A Conversation with Melvis Santa

By Don Macica

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 folk background.”

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.

The Return of the Chicago Latin Jazz Jam Session

By Don Macica –

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 better.”

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)

Chef Xavier Pacheco on Puerto Rico’s Cuisine and Farm-to-Table Movement

By Don Macica

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 local economies.”

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 from.”

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

Omara Portuondo, El Último Beso at the Old Town School of Folk Music

By Don Macica

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”.

photos by Johann Sauty

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

A Historic Night at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center with Miguel Zenón

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.

Elías Carmona

“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.”






Charlie Billups

“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”.

Delgres: French Caribbean Creole Blues

By Don Macica –

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

Interview: Miguel Zenón’s “Yo Soy la Tradición” Benefit Concert and Album

by Don Macica –

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

Concert Preview: Salsa and Latin jazz veteran Jerry Medina y La Banda

– By Don Macica –

For every star of salsa music, there are a dozen of unsung heroes that, despite their immense talents, are lesser known, providing the necessary support for the star to shine. Quick: How many salsa horn players can you name? Beyond Willie Colón and those who are primarily known as Latin jazz musicians, you are likely to have to think for a while. But a salsa song without horns would feel empty, and the same goes for the lead vocalists and most certainly the coro singers.

Jerry Medina is all three: A dynamic lead vocalist, expert coro singer and talented trumpet player. With the formation of Jerry Medina y La Banda earlier this decade, he became a terrific bandleader as well.  His name might not immediately come to mind, but a deep perusal of your record collection will find him turning up all over the place. He’s appeared on something like 50 albums since 1981 (up to and including the recent Grammy-nominated Fase Dos by Juan Pablo Diaz), including releases by Ismael Miranda, José “El Canario” Alberto, Oscar d’Leon, Cheo Feliciano and more.  He has a pair of Grammy Awards on his shelf for Palmieri’s 1987 album The Truth / La Verdad and the 2000 collaboration between Palmieri & Tito Puente, Masterpiece. When the stars of Fania regrouped for world tours in the 1980s and 90s, Medina was there with them.

Medina released a couple of solo albums in the 1980s, but a more lasting contribution came as a member of Batacumbele, a groundbreaking and deeply rooted Afro-Caribbean  ensemble where he both played trumpet and sang lead. The group is notable for being entirely Puerto Rican at a time when people were looking to Cuba for new sounds, but one listen reveals a sprawling collective that more than held their own with their Cuban counterparts like Irakere.

Medina was in the studio throughout the 90s and into the new millennium providing support for many of the big crossover Latin records of that decade, but he always kept one foot in the world of improvisational and folkloric music with groups like Descarga Boricua, bomba legends Hermanos Ayala and Grupo Afro Boricua.

He came into his own as a bandleader and lead singer in the 2000s with the formation of Jerry Medina y La Banda. The group bridges Caribbean folklore and Latin jazz in an updated version of Batacumbele’s template, and even flexes some funk & hip-hop chops. They made an electrifying appearance at the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival in March 2014. In 2015 Medina and La Banda released A Mi Manera, which included the talents of Giovanni Hidalgo, Paoli Mejías, Efraín Toro, Pablo Rosario, Luisito Marín, Prodigio Claudio, and Ricardo Pons.

A Mi Manera is a stylistically diverse collection of songs that ranges from jazzy big band sounds (complete with scatted vocals) to driving timba to a radical reworking of the Rafael Hernandez classic Capullito de Alelí. The title track is not,thankfully, a cover of the Paul Anka chestnut but an original composition that is Medina’s manifesto for the group. You can hear a little bit of lots of stuff in it: A cuatro solo for the traditionalists, a rap, some scratching, a swinging horn chart, funk bass, Medina’s scatting and a snaky, shifting rhythm pattern.  This is indeed Medina’s way.

It’s a tribute to Medina’s talent, energy and spirit that, after 35+ years in the business, he can come up with something this fresh and contemporary that still manages to be an extension of the great salsa records that he’s contributed to over the years. In the process, he honors Puerto Rican creativity, culture and music.

Jerry Medina y La Banda
Wednesday, August 29, 8:30pm: Old Town School of Folk Music oldtownschool.org
Thursday, August 30, 7:30pm: Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center srbcc.org
Both shows are free with a suggested $10 donation

Concert Preview: A Conversation with ÌFÉ’s Otura Mun

– By Don Macica –

ÌFÉ, the “Future Afro-Caribeña” project from Puerto Rico led by drummer/producer/singer Otura Mun, last came to Chicago in July of 2017 for an acoustic show at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, an organization that they have longstanding ties to. They had been to Chicago twice before, most recently right after the release of their well-received first album, IIII+IIII, (pronounced “Edgy-Og-Beh”). You can read Agúzate’s review of that album here. The group, which also consists of Beto Torrens, Rafael Maya, Anthony Sierra and Yarimir Cabán, was tacking on a free show as something of a gift to Chicago at the end of a U.S. tour before going their separate ways for a bit.

