the rotation of accompanists to the set line up of herself and rumba masters Roman Diaz, Rafael Monteagudo and Anier Alonso.
“Having the opportunity to live in New York as an artist has been an ongoing source of inspiration and a challenge at the same time,” says Santa, who left a notably successful music career in Cuba when she moved to New York from Havana in 2014. “The level is very high and there is no limit when it comes to creativity since people from every corner of the world get together there. With Ashedí I was looking for something, so I tried different formats with different musicians and let the music absorb their influences and cultural backgrounds to see where that could lead me. At some point you clearly understand what is that you really want to do, and how you best can do it. Likewise, you learn to identify what, where, or who you don’t want to waste your time and creative energy with.”
As a young girl in Cuba, Santa was absorbing diverse musical
sounds from an early age.
“I learned to sing before properly speaking, and to dance before I could properly walk. By the time I first came to a music school at 8 years old I had already years of performing in community events, attending arts workshops with my mom, attending children’s theater plays with my dad, opera concerts with my aunts, religious ceremonies with my grandma, and so on… I first “discovered” R&B and Jazz through my mom. She worked as an English translator, so she brought home a lot of music in English to practice her accent. She especially loved Anita Baker, Minnie Ripperton, and Steve Wonder.
“I remember while in high school during a listening session with friends someone played Body and Soul by Coleman Hawkins. I never forgot that sound. One day my mom brought home the album Unforgettable, in which Natalie Cole sings 22 jazz standards honoring the legacy of her father, Nat King Cole. My favorite tune was Lush Life, but still I didn’t know what jazz meant, I just loved the quality of sounds and how it made me feel.”
At the same time, Afro-Cuban spiritual tradition is deeply
embedded in Melvis’ music. “I grew up into a small but very diverse family who
holds dear various traditions from Havana and Matanzas: Yoruba, Congo, Arara,
Abakua, Catholicism and even Atheism… In the social context and time where I
grew up you didn’t learn any folkloric material attending a music school
because the educational system is built on western music. You have to be born
into a family that practices Popular and/or folkloric traditions, or just be
part of the scene of certain neighborhoods to learn the codes. So you graduate
as a classical musician, but it doesn’t necessarily means that you don’t have a
She goes on, “In Cuba everything happens at the same time, especially
in the culture. You are born into a wide range of contexts and you—unconsciously at first—learn to
navigate each one on the go. Just absorbing everything like breathing.”
I return to the subject of New York City and the beginnings of Ashedí.
“I think the concept of Ashedí could have only be born in the U.S., specifically in New York, and that is mainly because it came as a result of my encounter with a Cuba I didn’t get to know,” she says, referring in part to meeting and working with Cuban master musician (and now Ashedí member) Roman Diaz, who left Cuba for New York himself in 1999. “The musical melting pot that is New York, Chicago, New Orleans and many other big cities with their culturally diverse communities and history have definitely contributed to shape my own concept, as well. Although, now that it is ‘born’, I’m positive it could coexist in modern Cuba or anywhere in the world.”
Melvis Santa views her art as it develops in the U.S. part of a continuum. “From the early twentieth century, Mario Bauza and Cab Calloway, Charlie Parker and Machito, Graciela and Dinah Washington, to Dizzy and Chano, and so on… Afro-Cuban jazz stood on his own in New York, and those were some special combinations!” She considers percussionists Diaz and Monteagudo as “the continuation of pioneers like Mongo Santamaria, Candido Camero, Chano Pozo, and many other Afro-Cuban master percussionists who had the opportunity to assimilate and incorporate jazz as a second language, without losing their roots.”
Santa is totally committed to her art. “There is nothing separate in anything that I do. It all comes from my personal and professional experience,” she says. “Everything is completely intertwined, and I understood that concept since my early childhood. As a professional artist, my mission is to express myself through the arts. And if what I do can help others find their own way of expression, I’m genuinely happy to share my experience with them. I’m not only relying on my natural gifts or talents, I have consciously studied and developed different ways of expression, which involves my cultural background plus diverse art forms such as theater, dance, film, writing, singing, music… I’m still exploring and learning.”
