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.
“The Puerto Rican community in Chicago is one of the most important and historic communities outside of the island, so all of the ideas from the project would definitely apply there as well. But then again, I think that this is an idea that could apply to any immigrant community anywhere.”
Composer and saxophonist Miguel Zenón is talking about Identities are Changeable, his multi-media big band project based on interviews he conducted with New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent. It is making its long awaited Chicago debut on Thursday, May 26 at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Chicago.
Zenón, however, is not confining his Chicago visit to just this concert. On Tuesday, May 24, he’ll participate in Folclórico, An Exploration of Jazz and Afro-Puerto Rican Music at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. And while one project might represent contemporary, cutting edge jazz and the other traditions that date back hundreds of years, the former almost certainly would not exist without the latter. That’s how tightly Zenón has interwoven his heritage into his art.
Beginning with his third album as a leader, Jíbaro (2005), and continuing with Esta Plena (2009) and Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook (2011), and Oye!!! Live In Puerto Rico (2013), Zenón created a series of thoughtfully framed works that interpret different facets of Puerto Rican culture. Along the way, he became a MacArthur Fellow, a recipient of what’s been called the “Genius Grant”, placing him at the forefront of a new movement that has brought Zenón to prominence in jazz. But beyond his facility at writing and playing music, there is a great intellectual subject at the center of Zenón’s artistic world: the complexity of Puerto Rican culture.
“I consider myself a jazz musician,” says Zenón. “It is the music that speaks to me the most and the reason why I became a musician in the first place. But I’m also a Latin American musician from Puerto Rico, and that’s always going to be there and is going to be represented in everything I do, no matter what. The music I write for my band represents these two sides of who I am musically.”
When I last interviewed Miguel Zenón at length, Identities are Changeable was still months from being released. Zenón and his quartet were previewing a more portable version of it at the 2014 Chicago Jazz Festival, and they would return the following year for a weekend run at the Jazz Showcase. Until now, though, the full project had only been performed in a handful of cities. This complete version finds the Miguel Zenón Quartet joined by an additional 12 musicians and augmented by a video installation that brings to life the words and people from which Zenón built the music. Given its size and expense, it is rarely performed.
“I think we’ve had about 8 performances with the Big Band and the Video and maybe 3 or 4 with just the Quartet and the Video,” says Zenón. “We performed in New York City twice, at Carnegie Hall and Hostos College in the Bronx. [They were] both very different experiences. On one side it was amazing to get to perform at such a historic venue; on the other it was really great to get to perform in the Bronx, which has a very large Puerto Rican community.”
He continues, “The music on this album is inspired by the idea of national identity, as experienced by the Puerto Rican community in New York City. The music was written around a series of interviews I conducted with New Yorkers of Puerto Rican decent. I asked them all a series of question and then used their answers to create a narrative, which is then translated into specific themes such as ‘Language’, ‘Home’ or ‘Traditions’ and so forth. I wrote music with the idea of creating an interaction between the band and the audio you hear from the interviews.”
The voices heard on the Identities album, which was released in November 2014, include thinkers, musicians, poets and family members. The live performance further employs David Dempewolf’s video installation as something of a seventeenth member of the band, illuminating and enhancing the heart of the music and thoughts expressed.
This is music that is intensely rhythmic, though not in a standard way that you would hear with, for example, a mambo orchestra. It’s definitely jazz, but this big-band score – Zenón’s first – presents a different kind of compositional and polyrhythmic challenge. It’s more like modern symphonic writing, with multiple meters and layers that keep all sixteen musicians, especially drummer Henry Cole, on their toes. The different rhythms that play against and with each other suggest the different identities that are the subject of the work.
I asked Zenón what to expect from Folclórico, which is being presented free of charge as a community outreach effort of Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and UChicago Presents.
“The plans for the center is to have a little presentation about Identities are Changeable, where I’ll talk about the genesis of the project and break down some of its essential elements. Then we’ll have a musical presentation, with me joining some local groups, Arawak’Opia, [bomba ensemble] Buya and jazz saxophonist Roy McGrath. Omar [Torres-Kortright, the director of the center] and I have been talking about this collaboration for many years now, so I’m really looking forward to this.”
Taken together, the local musicians playing with Zenón at SRBCC are a cross section of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. The members of Buya are, for the most part, U.S. born Puerto Ricans, but have dedicated themselves to roots music. Saxophonist McGrath, meanwhile, was born in San Juan but now lives in Chicago, where he leads a pair of jazz ensembles and plays in salsa and reggae bands around town.
Arawak’Opia is the center’s youth bomba ensemble, so I ask Zenón about working with kids. “It is something that I enjoy very much. I have this project in Puerto Rico called ‘Caravana Cultural’, which basically involves presenting free-of-charge jazz concerts in the rural areas of Puerto Rico. One of the essential elements of the project is the inclusion of a group of young music students from the area, who join us on stage for the final concert. It is always the highlight of the performance and something that gives me a lot of faith in the project and faith on the power of music in general.”
