By Don Macica
Photos by Elías Carmona and Charlie Billups
At 47 years and counting, Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center (SRBCC) is the longest-standing Latino cultural center in Chicago. Its rich history of service to the Puerto Rican community and tireless promotion of the island’s music and culture runs deep and long. The centro has brought countless important Puerto Rican artists and musicians to Chicago over the decades.
Still, after Friday, September 21, I have a suspicion that SRBCC’s story will always be told in terms of “before” and “after”. That’s the day that multiple Grammy Nominee and Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow Miguel Zenón and the Spektral Quartet presented their brand new album Yo Soy la Tradición to the world for the very first time with a benefit concert for the Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts. The fund was established by SRBCC to help struggling artists whose lives were severely impacted by Hurricane Maria.
I interviewed Miguel Zenón for Agúzate about the history of his new work and why he and Spektral chose to debut the album as a benefit for Puerto Rico. You can read that here. Still, nothing, including having had the privilege of hearing the album prior to its release and experiencing its only other public performance two years ago at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, quite prepared me for the moving performance at SRBCC. The depth and richness of feeling and extraordinary musicianship conveyed the very soul of Puerto Rico, whose cultural and musical traditions provided the source material for Zenón’s compositions. The saxophonist kept his between movement commentary brief, but heartfelt. From where I was sitting, it appeared that Zenón and the members of Spektral were moved and inspired by their surroundings.
Two wonderful Puerto Rican photographers who live in Chicago, Elías Carmona and Charlie Billups, were there to capture the scene. They are much more intimate with Puerto Rico than I, who only know of the island through my visits and interactions with the friends I’ve made with Puerto Ricans both there and here in Chicago. I thought it was only right to give them the last word along with their images, so I’ll leave the rest of this article to them.
“Miguel Zenón’s music is full of images and brings me reminiscences of my life in the place I was born and grew up. In my opinion, he truly represents the essence of the Puerto Rican music and I love the way he fuses it with other musical influences. What great performance! It was one of the best shows I ever attended and photographed at SRBCC.”
“Miguel Zenón and the Spektral Quartet, two GRAMMY-nominated performers together with a worthwhile cause in a performance venue like no other: Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Hermosa. I was touched by Zenón’s decision to release his latest project at SRBCC to raise money for Art projects affected by Hurricane Maria. The performance was flawless, crisp, rich and a cross of classic with the rich vibe of Puerto Rico in Zenón’s sax. It raised the bar for Segundo Ruiz Belvis into a new dimension as a world-class music venue.”
Finally, I’m including a video courtesy of SRBCC that includes part of the final movement of Yo Soy La Tradicion, “Villabeño”.
For some artists, it can take a very long time to find your voice. For the Paris-born guitarist and singer Pascal Danaë, that voice came in the history and language of his ancestors on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and, going even further back, his African heritage. His new group, Delgres, who just released their debut album Mo Jodi and will appear twice this weekend at World Music Festival Chicago, is inspired by his family and, more broadly, the struggle for human dignity. Its lyrics are primarily sung in Creole with some English.
Growing up in the suburbs of Paris, Danaë was exposed to all sorts of music: Haitian konpa, Cuban son, and African soukous among them, but also English rock like the Kinks and Rolling Stones. He developed an interest in jazz as well, especially guitarists like Wes Montgomery and George Benson.
It was a trip back to his parent’s home in Guadeloupe (a place that his parents never returned to after emigrating to France) when a seed was planted that, almost two decades later, would become his vision for Delgres. It was in there that Danaë encountered the letter of freedom given to his great-great-grandmother in 1841 when she was 27 years old, and it had a profound emotional impact.
Danaë already had a successful career as a jazz guitarist and session musician for the likes of Peter Gabriel, Youssou N’Dour and Gilberto Gil before attempting to do something more personal. He released a solo album in 2004 and then formed the Afro-Brazilian tinged group Rivière Noire before finally feeling ready to follow through on his Guadeloupe-inspired vision.
The group is named after Louis Delgrès, a Creole officer in the French army who died fighting against slavery on the island in 1802. Informed as it is by Danaë’s personal history, the album also serves as a call to fight against modern-day oppression and slavery.
A bit of history: Guadeloupe is part of the same archipelago as Cuba, the island of Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico. Like nearby Saint-Domingue on Hispaniola, the island was a French colony. After a successful slave revolt, Saint-Domingue became the nation of Haiti in 1804. There were similar stirrings for freedom happening on Guadeloupe, but they were successfully put down. Slavery was not abolished until 1848.