Melvis Santa and Ashedí
Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, Humboldt Park Boathouse, Friday July 12 at 7 PM. jazzinchicago.org Sabor a Café, 2435 W. Peterson, Chicago, Saturday July 13 at 9 PM (two sets). saboracaferestaurant.com or call (773) 878-6327 for reservations.
Nathan Rodriguez is a Chicago-born Puerto Rican musician and dedicated salsero who was virtually raised on the music, being mentored and given opportunities to perform by veteran salsa musicians at the Latin jam sessions that dotted the city, often sneaking into clubs while underage for the chance to play. Now 36 years old, Rodriguez is a bandleader in his own right with both Conjunto Borikén and Azucar, a Celia Cruz tribute project.
Unfortunately, the last weekly Latin jazz jam session to
flourish in the city ended in 2012 when its founder, bassist Richie Pillot,
passed away and Café Bolero, the club where it was held, closed its doors.
That was a year before Roy McGrath, a Puerto Rico-born jazz saxophonist, moved to Chicago to study at Northwestern University. McGrath is first and foremost a jazz musician, but his Caribbean heritage is an indelible part of him and his music. Like Rodriguez, McGrath is a bandleader, composer and arranger, and his understanding of both the salsa and jazz idioms has made him an in-demand player in both camps.
A shopping mall in suburban Chicago is quite possibly the last place you might expect to find the heir to Café Bolero and the Latin jazz jam, but that is precisely where Nathan and Roy have teamed up to bring back what they both consider a vital resource and platform for Chicago’s jazz and Latin musicians. Of course, it helps that Lincolnwood Town Center houses an outpost of one of Chicago’s finer Cuban restaurants, 90 Miles Cuban Café.
“90 Miles’ owner Alberto Gonzales, who sees his restaurant as a means of celebrating and promoting Cuban food and culture, wanted to expand programming, and I was looking for a way to build more connection between Chicago’s salsa and Latin jazz musicians,” says Rodriguez, who was, at the time, booking and promoting the restaurant’s Friday and Saturday night live music. “Musicians don’t get that many opportunities to hang out together and play because most weekends we are all busy in other people’s bands,” Rodriguez continues. “I convinced him that a jam session would draw musicians from all over Chicago and that the music could be a draw with the general public as well.”
Judging by the sizable crowd that was there when I visited on a recent Tuesday, that prediction was proving accurate. But before he could get to that point, though, Rodriguez had to put together a core band that was good enough to attract others to join the action. For that, he called Roy McGrath for help. His connections in both the jazz and salsa communities blended perfectly with the solid reputation that Rodriguez had built in the last 20 years.
“As a Puerto Rican jazz musician, I’ve always straddled two worlds,” says McGrath. “Unfortunately, I don’t see that much crossover between the salsa and jazz communities. Salseros might have heard of Charlie Parker, and jazz musicians might know something about Chano Pozo playing with Dizzy Gillespie, but there are these two parallel worlds comprised of terrific musicians who often don’t know each other.”
When McGrath first arrived in Chicago, he knew he found the place he wanted to live and work and create art. “I immersed myself in the jazz scene and loved that there were regular jam sessions where I could learn a lot from working musicians and become a better player,” McGrath says. “Those places are so important for sharing knowledge and developing community, which in turn leads to more opportunities to play. But the salsa player in me didn’t have those same opportunities.”
Rodriguez agrees. “When I was a young player, getting the
chance to hang with professionals was incredibly valuable. Some of them became
mentors and inspired me to really take music seriously and work at becoming
The band that Rodriguez and McGrath assembled is a virtual all-star ensemble. Besides Rodriguez and McGrath, you’ll usually find Brian Rivera and Tito Sierra on percussion, bassist Freddy Quintero, and veteran keyboardist Edwin Sanchez, who brings a decades-long career as a bandleader and arranger to the proceedings. “Edwin is so amazing,” says McGrath. “He knows every song on the planet, his montunos are crazy good and he can really solo.”
