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.

Preview: Choro das 3 at Jazz Showcase

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By Don Macica.

When my son was in the third grade, he came home from school one day and declared that he wanted to play the flute. Dutiful parents that we were, we not only enrolled him in the school band but decided that private lessons would be beneficial. We found an instructor through our local park district. That’s how I got to know a woman who was on her way to becoming an authority on a form of Brazilian music I had never heard of: choro. Upon hearing it, I fell in love. It’s lively and full of charm. If a well-played choro doesn’t coax a smile out of you, your life is much grimmer than mine.

My son’s maestra went on to study choro in Brazil under a Fulbright scholarship and published a book of interviews with choro masters based in part on her Fulbright research. Me? I just started adding choro CDs to my overstuffed shelves. So, when a friend told me that Choro das 3, a choro group from her hometown of Rio de Janeiro, was touring the U.S. with a stop in Chicago, my ears immediately perked up.

On casual listen, choro may not sound like Afro-Latin music, but its origins are very much the same. Choro is one of the earliest forms of urban music in Brazil. It’s beginnings in the late 19th century roughly parallel those of jazz in New Orleans, and for a while it was wildly popular. Just like ragtime in the United States, tango in Argentina and habanera in Cuba, choro was a result of influences of musical styles and rhythms coming from Europe and Africa. Brazil’s most revered composer (prior to Jobim, of course), Heitor Villa-Lobos, called choro “the true incarnation of Brazilian soul.” If it’s accurate to say that without ragtime there is no jazz, than it’s equally accurate to say the same of choro and, say, bossa nova. The driving ecstasy of samba, a more obvious descendent of African music, overtook choro in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, and you could say that bossa nova, with its sophisticated harmonies, refined and internationalized samba, with a little help from jazz. Choro, however, never faded away, even if it didn’t conquer the world. Like New Orleans-style jazz, it remains an important cultural touchstone.

Choro das 3 is a family band, three sisters and their dad. If that sounds corny, it’s not, and in fact it’s almost essential to understanding the soul of the music. Choro is traditionally played in informal settings called roda de choros, where people gather to share songs and play with each other, often in people’s homes. It was these rodas that kept the music alive when it was superseded in popularity by samba and bossa nova.

Choro’s main tools are similar to other music of the Americas. Its rhythmic foundation is the pandeiro, which Puerto Ricans will of course recognize as the pandero and residents of New Orleans the tambourine. It’s played much the same way in all three cultures. In Choro das 3, the father, Eduardo, plays the pandeiro and sisters Corina, Lia and Elisa play various flutes and stringed instruments. One listen to the Brazilian bandolin will instantly bring to mind similar instruments as the Puerto Rican cuatro and Cuban laud. In the hands of talented musicians, the music can reach dizzying heights of complexity. The family band that is Choro das 3 are exactly that.

Choro das 3 hit the road on May 20 to promote their newest CD, a trip that will bring them to one of the Chicago’s best rooms, the Jazz Showcase, on July 21. Part of what makes this visit special is that, despite the fact that you can go out almost any night of the week in Chicago and hear excellent Brazilian musicians, few of them perform choro, even if, as I suspect, they know it inside and out. That’s not entirely surprising, given the wider popularity of samba and bossa nova. I have little doubt that, even in Chicago, choro is still played privately among friends in rodas.

Fortunately, Choro das 3 is coming here soon to enlighten the rest of us.

Choro das 3, Jazz Showcase, Tuesday July 21. Tickets at jazzshowcase.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.

Review: Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet, Intercambio

By Don Macica

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The landscape of Latin jazz is, of course, an ever evolving one. The current crop of jazz artists that are the acknowledged as among the best, such as Miguel Zenón, David Sánchez and Danilo Pérez, shy away from labeling their music, preferring instead to cite their Latin American heritage as a means of informing a highly individual approach to the art of jazz, capturing the soul of what it means to be Panamanian or Puerto Rican rather than building their compositions around standard, recognizable forms. Even in Chicago, the Dominican violinist James Sanders, who has led a very good Latin jazz ensemble for nearly 15 years, prefers these days to integrate Afro-Caribbean essence into a totally improvisational approach, forsaking charts for an open ended conversation.

It’s refreshing, therefore, that the San Francisco based trombonist Wayne Wallace so warmly embraces the term, putting it right there in the name of his ensemble. And maybe that’s because he’s African-American, not Latino, and thus free to explore a sound and style without the added significance of it being his heritage. However, saying that Wallace plays Latin jazz is not to say he is being conservative. Quite the contrary.

