For the last couple of decades, musicians from Chicago have placed the city squarely on the national musical map with their community based, multi-discipline artistic approach. It is perhaps most evident in hip-hop, where Chance the Rapper and Jamila Woods continue a legacy established by Common, Rhymefest and Kanye West.
Meanwhile, a parallel Latin scene has slowly developed, and the fruits of many years efforts are starting to pay off. Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta broke first in 2013 with their aggressive cumbia/chicha sound and thoughtful sociopolitical manifesto, making a strong case for the groove as an agent of social change. Their sound has since evolved to more of a pan-Latin rock reflective of its member’s Mexican, Panamanian, Puerto Rican and Texan backgrounds.
Now, ¡ESSO! Afrojam Funkbeat, who have been on the scene for almost as long, are making their move. They scored a SXSW gig earlier this year, then followed it up by opening for the legendary Café Tacvba at Taste of Chicago this summer. Now they have released their second album, Juntos, and are in the midst of an eighteen-date national tour.
ESSO might just be the band the country needs in these dark days of the Trump presidency. Like Dos Santos, the diversity of the band’s members contributes to its sound and message, with Mexican, Puerto Rican, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Colombian and African American backgrounds. The group also has two female members, adding another important perspective to the mix. A diverse cast of guest musicians, MCs and DJs further fills out the sound of Juntos.
Between them, they’ve been raised on everything: Afro-Caribbean folkloric music to be sure, but also R&B, house, funk, hip-hop, jazz and a healthy dose of DJ dance floor beats. All of this comes to bear in their music. Songs are supported by lively and intricate polyrhythmic percussion and there are flashes of electric guitar, but most tracks exude a gently insistent groove reminiscent of the down-tempo global excursions of groups like Thievery Corporation. The rhymes come out of the conscious rap movement of poetic persuasion, not nihilistic despair. The horn arrangements are jazzy.
That’s not to say that this is some kind of easy listening music. The music is built for the dance floor, not the VIP lounge. Electronic beats and squiggles help that along, but the overall sound is organic, and underneath the smooth exterior are real roots and genuine commitment. Lyrically, songs address the contradictions of urban life faced by immigrant communities, but also love and the virtues of coming together to face them. There’s real fire to this music, albeit with an incandescence that smolders rather than blazes. It pulls you to the dance floor, not pushes.
ESSO reaches back beyond the Caribbean to Africa and skillfully blends those motherland elements into its rhythmic sancocho. Fela’s Afrobeat can be felt in some songs, but so does the jùjú music of that other giant of Nigerian music, King Sunny Ade, as well as the loping guitars of Ghanaian highlife.
Playing spot the influence is a lot of fun with this album, but each of them are smoothly integrated into a band sound that is uniquely theirs. I have a few favorite tracks, and you’ll no doubt have yours, but this collection of 13 songs is best consumed whole from beginning to end, like a good meal among friends.
The second weekend of World Music Festival Chicago is upon us. We’ve already seen some great music downtown and around the city, but there is more to come. A fairly recent addition to the Fest, the Global Peace Picnic, takes place this Sunday afternoon, September 17, adjacent to the Humboldt Park Boathouse in the cultural heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. Despite its prime location in the highly active park (on any given Sunday you can find softball games, traditional food trucks and lively family parties scattered throughout the park’s 219 acres), the Picnic, now in its third year, wanted to do more to attract locals. Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) staff members and Fest organizers David Chavez and Carlos Tortelero worked out a plan with this objective in mind.
One of the first decisions that they made was to program a headliner from Puerto Rico, and they have found a great one in La Tribu de Abrante. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves just a bit.
Unlike a lot of the “world music” acts that tour the U.S., Puerto Rican artists tend not to be represented by the handful of U.S. based booking agencies that specialize in music from beyond our borders. This could be because the island is not, technically, beyond here because of its colonial status. Secondly, there is a rich music scene on the island that enjoys immense popularity both there and among its Diaspora, but remains nearly invisible to the rest of the world. This, of course, is related to the first point made above in that there is little U.S. based infrastructure for marketing their music to radio and press tastemakers.
DCASE needed a direct pipeline to the island, and they found one in Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center (SRBCC), an organization that has been bringing the best of Puerto Rico to Chicago for several decades. With the help of a few foundations and sponsors, SRBCC has stepped up the pace in the past year or so, presenting artists like Leró Martinez, Orquesta el Macabeo, Pirulo y la Tribu, Chalí Hernández and acoustic “unplugged” shows with new global sensation ÌFÉ. They’ve done this while simultaneously showcasing the best of Chicago’s folkloric Afro-Caribbean scene and music from other sister countries, like the legendary Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro from Cuba.