For the sessions, Rodriguez and McGrath divide up
responsibilities along the lines of their own instruments, Nathan cuing the
percussionists and Roy calling the tunes and working with the horn players.
On the Tuesday I was there, plenty of musicians, both professional
and amateur, came to join in. Some of the pros included conguero Pete
Vale, a salsero who also plays with Dos Santos, drummer Jonathan Wenzel,
who is a member of, among others, Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic and
McGrath’s Remembranzas Quartet, jazz trumpeters Thomas Madeja and Leon Q. Allen,
bassist Chris Nolte and timbalero Eddie Dones. The joyful noise that they
created fairly levitated the room.
“I want the music to be at a high level, but not elitist,”
says McGrath. “It’s not always easy to mesh the jazz and salsa cats because the
two styles speak different languages that are second nature to one but unknown
by the other. So, I want the atmosphere to be inviting and fun, not intimidating
to either side. That way everybody benefits, even when mistakes are made. We’re
even drawing a lot of jazz vocalists who are willing to take a standard like ‘Misty’
and sing it as a bolero. It’s pretty cool. The learning curve can be steep for
both sides, but when folks relax and have fun good things happen and they come
back another week.”
Rodriguez voices a similar sentiment. “There are a lot of salsa players, but not a lot of venues that book salsa bands, so this gives them an opportunity to play more often, especially the young guys that are just breaking in but not yet getting called for gigs. At the same time, everyone gets to hang together, have some fun, and learn from each other.”
McGrath sees an additional benefit to the sessions,
something that says a lot about how he views music as a means of social engagement.
“I’m excited about this as a musician, of course, but my reasons for bringing these two worlds together run deeper. There’s a big racial divide in Chicago, and encountering it surprised and bothered me after coming from Puerto Rico and also spending a few years studying music in New Orleans. I want this to be a safe place where musicians of all types can come together to share and learn about each other and maybe overcome some of those barriers that segregate people. People can get past their fears and prejudices when the conditions are right, so that’s what I’m hoping will happen here.”
The Latin Jazz Jam is every Tuesday from 7:30 – 9:30 PM at 90 Miles Cuban Café, 3333 W. Touhy, Lincolnwood, IL (Lincolnwood Town Center)
In the long catalog of devastation that Hurricane María
wrought on Puerto Rico was its agricultural sector. In truth, though, there
wasn’t that much agriculture there to start with. Beginning in the 1950s, the
island began a move toward importing much of its food. This was driven by a
mixture of industrialization, big business, and government policy as a colony
of the United States. By the 1990s, it had almost collapsed altogether,
replaced by canned products in the supermarkets and American fast food outlets like
McDonalds proliferating everywhere. What produce there was came from the
Dominican Republic and beyond.
According to Chef Xavier Pacheco, who will be in Chicago this weekend for a pair of events at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and Latinicity, those were the decades that Puerto Ricans largely forgot about their food traditions. Local markets disappeared in favor of large supermarkets, and with them, knowledge of native foods. Trained in the U.S. and equipped with an important internship in Barcelona, Pacheco was aware of local, culturally driven food movements in Spain, Mexico, Peru, and of course the United States. When he considered the condition of his place of birth, he was inspired to return there and improve things by highlighting Puerto Rico’s gastronomic history with a new restaurant devoted to it and supporting the few local farmers that were left to once again grow those native foods.
“I had to go back and look at what we were eating, why we
were eating it, and how that could be improved,” said Pacheco when I spoke to
him by phone from San Juan. “Not only for the present and my restaurant, but
also for a future in which Puerto Ricans can have better product and stronger
The restaurant was La Jaquita Baya, a globally acclaimed farm-to-table concept that prepared its menu with 80% locally grown ingredients. At the same time, Pacheco and other like-minded chefs were actively supporting local farmers and food traditions through the Asociación Gastronómica Puertorriqueña, a movement focused on linking up and strengthening the different divisions of the local food production (chefs, farmers, local cheese makers, bakers, butchers, fishermen, etc.).