Wallace is no newcomer. He was a founding member and co-musical director of John Santos’ Machete Ensemble, and before that he worked with Conjunto Cespedes, a Bay Area folkloric ensemble, and before that he played with Pete Escovedo. In addition to being a player in the Bay Area Latin scene, he’s also a bit of a proponent and documentarian. His created the record label that he records for, and it recently released two terrific Salsa de la Bahia compilations featuring the cream of the local scene, with a companion film in the works.

For Wallace, Latin jazz is still a music of discovery, one in which he can be both a teacher and disciple. His approach is anchored in that jazz process in which one listens, learns and creates anew. His new recording, Intercambio (Patois Records), is founded on the idea of cultural exchange. In this context, jazz has as much to give to Caribbean folkloric music as the other way around. While firmly committed to the idea and forms of Latin jazz, Wallace still remains an explorer. There are several moments on the album that coax a smile out of the listener by doing the unexpected.

Four of Intercambio’s ten tracks are Wallace originals, and the balance is drawn from jazz masters like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and fellow trombonist J.J. Johnson. By and large the album smolders, the Latin rhythms underpinning arrangements that feature Wallace’s beautiful and buttery tone. Three tracks are reminiscent of Kind of Blue-era Miles, with Wallace’s trombone gliding over the shifting rhythms.

Rhythmically, the albums ports of call go beyond San Juan and Havana to also include Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans and Trinidad. There are a couple of burners, led off by the first track, the Wallace original Casa del Sol, which is dedicated to Eddie Palmieri. On this song, the quintet is expanded to 7 pieces to include violin and flute, referencing Palmieri’s legendary La Perfecta ensemble. Another Wallace original, Guarachando, kicks into high gear with a comparsa carnival rhythm, throws in steel drums for good measure, then brings back the flute and violin to trade fours in its mid-section before they all come together, only to be followed by a hot solo from Wallace himself.

 

The two remaining Wallace originals are quite nice as well. Como Vai alternates cha-cha-cha and samba rhythms in a way that brings to mind a pair of Stevie Wonder classics, You’ve Got It Bad Girl and Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing. Finally, Timbázo is built for grooving, funky trombones in conversation with the rhythm section, colored once again by Trinidadian steel drums, which return yet a third time on Dizzy Gillespie’s Woody n’ You along with a pronounced bomba feel.

John Coltrane’s Equinox is the standout among the covers, building off of Trane’s exploration of African roots with batá drums and güiro. The Hoagy Carmichael standard Heart and Soul is given a smooth salsa treatment that would satisfy any dancer while leaving room for some nice soloing and ensemble playing, especially when Wallace overdubs his trombone into a 4-piece section a la Manny Oquendo y Conjunto Libre.

Mile Davis provides the thematic centerpiece of the album with Solar, reimagined into En el Solar de Miles by Wallace, tying together Miles’ interest in African culture to the Cuban solares, Cuban fraternal organizations formed during slavery to maintain African cultural practices. Another Davis composition, Circle, closes the album, a moody number enhanced by a string quartet and featuring some of Wallace’s lovliest playing.

As noted earlier, Wayne Wallace is no conservative, despite working in a genre that’s been around for nearly 75 years. Intercambio gently but firmly moves Latin jazz forward. That’s no easy thing, but it is an essential one to a good jazz musician. In doing so, Wallace demonstrates that there is much still to be found inside of Latin jazz.

Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet, Intercambio.
Patois Records, available July 7

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.

Meridian Brothers lead off Colombian musical invasion.

By Don Macica.

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This is turning out to be a remarkable summer for Colombian music in Chicago. Ondatrópica headlines Millennium Park, Systema Solar graces the Celebrate Clark Street Festival, Bomba Estéreo celebrates their brand new CD with a show at Concord Music Hall, and El Gran Festival Colombiano brings both traditionalists Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto and champeta group Tribu Baharú to town.

But before we knew all that, though, we knew this. The Meridian Brothers make their Chicago debut at Mayne Stage on June 21 during their first ever U.S. tour. And that, friends, is news.

To clear a couple of things up right off the bat, there are no brothers nor is there anyone named Meridian in the group. It more or less started as a home-made recording project when Colombian guitarist and composer Eblis Alvarez started layering his guitar over drums, percussion and other folkloric instruments that he taught himself to play. After years of this, he went to Denmark to study at the Royal Danish Academy of Music and at the Danish Institute of Electronic Music. Returning to Bogotá in 1998, he began releasing these recordings of distorted tropical sounds, and a group was needed in order to perform them live. The Meridian Brothers (band) was born, even as recordings continue to be entirely created by Alvarez. Over the years, the group has evolved into a five-piece band focused on re-interpreting all manners of Latin Tropical rhythms (cumbia, vallenato, salsa, merengue, guaguanco etc..) with a pronounced psychedelic and experimental sensibility. In 2014, Meridian Brothers released their third album, the engagingly loopy Salvadora Robot.