SRBCC, in turn, has forged a partnership with the The 606, the pedestrian and bike trail that cuts through Logan Square, Wicker Park and Humboldt Park. Artists that perform or conduct workshops at SRBCC often can be found the same weekend along the several small parks adjacent to the trail.
All of this comes together for this year’s World Music Festival and Global Peace Picnic. First of all, there is headliner La Tribu de Abrante. We’ve been in love with them ever since we watched them stroll through the streets of Santurce in their first YouTube video for Dale pa’ la Calle a couple of years ago. The band is led by Hiram Abrante, a deeply rooted percussionist who has been playing since the age of 5. The Loiza (one of Puerto Rico’s most African-influenced towns) based group weds folkloric bomba rhythms (if you stripped away everything else, what’s left is pure bomba) to a reggaeton feel and hip-hop attitude. Unlike most reggaeton artists, though, Tribu keeps it primarily acoustic, only adding electric bass and a horn section. To these ears, it’s reminiscent of a New Orleans brass band: rhythm, horns, voice and, above all, energy.
Tribu will conduct a percussion workshop at 11AM on Saturday morning at SRBCC. On Sunday morning at 11AM, musicians and artists from AfriCaribe, Buya, Chicago Cuatro Orchestra, and Seneke will gather at the parks along the 606 for performances and family workshops before embarking on A Walk with Peace and Music toward each other on the trail. They’ll meet up at the Humboldt Boulevard overlook with Los Pleneros de Don Segundo and the entire group will head for the Boathouse around 1:30 pm, just in time for the beginning of the Global Peace Picnic at 2PM.
In addition to Tribu, the Peace Picnic will also have performances by the powerful Afro-Venezuelan singer Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo and the wonderful West African Tuareg musician Mdou Moctar. Taken together, this could very well be the most powerful lineup of the entire Fest.
All events are free. Miss them at your own risk.
La Tribu de Abrante Bomba Workshop. Saturday, September 16 at 11AM, Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. Facebook link.
A Walk With Peace and Music. September 17 at 11AM, The 606 at Park 567 & Walsh Park. Facebook link.
Global Peace Picnic featuring La Tribu de Abrante, Betsayda Machadoy y La Parranda El Clavo and Mdou Moctar. September 17 at 2PM, Humboldt Park Boathouse. Facebook link.
For salsa singer Enrique Calderón, when he finally felt it was time to write and record his first single, he kept his mind focused on one very important thing: For it to be a success, people needed to dance.
That’s how it started for Calderón, a young Mexican-American from the south suburbs who could play jazz and classical music on the trumpet, when he began hitting Chicago’s salsa nightclubs in the late 1990s.
Back then, there were actually a few full time salsa spots in the city, not just clubs that occasionally offered salsa nights. Calderón’s main haunt was Tropicana D’Cache, which occupied the space that is now Concord Music Hall. He admits that the scene was attractive: The dancing, the bands, the beautiful women. “I became a pretty good dancer, winning a couple of dance contests,” says Calderón.
I asked Calderón how, being of Mexican descent, he got into tropical music. “Both of my parents were from Mexico, my dad from Michoacán and my mom from Mexico City. Both her and my grandmother were big fans of tropical music, stuff like Perez Prado, Sonora Santanera, Sonora Mantancera. Groups like that would come to Mexico City all the time. So, when I was growing up here in the States, that sort of stuff would always get played around the house.”
Still, like most kids, he was not especially fond of his parent’s music. His tastes ran toward hip-hop, house and other urban music. At the same time, though, the jazz lessons that he’d been getting left an impression, and he even privately tried singing a bit, imitating Harry Connick, Jr.
Later, when he was immersed in the salsa scene and knowing that he had a decent singing voice, he began to pester bands into letting him sing back up, finally getting a big break when Jesus Enríquez, who was huge on the Chicago scene, invited him to sing with his group. Soon enough he was singing backup with lots of local orquestas as well as national artists whenever they came to town.
He eventually formed a group named La Unica with a couple of close friends while continuing to work with national artists. But in 2004, he decided to call it quits for a while. By 2011, though, he was ready to return. He got a few higher profile band gigs with Rica Obsesión, Nabori and the Humboldt Park Orchestra. He was also doing backup vocals with a new generation of salsa singers such as Willito Otero, Kayvan Vega, NG2, Carlos Mojica, Maelo Ruiz and Frankie Negron when they came to Chicago. Finally, in 2016, he formed his own group.
Now, most salsa bands survive on doing covers of popular songs, and Calderón’s certainly fills that bill. You don’t hear too many brand new songs on salsa night. But in 2017, Calderón decided to take the next step and began working with singer Ricky Luis and Afinca’o leader Joe Mende on producing new original music.