While the Creole language of Danaë’s ancestors figures prominently in the conceptual intent of the songs, the band’s muscular sonic foundation owes much to other traditions drawn from the experience of Africans in the Americas. The raw and rollicking sound of Mississippi hill country blues informs Danaë’s vocals and guitar and the powerful drumming. The final layer in this stripped-down trio is that of the sousaphone, a key element of New Orleans brass band music, supplying earthy and growling bass lines.
The guitar-drums-sousaphone combo packs quite a wallop when playing full-tilt, but the trio is also capable of pulling back a bit to leave some room for delicate introspection. As much as Danaë has infused the songs with meaning and purpose, he has also made sure that the band that plays them and the music they create together remain upbeat and approachable. “It’s not a history book,” says Danaë of the band in concert. “We have a good time.”
Delgres at World Music Festival Chicago Saturday, September 22 at Concord Music Hall Sunday, September 23 at Navy Pier worldmusicfestivalchicago.org
In September of 2016, jazz composer and alto saxophone player Miguel Zenón premiered a new composition at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. The Puerto Rico-born musician has used the music and culture of his home (and its corresponding diaspora in the U.S.) as conceptual source material for album length explorations ever since his 2005 release Jíbaro. Several more albums followed over the next decade, including Esta Plena, Alma Adentro, Oye! Live in Puerto Rico and Identities Are Changeable. With the exception of Oye!, which was more overt in its Latin instrumentation, all of these works were written with Zenón’s core jazz quartet (Luis Perdomo, Hans Glawischnig and Henry Cole) as its principal means of expression.
Yo Soy la Tradición, commissioned by Hyde Park’s David and Reva Logan Center for the Arts and the Festival, also mines Puerto Rican traditions for its subject material, but this time around the writing was in collaboration with the Chicago based classical new music ensemble Spektral Quartet (Clara Lyon, Maeve Feinberg, Doyle Armbrust and Russell Rolen). The concert was warmly received, and a year later Zenón returned to Chicago to enter the studio with Spektral. The album that resulted is a collection of 8 works for alto sax and string quartet that derive from Puerto Rico’s cultural, religious and musical traditions, yet sound startlingly fresh and contemporary. There are echoes of older Spanish traditions like flamenco (the hand claps on Cadenza are clearly inspired by flamenco, but not unrelated to composer Steve Reich’s Clapping Music) and dances that preceded the island’s European colonization, but also jagged harmonies, rapid minimalist rhythmic sections and beautifully lyrical passages that recall, to these ears, Zenón’s playing on Alma Adentro‘s boleros. The quartet is fully integrated into each movement, never merely a backup band to a sax player.
The CD will be released September 21 and celebrated with a concert at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center that will benefit Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts.
“My starting point for Tradición was studying the folkloric music of Puerto Rico and identifying the elements that make it unique, then extract that and use it without emulating it.” I’m speaking to Miguel Zenón by phone as he is heading to the airport for a flight to Buenos Aires to participate in an Astor Piazzolla festival. “Then I spent time studying classical chamber works from various periods until I felt ready to start writing. My early training as a player was in classical music, so I was at least familiar with it, but I didn’t begin studying it intently until much later when I started writing my own music.
“Writing for strings was a different and more challenging process than writing for my jazz quartet,” says Zenón. “We’re a working band and we know each other very well. When I’m writing for them I have a sound in mind that I know they can do, so even if it’s a difficult passage I’m confident that it can be played well.
“I had been a guest musician on one of Spektral Quartet’s albums and enjoyed working with them,” Zenón continues. “So I knew they were terrific and creative musicians, but I was still unfamiliar with the technical capabilities of string instruments. So I would write passages and send them to Spektral and I would get feedback like ‘This part is great but it would be hard on our instruments to do this part here.’ They would make suggestions based on those sorts of things.”
I asked Zenón about the intersection of folkloric, jazz and classical music. “First of all, I’m a jazz musician, so there’s always an element of improvisation even when the writing is formal. But I’m also a Puerto Rican jazz musician. Puerto Rican music is an integral part of who I am. Lastly, even when I’m writing for jazz instrumentation, I’m aware of and applying harmonic and structural concepts learned from classical and new music composers. A string quartet is just a more identifiably classical format.”
As it happened, the long-reserved studio time booked to record the CD was scheduled just days after Hurricane María struck Puerto Rico. Thus it was that Miguel Zenón found himself in Chicago for three days beginning September 22, 2017.
“We were in the studio in Chicago just after María struck, so obviously it was on our minds while we were recording. So the CD will always be connected to that.”
Spektral Quartet just published a moving blog post on their website, describing the atmosphere at sessions and describing how Zenón would call home repeatedly during breaks trying to get updates at a time when much of the island was flooded and without power. It also touched on how artists play through adversity. The post, titled Why our album release is a benefit for Puerto Rico, states “Puerto Rico is home to vital and unique artistic traditions, and we hope to make a small but meaningful improvement in the lives of these artists.”