Something that becomes apparent on close listen to the Meridian Brothers is that, despite the weirdness, psychedelia and surrealist lyrics, the tunes themselves are pretty faithful to their sources. A cumbia is a cumbia, vallenato is vallenato. But what comes out is something like Frank Zappa playing doo-wop or Captain Beefheart playing blues. Just as you can hear those artists’ deep respect for their sources, you can likewise hear the same from Alvarez once you accustom yourself to the overall sound.

When asked about the name Meridian Brothers in an interview last year, Eblis Alvarez replied, “I love pseudonyms, people not knowing who is making things.” Reading this, I was prompted to reach out to a Colombian friend who maintains a series of online aliases. He has one identity on his Facebook page, another on his enigmatic website, and still a third when he sends e-mails. And those are the ones I know about. None of these, of course, are his real name.

When I asked him what he heard in the Meridian Brothers, he was similarly enigmatic, comparing them to, of all things, the Violent Femmes. “Meridian Brothers play music within the leisure sense, not in the cerebral sense, without falling into the pop formula” he wrote, continuing, “Their lyrics speak of local things in a very local language, so local that [it] doesn’t sound like Spanish, without falling into the ghetto language formula.” He also advised me that “I should know what Chucu-Chucu music means and have [an] appreciation for the analog psychedelic sounds.” Well, I got that last one down (shoot, I grew up on that stuff), but the rest required some work.

Chucu-Chucu is, as best as I can tell, a rough Colombian counterpart to salsa in New York City in the 60’s and 70’s, a musical style with roots in the Caribbean but urban in character, with just a touch of silliness, like something a wedding band might play in Bogotá. (I could be wrong about this, though… a YouTube search of Chucu-Chucu also turns up children’s songs and booty-shaking dembow.) And the Violent Femmes… well, you can take them simply as wacky guys playing punk rock on acoustic guitars, or you can appreciate them as artists with a very particular sensibility, creating totally honest and plain-spoken art.

As for the Meridian Brothers, you can take them either way, too. Live, you are quite likely to experience a serious desire to dance to the tropical rhythms even as you grin at the skewed sonics and visuals. There will, if you want, be plenty to think about, but who ever spent time thinking at a Violent Femmes show?

Better to simply surrender to the fun.


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Sound Culture presents the Meridian Brothers at Mayne Stage, Sunday June 21, 7:30pm (doors 6:30). DJs Agúzate and ((SONORAMA)) get the party started. Tickets and info at soundculturechicago.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.

Victor Garcia’s World of Jazz

By Don Macica.

photo by Lauren Deutsch
photo by Lauren Deutsch

In any given year recently, it’s hard to be an active witness to Chicago’s music scene without running into trumpeter Victor Garcia. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen him in places I didn’t expect: on stage with Sones de México Ensemble, with Colombian folkloric group Grupo Rebolú, joining rumba-flamenco ensemble El Payo, accompanying percussionist Jean-Christophe Leroy in his Jazz con Amala project, with Latin ska band Los Vicios de Papá… Most of the time, he wasn’t even billed. He was just… there, elevating the music with his explosive playing.

In the midst of all this versatility, it’s worth remembering that Garcia is, at heart, a jazz musician. The group he co-leads with pianist Darwin Noguera is, after all, the Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, and when he led a big band at Millennium Park’s Made in Chicago World Class Jazz series a couple of summers ago, he put an unmistakable jazz stamp on a series of traditional and popular Mexican songs.

In all this time, though, I’ve never heard Garcia on his own, so when I learned he’d be holding down a weekend at the Jazz Showcase beginning June 18, I reached out to him to find out what might be on tap. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.

photo by Don Macica
photo by Don Macica

DM: One year I’m pretty sure I saw you in a dozen different bands and projects, not including CALJE. To what do you attribute this wide range?

VG: The versatility is due to extensive and intensive jazz studies. Although jazz is considered a genre, I consider it more of a process. Jazz training is all about listening, assimilating (stylistic nuance, harmony, rhythm, et al), and emulating. If done at a high level, one could literally play with anyone in the world! Definitely a goal of mine.  (Ed. note: He said with a wink).

DM: Is there anything you haven’t played?

VG: Because of the infinite combinations of musical genres that give birth to new ones, there will always be more music than I will ever be able to play. I have, however, been fortunate enough to play music with origins from all over the world. 

DM: So, what can we expect at the Jazz Showcase?

VG: We’ll be playing originals and arrangements of mine. Blues/church is the foundation of our sound, but I have a plethora of influences, which we will undoubtedly explore, such as bebop, modern jazz, Latin…

DM: Blues / church?