The result is a new single, Más Tiempo, debuting this Sunday night, September 3, at the Cubby Bear’s Salsa Sunday Labor Day show. Also on the bill is Ricky Luis, a Chicago native who now lives in Los Angeles, and Afinca’o, who are also debuting a new single. So, it’s kind of all in the family, and a pretty big night for all three.
The sound of salsa has changed over the decades, and it is currently enjoying something of a back to basics moment. “That’s the sound I wanted to get on this first single,” says Calderon, “percussion and horns, kind of a classic approach. At the same time, I can’t ignore what gets the dance floor going, so there is a little bit of that romantic salsa feel, and the lyrics are about a relationship I was having at the time. People relate to it, they want to sing along, and they want to dance. Do you know how many people sing along to Yo No Sé Mañana?” Calderon asks, referring to the massive and often covered Luis Enrique song from 2009 that is a guaranteed dance floor filler.
Más Tiempo does a good job of navigating the gulf between salsa dura and salsa romántica. The arrangement is tight, with skillfully arranged horns and percolating percussion. Calderon’s voice is a little more rugged than the average crooner, and his sense of the rhythm is superb. At the same time, there is a hooky little chorus tailor-made for the audience sing along. A nice little touch comes near the end, when Calderón gives the shouted affirmation “México presente!”
Calderón is still a dancer at heart. “When I’m on stage with my band, and I notice that I’m not dancing, well, then I know it’s time for the band to bring the energy up.”
Look for a lot of energy this Sunday night at the Cubby Bear.
Salsa Sundays at Cubby Bear featuring Enrique Calderón, Afinca’o, and Ricky Luis | Sunday, September 3, 10PM (doors open 7PM) | Facebook
Ileana Cabra returned to Chicago for her second show in a little over a year, and although you might think that she had nothing new to say, you could not deny that she has found a more deeply expressive way of saying it.
Her last visit, a 2016 headlining appearance at Millennium Park, was remarkable in its ability to transform that vast space into an intimate place for whispered conversation. It came on the heels of her debut album, Ilevitable, and consisted almost exclusively of songs from it. Ilevitable went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Latin rock, urban or alternative album, an impressive achievement for a new artist.
A year later, those same songs were presented once again, but in the intervening year it feels that iLe and her excellent backing band, now expanded modestly to include a pair of richly burnished trombones, have lived in them and become familiar with the knotty emotions buried deep within.
Pilsen Fest, with its explicit mission of showcasing Latino music and art in the context of cultural resistance in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, couldn’t be more different than the pristine setting of Millennium Park. In this way, it was perhaps a more appropriate setting for iLe’s art. It certainly provided an audience more attuned of the complex emotional nuances of Latin music.
That may have been a contributing factor to the powerful nature of iLe’s Pilsen Fest performance. Up close, you can read the impassioned meaning of each song in her face, posture and gestures. Some of this, of course, is a seasoned stage performer at work, but the role of the artist is to use the skills at their command to convey deeper truths. Above all, iLe remains committed to her truth as a woman from a family of strong women, navigating the joy and heartbreak of life, love and sexuality.
Two songs in particular demonstrate how thin the line between them can be. In both Rescatarme and Te quiero con Bugalú, iLe takes time to dance while the band propels a Latin groove behind her, but the interpretation is one of agony in the former and confident abandon in the latter.
It occurs to me as I write this that I have spent quite a few words on iLe’s visual presentation, but none on the equally powerful voice that accompanies it. There might be no better use of it than in Triángulo, a delicate yet moving ranchera that shifts from quiet hesitancy to heartbreak, drawing the audience in with every syllable. The weight of pain in Dolor, a song written in 1955 by her grandmother Flor Amelia de Gracia, is so great it drives her to the ground as she sings it. By contrast, she invests real power in the dramatic Canibal that you can feel all the way in the back.
The songs from Ilevitable are interrupted but once at mid-concert for a song about Puerto Rico. iLe introduces it by speaking of the island’s colonial status and the fear that many there have of being free of dependency. It occurs to me that the same condition applies to the women who populate her songs: Struggling to be free and happy, yet held back by fear and self-doubt. I also think of Pilsen itself, a community that feels under siege by commercial forces looking to colonize it with high priced apartments and expensive restaurants. “Yo soy boricua,” she sang, “Pero también soy un patriota.”
The show ends with the rousing Te quiero con Bugalú, conjuring New York City of the 1960s, and the encore is another song written by her grandmother, No te detengas, a simple, achingly beautiful showcase for guitar and voice.