The Logan Center show presents a rare opportunity to hear one of the most compelling composers and performers in jazz working at peak capacity, while SRBCC’s community presentation will allow Chicagoans to go inside the artist himself. Chicago couldn’t be more fortunate.
Folclórico, An Exploration of Jazz and Afro-Puerto Rican Music – Tuesday, May 24, 7pm. Free admission. Reserve tickets at segundoruizbelvis.org.
Miguel Zenon, Identities are Changeable – Thursday, May 26, 7:30pm, Reva and David Logan Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets at chicagopresents.uchicago.edu.
In late 2015, a YouTube video appeared and immediately started shooting around the internet via Remezcla, LargeUp and other ear-to-the ground sites that track Latin and Caribbean music and culture. 3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé) by ÌFÉ was both straightforward and a bit mysterious at the same time. I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but I loved it. Luckily, there was a free download from SoundCloud too, so I immediately put it into my iPod rotation.
3 Mujeres is a rumba workout, except it’s not, exactly. Almost all of the sounds come from electronic instruments, played by hand by expert percussionists. The production is ultra-modern, yet the vocals have a very traditional feel, mixing Spanish and Yoruba languages. The video explains things a bit via a lengthy prelude in which we are introduced to each member of the group before the song proper even begins. The whole thing is a live-as-it-happens take recorded at the studio and home of project leader Otura Mun in Santurce, Puerto Rico.
That introductory tease was followed up this spring with another video and SoundCloud track, House of Love (Ogbe Yekun). It’s much less traditional sounding, yet still deeply rooted. With its shifting and seductive rhythmic bed and floating vocals, it is practically an R&B slow jam, something like Sade at her most minimalist. It’s gorgeous, and the accompanying video is mysteriously seductive as well, beautiful black and white imagery that follows Otura Mun through a space that is equal parts spiritual and sensual, blurring the distinctions between them.
As it turns out, before Otura Mun put together ÌFÉ, he was musician, DJ and producer Mark Underwood, sometimes known by his identity as DJ Nature. Before that, though, Underwood was an African American raised in Indiana and living in Texas. His move to Puerto Rico in 1999 was, as they say in what has become an overused term, transformative. In the case of Otura Mun, however, it is completely apropos. It was there he discovered rumba as well as the spirit world at its foundation, the practice of Ifá, the African Yoruba religion in the western hemisphere.
I was heading down to Puerto Rico last week for some cultural exploration (OK, I was on vacation), so I e-mailed Otura / Mark in advance with a few questions. We met at Mareabaja, a small restaurant and bar in Isla Verde, where he was playing traditional rumba sets with friends. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
My first question was “Should I call you Mark or Otura?”
OM: Otura Mun is better. It’s my name in Ifá. All Babaláwos (ed. note: a Babaláwo is a priest of the Yoruban Ifá religion. Mun became a Babaláwo in April 2015 in a ceremony in Havana, Cuba.) receive a letter or sign in Ifá from the 256 possible Odu Ifá that defines them and becomes their name moving forward. Mine is Otura Mun.
DM: Did your understanding of the roots of rumba and batá lead to your interest in Yoruba spirituality, or was it the other way around?
OM: I’ve been interested in both since the very first time I saw a rumba in San Juan and heard my first Orisha songs, all on the same night played by the same group, Grupo Carabalí. But I also sensed an implied level of devotion and dedication that both the music and the spiritual practice seemed to require or demand. When I finally reached a place where I felt like I was ready to embrace the music, rumba specifically, I was also at a point where I felt that I wanted to find a way to explore the “invisible world” and my spiritual self. I chose Ifá and La Regla de Ocha as my way to access that world. So yeah, I guess you could say they happened simultaneously.
DM: I’ve read that you moved to Puerto Rico on a whim, but that doesn’t seem quite complete to me. Were you seeking anything other than island style fun and an opportunity to work as a DJ? Was there a culture, attitude or scene that attracted you that didn’t exist in the U.S.?
OM: It was definitely a big change culturally for me. I’m African American and I didn’t speak Spanish when I moved in ‘99. Old San Juan put me in the mix with Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Haitians, Colombians, Argentinians, Venezuelans…. San Juan in the late 90’s was a vibrant place. The island’s music and art scenes were centered in that small beautifully built Spanish colonial city. Music seemed to be a huge part of the cultural expression of everyday people and there seemed to be a sort of unquenchable thirst for it. Learning the language presented a welcome challenge and helped me, I think, to re-envision the world I had been living in from the bottom up. [I was] literally constructing a world vision with these new words and sentiments as the building blocks. I have a Spanish language personality now that doesn’t really read like my English self. I saw the people in Puerto Rico as culturally different from myself and the folks I knew both in Texas and Indiana and their attitudes and expressions of that culture were attractive. There seemed to be a conscious sense of Africaness in the music, a strong sense of the importance of family and brotherhood or sisterhood in general, and a love for life, for the moment, youthfulness. Puerto Rico in 1999 called to me in a clear enough way that I picked up and moved from zero, no family, no points of reference and not much of a plan. I saw the move as an opportunity for self-improvement, an opportunity to build a cultural bridge that I could use later, and I think in that sense I’ve been quite successful.