“We were kind of pioneers together,” says Pacheco. “We
traveled the island looking for farmers and asking them to grow the things that
we needed instead of importing them. Little by little it grew. More
importantly, though, we wanted to inspire pride in who we were and highlight
the uniqueness of the food grown here.”
Pacheco holds an expansive view of Puerto Rican gastronomy. “In
Puerto Rico, we are not simply Tainos, Africans and Spaniards. Lots of people
migrated here in the early 20th century—Armenians, Chinese, Polish
and more. Like the U.S. is a big melting pot, Puerto Rico is a small one. Those
people stayed and now are Puerto Ricans too. My belief as a chef is that
everything that we grow here is Puerto Rican, too, regardless of where it came
La Jaquita Baya,
along with all the farms that Pacheco worked with, was seriously damaged by María.
Agriculture when done right can be quite resilient, however, and within a
matter of months farmers were again able to supply some product. Since María,
agriculture has bounced back strongly.
“A lot of young people are now farming, perhaps more than before,” says Pacheco. “Importantly, there is also a growing consciousness among chefs and restaurants that if you want respect you have to support local farming. The reality is that we are not ready to feed the whole island. Imports are still needed. But giving priority to local farmers helps everybody a lot.”
At least partially because of the work done over the last
several years by Asociación Gastronómica
Puertorriqueña, new farm-to-tables are flourishing as well,
including Vianda in Santurce, which
has attracted huge press in the U.S., including being profiled in GQ’s Best New
Restaurants in America. “Francis is a friend of mine and his food is awesome,”
says Pacheco, referring to Vianda Chef
Francis Guzmán. “But there are several great new restaurants in the city.”
La Jaquita Baya, sadly,did not bounce back. In the immediate aftermath of María, Pacheco used it to distribute water and supplies. When it reopened in December, being any kind of farm-to-table was impossible, so Pacheco changed the name (and menu) to reflect that. Unfortunately, when agriculture came back strongly later, he had lost Jaquita Baya’s name recognition. Pacheco has sold the business and has moved on to new ventures.
Perhaps the most exciting of them is Bacoa… Finca & Fogón. If Jaquita Baya was farm-to-table, Bacoa will bring the table to the farm. Pacheco has partnered with two other chefs, including Raul Correa, to open a restaurant on a farm in Juncos, about 25 minutes outside of San Juan. They’ll grow their own produce, of course, but the hope is to eventually buy the whole farm and raise beef and goats there as well. Pacheco is also opening a taquería, inspired in part by a month-long research visit to Chicago in 2018.
Local farming still has a long way to go. A system that is
designed to sell cheap imports still has the advantage. Take the yautía, a root vegetable that is a
staple of the Puerto Rican diet. It can be imported from the Dominican Republic
and sold more cheaply than one grown by a local farmer, who is paying his staff
a decent wage and has all the additional expenses of running a business. Still,
Pacheco says, there is progress. “Even some supermarkets are now carrying up to
20% locally grown produce.”
“It will take more education and understanding of the necessity of self-sufficiency to get there, but I think that’s very possible,” says Pacheco. “I wasn’t the first to promote farm-to-table practices, but our work has already inspired the next generation.”