The lack of new songs was a bit surprising, but Ilevitable was reportedly years in the making. Something tells me that Ileana Cabra has little interest in being a pop star, and thus no incentive to crank out a new song to satisfy the marketplace. Besides, there seems to be plenty of inspiration left to be mined from the ones she already has.
The 2016 Colombian Fest had some tremendous music, but its cramped location on the hot asphalt of the Copernicus Center parking lot made it pretty uncomfortable on a July weekend. In only its second year, the fest had already outgrown its space.
Fortunately, Colombian Fest founder Jorge Ortega saw this as well and immediately started looking for something roomier, which he found at Kelvyn Park in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. With the help of the Chicago Park District and the local alderman’s office, Colombian Festival transformed itself in 2017 into Chicago’s Colombian Festival al Parque.
What a difference a year makes! Blessed with moderate weather, the weekend was a smashing success. As before, Ortega carefully booked the music with an eye toward reflecting the breadth and depth of Colombian music as well as the tastes of a multi-generational audience. Living legends were there like Julio Ernesto “Fruko” Estrada who, as music director at the Discos Fuentes label and with his group Fruko y sus Tesos, practically invented Colombian style salsa in the 1970’s, and the sound he created then still carries tremendous power forty years later. Representing the youth movement were artists like the dynamic Explosión Negra, who infuse traditional Pacifico rhythms with other Afro-Caribbean sounds and hip-hop swagger. Bogota’s Los Rolling Raunas take the interior mountain sounds of the Colombian Andes and perform them with rock energy.
The real pleasures of the weekend were aimed at the old folks, though, which is not to say that younger attendees didn’t show them lots of love. Los Embajadores Vallenatos demonstrated why they were one of the top vallenato bands of the 80s & 90s, and cumbia singer Pastor López hasn’t lost a step in his three decade career. Salsa singer Jorge Maldanodo, though a Puerto Rican, has been beloved in Colombia ever since a 1978 visit as lead singer with the legendary Sonora Mantancera. Checo Acosta, though a bit younger, is extraordinarily popular around carnaval time in Barranquilla, and his show was accompanied by a multitude of musicians and dancers replicating the Congo Grande Comparsa.
All of this would add up to a successful weekend, but it was the presence of the regal Totó la Momposina, Colombia’s undisputed queen of Afro-Latin folkloric music, that was truly historic. Her show nearly transcended music itself in its survey of all the sounds and colors that Colombian culture has given the world. Greeted by the ecstatic crowd, she and her expansive band rewarded them with over an hour of pure bliss. Her concert at Millennium Park a few nights earlier was both excellent and moving, but here, before something like a ‘hometown crowd’, it was on an entirely different level.
One wonders where the fest can go from here, but no doubt Jorge Ortega is already working on it.
The San Juan, Puerto Rico born saxophonist and bandleader Roy McGrath is a ubiquitous presence on Chicago’s jazz and salsa scenes. I first interviewed him for Agúzate over a year ago when he was preparing two new projects. The first was leading a tribute concert to John Coltrane’s classic Blue Train album for the Jazz Record Art Collective. The second, a month later, was an original Latin jazz project inspired by the poems and life of Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos called Julia al Son de Jazz that included recitations of de Burgos’ verse over the band’s playing.
While the Blue Train show was something of a one-off, Julia al Son de Jazz was an ongoing project that started the previous fall and would continue into the summer. As it turns out, though, they are related in ways that weren’t obvious at the time. Now, with summer approaching, McGrath has no less than four projects in development, one of which, Cumbanchero II: The Music of Rafael Herńandez, will have multiple performances this weekend.
“When I was growing up in Puerto Rico, Rafael Hernández was a revered figure. His music was everywhere,” Roy McGrath tells me over coffee one afternoon. “In fact, I was singing his songs in a youth choir well before I ever thought of becoming a musician, before I ever even heard his name. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered who he was.”
McGrath continues, “Once I learned that those tunes I sung as a kid were written by him, I started checking out all of his songs. They’re great tunes with great harmonies, and as an aspiring jazz musician, I was eager to play them.”
Flashing forward to the spring of 2015, McGrath was living and working in Chicago after earning his jazz performance degree from Northwestern University. He learned that Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center (SRBCC) was bringing the great composer’s son, Alejandro “Chalí” Hernández, to Chicago to sing a tribute to his father’s music with a 14 piece big band, and knew he had to be a part of it. He managed to snag a saxophone chair in the band when the first Cumbanchero tribute played a single concert in March of that year.
The concert was a huge success, and plans were made to bring Chalí Hernández back to Chicago. This time around, though, McGrath is Music Director for the project, leading concerts on three consecutive nights. The first of these is at Simons Park Friday evening in the Hermosa neighborhood. The second will be part of the huge 606 Block Party on Humboldt Boulevard, and the final performance is back at SRBCC on Sunday.