DM: Were there Latin sounds and beats in your DJ sets before you moved to Puerto Rico? Could you differentiate between the Afro-Latin sounds and rhythms of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Colombia, Dominican Republic etc.?
OM: Before moving to PR I wasn’t so in touch with Latin music. I listened to primarily Hip Hop, Dancehall Reggae and Jazz. I studied a semester or two of Brazilian samba and batucada at the University of North Texas and had heard a little bit of salsa and rumba through friends. I really heard, saw and experienced Latin music for the first time on a 2 week trip to San Juan in 1997. There I saw rumba, salsa, bomba, plena, flamenco, charanga live for the first time. I heard merengue, bachata, reggaeton. When I moved to PR in ‘99 I didn’t know the difference between merengue and salsa.
DM: Why, as you were in Puerto Rico, were you inspired by rumba and batá instead of bomba and plena?
OM: I’m just more into rumba as a genre. I’ve fallen in love with rumba. It consumes me. I respect and appreciate bomba, but I’m much more drawn to the musical conversations I hear between the drums, singers and dancers in rumba personally. The genres are just so different. I try not to compare them. Yes I heard rumba first in Puerto Rico, and yes I learned to play it in Puerto Rico, but I’m a student of the music and admirer of the Cuban musicians who created and built this beautiful form we rumberos live to play.
DM: Is it accurate to say that ÌFÉ is electro-rumba?
OM: I would never say that what ÌFÉ is doing is rumba. We’re drawing heavily from that established musical dialogue. We’re using the rumba clave, the drummers are playing parts similar to the language of the 3 main drums, but the singing, the song structure, the intent, cadence are all quite different. We’re breaking too many rules to call it rumba since a large part of what makes that genre work so well is that all the players are respecting the basic rules of the conversation. ÌFÉ draws heavily from there, but what we are doing is something different.
DM: There is a fairly established nu-cumbia movement that’s swept Latin America and the Global Bass community in the U.S., especially from a DJ standpoint but also live bands. Were you listening to any of that when you started to consider what to do as an artist/bandleader rather than a producer or DJ?
OM: No I wasn’t. I really just listen to rumba, Orisha music and Jamaican Dancehall. If anything else sneaks in there it’s probably Coltrane or Art Blakey, something very straight bebop. I try not to look outward as much as possible when creating. Lately my inspiration comes from a more visual place or from reading. I don’t listen to music at the house as a general rule. I wasn’t trying to make something that was going to fall into an established movement or community at all. It was really just about making something that was powerful to me first, with the hopes that some folks could feel the message and sentiments in the music. It’s been sort of cool seeing where ÌFÉ has gotten played and who has really responded to it. There’s definitely a Latin American Bass music community that I’m just now discovering that have supported the songs. They’re doing great things. It’s refreshing to see what else is going on in music right now. And I have discovered artists via shows that have played ÌFÉ’s music that I have quite liked.
DM: The two songs that are out so far are almost entirely constructed of processed percussion and vocals, very minimal, close to a very traditional rumba ensemble. Is that the foundation from which you’ll be building, or is that the sound itself?
OM: I would feel confined if I were to say that that’s the definitive sound itself but it’s certainly a place I like to be. The minimalism is intentional. I like the restrictions that are implied there. Set board sounds, clave, percussion as basses, no keyboards, vocal and chorus heavy, one solo acoustic instrument. There are boundaries there, but the beauty is in how you navigate them.
DM: Are the musicians and singers in the 3 Mujeres video the working band? Could we expect to see them live in concert? After all, you go through a lot of trouble to introduce them one by one.
OM: For the most part yes. One of our members, Jhan Lee Aponte, moved to LA a few months back so I convinced Anthony Sierra, a great young rumbero who I had just met in San Francisco to move from the Bay to Puerto Rico to play with the group. He’s an incredible player and we’ve had a lot of fun exploring the island while working on new material for our upcoming EP. So yes, what you see in 3 Mujeres and House of Love is the crew. We may travel a little lighter on chorus singers outside of PR but yes. This is the group. Blessed to be working with such talented folks, all leaders of their own projects who have come together to be part of this group. I’m a lucky man.
Word has it that Chicago might get to see and hear ÌFÉ live later this year, and Otura Mun assures me that they are recording songs for a debut EP this summer. So there’s a lot to look forward to.
This evening in Isla Verde, however, there’s a final set of rumba to be played. I recognize people from the 3 Mujeres video in both the ensemble and the audience. I’m awestruck by the sheer complexity of the interlocking drums. The Orishas are invoked. Women are dancing at the bar. It’s a sweaty, sexy and, yes spiritual experience. The mojitos are strong and the garlic shrimp arepas are delicious. It’s heaven.