“At the same time I was calling home for updates,” Zenón says, “I was also calling musician friends in California to organize a benefit concert there. Later on I did one in Boston and another in New York. Spektral wanted to do something here and asked me if I knew somewhere in the community that would host. I immediately thought of Segundo Ruiz Belvis.”
This is not Miguel Zenón’s first visit to SRBCC. In May of 2016, the saxophonist preceded a full big band performance of Identities Are Changeable at the Logan Center with a community event at SRBCC that explained the concept of Identities (an exploration of identity and community of U.S. born Puerto Ricans) and included informal performances with the center’s youth ensemble, Chicago-based Puerto Rican saxophonist Roy McGrath, and local bomba powerhouses Bomba con Buya.
“I learned about the Centro years ago when I first started to come to Chicago to play the Jazz Showcase with David Sánchez’ band. I would always head to Humboldt Park to eat some food, hang out, buy records. I would hear about this place that was keeping the culture alive. Then about 3 or 4 years ago I was here for a Chicago Jazz Festival appearance and after my set I went to the neighborhood to jam with some salseros at Festival Boricua. It was there I met Omar.”
Omar is SRBCC Executive Director Omar Torres-Kortright [Full disclosure: Torres-Kortright is also a co-founder of Agúzate]. Zenón continues, “He told me about the Chamaco Ramirez documentary that he was working on and his work at the Centro. Then the University of Chicago chose them as the community partner for my Identities concert at the Logan, so I had the opportunity to go out there and see it first-hand.
“So it was an easy choice to do our benefit there.”
I’m speaking with Miguel a week after he returned from several days in Puerto Rico as an Artist in Residence at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico in San Juan. I ask him how things are there a full year after María.
“The infrastructure is a little better. Most people have electricity and running water. But deeper than that, there is still a struggle. There is still stuff to be fixed, but one thing that is obvious when you talk to people is that there is still a lot of trauma. People are traumatized. It is a deep experience that will influence a generation. But the overall situation is deeper than just the hurricane. A lot of negative things like the economic situation had been building for a while, and what the hurricane did was bring them to the surface.”
“What it boils down, too, at least in my opinion, is the political situation,” Zenón continues. “Puerto Rico continues to be in limbo. We’re connected to the states, but we don’t have the benefits of being a state. We have our own government, culture and language, but we are not a free country. And even our government isn’t really in charge because they have to answer to a fiscal control board created in the U.S.
“There is a realization shared by more people now that this limbo can’t continue because it isn’t working. Whether that is statehood or independence is open to debate, but the current situation is clearly not sustainable.”
What is clear is that, one year post-María, Puerto Rico is far from healed, and help is still needed. The particular fund for this benefit concert helps artists who, in many cases, are finding their roles more important than ever on this traumatized island. It doesn’t matter if that role explicitly addresses coping and constructive analysis or simply a balm from harsh daily realities. Both are vital as Puerto Rico heads into year two and an uncertain future.
Miguel Zenón & Spektral Quartet: Yo Soy la Tradición A Benefit for Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago Friday, September 21, 7pm $20 general admission, $50 and $100 VIP tickets available Tickets at segundoruizbelvis.org
For every star of salsa music, there are a dozen of unsung heroes that, despite their immense talents, are lesser known, providing the necessary support for the star to shine. Quick: How many salsa horn players can you name? Beyond Willie Colón and those who are primarily known as Latin jazz musicians, you are likely to have to think for a while. But a salsa song without horns would feel empty, and the same goes for the lead vocalists and most certainly the coro singers.
Jerry Medina is all three: A dynamic lead vocalist, expert coro singer and talented trumpet player. With the formation of Jerry Medina y La Banda earlier this decade, he became a terrific bandleader as well. His name might not immediately come to mind, but a deep perusal of your record collection will find him turning up all over the place. He’s appeared on something like 50 albums since 1981 (up to and including the recent Grammy-nominated Fase Dos by Juan Pablo Diaz), including releases by Ismael Miranda, José “El Canario” Alberto, Oscar d’Leon, Cheo Feliciano and more. He has a pair of Grammy Awards on his shelf for Palmieri’s 1987 album The Truth / La Verdad and the 2000 collaboration between Palmieri & Tito Puente, Masterpiece. When the stars of Fania regrouped for world tours in the 1980s and 90s, Medina was there with them.
Medina released a couple of solo albums in the 1980s, but a more lasting contribution came as a member of Batacumbele, a groundbreaking and deeply rooted Afro-Caribbean ensemble where he both played trumpet and sang lead. The group is notable for being entirely Puerto Rican at a time when people were looking to Cuba for new sounds, but one listen reveals a sprawling collective that more than held their own with their Cuban counterparts like Irakere.