Little did they know that the short break would turn into a lengthy hiatus after Hurricanes Irma and Maria delivered a near knockout blow to Puerto Rico in September, leaving some members of the band stranded on the mainland and forcing others to depart the island for their own safety.

The band essentially went silent for a few months. Band members stayed busy with their own projects and Mun would occasionally surface in the press with an interview. December found IIII+IIII showing up on virtually everybody’s end of the year “Best of” lists, from NPR Music to outlets covering dance and electronic music to folk music publications like England’s Songlines. By February the band was rehearsing in preparation for a Mexican tour and a double-bill with M.A.K.U. Soundsystem at BRIC, a cultural arts center in Brooklyn. They also found time to stop by the NPR studios in Washington, D.C. to tape a Tiny Desk Concert.

Now ÌFÉ is starting a tour that will eventually take them to the Kennedy Center in Washington and Central Park Summer Stage in New York, but their first stop is in Chicago. They will be back at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center this Friday night for their third ÌFÉ Acústico, a casual yet invigorating rumba session that usually ends in an all hands on deck jam that crosses from rumba to bomba and back again. They’ll be in concert at Navy Pier the following afternoon at LatiNxt, a new 2-day festival that explores new ways of connecting traditional Latin music with modern sounds.

I spoke with Otura Mun last week as he was preparing to travel from his home in Santurce, Puerto Rico for Cuba in order to continue the spiritual studies that led Mun, an African American from Indiana born with the name Mark Underwood, to become an Ifá priest or Babalawo in the Yoruba religion in 2015.

DM: First of all, congratulations on the success of your first album. It’s pretty amazing to have a debut gain all that international acclaim. Why do you think that album resonated with so many different people and was greeted so warmly?

OM: Well, I think there are a few things. First of all, we sing in three different languages; English, Spanish and Yoruba. There are three points of intersection language-wise, so we’re not put in one camp. We’re not only seen as a Latin American band. In fact, some of the biggest and most interesting reactions to our Tiny Desk performance came from Nigeria. I also think that I myself don’t fit neatly into the pre-determined cultural nooks and crannies, so personal and musical influences show up in the songwriting and structure that appeal to more than one group. But those are technical things. Bigger than that, I think, is that the record was always meant to be inclusive and easily readable, even if you didn’t understand the language. The intent of the record was to communicate love and expansion.

Here’s an example: I bumped into a guy in a bar the other night. He’s a musician, but in a style that I’m not really into. I don’t really know him, but he pulled me aside to say, “Hey man, I listen to your record all the time… it puts me in a place that I really like to be.” That was very satisfying; it was something that I hoped to achieve. I know that when I was developing my ideas for the band, I got “professional” advice to sort of trim my vision, to target it this way or that. But I needed to be honest to myself. When we made the video for “3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé)” everybody told me to cut out the lengthy introduction of the band members, but I thought that it was important and in a way it was my homage to Yoruba Andabo. And it did take a few months before outlets started to add it. But I don’t regret it for a moment, because it was important for me to do it the way we did it.

DM: Many of Aguzate’s readers are deeply and personally connected to Puerto Rico, so we all looked on with collective horror at Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. I remember the relief I felt when the band posted on social media that everyone was safe, and then I started seeing individual members posting from different places around the U.S. and world. How did all that affect you as people, as Puerto Ricans and of course as an artistic ensemble based in Santurce?

OM: Well, actually, I wasn’t there when the hurricanes struck. After we completed our summer tour, I went to Europe to work on a project, stopped home for a day in August to produce a song for MIMA (the solo artistic persona of ÌFÉ member Yarimir Cabán) and then went to California. So, just like you, I didn’t hear anything for days, then slowly began to hook up with friends and band members. It was hard to get information. I remember seeing pictures on the internet of my street and it was total devastation. It was hard, but most of what I know about that time I learned from the accounts of others. We all didn’t get back together until February so we could rehearse for the Mexico and Brooklyn dates.

I live in the barrio, right, and there is a degree of lawlessness here that’s greater than before Maria. The electricity might be back on, but not all the street lights work. You can turn a corner and be in total darkness. You have to watch out. That attitude applies to the police, too. It’s like what the black community experiences in the States, but with even more impunity.

On the other hand, people have come together to help each other because there was nobody else, and there seems to be a movement toward more unity. The economic situation and the hurricane laid Puerto Rico’s colonial status bare and I think more people are waking up to that.

It’s always been hard to make it as an independent artist here, or as a folkloric artist. Even salsa suffers from that. If you’re not doing reggaeton, you will have a tough go of it. So in that way, things are the same. On the other hand, the international community is paying much more attention to Puerto Rico since the hurricane, so there are more opportunities for us to tell our stories.