Jazz is, at its best, ever evolving and in the moment. You need to bring a ton of skill and creativity to the table, but once the meal is served, the conversation really begins, elevating what was notes and words on paper into the realm of the spirit.
That’s the context in which I caught the March 24th performance of the Roy McGrath Quintet’s work in progress, Julia al Son de Jazz, at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood.
The suite of original (with one exception.. more on that later) Latin jazz compositions take their inspiration from the life and poetry of Puerto Rican activist and poet Julia de Burgos. The idea was first commissioned by SRBCC last summer for an outdoor performance at the park named after de Burgos that’s part of The 606, an urban trail that stretches for a few miles through a handful of Chicago neighborhoods, reaching Hermosa at its western end. Saxophonist McGrath, seizing the opportunity, immediately starting writing new songs instead of falling back on standards and familiar tunes. A crack assemblage of Chicago’s top Latin jazz musicians was quickly put together and actress Rossanna Rodriguez was tapped to recite de Burgos’ poetry.
That initial project took place on a sunny fall Saturday, and though promoted ahead of time, it served more as an unexpected and delightful curiosity to people strolling, biking and rollerblading the trail. That could have been the end of it, but McGrath, it turns out, was only getting started.
He continued writing over the winter and workshopped a version of the project at Sabor a Café, a Colombian restaurant and intimate music venue, in early February. In that informal performance, McGrath himself handled the poetry, and, um, he’s not a bad reader for a saxophone player. Still, you could hear new ideas and arrangements continue to be fleshed out. McGrath had already agreed to present Julia al Son de Jazz at SRBCC in March, and he needed to work things out in front of an audience, which is essential for jazz. The audience will let you know what works and what doesn’t.
Armed with what he learned at Sabor a Café, he put together the band for last week’s performance, which included pianist Edwin Sanchez, drummer Jean-Christophe Leroy, bassist Freddy Quintero and congueroVictor Junito. And, thankfully, actress and writer Veronica Rodriguez Gotay handling the poetry recitatives.
A quick word about Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center: It’s an absolute gem. In addition to providing a full slate of cultural and after-school programs for the neighborhood and wider Chicago community, the space itself is gorgeous in a funky, loft inspired way: Exposed brick walls covered with Puerto Rican art, groovy mid-century modern furniture, a nice antique bar off to one side, and great sight lines for its large stage. One of their youth programs is the Arawak’Opia dance and music ensemble, and these bright and talented kids performed a short set before McGrath took the stage.
Julia al Son de Jazz now opens with a solo recitation of a de Burgos poem, Rio Grande de Loiza, carefully setting the tone for what is to come. The band then kicks into a mid-tempo groove with a gentle keyboard flourish, supporting an original English language poem by Abner Bardeguez that honors Julie de Burgos (sort of a mini-biography/introduction). McGrath pays close attention to his band, directing them even as he plays. The saxophonist is well on his way to becoming a respected player in jazz, equally adept in straight-ahead as well as Latin idioms. I caught him last January covering John Coltrane’s Blue Train in its entirety, and he and his straight-ahead ensemble did a great job honoring ‘Trane’s spirit. McGrath takes chances and goes to inventive places with his horn.
Roy McGrath was born and raised in Puerto Rico, yet inspired to pursue jazz by Coltrane and Miles Davis. He brings his boricua heritage to his writing, but jazz is the primary language. Various strains of folkloric and popular Puerto Rican sounds are interwoven into his Julia compositions, never more apparent than when he invited Arawak’Opia to join the band to add a solid bomba foundation to the introduction to one of the songs. They nailed it.
The rhythm and cadence of Julia de Burgos’s poetry inspire as well, and it is very apparent that the music is fully integrated into the words and vice-versa. This isn’t poetry with jazz, but poetry and voice as one more essential instrument in a cohesive ensemble arrangement.
The one tune not written by McGrath was Rafael Hernández’ Los Carreteros, which he introduced by saying he learned it in choir long before he ever picked up a saxophone. But, like Miguel Zenón on his Puerto Rican songbook album AlmaAdentro, McGrath put his own writing and arranging skills to work in adapting it for de Burgos’ poetry.
Julia al Son de Jazz is still a work in progress. The Chicago Park District will be presenting it three more times around the city this summer, and each performance will come with much valued rehearsal time. As with the Sabor a Café performance, McGrath will take what he learned at SRBCC to continue development with the eventual aim of recording it for an album.
I’ll be in the park, and I’ll be first in line to buy the album when it comes out.
All photos by Don Macica
About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.
Cocinando Suave: Ensayos de Salsa en Puerto Rico, editor César Colón-Montijo
En 1974, cuando Chamaco Ramírez sale de la cárcel después cuatro años tras las rejas, Tommy Olivencia lo recibe con un pasaje a Nueva York, listo para grabar el disco “Juntos de nuevo”. De esta producción se destaca el tema Pa’lante otra vez. Escrita por Catalino ‘Tite’ Curet Alonso, la canción recoge el sentimiento del que ha sido privado de su libertad y vuelve ver la luz del día. Es la expresión del deseo feroz de comerse el mundo después del tiempo perdido en prisión.
