¡Avísale a Papy Fuentes!

 

Por Omar Torres-Kortright

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.

 

Como la mar cuando vuelve por lo suyo

y barre todo lo que se quedó en la arena,

Yo por lo mío sin vanidad y sin orgullo,

ya regresé porque bien vale la pena.[1]

 

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

 

Coro

San Agustín, Puerta de Tierra Calle para vacilar [2]

 

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?

 

PapyFuentesYoung

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.

 

ChamacoPRAgosto2012-13

 

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] 1 Pa’lante otra vez. Album Juntos de Nuevo, Tommy Olivencia. Canta Chamaco Ramírez. Inca Records, 1974

 

[2] Canción: San Agustín, Album: Alive and Kicking, 1979 Canta: Chamaco Ramírez

 

San Juan to Chicago: Roy McGrath’s Jazz Journey

Puerto Rican tenor saxophonist upends stereotypes to carve his own musical path.

roymcgrath-web-768x1024

By Don Macica –

At some point in the summer of 2015, Roy McGrath’s name became ubiquitous, so much so that I began to wonder, “Who is this guy?”

First, I noticed that his quintet was performing at the Chicago Latin Jazz Festival. A few weeks after that, I was having lunch with the owner of Sabor a Café, a Colombian restaurant that presents live music on weekends. “Roy McGrath, man, ooo, you gotta hear him.” I finally heard him in early September when he joined the groove-jazz backing band of Puerto Rican rapper Siete Nueve at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. A week later I caught him backing up master percussionist Michael Spiro at Sabor a Café, and a week after that I unexpectedly stumbled across him in a comparsa de plena as part of the Chicago World Music Festival. He led a Latin jazz ensemble in a project that matched original music to poetry a week later, and shortly after that I learned he was taking his straight-ahead quartet, with whom he had recorded Martha, an excellent CD of original compositions (and a couple of well chosen covers), on a month-long tour of Mexico.

And then there was this mystery: How could a 6’2” white guy with the name McGrath be a Puerto Rican? I needed to get to the bottom of this, so when he returned from Mexico we made arrangements to meet for coffee, which was remarkably easy to do because it turned out we were neighbors.

“When I was around 15 and in high school, a friend gave me her father’s saxophone because she heard me say that I wanted to play one. It supposedly belonged to a member of El Gran Combo, who gave it to her father, and it was in horrible shape, really beat up. Two weeks later, I was playing a gig in front of 5,000 people at Roberto Clemente Coliseum.”

McGrath pauses, no doubt reading the incredulity on my face. “Oh. Well, I had a friend who had a reggae band, and they were opening up for Israel Vibration. My friend wanted horns in this gig because Israel Vibration had horns in their band. I sounded terrible, and I did for a long time.”

He continues, “A couple of weeks later I went to the San Juan Borders store and bought two CDs out of their bargain bin: John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. That was it. I knew I wanted to play jazz.”

McGrath had a friend who played guitar and they formed a quartet which almost immediately scored a gig making $50 a week. He was already a working jazz musician, learning and playing the standards.

Things changed less than a year later. “I was in a bad car accident when I was 16, and that experience really made me reflect and get serious about playing. I replaced the beat up horn with a new one.”

I should point out that while McGrath is serious about his work ethic, he is more modest, even critical, of his talent. I should also point out that, a little more than a year after first picking up a horn, McGrath was offered a 3/4 scholarship by Loyola University in New Orleans to study music.

“Yeah, New Orleans,” McGrath says. “I was offered scholarships to a few schools, but I wanted to study jazz. Of course I picked New Orleans.”

McGrath completed his undergraduate work in three years, but hung around the Crescent City for two more, soaking up culture and seeking knowledge. “I loved New Orleans. It felt like home. It was hot, so that felt right. The traditions there are similar to the Caribbean. People say ‘Hi’ to you on the street, and you could become friends just like that. It was also musically similar to Puerto Rico in the way that music is heard everywhere. They blast jazz like we blast salsa.”

And, of course, he was working as often as he could, playing in brass bands, jazz bands, funk bands. “Never turn down a gig,” he says. “You’ll always learn something.”

After five years in New Orleans, McGrath arrived in Chicago in 2012 to continue his studies at Northwestern University, where he earned a master’s degree in 2014. “It was great. Like, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is on the faculty there! I studied directly with Victor Goines, who heads up the jazz department.” He recorded Martha a few months later with a quartet formed with fellow Northwestern grads.

I ask him why he remained here after graduation instead of moving to, say, New York. “Chicago, man. What a great music city. The jazz scene here is epic. There are so many good players. Some of the best in the world are here. The salsa scene is amazing as well. There’s a brass band and funk scene, even reggae. Everything’s here! Plus, there’s a lot of Puerto Ricans, so I don’t miss my culture. If I’m homesick, I can just go down to La Bomba for dinner.”

His ‘never turn down a gig’ work ethic remains strong. On the morning we met, he had just returned from an out of state gig with a merengue band. “Merengue is hard, man, all these rapid, percussive runs. Not at all like jazz or salsa. I learned a few things.”

McGrath has another habit that influences his growth as a musician. He is completely unafraid to seek out established musicians he admires and talk to them. “It’s like playing all the different kinds of music, but in addition to practical knowledge, you might learn something spiritual or cultural from their experiences, and that’s valuable too.”

The saxophonist has two projects as a leader coming up in the near future. First, he’ll lead a straight-ahead sextet in January performing what, for him, was a seminal jazz influence—the entire John Coltrane Blue Train album. “We’re in pretty intense rehearsals right now, because I want to honor ‘Trane, not copy him.” The performance is presented by the Jazz Record Art Collective, a monthly series at the Fulton Street Collective in Chicago, and visual artist Sarah Mueller will paint as McGrath’s sextet plays.

The other is a further extension of the Latin jazz project he first created last fall for Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and The 606 called Julia al Son de Jazz, in which original compositions are performed with one or possibly two poets reciting the words of Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. “I’m trying to get two voices, one female and the other male, so I can arrange the tonal quality like I would with different horns.” Sabor a Café is presenting the project in February.