Puerto Rico is where I want to be, despite all the difficulties. These are the people that I’ve been around for 20 years, and I think we are also closer than ever to getting a grip on our situation and making changes for the better.

photo by Charlie Billups

DM: Are you working on new material? I’ve seen hints of a technology upgrade on the band’s Facebook page and wondering what we’ll be hearing at Navy Pier.

OM: We’ve been working a lot to bring our live performance to a higher level. We want our show to be impactful and somewhat challenging, not what you’ve seen before.  We have a new dancer in the group, a woman from Mexico City named Pia Love, who’s traveled to Nigeria, Brazil, Cuba, India, Jamaica… that makes her familiar with my main influences and she brings all that to our collaboration. I’m almost going for a theatrical presentation with our live show.

Musically, there will be a new record, maybe later this year. I’ve spent a lot of time making notes and ideas for new songs. I’ve got 6 notebooks! I already know what the next record is going to be about.  We are testing a new single in front of audiences, so we’ll be opening shows with it. Chicago will be the first place that people will get to experience this new stuff.

ÌFÉ in Chicago

ÌFÉ Acústico | Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center | Friday June 15 @ 7:30pm | Advance Tickets at segundoruizbelvis.org

LatiNxt presented by Sol | Navy Pier | Saturday June 16 @ 3pm (LatiNxt begins at 2pm) | Information at Facebook

 

 

Willie Colón tops a diverse lineup at Chicago’s Colombian Fest

By Don Macica –

The Midwest’s largest celebration of Colombian music and culture, Chicago’s Colombian Fest Al Parque, returns to Kelvyn Park, 4438 W. Wrightwood Avenue in Chicago, July 20, 21 and 22 as it celebrates its 4th year.

Festival director Jorge Ortega has once again programmed with a multi-generational approach to the vast diversity of Colombia culture. Ortega, who was recently honored with the Keeper of the Flame Award by the Chicago International Salsa Congress, says “From the Pacific coast to the interior plains and mountains to the shores of the Caribbean, Colombia has a huge diversity of cultures made up of mixtures of Spanish, African and indigenous peoples. The music at the festival will represent both folkloric traditions and the newest sounds of the region.”

Headliners for this year’s Fest include the legendary salsa giant Willie Colón, making his first Chicago appearance since 2006. The Nuyorican trombonist, arranger and bandleader was an integral part of the Fania Records family in the late 1960s and early 70’s. Colombia’s embrace of salsa, especially in Cali, where they claim the title of “salsa capital of the world”, can be traced back to when the Fania All-Stars first performed there in the 1970s. Cali’s homegrown salsa scene will be represented by singer Javier Vásquez. Vásquez found salsa fame as the lead vocalist of the legendary Grupo Niche for 17 years before joining Son de Cali in 2002 and then as a solo artist in 2011. [Update 4/18: Javier Vásquez is unable to come to Chicago for the Fest due to visa issues. We’ll keep you informed of new Colombian Fest bookings as they happen via the Agúzate Facebook page.]

Alfredo Gutiérrez

The accordion-driven Colombian music known as vallenato will be represented by two generations of musicians coming direct from Colombia. Singer and accordionist Alfredo Gutiérrez is the three-time winner of the Vallenato Legend Festival. Gutiérrez will be accompanied by Los Corraleros de Majagual, a group that he helped found in 1961 and for whom he was the lead vocalist throughout the 1960’s. A generation younger than Alfredo Gutiérrez is singer Iván Villazón, who released Arco Iris, the first of his many hit albums and songs, in 1984, an unbroken string that continues to this day.

Other cultural regions of Colombia are represented by Los Rolling Raunas, a group from Bogotá who bring rock energy, attitude and humor to the carranga music of the Colombian Andes, and Canolón de Timbiquí, who embody the rich musical mix of African and Latin American traditions unique to Colombia’s Pacific coast. The group consists of five female singers led by Nidia Gongora supported by a band using a range of traditional percussive instruments such as the tambora drum and the xylophone-style marimba.

Canalón de Timbiquí

Colombia has a cultural affinity with the rest of the Caribbean and, in turn, with Africa itself, whose rhythms are at the heart of all Afro-Caribbean music. Accordingly, the fest will present Raul Acosta & Oro Sólido, merengue stars from the Dominican Republic. Also performing are the Soukous All-Stars, comprised of several musicians who are major soukous artists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Soukous, along with Jamaican reggae, Haitian kompa and other Caribbean sounds, is a recognizable feature of Colombian champeta music from Cartagena and Barranquilla on Colombia’s Atlantic coast. The genre will be represented at the fest by one of its most popular groups, the Bazurto All Stars.

M.A.K.U. Soundsystem

New to the Fest this year is the Friday night program Elektro Verbena al Parque, an electronic dance music party headlined by Colombia via New York City’s M.A.K.U. Soundsystem and featuring El Freaky Colectivo de Bogota, Future Roots, SONORAMA, the Ortega Bros. and Hector Truke. The night is curated by David Chávez of Sound Culture.

Tickets for Chicago’s Colombian Fest al Parque are on sale now at colombianfestchicago.com.