En los soneos, Chamaco nombra a la gente a quien hay que avisar de su salida de prisión:
Y avisa, que avísale a Myrta Silva
y avísale a Tite Curet.
Y avisa, que avísale a Papy Fuentes
y avísale a Luis Café.
Cuidao, cuidao que vengo pa’ lante,
vengo pal cachumbambé.
Los soneos de Chamaco están poblados de personajes que marcaron su vida. Myrta Silva y Don Tite Curet, son figuras altamente identificables en la cultura musical de la isla y tuvieron gran influencia en su carrera artística. ¿Quiénes son Luis Café y Papy Fuentes? Entendimos después de investigar más a fondo que se trataba de dos de los amigos más entrañables de Chamaco. Luis ‘Café’ Nieves fue trompetista y arreglista de Tommy Olivencia durante la mayor parte de la década de los 70, mientras José ‘Papy” Fuentes Iglesias se distinguió por ser el bongosero más veterano de la orquesta. Este último nos llamó la atención, ya que Chamaco repite su nombre en múltiples canciones, incluidas “Mi Puerto Rico”, “Evelio y la rumba” y “San Agustín”. No existe un personaje más aludido en el repertorio de Chamaco que el bongosero sanjuanero.
Cuando iniciamos la investigación para el documental Alive and Kicking: La Historia de Chamaco Ramírez, nos topamos con la ausencia de documentos biográficos sobre el sonero. Junto a mi codirector Eduardo Cintrón, nos sentamos a escuchar sus canciones y analizarlas con la esperanza de que hubiera un factor común o una pista que nos llevara a algún descubrimiento. Lo primero que hicimos fue construir una tabla de los nombres propios presentes en las canciones de Chamaco. Destacaban personajes de su familia y vida personal, como cuando gritaba ¡vaya Miami!, guiño de complicidad con Wanda, su hija mayor, o cuando llamaba a ‘Carmela’ o ‘Carmelita’ en clara referencia a su esposa Carmen. De sus compañeros musicales destacan su compadre Tommy Olivencia y Kako Bastar, ya sea por ser objeto de inspiración para una canción completa de su autoría, como es el caso de “El Papaso de Kako”, o por las menciones frecuentes en sus soneos.
La estrecha relación entre Chamaco y Papy Fuentes que confirmaba el propio cantante en sus canciones y cada vez más personas en nuestra investigación, hizo que cuando se asignaron las tareas de búsqueda de entrevistas, el nombre del percusionista se colocara rápidamente en lo más alto de la lista. Supimos desde el principio que si alguien tenía los recursos para dar con Papy Fuentes era el hijo de Chamaco Ramírez, Chamaco Jr., quien se convirtió en el enlace natural con todo lo que rodeó a su padre y pasó a ser parte esencial del equipo de producción del documental. Cuando preguntó en su entorno inmediato, Chamaco Jr. recibió la pésima noticia de que Papy Fuentes había muerto “hacía mucho tiempo”. Nos resignamos y lo vimos como el curso natural de una investigación que se ponía más cuesta arriba cada vez que confirmábamos el fallecimiento de otro pilar de la Primerísima Orquesta de Tommy Olivencia.
Una tarde de sábado en el Naza Pub, especie de bar-museo de la salsa ubicado en la calle San Agustín de Puerta de Tierra, Chamaco, Jr. se reunió con Paquito Guzmán, una de las voces más autorizadas en materia de Chamaco Ramírez, ya que compartió tarima con él durante prácticamente todo su recorrido por La Primerísima de Tommy Olivencia. Después de las muertes del propio Olivencia, Papy Fuentes, Luis Café, Cortijito y Frankie Revilla, la participación del destacado bolerista en el documental se hacía esencial y de máxima urgencia. La conversación tomó un giro inesperado cuando después de varias cervezas y el convencimiento de que Paquito participaría en el proyecto se le ocurre a Chamaco Jr. un último comentario antes de despedirse: “Oye Paquito, qué pena que no pudimos hablar con Papy Fuentes antes de su muerte. Él era la persona que más mencionaba el viejo en los soneos”. Según me cuenta Chamaco Jr. Paquito primero hizo silencio y luego lo miró con cara de incrédulo: “Pero si Papy está vivo muchacho. Te apuesto que si vas al Falansterio ahora mismo lo encuentras allí. El siempre está allí.” Ubicado en la Parada 7 de la Avenida Fernández Juncos, entre las calles Matías Ledesma y San Juan Bautista, el Falansterio es el primer proyecto de vivienda pública construido en Puerto Rico y se ha convertido en un ícono arquitectónico de Puerta de Tierra desde su construcción en 1935.