The two very different gigs are illustrative of McGrath’s artistic ambitions. “I don’t want to be categorized as a ‘Latin’ musician because I consider myself primarily a straight-ahead player. At the same time, I’m Puerto Rican and my culture is invested in what I create. I really admire Miguel Zenón. He doesn’t play Latin jazz, but he came up playing in salsa bands and everything he’s done and learned is in his music.”

He hopes to study with Zenón sometime soon. “I feel that I’m finally ready. Before this, I would have been wasting his time.” McGrath’s modesty is on display once more, but if you’re keeping score, you’ll realize that he’s barely a decade out of high school and already possesses degrees from two of the best music schools in the country. He also makes a living in music, gigging in one band or another several nights a week in addition to leading two of his own. “Oh, yeah, I never want to go back to making pizzas or washing dishes.”

And, in case you’re still wondering about the name. “My father was a half Irish Mexican-American from Texas who moved to Puerto Rico, where he met my mom, who is German-American and was born in Thailand but grew up on the island, so she considers herself as boricua.” This fairly complex multi-cultural background perhaps offers a clue to McGrath’s artistic goals. Jazz itself is a confluence of cultures, rising as it did out of New Orleans, where the African Diaspora met and mingled with French, Spanish and other influences, including the ‘Latin tinge’ of the Caribbean. It is the United States’ great gift to the rest of the world, and McGrath is determined to take his music there. “Besides the Mexican tour, I’ve already played in China and I want to go back soon.”

I hope he continues to call Chicago home for a long time to come.

John Coltrane’s Blue Train by the Roy McGrath Sextet – Wednesday, January 20, 9pm at the Fulton Street Collective, 1821 W. Hubbard St, Chicago. jazzrecordartcollective.com

Julia al Son de Jazz with The Roy McGrath Latin Jazz Quintet – Friday, February 12, 9pm at Sabor a Café, 2435 W. Peterson, Chicago. No cover, but reservations are recommended. saboracaferestaurant.com
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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.

Oscar Perez and Carlos Henriquez: Directions in Latin Jazz

Two emerging artists of Caribbean heritage take divergent paths to making their mark on jazz.

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By Don Macica

A pair of terrific Latin jazz albums were released last fall that I meant to review for Agúzate, but never quite got around to because of the high level of activity on Chicago’s Afro-Latin scene. The parade of local and visiting artists took much of my focus and tended to set the agenda for what I was covering. Having said that, though, both of these albums were never very far from my iPod rotation, and they’re still there today. So, before 2015 slips into the haze of history (and Chicago’s scene heats up again), I thought you might want to know about them.

Both Oscar Perez and Carlos Henriquez are New Yorkers, Perez from a Cuban family growing up in Queens and Henriquez a Bronx-born Nuyorican. And both, at this point, have been professional musicians for well over 15 years, although the path they each took to get to this point in their respective careers is quite different. Pianist Perez released his first album, Nuevo Comienzo, back in 2007. His new album, Prepare a Place for Me, is his third, and with it he continues to develop a style in which his Cuban roots are present, but generally not deployed as obvious signifiers. Henriquez, by contrast, spent the last 15 or so years as a sideman, primarily as the bassist in Wynton Marsalis’ Septet as well as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The Bronx Pyramid is his first album as a leader. With his impeccable jazz bona fides firmly in hand, Henriquez used his debut to fully embrace Afro-Latin sounds and rhythms.

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Oscar Perez studied with Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez, and it shows in his approach to composing and playing. If you listen to Danilo’s early CDs, they have a more typical Latin jazz structure and feel, but since then, he’s charted a highly individualistic course, and Oscar Perez is on a similar trajectory. He shows his hand early, opening Prepare a Place for Me with a straight-ahead rendering of a tune named Just Everything, a song that he first recorded close to 10 years ago in a bolero style under the Spanish title Solamente Todo. He follows that up with the most Latin sounding track on the album, a Cuban-inflected take on Thelonius Monk’s Round Midnight, perhaps paying tribute to his mentor Danilo Pérez, who recorded the same tune in an entirely different manner on his breakthrough album Panamonk in 1996.

Headin’ Over is the perfect soundtrack for a classy stroll through Manhattan, while Snake Charmer generates heat with a tune as twisty as it’s namesake lizard. By and large, though, Prepare a Place for Me simmers, a primarily piano-bass-drums affair augmented by the superbly expressive alto sax of Bruce Williams. At times, the album reminds me of the more introspective work of Miguel Zenón (and by extension his pianist Luis Perdomo), a musician that eschews the category of ‘Latin jazz’ in favor of a broader jazz approach that is nonetheless profoundly shaped by his Puerto Rican heritage.

There’s one other standard on the album, an exquisite and intricate rendering of Hoagy Carmichael’s The Nearness of You. It’s followed by the title track in a manner that almost suggests a suite. Things get a bit livelier for the Brazil-tinged Mushroom City before concluding with the elegiac Song for Ofelia, which Perez wrote in honor of his grandmother.

Carlos Henriquez proudly stamps his debut with the soul, sound and culture of his Afro-Puerto Rican heritage and Bronx roots. After years of being a sideman on something like 50 straight ahead, pop, Latin jazz and salsa projects, not to mention his fifteen plus years with Wynton Marsalis, it goes without saying that his bass playing is superb. I first heard Henriquez’s quintet when he opened for Eddie Palmieri exactly a year ago at Symphony Center, and their set was good enough for me to briefly forget I was there to see el maestro.  On Bronx Pyramid, Henriquez channels his playing and composing into a convincingly personal statement of identity.

The title track features the Cuban batá drumming of guest percussionist Pedrito Martinez. Chuchfrito is an appropriately greasy riff on Latin boogaloo. Descarga Entre Amigos is just that, an infectious salsa jam that features Rubén Blades on vocals. Joshua’s Dream is a gorgeous bolero that Henriquez wrote for his young son. Al Fin Te Vin is a charming danzón conceived as a duet for bowed bass and trumpet.