Farm to Table in Puerto Rico: A Conversation with Xavier Pacheco Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center Friday, May 17, 7:00PM Free admission – RSVP at Eventbrite
Gourmet Puerto Rico, A Gastronomy Extravaganza and Fundraiser Featuring Chefs Xavier Pacheco, Maria Mercedes Grubb, Raul Correa & Carlos Portela Latinicity Saturday, May 18, 5:30 PM Tickets $100 – Available at Eventbrite
It’s been four years since the Buena Vista Social Club concluded their “Adiós” tour and almost three since we last saw Omara Portuondo in Chicago. So it was with a measure of both excitement and trepidation that I greeted the news that the legendary Cuban diva was returning to Chicago on May 1. Excitement, because unlike her 2016 concert at Symphony Center, she would be performing this time at the intimate and acoustically perfect Old Town School of Folk Music. Trepidation because the concert’s title was “El Último Beso (The Last Kiss)”. Could she, at the age of 88, finally be retiring? In an interview that I did with her for Agúzate in October 2016, she stated flatly “Retirement? I’m just a young girl! There are some good things happening, a documentary movie, a lot of ideas, recordings… I’m grateful to do what I love most.”
Whether or not we ever get to see Omara Portuondo again in Chicago is unknown, so this might be our last kiss. But as she makes clear in this new interview, it is certainly not hers. One thing is for sure. You will want to be at the Old Town School on May 1 when they present “Omara es Cuba – El Último Beso”.
DM – Last night I heard someone refer to the Chicago concert as being part of your farewell tour, and, of course, “El Último Beso” is in the title. Say it isn’t so!
OP – Well, I’m not retiring, the Last Kiss is my last worldwide tour, which will take a couple of years and will visit a lot of countries. But I will keep performing, probably not on long worldwide tours, but music is my life!
DM – I understand that this tour will run until 2020 and truly be global, with stops in Asia, Europe and South America as well as North America, and then ends up back home in Cuba. Does the worldwide popularity of Cuban music surprise you?
OP – That’s correct; I’m really looking forward this tour. It’s going to be really special for me. I’m not surprised by the connection Cuban music has. This is because our music has so many influences, tradition and connects very well with the audience.
DM – I feel that we are incredibly lucky that you are mostly playing smaller, intimate theaters and clubs on this tour, as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing you in larger concert halls. Was this a deliberate choice?
OP – I’m happy performing, true though that on clubs the connection is very close and intimate. It’s priceless to see the audience reaction, their smiles and dance with them. My heart is full of joy to meet again with my American fans.
DM – You are once again being supported by Roberto Fonseca and his band. Fonseca is that rare musician who completely understands the core qualities of classic Cuban music yet is also strikingly adventurous and globally attuned in some of his own work. What has it been like working with him for the past several years?
OP – He is a unique human being. So gifted and talented. That’s our musical heritage and education, young musicians have a profound respect for our musical tradition but at the same time they are open to new sounds and influences. My connection with Robertico is simply beautiful. His personal way to perform is so unique, I feel dancing when singing with him.
DM – As I understand it, the repertoire on this tour will focus on classics, including songs from the Buena Vista era. Can we expect any surprises?
OP – Oh, definitely yes. I’m listening to all my albums, talking with the musicians that will be with me in this tour and I’m putting my heart to get a unique set list that will be unforgettable! But it’s a surprise, so you will have to come and see it!
Omara Portuondo, Old Town School of Folk Music, Wednesday, May 1, 8 PM – oldtownschool.org
By Don Macica
Photos by Elías Carmona and Charlie Billups
At 47 years and counting, Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center (SRBCC) is the longest-standing Latino cultural center in Chicago. Its rich history of service to the Puerto Rican community and tireless promotion of the island’s music and culture runs deep and long. The centro has brought countless important Puerto Rican artists and musicians to Chicago over the decades.
Still, after Friday, September 21, I have a suspicion that SRBCC’s story will always be told in terms of “before” and “after”. That’s the day that multiple Grammy Nominee and Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow Miguel Zenón and the Spektral Quartet presented their brand new album Yo Soy la Tradición to the world for the very first time with a benefit concert for the Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts. The fund was established by SRBCC to help struggling artists whose lives were severely impacted by Hurricane Maria.