Salsa pa’ Puerta e Tierra!
Un buen saludo pa’ Ernesto Juani
A Papy Fuentes y a Periquín;
Para Alfonsito y Julio Ramírez,
a Carmelote y para Efraín
San Agustín, Puerta de Tierra Calle para vacilar 
En la canción “San Agustín” Chamaco Ramírez le canta al barrio proletario que marcó la historia de la música popular boricua con agrupaciones tan emblemáticas como las orquestas de Noro y Esy Morales, el Conjunto Cachana de Joe Quijano, la Selecta de Raphy Levitt, la Corporación Latina de Charly Collazo, y Carpe Diem de Isidro Infante, entre tantas otras. La estampa de San Agustín, “calle para vacilar” escrita también por Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso para el único disco de la cortísima carrera solista de Chamaco, Alive and Kicking, está llena de alusiones a personajes de la época que se distinguían por proceder del sector entre las paradas 5 y 7 de San Juan. La cercanía única a la cultura popular del barrio hacen que este son montuno se destaque como una de las mejores representaciones del cancionero salsero boricua, con todos los elementos musicales, pero sobre todo múltiples puntos de conexión y complicidad con los residentes del sector de Puerta de Tierra. En la larga lista de nombres que presentan Tite Curet y Chamaco, vuelve a aparecer Papy Fuentes a quien el sonero le dirige una pregunta que ha quedado sin contestar hasta hoy: “Oye Papy Fuentes, ¿Qué es lo que te pasa a tí, que tu bongó ya no está sonando, sonando…?”
La interrogante de Chamaco nos inspiró a preguntarnos, ¿quién fue Papy Fuentes? ¿Por qué se retiró de la industria musical en 1975? ¿Por qué la insistencia de Chamaco de mencionarlo en sus soneos?
Foto: Papy Fuentes.
Colección Familia Fuentes.
“No hubo mejor bongosero que Papy Fuentes”, nos dice Endel Dueño, timbalero de Tommy Olivencia durante la mayor parte de los años 60 y 70, y socio rítmico de Fuentes por más de diez años. “Por lo menos te garantizo que yo no toqué con ninguno que fuera mejor… y yo toqué con un montón de bongós bien buenos”. Según Dueño, “lo más impresionante de Papy era lo perfeccionista que era a la hora de afinar los cueros de todos los instrumentos de percusión. Si algo le molestaba eran cueros mal afinaos y campanas alborotosas. La campana del timbal tenía que armonizar con la campana del bongó y se tocaba ‘limpio’ siempre para acompañar bien. En su bulto llevaba reemplazos de campanas y estaba preparado para cualquier situación”. También con tono de admiración y respeto, se expresa otra leyenda musical de Puerta de Tierra, Raphy Levitt, “Papy Fuentes tenía una marcha ‘pesada’ y precisa, con golpes bien puestos, que permitían resaltar a toda la orquesta y le daban oportunidad al cantante de lucirse”.
Previo a su largo paso por la Orquesta de Tommy Olivencia entre 1961 y 1975, Papy Fuentes perfeccionó sus habilidades en el bongó en la Banda 81 del Ejército de Estados Unidos en Fort Brooke, donde estuvo estacionado poco más de un año durante el conflicto bélico en Corea. Al regresar a Puerto Rico le llegaron ofertas de trabajo de Lito Peña y su Orquesta Panamericana, Johnny Seguí, César Concepción y Mario Ortiz entre otros. Los años 50 llevaron al bongosero a los mejores escenarios de Puerto Rico y Nueva York con la crema y nata del talento guarachero boricua. Cuenta su hija Idalís que una noche alternando con Tito Puente en Nueva York fue tentado para formar parte de la orquesta del rey del timbal. Sin embargo, esa tentación no duró mucho, ya que no podía concebir una vida de viajes constantes, lejos de su amada esposa Toya, sus hijos Papo, Idalís e Ivelisse y su Puerta de Tierra.
En 1975, justo cuando acababa de retirarse de la música y asegurar su posición de amarrador en Navieras de Puerto Rico, se le presenta una oportunidad de adquirir un apartamento en el Condominio Las Acacias en Puerta de Tierra, donde se mudaría con su esposa Victoria y su hija menor. Ivelisse, quien para aquél tiempo tenía 18 años, recuerda que al ser residente antiguo de Puerta de Tierra y contar con el apoyo de sus amigos de la Unión de Trabajadores de Muelles, Papy escogió su apartamento en el tercer piso antes de que se ocupara el edificio. El programa de vivienda para familias de escasos recursos prometía una alternativa segura y viable para esta población en crecimiento y la familia Fuentes fue una de las primeras en tomar posesión de su nuevo hogar en el gigantesco multipisos.
Sus primeros años en Las Acacias fueron muy buenos, con un sentimiento de comunidad que se extendía a la mayoría de los vecinos. No era poco común ver a Papy recibiendo a los muchachos del vecindario para ayudarlos a afinar sus instrumentos de percusión sin cobrarles un centavo, ya que afinar y cambiar cueros era una especie de terapia para él y lo mantenía de alguna manera conectado con la música, nos cuenta Ivelisse..