VG: One of the most expressive and dynamically diverse instruments, The Hammond B3 organ, was originally sold to churches to replace the infinitely more expensive pipe organ. Because it can embody the entire palate of human emotions, from the agony of the slave trade to the joy of salvation, it fared extremely well in the church. For those same reasons, jazz musicians of the day adopted the instrument as well. I, too, am a believer!

DM: You were born in Chicago and your parents are from Mexico, yes?

VG: My father was born in Mexico City and raised in a suburb called Chalco, then moved to Chicago after he graduated from UNAM. My mom was born in Arandas, Jalisco until the age of 15 and then moved to Chicago. They met in a church choir… meaning I didn’t have a choice regarding whether or not music was going to be in my blood! 

DM: Is your family musical?

VG: My parents are amateur guitarists and singers. Our extended family gatherings wouldn’t be complete without singalong time after dinner. My brother is a professional bassist, my sister is an amateur clarinetist, and my younger brother played tuba through high school.

DM: What sort of music made an impression on you as a child?

VG: All of it! My father listened to a wide variety of artists, from Julio Jaramillo to the Beatles to Dave Brubeck to The Boston Pops. I remember sitting down in my father’s office while he was working and being hypnotized by Paul Desmond’s sound; I remember transcribing chords from an album by Los Tecolines on guitar; I can recall how impactful the sound of Gerard Schwarz’s trumpet was on a the Haydn concerto.

DM: Is it a big deal to headline a weekend at the Jazz Showcase?

VG: Heck yeah! The world’s finest have graced and continue to grace that stage, and with all the history that venue has, there is a creative spirit in that place that’s alive and well.
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The Victor Garcia Quintet (Victor Garcia, trumpet/vocals; Rocky Yera, tenor sax; Dan Trudell, organ; Scott Hesse, guitar; Charles Heath, drums) appears at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court, June 18-21. Two shows a night plus Sunday matinee. Info at jazzshowcase.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.

Summer Music Preview, con sabor.

by Don Macica.

Summer in Chicago always brings plenty of opportunity to enjoy live music outdoors. It’s as though, after months of hibernation, we just can’t stand the thought of being inside. But even by our high standards, this is shaping up to be an exceptional summer for Latin music under the skies.

Here then, is Agúzate’s selective guide to verano en la ciudad.

Mole de Mayo, May 23-24. We’re off to an early start with this modest little Pilsen festival devoted to that most magical of Mexican sauces. They have really stepped up their game on the music stages this year. Besides local faves Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orchestra, ¡Esso! Afrojam Funkbeat and DJs Sound Culture, ((SONORAMA)) and Afroqbano, they are bringing in some out of town talent to help us dance off those calories, including the B-Side Players, Viento Callejero and Chicano Batman from California on Saturday and DJ Ali Guaguis from Mexico City on Sunday. Lots more, too.

Downtown Sound, June 1-July 23. This newly expanded series in Millennium Park has lots of worthy music (Antibalas, King Sunny Ade, Los Cojolites), but they are on this list primarily for one reason: The Chicago debut of the Colombian/British collective Ondatrópica on July 16. Led by British DJ/producer/crate digger Will Holland (AKA Quantic) and Frente Cumbiero leader Mario Galeano, we’ve been waiting for this one for three years. This could be your only chance to see them without moving to Colombia.

Ondatropica

Opening Day of the 606, June 6. The 606 is the name of the new urban trail park (formerly known as the Bloomingdale trail) that runs through four Chicago neighborhoods: Bucktown, Wicker Park, Logan Square and Humboldt Park, so you know there’s got to be a Latino vibe. There’s a big party on Humboldt Boulevard between Wabansia and Cortland that has two music stages where you can catch, among other things, Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orchestra and Angel Melendez. You can also join a comparsa de carnaval (parade procession) along the trail organized by Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center that will feature bomba y plena and masks made under the guidance of Puerto Rican artisan Pedro Adorno Irizarry, bomba & plena Elder & Master Jorge Emmanuelli Náter, Buya, Africaribe and SRBCC instructors Charly Barbera and David Rivera.

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Taste of Randolph Street, June 19-21. The summer is always crammed with “Taste of” neighborhood festivals, but few of them have a better selection of outstanding restaurants (we hope Cemitas Puebla is there) than Randolph Street. “So?” you might ask. This one also has the incredible Afro-Peruvian global dance unit Novalima among its music offerings on Saturday June 20. Come for the music, stay for the food.

Novalima

Museum of Contemporary Art, June 23. The MCA’s free Tuesdays on the Terrace series has long featured some of Chicago’s finest jazz, but we are particularly excited to see Proyecto Libre, an Afro-Latin/free jazz collective that Agúzate presented for the very first time in 2013. Led by Dominican violinist James Sanders, their sound is like nothing else you’ve ever heard.