McGrath sees each show through a different prism. “I like that the first one is in a small neighborhood park. There’s not a lot of publicity, and I think we’ll mostly play for neighbors who happen to stumble across us. They’re probably going to be amazed to hear this amazing singer and son of a historic figure right in their midst. The 606 Block Party is a huge deal, a highly promoted event that will draw a multi-ethnic crowd from around the city. And, of course, SRBCC is for the community that has worked hard to nurture and promote music from Puerto Rico and other Afro-Caribbean countries.”
In addition to being a singer and musician, Chalí Hernández is also manages the archive of his father’s music at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico. “It’s been great working with Chalí,” says McGrath. “I hung out with him after the last show and got to know him a bit. It turns out his wife and my mom know each other back in San Juan, so we became friends. I hadn’t spoken to him in a while, so when the call came to do this project, we reconnected and now we talk all the time.” McGrath adds, “But we only talk about the music some of the time… He’s a big Cubs fan and hopes to see a game while he’s here.”
Cumbanchero II is just the start of McGrath’s busy summer. This year’s edition of the Chicago Latin Jazz Festival is joining in the celebration of the 100th birthday of Dizzy Gillespie by taking a look at his crucial role as one of the first American jazz musicians to explore Afro-Cuban music, giving birth to what became known as Latin jazz. McGrath will lead a septet on Friday, July 14 that salutes the music of Dizzy’s United Nations Orchestra, a true all-star band that Gillespie put together in the late 1980’s that included at various times the likes of jazz stalwarts James Moody, Slide Hampton and Ed Cherry along with musicians with roots in Latin America: Danilo Pérez, Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera, Diego Urcola, Giovanni Hidalgo, Flora Purim and more. Their 1992 album Live at Royal Festival Hall won a Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble.
McGrath is no stranger to the Latin Jazz Fest, having played in and led bands in almost every fest since he graduated from Northwestern. When he got the call from festival director Carlos Flores to put together the Gillespie project, he jumped at it. “I’m really excited about this. I’ve hired some of the best jazz musicians in Chicago for this one. Heck, most of them are better than me! I’m interested in what this stellar group of musicians can do with this music.”
McGrath continues, “What’s cool and interesting about the United Nations band is that they didn’t just play Latin jazz. All the Latin guys swung hard when they played Coltrane’s Giant Steps, but they also played Afro-Latin tunes like Manteca and Perdido. And a lot of it was pretty funky. We’re going to try to capture all of that.”
In August, McGrath returns to Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center to lead a group of musicians in a tribute to another Puerto Rican legend, Antonio Cabán Vale, or “El Topo.” The nueva trova songwriter and singer is perhaps best known for his song Verde Luz, and he’s in Chicago for a 50th Anniversary concert at the Copernicus Center on August 6 celebrating that song, which has become something of a second national anthem on the island. SRBCC is hosting a meet and greet with El Topo the previous evening, August 5. McGrath and a select group of musicians will perform arrangements of Verde Luz and other El Topo songs.
The final item in Roy McGrath’s busy summer is the release of his second album, Remembranzas, but most of the hard work on that project is already behind him. It’s an album that grew out of both of the projects that open this article. McGrath kept developing the Julia al Son de Jazz project throughout the summer of 2016, but finally retired it because it didn’t work out to his expectations. “I kept trying to make it work, but at some point I realized that I couldn’t force it, so I scraped it. But the process of working on it taught me a lot. Jazz is serious, but so is poetry and spoken word. I needed to be faithful to all three, and I wasn’t quite getting there. So I went back to basics and the format of a jazz quartet. I kept four of the tunes I had written for Julia, stripped out the words, and wrote new arrangements for them.”
Part of Remembranzas grew out of the Julia de Burgos project, but McGrath also composed new, unrelated tunes as well. He put together a new quartet that included versatile bassist Kitt Lyles (a member of McGrath’s first post-Northwestern quartet) and two musicians who helped him execute the Coltrane project, pianist Bill Cessna and drummer Jonathan Wenzel.
The band rehearsed over the winter and then headed to Asia for month-long tour to work out playing live in front of audiences. Two Chicago performances followed in the spring before they headed into the studio to record the album. The finished tunes are reflective of McGrath’s Puerto Rican heritage in the way the folkloric rhythms of the island are woven into the arrangements without being at the forefront. The album feels unmistakably Latin, but it is not Latin jazz. McGrath made sure his band mates fully internalized the rhythmic rules that govern its folkloric sources before turning them loose as improvising jazz musicians. As McGrath put it, “You have to know where the lines are before you can color outside them.” Adding to the feel are guest appearances by percussionists Victor Junito on congas and Bomba con Buya member Ivelisse Díaz on traditional barril seguidor. Respected Puerto Rican MC Siete Nueve added a rap inspired by de Burgos as well.