El día que Chamaco Jr. fue a buscar a Papy Fuentes, llevaba en su mente las palabras de Paquito Guzmán, “Pregunta por él en la calle, que allí todo el mundo lo conoce”. Aunque no sabía el número del apartamento, se dirigió a una guagüita de comida frente al Falansterio y le preguntó a la ocupada, pero amable cocinera. “¿Usted sabe donde vive Papy Fuentes?”. La señora señaló el segundo piso del Falansterio y le dijo a Chamaco Jr., “Cuando subes las escaleras es el primer apartamento a mano derecha con las ventanas que dan para la avenida”.
Chamaco Jr. subió las escaleras con la ilusión de un niño en Nochebuena. Tocó la puerta nervioso y poco después ésta se abrió y se asomó un cuerpo consumido por el pasar del tiempo. La piel totalmente reseca y escamosa era evidencia de más de 40 años expuesto a las condiciones de trabajo en los muelles. “¿Cómo puedo ayudarlo?”, preguntó. Chamaco Jr. extiendió su mano y le dijo: “Soy el hijo de Chamaco Ramírez, Chamaco Jr.”. “Entonces no me puedes dar la mano mijo, dame mejor un abrazo. Yo era la confianza de tu papá. ¿Quieres un cafecito?”. Chamaco Jr. aceptó la invitación y pasó al apartamento a conversar con él. Luego de un buen rato de conversación, Chamaco Jr. le dijo, “Papy, estamos haciendo un documental de la vida de mi viejo. Nos encantaría hacerle una entrevista si es posible. El equipo de producción llega la semana que viene de Chicago”.
A Papy se le veía poco por su carácter tranquilo y casero desde siempre. A sus 85 años todavía conservaba su trabajo de aguador en los muelles, empleo que tomó cuando se cambió de Navieras a la Unión de Trabajadores de Muelles a principios de la década de los 80. Después de la dura muerte de Doña Toya, su esposa de 60 años, quien fue diagnosticada con Alzheimer en el año 2007, a penas salía de la casa.
“Llevábamos años tratando de convencerlo de mudarse con nosotros”, cuenta su hija Ivelisse. “Hasta le ofrecimos construirle un apartamento en el segundo piso de nuestra casa en Venus Gardens, porque las cosas en Puerta de Tierra no estaban tan bien, pero él nunca iba a salir de allí. Él siempre dijo que quería morir en Puerta de Tierra”. Las intenciones eran buenas, pero sacar a Papy Fuentes de Puerta de Tierra era realmente una misión imposible. Nacido y criado precisamente en la calle San Agustín, el humilde y siempre sonriente bongosero se sintió anclado a ese entorno muellero desde el principio.
El diminuto apartamento en el imponente Falansterio había sido el hogar de los Fuentes desde poco antes de la implosión del Condominio Las Acacias en el año 2000. Aquel edificio que se erigió hace 40 años y brindó hogar a tantas familias se convirtió en uno de los ejes principales de la lucha entre los narcotraficantes y la policía en la década de 1990. La violencia llegó a tal punto que no era raro ver en las noticias los tiroteos desde los balcones del edificio hacia el Cuartel de Puerta de Tierra ubicado al otro lado de la Avenida Fernández Juncos. Los intercambios de municiones procedentes de ambas partes alcanzaron una frecuencia insostenible. Cuando el gobierno tomó la decisión de destruir el edificio para acabar con la guerra que se había desatado, citó otras razones, como lo costoso de una posible restauración de un edificio altamente deteriorado por la falta de mantenimiento en sus 25 años de existencia. El plan era reubicar a las 252 familias que allí vivían a diferentes residenciales públicos y viviendas dentro y fuera de Puerta de Tierra.
Papy y Toya decidieron no marcharse hasta que les aseguraran su apartamentito en el Falansterio que llevaban observando desde hacía algún tiempo. Tanto estuvieron esperando hasta que se convirtieron en el único matrimonio residente en Las Acacias. Dos años antes de la histórica implosión, Papy y Toya se levantaban en las noches con el fuerte jamaqueo de las ventanas y las puertas. Los deambulantes y bregadores del barrio se habían puesto manos a la obra para llevarse todo lo que pudieran de los apartamentos abandonados. “¡Aquí vive Papy Fuentes!”, gritaba para espantar a los saqueadores. “Disculpe Don José, es que pensábamos que no había nadie aquí” le contestaban. Al siguiente día del susto, pusieron un letrero en la puerta que avisaba: “Aquí viven Toya y Papy Fuentes”. Cuentan las hermanas Fuentes que la única luz que se veía prendida a lo lejos en los dieciocho pisos del desamparado rascacielos era la de sus padres. “Se nos salía el corazón del miedo por la oscuridad que arropaba al edificio, pero no había caso en tratar de convencerlos”, recuerdan. Así estuvieron hasta que les permitieron mudarse a su nueva residencia a finales de 1998.