Square Roots Festival, July 10-12. Squeezing people into the street will never be quite the same as laying out that blanket in the park, but the Old Town School still brings an eclectic lineup to keep you dancing and thirsty. This year’s Latino offerings include Plena Libre, Tiempo Libre and (I’m cheating a little here) from New Orleans, Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers. It’s that Latin tinge, you know.

Ruido Fest, July 10-12. Where the hell did this come from? In one grand gesture, Chicago is suddenly playing host to the biggest Latin Alternative festival in the entire country, and they had the class to put it in Pilsen. Café Tacuba, Ozomotli, Nortec Collective, Kali Uchis, Cumbia Machin, Los Crema Paraiso, Los Rakas… I’ll run out of pixels before I complete this list, but pound for pound, this is the equal of Pitchfork in scope and ambition.

Chicago Latin Jazz Fest

Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, July 17-18. If you need one more reason to spend a summer evening in Humboldt Park, this is it. No lineup has been announced yet, but Carlos Flores and the Jazz Institute of Chicago consistently spotlight the best in local and national Latin jazz at the beautiful Boat House. Write it down. (UPDATE: Lineup includes Victor Garcia’s Organ Septet with special guest Billy Branch, Papo Vázquez and Orquesta Charangueo.)

Celebrate Clark Street, July 18-19. A Rogers Park tradition, in recent years it has emerged as sort of a second, unofficial World Music Festival thanks to the efforts of Sound Culture’s David Chavez. The full line up hasn’t been announced, but we’ve learned that Colombia’s highly danceable electro-folklorico DJ outfit Systema Solar will be there, complete with live percussion. That plus the $4 Pacifico on tap should make for one perfect, if very sweaty, summer night. (UPDATE: Novalima has been added to the weekend as well.)

Systema Solar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

El Gran Festival Colombiano, July 18-19. Make sure that Ventra card is fully loaded, because commuting is in order this weekend. In addition to the aforementioned Latin Jazz and Clark Street fests, the northwest side of Chicago plays host to this family friendly event that features legends Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto and the up and coming coastal by way of Bogotá champeta group Tribu Baharú plus salsa, cumbia, vallento and more from DJs all day long.

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Festival Cubano, August 14-16. It’ll be hard to top last year’s one-two punch of Miami’s Afro-Cuban funk band PALO! followed by the legendary El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, but this fest has steadily improved over the years. No lineup has been announced yet, but if I were you, I’d keep this weekend open. (UPDATE: This years lineup will include, for the first time ever, two artists direct from Cuba: Pedrito Calvo and Miguelito Cuni, Jr.)
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Postscript: You can’t stay outdoors all the time, and this summer also brings a handful of very good reasons to head inside and enjoy some air conditioning.

Los Amigos Invisibles, Portage Theater June 5. The Venezuelan combo brings their hedonistic Latin disco funk to Chicago for the first time since their recent Repeat After Me album. Always a good time, and you don’t have to think too much.

Meridian Brothers, Mayne Stage June 21. Space age science fiction cumbia, vallenato and salsa from Colombia in their Chicago debut, the very definition of future roots music. Bonus: DJs Agúzate and ((SONORAMA)) will get the party started with vintage vinyl grooves.

Miguel Zenón, Jazz Showcase June 25-28. The Puerto Rican saxophonist brings his quartet to Chicago’s best jazz club, showcasing music from Identities are Changeable, his album about the Puerto Rican diaspora in the U.S.

Bajofondo, Concord Music Hall July 16. The high energy tango-candombe-milonga band from the Rio de la Plata are always first rate, and if you conserve energy and stay hydrated at Ondatrópica, you should just be able to make the trek up Milwaukee Ave in time to catch them. (UPDATE: The Bajofondo show has been cancelled.)

Bomba Estéreo, Concord Music Hall July 26. With the release of their brand new Amanecer album, Li Saumet and Simón Mejía are poised to conquer the world with their Colombian brand of tropical electronica.

Omar Sosa: Cuban soul, world citizen

By Don Macica

Over the course of two dozen albums in a 20+ year career, Omar Sosa has carved out a unique place in the pantheon of Afro-Cuban music. He’s lived in the U.S. (with occasional stays in Europe) since 1995, but your immediate impression upon hearing his music or seeing him in concert is that of a deeply rooted Babalawo connected directly to the island and all the way back to Africa. At the same time, he fuses an array of jazz, world music, hip-hop, and electronic elements with his Afro-Cuban roots.

The range is immense. There are solo piano recordings, duet recordings with percussionists, a big band project, a symphonic commission, a tribute to the Miles Davis classic Kind of Blue, spoken word, Yoruba chants and funk workouts. Folkloric is blended with contemporary until the distinctions between them melt away.