I interviewed Miguel Zenón for Agúzate about the history of his new work and why he and Spektral chose to debut the album as a benefit for Puerto Rico. You can read that here. Still, nothing, including having had the privilege of hearing the album prior to its release and experiencing its only other public performance two years ago at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, quite prepared me for the moving performance at SRBCC. The depth and richness of feeling and extraordinary musicianship conveyed the very soul of Puerto Rico, whose cultural and musical traditions provided the source material for Zenón’s compositions. The saxophonist kept his between movement commentary brief, but heartfelt. From where I was sitting, it appeared that Zenón and the members of Spektral were moved and inspired by their surroundings.
Two wonderful Puerto Rican photographers who live in Chicago, Elías Carmona and Charlie Billups, were there to capture the scene. They are much more intimate with Puerto Rico than I, who only know of the island through my visits and interactions with the friends I’ve made with Puerto Ricans both there and here in Chicago. I thought it was only right to give them the last word along with their images, so I’ll leave the rest of this article to them.
“Miguel Zenón’s music is full of images and brings me reminiscences of my life in the place I was born and grew up. In my opinion, he truly represents the essence of the Puerto Rican music and I love the way he fuses it with other musical influences. What great performance! It was one of the best shows I ever attended and photographed at SRBCC.”
“Miguel Zenón and the Spektral Quartet, two GRAMMY-nominated performers together with a worthwhile cause in a performance venue like no other: Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Hermosa. I was touched by Zenón’s decision to release his latest project at SRBCC to raise money for Art projects affected by Hurricane Maria. The performance was flawless, crisp, rich and a cross of classic with the rich vibe of Puerto Rico in Zenón’s sax. It raised the bar for Segundo Ruiz Belvis into a new dimension as a world-class music venue.”
Finally, I’m including a video courtesy of SRBCC that includes part of the final movement of Yo Soy La Tradicion, “Villabeño”.
For some artists, it can take a very long time to find your voice. For the Paris-born guitarist and singer Pascal Danaë, that voice came in the history and language of his ancestors on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and, going even further back, his African heritage. His new group, Delgres, who just released their debut album Mo Jodi and will appear twice this weekend at World Music Festival Chicago, is inspired by his family and, more broadly, the struggle for human dignity. Its lyrics are primarily sung in Creole with some English.
Growing up in the suburbs of Paris, Danaë was exposed to all sorts of music: Haitian konpa, Cuban son, and African soukous among them, but also English rock like the Kinks and Rolling Stones. He developed an interest in jazz as well, especially guitarists like Wes Montgomery and George Benson.
It was a trip back to his parent’s home in Guadeloupe (a place that his parents never returned to after emigrating to France) when a seed was planted that, almost two decades later, would become his vision for Delgres. It was in there that Danaë encountered the letter of freedom given to his great-great-grandmother in 1841 when she was 27 years old, and it had a profound emotional impact.
Danaë already had a successful career as a jazz guitarist and session musician for the likes of Peter Gabriel, Youssou N’Dour and Gilberto Gil before attempting to do something more personal. He released a solo album in 2004 and then formed the Afro-Brazilian tinged group Rivière Noire before finally feeling ready to follow through on his Guadeloupe-inspired vision.
The group is named after Louis Delgrès, a Creole officer in the French army who died fighting against slavery on the island in 1802. Informed as it is by Danaë’s personal history, the album also serves as a call to fight against modern-day oppression and slavery.
A bit of history: Guadeloupe is part of the same archipelago as Cuba, the island of Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico. Like nearby Saint-Domingue on Hispaniola, the island was a French colony. After a successful slave revolt, Saint-Domingue became the nation of Haiti in 1804. There were similar stirrings for freedom happening on Guadeloupe, but they were successfully put down. Slavery was not abolished until 1848.
While the Creole language of Danaë’s ancestors figures prominently in the conceptual intent of the songs, the band’s muscular sonic foundation owes much to other traditions drawn from the experience of Africans in the Americas. The raw and rollicking sound of Mississippi hill country blues informs Danaë’s vocals and guitar and the powerful drumming. The final layer in this stripped-down trio is that of the sousaphone, a key element of New Orleans brass band music, supplying earthy and growling bass lines.