The album continues in this vein, a musical tour of Latin America (or perhaps simply the Bronx) touching on bomba, guaracha, rumba and more. There are a couple of relatively straight ahead tunes as well, including the lovely ballad Nilda, written in honor of Henriquez’s mom, and the hard swinging Eye of the Gemini, a “bonus track” that likely earns its designation because it didn’t quite fit the album’s themes, but was too good to leave off.

Two New Yorkers of Caribbean descent, two distinct approaches to Latin jazz, both producing deeply felt albums that reveal more with every listen. So, quick, before Chicago gets too busy again: Check them out.

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Oscar Perez, Prepare a Place for Me (Myna Records)

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Carlos Henriquez, The Bronx Pyramid (Blue Engine)
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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.

Intercambio: Orbert Davis and Cuban cultural diplomacy

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photo by Zoe Davis

By Don Macica.

In October of 2012, jazz trumpeter and Chicago Jazz Philharmonic founder/leader Orbert Davis traveled to Havana, Cuba to do research for a project he was creating with Frank Chaves of the River North Dance Company. A year later, the product of this research became one of the best multi-discipline concerts of 2013: Havana Blue.

Research, however, was only part of the reason for Davis’s visit. There were both personal and musical goals as well, and they were not unrelated. Davis, an African-American, was also seeking to learn more about another branch of the African Diaspora in the Cuba as a way to better connect with his own African heritage. The musician in him, inspired by the jazz that emerged as perhaps the signature cultural contribution of Africans in North America, wanted to get to know firsthand the African-rooted music of Cuba and the people who made it.

One of the places that Davis visited on the trip was one of the country’s top performing arts schools, the Universidad de las Artes (ISA), “akin to our Julliard” as Davis puts it. Students here are trained to be classical musicians – there is little jazz instruction. Thoroughly impressed by the student’s sheer talent and quick adaptability to jazz improvisation, Davis vowed to return, which he did in December 2014, with members of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, to perform a with the students at the Havana Jazz Festival.

‘Timing is everything’, for a jazz musician, is sort of insider talk about the importance of rhythm. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Of course, it also applies in general use to more or less mean being at the right place at the right time. For Davis and his CJP cohorts, it meant being in Cuba and working closely with the students and faculty of ISA on the historic day when Presidents Obama and Castro announced their mutual intention to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba after over half a century of recrimination and hostility.

At the Havana Jazz Festival, the young students “became” the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic with the help of workshops and master classes from Davis and other CJP members including Steve Eisen, Ernie Adams, Leandro Lopez-Varady and Stewart Miller. The concert was a huge success, and almost immediately upon returning home, Davis & company went about the work of bringing the students to Chicago to help perform a new Davis composition, Scenes From Life: Cuba!, which will have its premiere on Friday, November 13 at the Auditorium Theatre.

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Leandro Lopez-Varady with ISA student Beatriz Arias – photo by Zoe Davis

One of the students, 17 year old violinist Beatriz Arias, said this when asked why she gave up her Christmas holiday to be in the project: “My motivation was to exchange with different countries, play and learn about jazz and other popular music besides classical,” adding “I didn’t learn improvising at school. It was mainly from my father who plays the tres, so he was like my school for improvisation. But I’ve never done this before. It was all an inspiration in the moment.”

It says something about both the Cuban educational system and the Cuban soul that someone so young who had never played jazz could hang and improvise with these top shelf jazz musicians and shine.

According to Orbert, it was a quality shared by all the students. He attributes this to the Cuban experience and sensibility. “We invited a pair of traditional Cuban drummers to work and later perform with the students. They began by discussing and demonstrating a rumba rhythm. It quickly turned into a jam session with the students singing and dancing. All of the kids knew the chant, they knew the song. They didn’t learn that in school. It was part of who they are at home.”

Davis goes on to praise the educational system. “We tend to think of Cuba as the third world. They’re poor, they need our help… I’ve been in music education a very long time, but there were two things there that I never experienced before. First, the teachers and administration give the students everything they need and want.” The second thing relates to the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic itself. “CJP is a third stream orchestra: 100% jazz, 100% classical. Many of our string musicians come from a strictly classical background, and there is a process of training and adaptation for them to understand jazz. What was astonishing in Cuba was that these classically trained musicians adapted to swing and improvisation so quickly. It was phenomenal what these kids were playing in just a few days. You’d never in a million years think that it was all brand new to them. They are truly third stream musicians.”

Davis will, in a sense, use these young students as teachers and vice-versa in the upcoming CJP concert. “The string section seating will alternate: American, Cuban, American, Cuban… Whatever we do will rub off on them, and whatever they do will rub off on us.”

This concert, like the 2014 trip that preceded it, will truly be an intercambio, a cultural exchange in which both parties will have much to give and receive. Orbert Davis alludes to this near the end of our conversation.

“These students are the future, and we want them to know what this new relationship is about. It’s not about when American companies get down to Cuba and make all this money. There’s some anxiety in Cuba about change, a sense of being conquered again, but this time by money. But for us, it’s about people; it’s about sharing what’s most important. The students will go home knowing this.”

Friday’s concert will be preceded by nearly a week of rehearsals, but it won’t be all work. In all, 36 Cubans are coming, including the president of the University, and there will be time to visit cultural institutions like the DuSable Museum of African American History and the National Museum of Mexican Art. They’ll also partake in that Chicago culinary institution, deep dish pizza. They will go home knowing the best of Chicago. Native Chicagoan that I am, I feel that they’ll experience the best this country has to offer. Judging from what Orbert Davis says, we’ll get to experience the best of what Cuba has to offer us.

Sounds like a good deal to me.

Scenes from Life: Cuba! Chicago Jazz Philharmonic with special guests from the Universidad de las Artes. Auditorium Theatre, Friday, November 13, 7:30pm. Tickets at auditoriumtheatre.org.

 

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.

Chucho Valdés: Irakere 40

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By Don Macica.