Omar Sosa
Omar Sosa

Sosa is currently touring the United States behind his recent release Ilé (meaning “homeland” in the Lucumí tradition of Cuba) which will bring him to Chicago and the Jazz Showcase beginning April 23. Though billed as a “homecoming” for the 7-time GRAMMY-nominated pianist, the album is anything but a mere recreation of the Cuban music that inspired Sosa in his youth on the island. Instead, it uses classic Cuban styles as a jumping off point for contemporary interpretation interspersed with meditative atmospherics and sampling of ambient sounds.

Joining him on the project (and at the Jazz Showcase) is his Quarteto Afrocubano, Cubans Ernesto Simpson on drums and Leandro Saint-Hill on sax & flute, plus Mozambican bassist Childo Tomas. They are long-time friends and collaborators (Simpson and Saint-Hill as well as Sosa all hail from the Cuban city of Camagüey) and their interplay feels instinctive throughout the recording, especially on more contemplative tracks. The remarkable percussionist Pedrito Martinez guests on several songs, as does Cuban chekere master Eladio “Don Pancho” Terry and saxophonist Ysvany Terry. More surprising (although, given Sosa’s diversity and eclecticism, not that surprising) is English spoken word poetry by Kokayi that, combined with the groove, reminds me of early Gil Scott-Heron. American guitarist Marvin Sewell (perhaps best known for his distinctive work with Cassandra Wilson), jazz vocalist ZogaroS and flamenco vocalist José “El Salao” Martín add flavor and connect the dots between three continents sharing a similar African root.

OMAR SOSA

I took the opportunity of his Chicago visit to ask Sosa a few questions, which he answered in Spanish. Fortunately, Agúzate founder Omar Torres-Kortright was able to provide me with spirited translations.

DM– I get the sense that you enter a space when performing live, almost as though participating in a sacred ritual. Is this the case? If so, can you tell me more about that?

OS– I try to always follow the energy that I feel at the moment of stepping into the stage. I’ve always felt that every concert is a ceremony where we translate voices to turn them into sounds, resulting in the music that we present to the public. It’s a mystical and sublime experience. It’s something unique that can never be repeated, something that can only happen once. This is why I always say that each concert is the first and the last!!!

DM– Your output over the past two decades, while rooted in Cuba, reflects both music that preceded it (African, Spanish, even classical) and modern sounds like funk, hip-hop and the use of electronics. Even your current album Ilé with Quarteto Afrocubano, billed as a “homecoming” and inspired by music from your younger days in Cuba, goes well beyond that with flamenco, spoken word poetry in English and lush atmospherics. What are you exploring here?

OS– Ilé is a re-exploration of our Cuban traditions, a trip back to the rhythms and music styles that were always present in our childhood days. I say “our childhood days” because three of the members of the Quarteto Afrocubano are Camagüeyanos (from Camagüey)… I used to get together with them every Sunday for several years just to listen and analyze this music. These gatherings established a clear “before and after” in our appreciation and respect for this music and its creators.

Ilé is a trip back home, home to our Caribbean flavors, our traditions, but this time incorporating contemporary elements and sounds from other cultures that we have absorbed throughout the years in our musical travels. These sounds are now a natural part of our everyday musical experience. The intention of this project is to give thanks to the spirits of light, our musical universe, and especially to our traditions and influences: Cuba, North Africa, West Africa, North America, Spain, South America, etc.

This album is an invitation to taste the many cultures that I have lived and experienced until this day; the cultures that have enriched me and push me in my incessant journey to discover new cultures and sounds that exist in other regions of our planet.

DM– The last time I saw you in Chicago (Mayne Stage, May 2011), you brought an array of keyboards from which you sampled ambient sounds as well as processed some of the live sounds, and there’s a good deal of that on Ilé as well. Will some of the guests on Ilé be making a virtual sampled appearance at the Jazz Showcase?

OS– Yes, Kokayi, “El Salao”, and ZogaroS are sampled and set-up to appear in Chicago!

Omar Sosa & Quarteto Afrocubano, April 23-26, Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court, Chicago. Two shows nightly plus Sunday matinee. Tickets at jazzshowcase.com.

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing 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.

Album & Concert Review, Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta

By Don Macica

I first heard Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta almost by accident. I was at a street festival in my neighborhood to check out a few other bands, but managed to get there earlier in the day. I saw that a band playing “psychedelic cumbia” was on at 2pm. It’s hard not to be curious with a description like that, so I was sipping a cold beer on a July afternoon when a stripped down quintet hit the stage and poured through an energetic 45 minute set of mostly instrumentals. Its vintage Latin groove was irresistible as it rocked and snaked through a set list of covers and a few originals. I had never before heard anything quite like it.