“A remembranza is a reminiscence, evocation, or memory,” says McGrath in explaining the album’s title. “A deeply etched memory that forms part of one’s life and due to its emotional nature, whether positive or negative, is there to stay forever. I named the album Remembranzas because, despite the Julia de Burgos project not fully achieving what I wanted it to be, that process is ingrained in me as a lived experience. It wasn’t a failure, but something that passed organically into this new thing.” McGrath continues, “The other tunes are one with them in that they, too, come from a genuine life experience that I had.”
Remembranzas is scheduled for August release and plans are being made for an album release concert to follow. Through all of this, you can still find McGrath playing live somewhere several nights a week in one of the many bands he performs with.
But if you want to hear him express his own approach to music, your first opportunity is this weekend.
I have to start this out with a confession. Before it was announced that Celso Piña would headline a show at Thalia Hall on May 28, I knew very little about him. I figured he played Colombian music because I saw his name in an article a few months ago about a new album paying tribute to forgotten Colombian songwriter Magín Díaz. Piña is among an all-star cast of guest musicians that include Carlos Vives, Li Saumet of Bomba Estereo, Totó la Momposina and Monsieur Periné. That’s a pretty impressive list and it covers a lot of musical ground. I also knew that the group playing at Thalia was billed as “Celso Piña y su Ronda Bogotá.”
Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered Piña is from Monterrey, Mexico and, at the age of 64, something of a legend. A Google search seemed to indicate that while the singer, songwriter and accordion player (he’s sometimes called “El Rebelde del acordeón”) is held in high regard throughout Latin America, the reason for that admiration varies. Apparently, Celso Piña is many things to many people.
Rather than cobble together a bunch of stuff and call it my own, I decided to call on a few friends who I was quite sure knew more than me. The first person I spoke to was Jorge Ortega, a native of Barranquilla, Colombia and the driving force behind Chicago’s ever-expanding Colombian Festival / El Grand Festival Colombiano.
“I’ve tried to book Celso Piña into the Colombian Festival, but his travel schedule and our dates never lined up,” says Ortega. “The guy is devoted to Colombian cumbia and I respect that a lot. His accordion is tuned in the Colombian way. He’s open about his dedication to getting the Colombian sound right, having been inspired by Anibal Velázquez. He brings his own thing to it, of course, and he took cumbia to another level in Mexico, that whole urban Monterrey scene. He turned young people on to cumbia and was an inspiration to the whole cumbia sonidero movement. At the same time, he can play a festival in Colombia and people love it.”
Aqui Presente Compa is Piña’s latest album, and it’s a raucous gem of a party record. The cumbia beats and Piña’s accordion are front and center. But there is toughness to it as well: Electric guitar and a forcefully played drum set easily put it in a more rocking space, at times sounding like the sort of norteña rock that bands like the Texas Tornados do so well. But if you go back to 2001 and an album called Barrio Bravo, you’ll hear the sound that inspired a generation.
“Cumbia Sobre el Río is a masterpiece,” says Mexico City born musician Zacbé Pichardo, referring to Barrio Bravo’s lead track and mega-hit that features guest appearances by Pato Machete and Blanquito Man, both of whom were at the forefront of the rock en español scene. A 2002 profile of Piña in the Austin Chronicle article said of the song, “… there wasn’t a car or living room from Chicago to Chiapas that didn’t have the bass booming and the sonic onslaught layered with accordion rattling their windows.”
Pichardo, who leads the Chicago based cumbia sonidero outfit Guapachosos and is also a member of the highly respected Sones de México Ensemble, continues, “Celso has created a unique blend of traditional Colombian cumbia with the modern unique touch of urban chaos. Many cumbia groups have found a style and stuck to it, but Celso has always progressed alongside the current new trends and made something unique through his Ronda Bogotá filter. It has significantly influenced what I produce nowadays.”
Barrio Bravo featured guest appearances by several rock en español and Latin Alternative artists, some of whom joined Piña in a 2003 appearance at Mexico City’s Vive Latino Festival. YouTube videos of that performance show the rapturous reception that the crowd of several thousand gave to the performance, and the energy being thrown off by Piña and Ronda Bogotá is phenomenal.