2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of Cuba’s true supergroup, Irakere. The band led by pianist Chucho Valdés didn’t labor in isolation for long. In 1977, a jazz cruise left New Orleans carrying musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and a young Ry Cooder (yes, the same Ry Cooder whose curiosity led to the rediscovery of the Buena Vista Social Club 20 years later) and dropped anchor in Havana. After catching an Irakere performance and being blown away by what they heard, they engaged in some jazz diplomacy back in the U.S. and soon Irakere was known around the world.

In addition to Valdés, the group also featured the young Paquito D’Rivera on sax and Arturo Sandoval on trumpet. Paquito defected to the United States in 1980 and Sandoval followed 10 years later, yet Chucho stayed the course and Irakere continued as a band until 2005, recording classic albums like Misa Negra along the way.

Chucho is now 74, but if that seems at all elderly to you, remember that his father, the legendary Bebo Valdés, lived to the age of 94 and was producing music until the end, providing the inspiration (and soundtrack) for the wonderful animated film Chico and Rita. Irakere may be no more, but Chucho is still going strong, as evidenced by his work as a solo artist and two recent recordings by his current group, the Afro-Cuban Messengers. Anniversaries being what they are, though, 2015 finds Chucho honoring the groundbreaking group he founded with the brand new album Tribute to Irakere –Live in Marciac (Jazz Village) and subsequent tour with the Afro-Cuban Messengers, which will bring him to Symphony Center on November 6.

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The members of the Afro-Cuban Messengers are young enough to count Irakere as influences on their musical development, so you have something of a dream matchup on the Tribute album: Young disciples led by the maestro himself.

Unlike their equally innovative contemporaries Los Van Van, Irakere were first and foremost a jazz ensemble, not a dance orchestra. Their first appearances outside of Cuba were at the Newport and Montreaux Jazz Festivals respectively. Nonetheless, Cuban audiences want to dance, and Irakere’s first big hit was the funk burner Bacalao con Pan, brimming with electric bass, blaring horns and rock guitar wedded to folkloric Cuban percussion and the incandescent virtuosity of Valdés, D’Rivera and Sandoval’s solos. Later on, as the sheer firepower of D’Rivera and Sandoval departed, Valdés reconceived the ensemble’s dynamic by writing stronger arrangements that emphasized the group sound, resulting in extended works like the four-part suite Misa Negra.

This approach to writing and arranging now carries over to the Afro-Cuban Messengers, the name of which is Chucho’s nod to legendary drummer Art Blakey’s long running Jazz Messengers. Both of the group’s previous albums, Chucho’s Steps and Border-Free, are unmistakably jazz albums. The former serves as Valdés’ tribute to American jazz while the latter digs deeper into Afro-Latin folklore, but each is clearly the work of a fluid and seasoned jazz ensemble.

On Tribute to Irakere, the Messengers grow from a sextet to a 10 piece orchestra, adding tenor and alto sax plus two additional trumpets, the better to approximate Irakere’s 11 member powerhouse lineup. The album contains a mere 6 selections, but two of them stretch over 17 minutes and none are shorter than 7. Instead of filling the album with old Irakere hits, 4 of the 6 tracks come from the previous Messenger albums, but now arranged to take advantage of Irekere’s trademark sound: A tight and punchy horn section, deeply spiritual Afro-Cuban chants, percussive grooves and powerful soloing, all performed with blow-the-roof-off intensity. There’s also one Irakere classic, Juana 1600, and what you might call a ‘new’ Irakere song as imagined by a younger generation called Afro-Funk, which sounds exactly as you think it would with a title like that, but better.

It’s this 10 member Afro-Cuban Messengers that will hit the Symphony Center stage November 6, and it can be safely assumed that roofs will again be blown. There is a chance that other Irakere classics will be played, as they were in Marciac. I, for one, relish the very idea of hearing Misa Negra live. Whatever comes, though, will be good enough for me.

Chucho Valdés, Irakere 40: Friday, November 6, 8pm at Symphony Center, Chicago. Tickets at cso.org

 

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.

The door is open. What’s next from Cuban music?

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Roberto Fonseca and Danay Suárez

By Don Macica.

Ever since Presidents Obama and Castro made their historic joint announcement in December 2014, many have been wondering, “What’s next?” Here at Agúzate, of course, we cover music and culture, so our thoughts have turned to what is presumably a coming wave of Cuban music. Early signs are good. Both Buena Vista Social Club and the legendary Los Van Van visited Chicago this summer, while the Festival Cubano presented Miguelito Cuni, Jr. and Pedrito Calvo. Chucho Valdés is coming to Symphony Center this fall.

Conspicuously absent, though, is a younger generation of Cuban artists. Recent appearances have been few and far between. Mayne Stage presented pianist Roberto Fonseca last fall, and the last year or so has also seen shows from singers Melvis Santa at Sabor a Café and Danay Suárez at the Unisono Festival in Pilsen. And, of course, the French-Cuban sister duo Ibeyi, who are garnering tons of stateside attention, were just at Thalia Hall. But as the recent multi-million dollar international deal recently signed between entertainment giant Sony and the Cuban label EGREM demonstrates, both record companies and concert promoters are clearly looking to Cuba for a good return on investment.

Young artists are, of course, the key to any future that includes Cuban music. The point was driven home to me at the recent Chicago Jazz Festival, when Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett, who has been traveling to Cuba since the 1980’s, brought the young all-female Cuban ensemble Maqueque to the Pritzker stage, where their performance prompted multiple standing ovations and the only audience demanded encore that I had witnessed all weekend.

Here, then, is my list of Cuban artists you are likely to hear more of soon.

Descemer Bueno – Much of the Spanish speaking world has likely already heard singer-songwriter and producer Descemer Bueno without realizing it due to Enrique Iglesias’s recent reggaeton-tinged cover of his song Bailando. Bueno has been splitting his time between the U.S. and Cuba for several years, having first come to notice way back in the 90s as a member of Yerba Buena. At the age of 44, Bueno isn’t a kid anymore, and some of his recent output reflects a slight drift toward adult-contemporary blandness. However, his recent song Habana would not have sounded out of place performed by Yerba Buena.