In a kind of ‘neighborhood pride’ post on my Border Radio blog about the festival, I wrote the following about them: “I’m told that the band has only been together a couple of months, but they were remarkably tight, and I’m very eager to hear what they do as they write more songs.” I made it a point to keep track of them. They’ve written more songs. It’s a good day for Chicago.

Flash forward less than two years and the band has just released a full length self-titled CD along with a vinyl only 7” single through Sonorama Discos , a brand new label created by the crate-digging DJ crew of the same name. Their vinyl-only vintage Latin aesthetic was a great match for Dos Santos’ sound, prompting them to work together to put out their first ever record.

On March 20, Dos Santos and Sonorama unleashed the new record with a live concert celebration at Martyrs’. I saw Dos Santos at Martyrs’ once before, when they opened for the Brooklyn hipsters Chicha Libre. As is typical for an opening act, they turned in a solid set, determined to add a few more souls to their fan base. And although that appearance was less than a year ago, the band that took the stage last Friday night seemed miles beyond what I had previously heard from them.

Sonorama, Dos Santos and friends at the Punch House Private Listening Party.
Sonorama, Dos Santos and friends at the Punch House Private Listening Party.

Simply put, Dos Santos owned the stage, pouring out everything they had in a tightly scripted hour and a half set. Everything was on the line, and the band met the challenge head on. What was different? Well, for starters, they have fully integrated Puerto Rican conga player Peter “Maestro” Vale into their sound. A salsa and Latin jazz veteran, Vale’s effortless swing fully tropicalizes the band’s sound. A bit of history – Dos Santos’ original inspiration was not Colombian cumbia, but its variants as it migrated across Latin America (including, but not limited to, Peru) and encountered other influences, including a 70s electric rock sound. Make no mistake, Dos Santos is still a rock band. The twin guitar attack of Alex Chavez and Irekani Ferreyra soars, hums and slashes (Chavez also doubles on vintage 96 Tears-style Tex-Mex organ runs) while the fluid rhythmic foundation of drummer Daniel Villarreal-Carrillo and bassist Jaime Garza moves everything forward. But now there is also a pronounced feel of Afro-Cuban son and Puerto Rican bomba in the mix.

PERCUSSIONIST PETE "MAESTRO" VALE
PERCUSSIONIST PETE “MAESTRO” VALE

The new CD features two guest artists, and Dos Santos wisely invited them on stage as well. The sonic and visual touches that they brought were unmistakable. Accordion player Mercedes Inez Martinez approaches her instrument something like a harmonium, providing a floating, echo-laden drone that to these ears brings to mind the Pakistani devotional music of Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan. Meanwhile, vocalist Ana Santos harmonizes with lead vocalist Chavez, rounding off his dry sound for a different feel and texture. She also, on the more tropical numbers, provides smooth salsa dancing moves like a one woman front line from an old school mambo orchestra.

The new songs that they’ve written benefit greatly from these new elements as well as the band’s increased confidence. Corre Caballo does indeed gallop along briskly. Los Discipulos and Guerra Fria benefit greatly from Carlos Santana like intensity on Ferreyra’s solos. El Sabotaje starts out with a funky groove before abruptly switching gears into a classic cumbia rhythm. Roberto’s Lament and La Cumbre del Apogeo slow things down a bit but keeps the insistent pulse of a heartbeat. (todos somos), listed on the CD as track number 43, is evidently the band’s meditation on Ayotzinapa, and it carries a feel not unlike that of Cuban ritual chants to the saints. Martinez’ ghostly accordion textures are especially well deployed here. Finally, Division 66 comes on like heavy metal funk before it dissolves happily into a cha-cha.

The CD ends with two songs that the band recorded well over a year ago, and while they are very good (this is, after all, the sound that captured my attention at that street fair), they also point to how much the band has grown in the meantime. There’s no telling what the future holds, but if the saints have anything to do about it, Dos Santos will have a bright one.

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.

Cumbanchero! A Big Band Tribute to Rafael Hernández

by Don Macica

Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center is presenting Cumbanchero! A Big Band Tribute to Rafael Hernández this Saturday, March 21st at 7pm. It will feature his son, Alejandro ‘Chalí’ Hernández, on vocals and is led by one of Chicago’s most respected bandleaders, Edwin Sánchez.

To a non-Puerto Rican, or perhaps even to a mainland born Puerto Rican under a certain age, it might be hard to comprehend how major a musical figure Rafael Hernández was. Even if you are familiar with the rise of mambo, salsa and everything that came after, you might not know Hernández’s music, as the bulk of it pre-dates that era, consisting of mambo, guaracha, danzon, boleros and other classic forms.