The guitar-drums-sousaphone combo packs quite a wallop when playing full-tilt, but the trio is also capable of pulling back a bit to leave some room for delicate introspection. As much as Danaë has infused the songs with meaning and purpose, he has also made sure that the band that plays them and the music they create together remain upbeat and approachable. “It’s not a history book,” says Danaë of the band in concert. “We have a good time.”
Delgres at World Music Festival Chicago Saturday, September 22 at Concord Music Hall Sunday, September 23 at Navy Pier worldmusicfestivalchicago.org
In September of 2016, jazz composer and alto saxophone player Miguel Zenón premiered a new composition at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. The Puerto Rico-born musician has used the music and culture of his home (and its corresponding diaspora in the U.S.) as conceptual source material for album length explorations ever since his 2005 release Jíbaro. Several more albums followed over the next decade, including Esta Plena, Alma Adentro, Oye! Live in Puerto Rico and Identities Are Changeable. With the exception of Oye!, which was more overt in its Latin instrumentation, all of these works were written with Zenón’s core jazz quartet (Luis Perdomo, Hans Glawischnig and Henry Cole) as its principal means of expression.
Yo Soy la Tradición, commissioned by Hyde Park’s David and Reva Logan Center for the Arts and the Festival, also mines Puerto Rican traditions for its subject material, but this time around the writing was in collaboration with the Chicago based classical new music ensemble Spektral Quartet (Clara Lyon, Maeve Feinberg, Doyle Armbrust and Russell Rolen). The concert was warmly received, and a year later Zenón returned to Chicago to enter the studio with Spektral. The album that resulted is a collection of 8 works for alto sax and string quartet that derive from Puerto Rico’s cultural, religious and musical traditions, yet sound startlingly fresh and contemporary. There are echoes of older Spanish traditions like flamenco (the hand claps on Cadenza are clearly inspired by flamenco, but not unrelated to composer Steve Reich’s Clapping Music) and dances that preceded the island’s European colonization, but also jagged harmonies, rapid minimalist rhythmic sections and beautifully lyrical passages that recall, to these ears, Zenón’s playing on Alma Adentro‘s boleros. The quartet is fully integrated into each movement, never merely a backup band to a sax player.
The CD will be released September 21 and celebrated with a concert at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center that will benefit Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts.
“My starting point for Tradición was studying the folkloric music of Puerto Rico and identifying the elements that make it unique, then extract that and use it without emulating it.” I’m speaking to Miguel Zenón by phone as he is heading to the airport for a flight to Buenos Aires to participate in an Astor Piazzolla festival. “Then I spent time studying classical chamber works from various periods until I felt ready to start writing. My early training as a player was in classical music, so I was at least familiar with it, but I didn’t begin studying it intently until much later when I started writing my own music.
“Writing for strings was a different and more challenging process than writing for my jazz quartet,” says Zenón. “We’re a working band and we know each other very well. When I’m writing for them I have a sound in mind that I know they can do, so even if it’s a difficult passage I’m confident that it can be played well.
“I had been a guest musician on one of Spektral Quartet’s albums and enjoyed working with them,” Zenón continues. “So I knew they were terrific and creative musicians, but I was still unfamiliar with the technical capabilities of string instruments. So I would write passages and send them to Spektral and I would get feedback like ‘This part is great but it would be hard on our instruments to do this part here.’ They would make suggestions based on those sorts of things.”
I asked Zenón about the intersection of folkloric, jazz and classical music. “First of all, I’m a jazz musician, so there’s always an element of improvisation even when the writing is formal. But I’m also a Puerto Rican jazz musician. Puerto Rican music is an integral part of who I am. Lastly, even when I’m writing for jazz instrumentation, I’m aware of and applying harmonic and structural concepts learned from classical and new music composers. A string quartet is just a more identifiably classical format.”