I was beginning to get a clearer picture of exactly who Celso Piña is, but I wanted to check with one more person. Alex Chávez leads Dos Santos Anti Beat Orquesta, a band that initially made an impression by playing chicha, the Peruvian variant of cumbia, but quickly progressed to more of a pan-Latin sound. I knew from previous conversations that there was a philosophical foundation to the band’s embrace of cumbia as its starting point.
“Colombian cumbia bears witness to significant stylistic transformations in the 20th century, becoming a robust transnational musical phenomenon along the way,” says Chávez. “Commercial radio and recordings also emerge as a powerful force of dissemination at this time, taking cumbia to nearby and far off places like the industrial center of Monterrey, Mexico. So, when Cumbia Sobre el Río drops in 2001, it’s spread throughout Latin America is preceded by half a century of cumbia’s circulation along those same routes. While Piña had enjoyed success in Monterrey since the 1980s, his 2001 hit exhibits a unique blending of the accordion-based vallenato style he popularized with the slowed-down rebajada style pioneered by sonidero DJs in the working-class colonias of that city.”
Did I mention that Chávez, in addition to leading Dos Santos, is an anthropology professor and Latino Studies Fellow at Notre Dame University?
“Celso and the whole Monterrey scene have reconstructed a grassroots Colombian sound in their own image where we find the story of how cultural capital participates in assigning meaning to place, to migration, and all of the experiences in between. Monterrey is a center of Latin American music-making, but is also deeply connected to the United States economically. And so, Celso Piña’s sound tells the story of a cosmopolitan sensibility coated with working-class flare; it is “people’s music”—something which can be said about cumbia more broadly. Still, his story and his sound speak to how contemporary experiences of marginality provide the backdrop for powerful cultural constructions of place, of belonging, and of travel beyond nations and across borders.”
This is where it all connects and points to how a musician working in what seems to be a fixed style is in reality tapping into something that is all about migration, change and adaptation, one sensibility assuming the form of another to create something personally authentic, yet having a wide appeal to traditionalists as well as progressives. The Austin Chronicle may have referenced “Chicago to Chiapas”, but Celso Piña’s impact reaches much farther than that, all the way back to where cumbia was born.
Sharing the bill with Celso Piña y su Ronda Bogotá at Thalia Hall are Dos Santos Anti Beat Orquesta and ÌFÉ from Puerto Rico, who I have written about here, here and here.
Photos by Charlie Billups, commentary by Don Macica –
Hundreds of people filled Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center last night while one of the most important bands in Cuban music history, Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro, performed a style of classic Cuban son that they practically invented in 1927 when they added a trumpet to the traditional tres Cubano, guitar and percussion. Of course, 90 years later, the band is in its fourth generation. While hardly innovative by 21st century standards, they provide a near perfect evocation of a sound that laid the foundation for what would become salsa 40 years later. If, as El Gran Combo has sung, “Sin Salsa no hay Paraiso (Without salsa, there is no paradise)”, then without Septeto Nacional, there is no salsa.
This was only the fourth time that Septeto Nacional has visited Chicago: Three since the Obama administration re-opened cultural exchange with Cuba and, before that, the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair. That made it something of a historic night as well.
At the SRBCC show, at least three generations of folks, from retirees to children, filled the dance floor with varying degrees of skill but equal measure of joy. Meanwhile, the back of the room was filled with round banquet tables where friends and strangers alike gathered like family. All in all, it was an atmosphere more akin to a community party than a concert. Adding to that feel was that Septeto Nacional invited saxophonist Roy McGrath, a Puerto Rico native who runs SRBCC’s youth Afro-Latin jazz program, to join them for a song. He responded with an improvised solo that evoked another genre that likely wouldn’t exist without Septeto Nacional: Latin jazz.
When I spoke with Old Town School of Folk Music’s Mateo Mulcahy a few months ago about their Extended Play series that partners with SRBCC, he talked about how Chicago’s network of cultural presenters allows the city’s residents to experience world renowned artists that any one organization could not afford to bring to town on their own. Septeto Nacional’s appearance was co-presented by HotHouse, who hosted the band the night before at Alhambra Palace. It is partnerships like this that allows an organization like SRBCC, whose main business is neighborhood youth services, to also be a place where people can come to hear world class music from Latin America.
Like the show by Colombia’s Herencia de Timbiquí just 2 weeks earlier, there was a sense of the barrier between performer and audience dissolving altogether, a vibe that SRBCC is increasingly adept at conjuring, as more and more people discover with each presentation. It is, I believe, a force that gives energy to the whole, resulting in an elevated experience on and off the stage.
Future shows at SRBCC include artists from Puerto Rico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and more. I suspect there are many more elevated experiences to come.
Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center played host to the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Extended Play series Thursday night with a performance by Herencia de Timbiquí, a 10-person ensemble from Colombia’s Pacifico region who are already major stars in their home country but are just beginning to attract a global following. Their music derives from the African culture that dominates that region, specifically the currualo style, which is traditionally performed on percussion instruments and accompanied by call & response vocals. Like much Afro-Caribbean music, its roots lie in religious and ceremonial music.
Herencia de Timbiquí (Timbiquí is a small coastal town) preserves this core, building much of their sound around the marimba, guasá (a kind of shaker formed from a hollowed out log filled with dried seeds), and two or three drums of varying pitches. Indeed, the origins of the group lie in playing this traditional music, but beginning about a decade ago they modernized the sound with the addition of electric bass, guitar and keyboards plus a full drum kit and a horn section. They have since evolved into a polished professional ensemble whose sound is commercial enough to have one of their songs, Te Invito, become the theme of the Colombian-produced Netflix series La Niña. This contemporary approach has enough room for smooth urban balladry, rock and funk while remaining firmly anchored in those traditional percussive elements.
Full video of the hit single “Sabrás”, performed live at SRBCC.
Every element of this was fully on display at SRBCC. A song could start out sounding very contemporary, only to have the steady currualo heartbeat and melodic marimba become evident as the song progresses. Conversely, a folkloric beginning could suddenly explode with punchy horns or a virtuoso guitar solo. The group is fronted by two extremely charismatic vocalists who connected directly and repeatedly to a dancing and swaying audience that was mere feet away from SRBCC’s low-slung stage.
All of which is to say that Herencia de Timbiquí has the potential to be pan-Latin superstars with a universal appeal that nonetheless operates in the specific and identifiable context of traditional Afro-Colombian culture.
And that magic? What elevated this particular performance from great to something greater was the context. Herencia was preceded on stage by groups performing purely folkloric music and dance representing Afro-Mexican, Afro-Colombian and Afro-Puerto Rican traditions. SRBCC is generally Puerto Rico focused in its programming, but one can also sense the spirit of Ramón Emeterio Betances, a colleague of Segundo Ruiz Belvis and a mid-19th century Puerto Rican doctor, diplomat and abolitionist who was known as El Antillano because of his vision of a united, decolonized Caribbean identity. The center’s walls are adorned with paintings and artwork representative of the Puerto Rican experience, and among them is a portrait of another Puerto Rican patriot, Pedro Albizu Campos, flanked by Cuba’s José Martí and Mexico’s Emiliano Zapata.
Chicago’s Colombian community turned out in force to see Herencia de Timbiquí, joining Puerto Ricans and more generally fans of Latin and world music for an evening that, if only briefly, accomplished Betances dream of a united Caribbean. I think Herencia could sense they were part of something special that transcended entertainment and entered the realm of spiritual uplift and pure joy.
[Ed. Note: Good music is good music, regardless of your relationship to it. Sometimes, though, it’s best to go with something more personal when reviewing an artist so popular as to be almost a human embodiment of an entire country. Agúzate photographer Charlie Billups attended the recent concert by Colombia’s Carlos Vives with his entire family. His lightly edited impressions of a memorable evening follow.]
I have waited a very long time to see Carlos Vives perform live and it was worth the wait. Even before the concert started, the feeling was like a festival. I felt that I was in Colombia at Las Fiestas de Santa Marta. Most of those in attendance wore Colombian colors or Sombreros Vueltiaos. Vives emerged without an introduction to sing “Ahi llego yo” and everyone was immediately on their feet singing and shouting to the song. It felt like a religious event. For those there it was a great moment of Colombian and Latin American pride.
Carlos’s performance was very polished and it did not reflect at all that the previous night’s performance in Radio City Music Hall in NYC was just the first show of an eight-city U.S. tour. Most of the numbers in the performance had a very strong accordion lead coupled with Colombian Gaitas. The sound was rich and soulful with no flaws, mixed with very strong accents of pop and rock and strong playing by all members of the band, including new accordionist Christian Camilo Peña, who was voted a Vallenato King in 2008, particularly on the number “La Cañaguatera” which was masterful beyond any level of skill. It felt like Colombia itself to me. I was somehow transported to Valledupar even though I have never been there.
The climax of the concert came when he performed “Bailar contigo”, truly a remarkable emotional number with video filmed in historic Cienaga, Magdalena. Emotions at this point were topped out.
The concert concluded with a five-song encore and the final number “La bicicleta” in which Carlos entered the stage in his own bicycle to the adulation of fans.
Carlos Vives continues to be at his prime as part of the top three of Colombia along with Shakira and Juanes. Not only does his musical skill shine but a human part as well, he continues to unite Colombia and Latinos beyond.