Diana Fuentes – Already signed by Sony, Diana Fuentes is perhaps a step ahead of some of her Cuban colleagues in terms of reaching a U.S. audience. It probably doesn’t hurt that she’s married to Calle 13’s Eduardo Cabra and that he produced her latest album, Planeta Planetario. But she’s been making music in Cuba for over 15 years, working with stars like Carlos Varela and X Alfonso. Her early work showed influences of soul and R&B, but Planetario places her squarely in the singer-songwriter camp, where her music would be right at home alongside alt-Latino artists like Gaby Moreno, Julieta Venegas or Carla Morrison.

Los Aldeanos – Before the U.S. door to Cuban music slammed shut during the Bush presidency, it seemed that the hip hop group Orishas was ready to make a big impact. They even had a song featured in the mainstream Hollywood film Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights. Unfortunately, Orishas broke up in 2010. Into the breach steps Los Aldeanos. You might recognize the duo of Aldo and El B from their collaboration Si Te Preguntan on Ana Tijoux’s La Bala. Like the best hip hop, their lyrics take unflinching aim at society’s injustices, so much so that they’ve endured criticism from the Cuban government.

Daymé Arocena – While the recent Maqueque concert at the Chicago Jazz Fest was dominated aurally by Jane Bunnett’s virtuosic saxophone, it’s very likely that the eyes and ears of the audience were often riveted on the woman standing front and center, Daymé Arocena. A powerful, deep voiced singer in a jazz vein, she also channels the santos with every syllable and move. If there wasn’t a category for santería jazz before, there is now.

Danay Suárez – Another jazz-influenced singer is Danay Suárez, an MC who moves more in the hip hop side of things, though her new EP finds her singing more and backed by a jazz combo led by Roberto Fonseca.  Her flow and rapid musical evolution draw favorable comparisons to Ana Tijoux. Both Suárez and the previously mentioned Daymé Arocena were featured prominently on DJ/producer Gilles Peterson’s series of Havana Cultura recordings.

Roberto Fonseca – Although he was just here in October 2014, I’d be remiss if I didn’t return to Roberto Fonseca for a moment. The pianist and composer effortlessly straddles several musical worlds. He’s worked with legends like Omara Portuondo and the late Ibrahim Ferrer, but also the dynamic young Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara. He’s largely responsible for putting the band together for and producing the aforementioned Havana Cultura sessions of young Cuban artists. His own music freely combines elements from jazz, Cuban son, electronic sampling and African rhythms to startling effect.

Of course, any list of six artists is going to leave off a lot more than it includes, but that’s the beauty of it, yes? There are quite literally hundreds of young, creative Cubans that deserve to be heard. So head to the beach, and wait for the waves to come in. After all, they start a mere 90 miles away.

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.

Orquesta el Macabeo: Old school salsa for the 21st Century

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By Don Macica.

When I first heard Orquesta el Macabeo live in 2013, I was transported to a place that lived more in my imagination than anywhere else. I had seen documentaries about the birth of salsa in New York City and enjoyed every gritty, grainy frame. These films hinted at what it must have been like when these brash young upstarts first rose from the streets of the Bronx and Spanish Harlem. Listening to Orquesta el Macabeo, however, made me feel like I was there. I was blown away. This was a far cry from your average ‘salsa night’ in a club.

They’ve only been back to Chicago once, playing Agúzate’s Afro-Caribbean Improvised Music Festival later that same year. On September 4, however, I’ll return once again to el barrio when Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center presents Orquesta el Macabeo in a benefit concert.

Before the 11 musicians who make up the band got together, they each had a musical history in anything but salsa: hardcore, metal, ska, reggae, hip-hop. And yet, as they put it on their SoundCloud page, “They do not mix salsa with those music genres. This is straight up Salsa.”

“I was touring the world with different hardcore punk bands, and I come from a DIY background. I had an idea that when I got home I would gather some friends from other bands and see if we could jam some of our favorite Puerto Rican songs, like you would hear in any bar.” This is Macabeo’s founder and director, bassist José lbañez, speaking to me by phone from his home in Trujillo Alto, PR. “Originally, the idea was just for us, with no expectations, and if somebody would let us play in a bar or something, great. But all of us being DIY people, we soon wanted to write our own songs. We got really excited, doing things our way, learning but not feeling constrained by rules of what we could or couldn’t do.

“We got our first show in a little bar that only fit 40 people. We only had three songs, so we repeated them 2 or 3 times! People seemed to like it right away. I have a home studio, so we started working on writing more and making our first record.” That record eventually came out in 2010 as Salsa Macabra, followed by El Entierro in 2011 and Lluvia con sol in 2013.

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Bending or breaking rules is not a minor issue, and even now there are serious salseros who don’t believe Orquesta el Macabeo is doing it right, just as there are purist rockers who think Macabeo is only joking around. But, as lbañez notes, “Normal people who have normal lives listen to the music and like it. They don’t care if it’s this way or the other way.” Most rockers in Puerto Rico, he says, like salsa just fine. I can’t help but compare this attitude to early salsa’s creators, who took whatever they needed from tropical music—son, bomba y plena, merengue, boleros—and adapted it to their particular situation as urban dwellers also familiar with rock and R&B. In other words, the ‘rules’ of salsa weren’t written yet.

In addition to their dynamic live sound and unconventional stage presence, there is another quality that makes Orquesta el Macabeo stand out, and it is one that owes as much to punk as it does to the early days of salsa. Their lyrics have a reality to them, describing everyday life in circumstances that are sometimes harsh. It’s not always pretty, but it’s real. At the same time, they wield a sharp sense of humor as one of their weapons.

Willie Colón once said, in defining salsa as a thing culturally separate from the Cuban son that it sprang from, called it “… a manifestation of cultural resistance… its melodies are essentially urban. Salsa is like a newspaper, a chronicle of our lives in the big city, and that’s why it talks about such topics as crime, drugs, pain, uprootedness and even about our history of exploitation and underdevelopment.” In a different context, it’s why Chuck D of Public Enemy called rap the “Black CNN”, and the same spirit is at the heart of hardcore punk as well, a way of articulating anger at an unjust system. It’s protest music.