That was the case with me. While I was familiar with the Cuban masters of that age like Ernesto Lecuona and Perez Prado, Hernandez had escaped my notice until saxophonist Miguel Zenón released his Alma Adentro, The Puerto Rican Songbook album in 2011, which focused exclusively on this golden age of Puerto Rican composers. That’s where I first heard Silencio. Even with the jazz liberties taken by Zenón’s modernist arrangement, it pulsed with the heart of one of the most exquisite boleros I had ever heard.

That was all I needed to start a little research into Rafael Hernández, who wrote that gorgeous song. He is perhaps the towering figure of Puerto Rican popular music. Dozens of his songs, including Silencio, Preciosa, Perfume de Gardenias, Lamento Borincano and, of course, Cumbanchero, are considered classics, but they are just a few of the over 3,000 that he wrote. Hernández was born at the end of the 19th century in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico (the airport there is now named after him) and, as it turns out, was not only part of Puerto Rican music history, but also present at the birth of jazz as a member of James Reese Europe’s 369th Infantry Military Band.

Rafael Hernández
Rafael Hernández

When I contacted Miguel Zenón to get his assessment of Hernández, he had this to say:

“Rafael Hernández is perhaps the most internationally relevant Puerto Rican in history. His accomplishments are almost too many to mention: he was part of James Reese Europe’s ‘Hell Fighters’, lived in Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba, where he’s considered a national treasure. He was an incredibly prolific and versatile composer, who wrote some of the most legendary songs in the history of Latin American music. A musical giant, in every sense of the word.” 

Alejandro ‘Chalí’ Hernandez, of course, has a more personal take. Now 67 years old, he remembers his father, who passed away when Alejandro was 17, as a gentleman who treated his mother with great respect. “He was a beautiful personality,” he remembers. “He showed me that whenever I heard a bird sing, I could see the presence of God and the beauty of creation.” This is not to say that he isn’t appreciative of his father’s musical and cultural accomplishments. Quite the contrary, Alejandro tours the Americas performing tributes and still enjoys a career on the Island singing this classic music with Trio Bohemia Caribe. He is also the director of the repository of Rafael Hernández’s archives and museum at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico at its Metropolitan Campus in San Juan.

Alejandro "Chalí" Hernández
Alejandro “Chalí” Hernández

Pianist, composer and arranger Edwin Sánchez, on the other hand, was born in Chicago. He received his early musical education in the 1970s through the programs of the Puerto Rican Congress, a social and cultural organization in Humboldt Park that trained dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of “at risk” Puerto Rican youth how to play music via a program led by Carlos ‘Caribe’ Ruiz. Groups that emerged from the program like La Juventud Tipica, La Solucion and La Justicia received some measure of local fame and even got to record with the likes of Mongo Santamaria and Machito. A very young Edwin Sánchez was among them. A collection of 15 tracks from this era exists on the terrific and lavishly packaged CD Salsa Boricua en Chicago from the Numero Group. Seek it out, it’s worth it.

Edwin Sánchez
Edwin Sánchez

Sánchez has since gone on to an extensive musical career, leading several ensembles and salsa orchestras in Chicago and as a pianist and arranger on many others, including international artists like Jimmy Bosch, Ralphy Irizarry, Ray Colon, Oscar Hernandez and many more. He’s comfortable in many genres, including jazz and funky R&B in addition to salsa, and has been the bandleader for Agúzate’s Tribute to the Improvisational Singer for the last several years. This versatility can be traced to his Humboldt Park youth. “Musically you got a certain ‘street’ edge in your playing living in the city at that time,” he said when I asked him about it. “There was some amazing music back then being played all over the radio stations and clubs! So, what was being played on the radio influenced me at that time and it came out of my heart and fingers when I played. Those were awesome times for music lovers!”

Edwin Sánchez’s appraisal of Rafael Hernández is similar to Miguel Zenón’s, but perhaps carries even more emotional weight for the Chicago-born Puerto Rican. “Rafael Hernández compositions, to me, exemplify the spirit of a pure Puerto Rican culture and people proud of their heritage and roots—not only with Puerto Ricans on the island, but Puerto Ricans all over the world as well.” he says. “It helps us share our common love and nostalgia for our families, the Island and our culture.”

Sánchez concludes, “It’s so important for our young PR community to know where their passion and pride comes from.  It is the true pioneers such as Rafael Hernández that culminated an art form like no other.”  This statement strikes me as something born out of Sánchez’s own youth and the values and history he was exposed to through the efforts of the Puerto Rican Congress, much like SRBCC does for the youth of today.

Finally, I asked Sánchez how he could begin to select a program for the tribute concert from Rafael Hernández’s vast catalog of songs. “Well, you choose a few key and prominent compositions that were some of the peoples’ most favorite and popular songs,” to which he quickly added, “Lucky thing is that all of his compositions were so good that whatever you play will be pleasing to the ear.”

For tickets and information, visit: http://www.srbcc.org/events.html

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.