Papy Fuentes en el balcón de su apartamento en el Falansterio, Puerta de Tierra.
Foto por Eduardo Ortiz Romeu
Finalmente, entrevistamos a Papy Fuentes la mañana del domingo 12 de agosto de 2012. Al entrar a su apartamento noté que los recuerdos de su época de músico colgados en las paredes habían sido conservados como si se tratara de un tesoro. El famoso bongó de Papy Fuentes descansaba sobre una estantería al lado de la ventana y aunque dejó de sonar hace cuarenta años, todavía recibía el cariño de su dueño, que lo limpiaba y afinaba como lo hacía con Endel en sus mejores años en la música. Sentí las dudas del que sabe que tiene una oportunidad única para dar voz a un personaje fundamental. ¿Haré las preguntas correctas? ¿Lograré ayudarlo a recordar con claridad sus vivencias?
Recuerdo que después de citar las canciones donde Chamaco lo mencionaba y buscar maneras de refrescar su memoria, quise llevarlo a esas noches que convivieron como compañeros en la orquesta. Le dije que Endel Dueño nos había contado de manera muy jocosa la reacción del público cuando Chamaco no llegó a un baile y tuvieron que huir del lugar por una incesante lluvia de botellas. Vi esta anécdota como un dato curioso que podía servir como un comic relief en un momento clave del documental y para romper el hielo en la entrevista. “Bendito mijo, yo no me acuerdo de eso…¿tú sabes todo lo que ha llovido?” –me dijo Papy con su eterna sonrisa. Sus contestaciones eran cortas y al grano cuando buscaba detalles.
Fue entonces cuando le pedí que hablara de cómo sería su orquesta ideal y le pregunté si Chamaco estaría en esa orquesta. La sonrisa se desdibujó de su cara y dejando escapar una lágrima nos dijo con la voz entrecortada: “Chamaco estaría en mi orquesta… Chamaco era el mejor sonero del mundo. El vicio lo dominó, porque eso es una enfermedad, pero era un muchacho bueno y me venía a visitar mucho. Cuando estaba apretao, lo ayudaba como podía”.
En ese momento me di cuenta que para llegar a rescatar todo lo que Papy y Chamaco vivieron juntos, no podía pretender hacerlo en un solo día. Comprendí que la clave para documentar la experiencia de Papy era ser paciente. Ya me imaginaba paseando con él por Puerta de Tierra, refrescando su memoria de joven, sacando las fotos que guardaba en los baúles, hablando con sus hijas y el nieto que crió tras la muerte de su hijo Papo, y haciendo todo lo que estuviera a mi alcance para documentar su paso por la música y la vida. Al dar por concluida la entrevista, Papy nos despidió con “el mejor café de Puerta de Tierra” y vimos que cuando guardamos el equipo y las luces era otra persona. Ya no se veía nervioso ni titubeante, sino feliz y honrado por la visita. Incluso llegó a ofrecernos hospedaje en su apartamentito en nuestro próximo viaje.
El 2 de octubre de ese mismo año, menos de dos meses después de nuestra visita al Falansterio, recibí una llamada de Chamaco Jr. “Papy Fuentes murió hoy de un paro respiratorio”, me dijo. Sentí un vacío enorme y una frustración difícil de explicar. Ese día escuché sus descargas en el bongó y volví a ver la entrevista con una perspectiva diferente. Ahora cada mirada, cada silencio cobraba un mayor valor. Pensé en lo cerca que estuvimos de no conocerlo nunca y comprendí que esa imagen de Papy sentado en el balcón con el patio interior del Falansterio sirviendo de fondo cuando lloraba la partida de su amigo hablaba más que miles de relatos y anécdotas. El confidente de Chamaco se llevó a la tumba gran parte de sus vivencias en la Orquesta de Tommy Olivencia, donde formó parte de esa irrepetible generación de músicos que marcó para siempre la trayectoria de la música popular boricua. Igual que Chamaco, Papy Fuentes dejó un rompecabezas incompleto y fascinante a la vez. Tranquilo Chamaco, su bongó seguirá sonando.
Papy Fuentes en Panamá con la Orquesta de Tommy Olivencia descargando en el bongó. Año 1969.
*Este escrito se hizo posible gracias a los testimonios de los músicos Endel Dueño, Paquito Guzmán y Raphy Levitt y Rubén López. También conté con el apoyo y los relatos de los familiares de Don José ‘Papy’ Fuentes: Alí Baez, Ivelisse Fuentes, Idalís Fuentes y José ‘Junior’ Fuentes.
 1 Pa’lante otra vez. Album Juntos de Nuevo, Tommy Olivencia. Canta Chamaco Ramírez. Inca Records, 1974
 Canción: San Agustín, Album: Alive and Kicking, 1979 Canta: Chamaco Ramírez