Decades later, lbañez says much the same thing. “I like to listen to music that says something to me, and I want to write music like that, stories from the neighborhood, stories of the city, the social situation… things that mean something to me. Our songs are not empty. They have something to say.” In addition to lbañez, another six members contribute lyrics and music, all of it original and all of it reflective of a continuing DIY ethos.

Macabeo isn’t doing protest songs per se, but they are not turning a blind eye to society either. Se Pone Difícil describes someone who lives off the system but doesn’t give back, and predicts their demise. Cogiendo pon is a Puerto Rican expression for claiming achievement through others efforts. Alacrán compares gangsters to scorpions and warns of their sting. Perhaps the most poignant of all is Lluvia con sol, which deftly sketches out the difficulties of simply living your life in a system that leaves you powerless. The video for Lluvia starkly contrasts these lyrics against cheerful images of vintage tourism, introduced as “… the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a land of song and laughter, a tiny bit of the United States in the warm seas of the Caribbean,” and later extols the island’s progress “under the guidance of the Stars and Stripes.” Ouch.

Yet, in the midst of this, there is time to dance, time to boast and time to party with songs like Macabiónico, La Conga, Swing and La Dieta, which extols the glories of delicious and fatty food. As someone who believes chuletas can-can is both the most delectable and dangerous recipe ever invented, I can relate.

Our conversation turns to Orquesta el Macabeo’s recently released 7” single for Spain’s Vampisoul label, which salsifies a pair of punk rock songs from mid-90s Spain, Eutanasia and En la luna. “I was into heavy metal first, then hardcore around the age of 15” says lbañez. “These bands [La Polla Records and Eskorbuto] were very popular at the time, and because they sung in Spanish I could understand them. They were among my favorites.” He continues “I think it’s important to pay these bands a tribute and make these songs we love so much part of our own history. Music has no limits or barriers, and we show it this way: turning these two 100% punk songs into Latin tropical rhythms, while respecting the atmosphere of the original tracks.”

 

The other new Orquesta el Macabeo song couldn’t be more different from Eutanasia. La puerta está abierta is a flat out gorgeous tune performed as a duet with Mimi Maura, a Puerto Rico born singer who splits her time between San Juan and Buenos Aires. It’s structured a bit like the Miguel Matamoros classic Lagrimas Negras, with Maura’s languid bolero giving way to a cha-cha-cha chorus about halfway in. Even here, though, a DIY approach is in play. Maura comes from a rock & ska background and is the partner of Sergio Rotman, a member of Argentina’s legendary Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. “Sergio loves our project and asked us to make a song together with Mimi, which we totally accepted, as we love them and it is a good way to be known in Argentina.” says Ibañez. “He then put out Siete años macabros to expose us in his country, a compilation of our three albums plus the bonus track with Mimi.” In a final homegrown twist, the song itself was written by Maura’s father, Puerto Rican singer Mike Acevedo, back in the 1960s.

 

The band’s DIY principles have remained firm since its founding in 2008. lbañez explains, “We write our own songs, make our own music, record in our home studio and distribute our own albums. Our decisions are still made as friends getting together to play music, not dictated by a business scheme dreamed up in an office. We don’t want a record company telling us what to do.”

Lest all of this sound too serious, don’t worry. Salsa is, at heart, designed for dancing, and a Macabeo show is first and foremost a dance party. Given that the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center can hold several hundred people, this should be a very big party indeed.

Orquesta el Macabeo, Friday, September 4, 8pm at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4046 W. Armitage, Chicago. Tickets at srbcc.org.

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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.

Concert preview: “You can’t imagine Cuban music without Los Van Van.”

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By Don Macica.

Cuba lives large in the American imagination. Likewise, Cuba has been fascinated by its neighbor to the north. After the revolution, the U.S. government kept Cuban culture out of our view. On the island, though, antennas were up and pointed north. Juan Formell, founder of Los Van Van, was among those listening.

Los Van Van was born out of something of a mutiny when Formell, then the arranger of the popular charanga group Orquesta Revé, had a classic case of “artistic differences” with the orquesta’s namesake, Elio Revé. Formell had joined the already existing group in 1967 and immediately set about tinkering with the charanga formula, which at the time was dominated by the great Orquesta Aragon. Formell was as familiar with jazz and the Beatles as he was with Cuban son and began introducing rock into the mix. Even as Revé increased in popularity, the orquesta’s leader seemingly chafed at these changes, prompting Formell to leave just two years into his tenure. Several kindred spirits in Orquesta Revé followed suit, and in December 1969 Los Van Van was formed around this core.

The rest, as they say, is history. And what a history it is!

“The violinists, pianist and flutist all came with me,” recounts Juan Formell in a terrific interview with Cuban writer Leonardo Padura for his book Faces of Salsa. “At the outset I introduced the electric bass and the electric guitar… and instead of the timbal I used a complete drum kit, and later we enhanced things with synthesizer and trombones. In sum, I carried out a series of transformations that complemented the music mélange we were creating: rock, Afro-Cuban music, beat…” The style that they created was dubbed songo, and later it formed the roots of timba.

Formell goes on to say that in order to excite young audiences and get them to dance, he recognized that the Beatles and rock had forever changed the course of music. Being the first to incorporate those modern sounds into the charanga format likewise changed everything that followed in Cuba, and is what led historian and ethnomusicologist Ned Sublette, author of Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo to say, “You can’t imagine Cuban music without Los Van Van, any more than you can imagine the world’s music without Cuba.”

In a contemporary context, think of bands like Novalima or Bomba Estéreo, both of whom recently visited Chicago. In each, they began with a base that is purely local to their home countries, but then amped things up with the latest in tools, technology and global trends. That is precisely what Los Van Van began doing over 45 years ago, and continues to do today.