As it happened, the long-reserved studio time booked to record the CD was scheduled just days after Hurricane María struck Puerto Rico. Thus it was that Miguel Zenón found himself in Chicago for three days beginning September 22, 2017.
“We were in the studio in Chicago just after María struck, so obviously it was on our minds while we were recording. So the CD will always be connected to that.”
Spektral Quartet just published a moving blog post on their website, describing the atmosphere at sessions and describing how Zenón would call home repeatedly during breaks trying to get updates at a time when much of the island was flooded and without power. It also touched on how artists play through adversity. The post, titled Why our album release is a benefit for Puerto Rico, states “Puerto Rico is home to vital and unique artistic traditions, and we hope to make a small but meaningful improvement in the lives of these artists.”
“At the same time I was calling home for updates,” Zenón says, “I was also calling musician friends in California to organize a benefit concert there. Later on I did one in Boston and another in New York. Spektral wanted to do something here and asked me if I knew somewhere in the community that would host. I immediately thought of Segundo Ruiz Belvis.”
This is not Miguel Zenón’s first visit to SRBCC. In May of 2016, the saxophonist preceded a full big band performance of Identities Are Changeable at the Logan Center with a community event at SRBCC that explained the concept of Identities (an exploration of identity and community of U.S. born Puerto Ricans) and included informal performances with the center’s youth ensemble, Chicago-based Puerto Rican saxophonist Roy McGrath, and local bomba powerhouses Bomba con Buya.
“I learned about the Centro years ago when I first started to come to Chicago to play the Jazz Showcase with David Sánchez’ band. I would always head to Humboldt Park to eat some food, hang out, buy records. I would hear about this place that was keeping the culture alive. Then about 3 or 4 years ago I was here for a Chicago Jazz Festival appearance and after my set I went to the neighborhood to jam with some salseros at Festival Boricua. It was there I met Omar.”
Omar is SRBCC Executive Director Omar Torres-Kortright [Full disclosure: Torres-Kortright is also a co-founder of Agúzate]. Zenón continues, “He told me about the Chamaco Ramirez documentary that he was working on and his work at the Centro. Then the University of Chicago chose them as the community partner for my Identities concert at the Logan, so I had the opportunity to go out there and see it first-hand.
“So it was an easy choice to do our benefit there.”
I’m speaking with Miguel a week after he returned from several days in Puerto Rico as an Artist in Residence at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico in San Juan. I ask him how things are there a full year after María.
“The infrastructure is a little better. Most people have electricity and running water. But deeper than that, there is still a struggle. There is still stuff to be fixed, but one thing that is obvious when you talk to people is that there is still a lot of trauma. People are traumatized. It is a deep experience that will influence a generation. But the overall situation is deeper than just the hurricane. A lot of negative things like the economic situation had been building for a while, and what the hurricane did was bring them to the surface.”
“What it boils down, too, at least in my opinion, is the political situation,” Zenón continues. “Puerto Rico continues to be in limbo. We’re connected to the states, but we don’t have the benefits of being a state. We have our own government, culture and language, but we are not a free country. And even our government isn’t really in charge because they have to answer to a fiscal control board created in the U.S.
“There is a realization shared by more people now that this limbo can’t continue because it isn’t working. Whether that is statehood or independence is open to debate, but the current situation is clearly not sustainable.”
What is clear is that, one year post-María, Puerto Rico is far from healed, and help is still needed. The particular fund for this benefit concert helps artists who, in many cases, are finding their roles more important than ever on this traumatized island. It doesn’t matter if that role explicitly addresses coping and constructive analysis or simply a balm from harsh daily realities. Both are vital as Puerto Rico heads into year two and an uncertain future.
Miguel Zenón & Spektral Quartet: Yo Soy la Tradición A Benefit for Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago Friday, September 21, 7pm $20 general admission, $50 and $100 VIP tickets available Tickets at segundoruizbelvis.org