And yet, for those first few decades they did this largely out of sight of the U.S. because of the embargo imposed on Cuba. Things began to thaw a bit in the 1980s as more U.S. musicians began to re-discover Cuba, but this opening was largely confined to jazz. I first heard of Los Van Van in the early 90s through a pair of compilation CDs, Sabroso: Havana Hits and another assembled by the Talking Heads’ David Byrne, Dancing with the Enemy. Shortly after that, the same Ned Sublette quoted above, then a producer for Afropop Worldwide, founded Qbadisc Records and began releasing CDs of Cuban music here, including one by Los Van Van. The flowering that followed Buena Vista Social Club helped make Cuban music fashionable in the late 90s, even if the throwback nostalgia of BVSC harkens back to an older style. Meanwhile, Los Van Van kept evolving and updating, winning a Grammy Award in 1999 for Llegó… Van Van (Van Van is Here). The group was earning the nickname the Rolling Stones of Cuban music, an odd reference when you consider Formell’s reverence for the Beatles, but perhaps appropriate because Los Van Van, like the Stones (but unlike the Beatles), are going strong after nearly 50 years, even if they disappeared from view after George Bush slammed the U.S.-Cuban door shut again in the wake of 9/11. In recent years, the door has swung open again and, lo and behold, Los Van Van is still here.

Los Van Van is a rare cultural phenomenon that broke through boundaries of nation, generation, politics, and genre. Juan Formell passed away last year at the age of 71, but he has left his orquesta in good hands. For the last 20 years, Los Van Van’s drummer has been the founder’s son, Samuel Formell, and he has taken over leadership of the group.

All of the above should be enough to convince you that missing Los Van Van this Sunday at Thalia Hall would be a serious mistake. If not, I’ll leave you with one more quote, this one from the Los Angeles Times:

“The controlled frenzy that is a Los Van Van concert hasn’t calmed down in more than 40 years.”

Prepare yourself.

Los Van Van, Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport Street, Chicago. Sunday August 9, 8PM. Tickets at TicketWeb.
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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.

Interview / Review: Bomba Estéreo, Amanecer

By Don Macica.

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I’ll get the hyperbole out of the way right here: Bomba Estéreo are the Beatles of electro-cumbia. Too much? How about: Bomba Estéreo are the Clash of electro-cumbia. Hmm, OK, let me try one more: Bomba Estéreo are the Police of electro-cumbia.

Stay with me. Disparate as those three bands might be, they do share something in common. All three started out as something easy to peg: Carefree mop-tops. Punk rockers. Reggae-flavored new wavers. And all three quickly transcended their initial characterizations, showing tremendous growth in both songwriting and execution, so much so that by their third or fourth albums you could still recognize them, but it was on their terms as they leapt forward, trusting that you would follow them.

With their new album Amanecer (Sony Latin), Bomba Estéreo take that leap as well. What began as an engaging  electro-cumbia solo project (BombaEstereo Vol. 1) by Bogotá DJ and musician Simón Mejía quickly blossomed when he teamed up full time with one of the singers employed on it, Li Saumet. The pair, along with guitarist Julián Salazar and drummer Kike Egurrola, formed a band and recorded Estalla, released as Blow Up in the U.S. It’s exuberant and in your face. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the video for Fuego. Li Saumet runs it, bringing hip-hop swagger and tons of charm to the streets of Barranquilla, letting you know that Bomba Estéreo is bringing it as well: “… here comes Bomba Estéreo, We come with everything, Champeta, Reggae music, Cumbia and Folk, Come on! ‘Cuase it’s power, ’cause it’s an atomic bomb. A bit of folk music with electronic music. Come on, come on! Get this party started! Come on, come on!”

It’s been like that ever since, although their second album, Elegancia Tropical, mixed in a considerable amount of introspection and seriousness, indicated by selecting the somber El Alma y el Cuerpo for the first video, in which Li seems to be searching for an answer to some existential quandary. The band also broadened their musical palate on that album by collaborating with Brazilian rapper BNegão and the Angolan / Portuguese group Buraka Som Sistema.

Amanecer means ‘dawn’ in English, and the optimism of that title plays out with the group achieving a new level of creativity, while at the same time nurturing their core strengths. Like its predecessors, the vibe of the album is signaled by the first video, the dizzying psychedelic carnival of Fiesta. For the first time, they are working with an outside producer, American musician Ricky Reed. Reed’s own records come out under the band name Wallpaper, and his thing is to parody the pop version of hip-hop culture, especially the get-wasted-and-party-all-night excesses celebrated in today’s radio hits. Underneath that, though, Reed appears to be a serious craftsman (in order to parody something, you need to understand it well) who clearly knows his way around a recording studio. Reed applies a sonic sheen to the proceedings, and it’s terrific to hear him utilize his talents in the service of serious artists.

Throughout Amanecer, Caribbean rhythms are skillfully interwoven with driving beats and studio gloss until it all becomes one thing, and the musicologist game of pointing out this or that source becomes somewhat meaningless.  What could have been a case of bowing to record company pressure for a hit record instead results in a bright and sparkly collection of songs in which the tropical spirit, strength of the writing and the force of Li Saumet’s personality shine through. After toning down her swagger a bit for Elegancia Tropical, she emerges here fully confident and sounding playful. Amanecer is fun to listen to. And it is clearly no one else but Bomba Estéreo.

I had the opportunity to ask Simón and Li a few questions in anticipation of their upcoming Chicago concert. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.

DM: Soon after the Vol. 1 project, the two of you decided to work together full time. What was it that moved you in that direction?

Simón: When I started the band 10 years ago I was trying to achieve a sound that oscillated between electronic music and tropical music. Musically I got to certain points which were very interesting, but in terms of vocal and lyrics there was always something missing. When I met Li, we did a song together and I thought that finally someone was filling that gap, not only musically but with lyrics. She was the perfect match for the music I wanted to make.

Li: Simón was doing a very interesting mix between the music which I grew up to, cumbia, and electronics. I liked his style above many others at the time, and I thought it was a very interesting project.

DM: When Blow Up, um, blew up in Chicago, you made several visits here in a short period of time. What was it like to be suddenly touring the world, trying out all those songs on the road?

Simón: A big and amazing surprise! I like very much the idea of Bomba Estéreo being a band that has made its career on the road, playing and playing and getting surprised by life and by music in the middle of those travels.

DM: I’ve been lucky enough to hear you perform some of your songs acoustically, and they sounded terrific. As writers, do you work out your songs in advance, and then enter the studio?

Simón: The process always starts with music, instrumental. I start making tracks, electronic tracks, playing synths, bass and guitar along with beats, which later become songs with Li’s vocal. We then either finish them live or in the studio.

DM: Your aural canvas has expanded to feature more colors than Colombian music, and not only other Caribbean and Latin sounds. What do you listen to when you’re not “Bomba Estéreo”?

Simón: Lots of things… I like a lot the music from the 70’s, funky soulful groovy music. Motown stuff. African music, vintage and modern is always an inspiration as well as electronic avant garde projects. From Latin América I like exploring vintage tropical sounds from Colombia, Cuba and Brazil. Jamaican dub and reggae is also very inspirational.

DM: Amanecer is produced by Ricky Reed and was partially record in the U.S.  How did you hook up with him? What were you looking for from his production and collaboration?

Simón: Yeah! Well, he was proposed by Sony, our label. We listened to his music, his productions, and we thought it was a great idea to work with him, especially because he was from another musical world, which could add a whole new vibe to the band. Then we met him during Lollapalooza ‘14 in Chicago, where we were both playing. The chemistry went really well! Now, looking at everything in perspective, I think we achieved what we were looking for: Making a new experiment with our music and transcending borders.

DM: I feel that Amanecer, like Elegancia Tropical before it, is leap forward for you. There is once again depth to the songs, but also an embrace of a more global aesthetic. I also hear an overall optimism. Are you simply growing more confident, or do you challenge yourself not to be complacent?

Simón: We’re always experiencing new stuff. Music is a changing living thing, as is life itself. We always listen to different things and that influences us also. Regarding the albums, yes, we like to challenge ourselves always to make a different album from the previous one.
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Bomba Estéreo, Concord Music Hall, Sunday, July 26. Tickets at concordmusichall.com.

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.

Preview: Novalima at Celebrate Clark Street Festival

By Don Macica.

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I caught a break earlier this summer. Saturday, June 20th arrived rainy and cold, and that put the hurt on my plans to see Novalima at Taste of Randolph. Imagine, then, my delight when I learned the very next night that not only would the group be returning to Chicago in less than a month, but they were doing so at one of my favorite street fests in the city, Rogers Park’s Celebrate Clark Street. Let the rejoicing begin!

With their new album Planetario (Wonderwheel Recordings), Novalima continues a further refinement of a process that they execute better than just about anyone else working in the Afro-Latin Electronica genre; simultaneously updating the sound with the latest in technology and burrowing ever deeper into the folkloric sources that inspire them. It’s worth backing up a few steps here to understand how Novalima got their start, four globe-trotting friends from Lima, each making a name for themselves as DJs in dance clubs around the world, staying in touch and sharing ideas and files with each other over the internet. Their long-distance experiment in combining folkloric music from their home with electronic club beats resulted in their first, self-titled album. The positive reception it received brought them home to Lima where they invited several Afro-Peruvian musicians to join with them to record its follow-up, Afro. A live band soon followed, and suddenly Novalima was more than a DJ project, becoming one of the most powerful touring bands in the world. The release of Coba Coba in 2009 and then Karimba in 2012 sealed the deal, each deeper and yet more expansive than the last.

Planetario finds the group better in almost every way. The album’s name points to Novalima’s continued growth and global reach. Much of the album was recorded as the group toured the world, including a session organized by members of salsa orquesta La-33 in Bogotá (is there anybody that doesn’t go to Colombia these days for inspiration?) that produced several songs. While remaining firmly grounded in centuries old Peruvian music, they have long included other, more recent sounds like cumbia, salsa and reggae in the mix, in a sense tracing the African Diaspora back across the South American continent to the Caribbean and, on Planetario, all the way back to Spain. Colombia is felt most through guests like Sidestepper vocalist Eka Muñoz (most notably on Beto Kele and Madretierra, which also benefits greatly from marimba a la Colombia’s Pacific coast), Humberto Pernett on gaita and members of La Mambanegra. However, Novalima never wander far from the steady Peruvian rhythm of the cajón, that most basic of percussion instruments, played as it has been for centuries.

Ultimately, what sets Novalima apart from many of their contemporaries is not so much their integration of technology and global influences into Afro-Peruvian folkloric sources, skillful as that may be. What has always struck me the most about them is that absolutely nothing sounds gratuitous or grafted on. Their total sincerity and honesty about Peru’s African heritage comes through on every song. Listening, you find yourself thinking if electronic instruments existed in the 19th century, Afro-Peruvian music would have sounded exactly like this.

 

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the album’s opening and closing tracks. Como Yo, written in memory of Peruvian percussionist (and band member) Mangue Vasquez, kicks off the album with a lively celebration of his life and some words of advice: “Gozen la vida como yo Enjoy life, like I do.  The album closes with the haunting Quebranto, where 1950’s-era, now 71 year old, traditional singer Rosita Guzman’s filtered voice (it sounds like the other end of a long distance phone call) is accompanied by only cajón, guitar and the various blips, beeps and bubbles of a synthesizer. It’s timeless.

As noted, Novalima’s core of Rafael Morales, Grimaldo del Solar and Ramón Pérez-Prieto has been aided and abetted by additional band members on every recording since Afro. The force-of-nature charisma of singer Milagros Guerrero and the deeply rooted cajón and chanted vocals of Juan Medrano “Cotito” firmly anchor performances in Afro-Peru, even as additional percussion along with turned-up-to-eleven electronics drive the dance floor to ecstasy.

Or, as will be the case of Celebrate Clark Street, the dancing in the streets.

Novalima, Sunday, July 19, Celebrate Clark Street Festival, 9pm (Morse Stage). $5 suggested donation. Info at celebrateclarkstreet.com.

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.