Medina was in the studio throughout the 90s and into the new millennium providing support for many of the big crossover Latin records of that decade, but he always kept one foot in the world of improvisational and folkloric music with groups like Descarga Boricua, bomba legends Hermanos Ayala and Grupo Afro Boricua.
He came into his own as a bandleader and lead singer in the 2000s with the formation of Jerry Medina y La Banda. The group bridges Caribbean folklore and Latin jazz in an updated version of Batacumbele’s template, and even flexes some funk & hip-hop chops. They made an electrifying appearance at the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival in March 2014. In 2015 Medina and La Banda released A Mi Manera, which included the talents of Giovanni Hidalgo, Paoli Mejías, Efraín Toro, Pablo Rosario, Luisito Marín, Prodigio Claudio, and Ricardo Pons.
A Mi Manera is a stylistically diverse collection of songs that ranges from jazzy big band sounds (complete with scatted vocals) to driving timba to a radical reworking of the Rafael Hernandez classic Capullito de Alelí. The title track is not,thankfully, a cover of the Paul Anka chestnut but an original composition that is Medina’s manifesto for the group. You can hear a little bit of lots of stuff in it: A cuatro solo for the traditionalists, a rap, some scratching, a swinging horn chart, funk bass, Medina’s scatting and a snaky, shifting rhythm pattern. This is indeed Medina’s way.
It’s a tribute to Medina’s talent, energy and spirit that, after 35+ years in the business, he can come up with something this fresh and contemporary that still manages to be an extension of the great salsa records that he’s contributed to over the years. In the process, he honors Puerto Rican creativity, culture and music.
Jerry Medina y La Banda Wednesday, August 29, 8:30pm: Old Town School of Folk Music oldtownschool.org Thursday, August 30, 7:30pm: Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center srbcc.org Both shows are free with a suggested $10 donation
ÌFÉ, the “Future Afro-Caribeña” project from Puerto Rico led by drummer/producer/singer Otura Mun, last came to Chicago in July of 2017 for an acoustic show at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, an organization that they have longstanding ties to. They had been to Chicago twice before, most recently right after the release of their well-received first album, IIII+IIII, (pronounced “Edgy-Og-Beh”). You can read Agúzate’s review of that album here. The group, which also consists of Beto Torrens, Rafael Maya, Anthony Sierra and Yarimir Cabán, was tacking on a free show as something of a gift to Chicago at the end of a U.S. tour before going their separate ways for a bit.
Little did they know that the short break would turn into a lengthy hiatus after Hurricanes Irma and Maria delivered a near knockout blow to Puerto Rico in September, leaving some members of the band stranded on the mainland and forcing others to depart the island for their own safety.
The band essentially went silent for a few months. Band members stayed busy with their own projects and Mun would occasionally surface in the press with an interview. December found IIII+IIII showing up on virtually everybody’s end of the year “Best of” lists, from NPR Music to outlets covering dance and electronic music to folk music publications like England’s Songlines. By February the band was rehearsing in preparation for a Mexican tour and a double-bill with M.A.K.U. Soundsystem at BRIC, a cultural arts center in Brooklyn. They also found time to stop by the NPR studios in Washington, D.C. to tape a Tiny Desk Concert.
Now ÌFÉ is starting a tour that will eventually take them to the Kennedy Center in Washington and Central Park Summer Stage in New York, but their first stop is in Chicago. They will be back at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center this Friday night for their third ÌFÉ Acústico, a casual yet invigorating rumba session that usually ends in an all hands on deck jam that crosses from rumba to bomba and back again. They’ll be in concert at Navy Pier the following afternoon at LatiNxt, a new 2-day festival that explores new ways of connecting traditional Latin music with modern sounds.
I spoke with Otura Mun last week as he was preparing to travel from his home in Santurce, Puerto Rico for Cuba in order to continue the spiritual studies that led Mun, an African American from Indiana born with the name Mark Underwood, to become an Ifá priest or Babalawo in the Yoruba religion in 2015.
DM: First of all, congratulations on the success of your first album. It’s pretty amazing to have a debut gain all that international acclaim. Why do you think that album resonated with so many different people and was greeted so warmly?
OM: Well, I think there are a few things. First of all, we sing in three different languages; English, Spanish and Yoruba. There are three points of intersection language-wise, so we’re not put in one camp. We’re not only seen as a Latin American band. In fact, some of the biggest and most interesting reactions to our Tiny Desk performance came from Nigeria. I also think that I myself don’t fit neatly into the pre-determined cultural nooks and crannies, so personal and musical influences show up in the songwriting and structure that appeal to more than one group. But those are technical things. Bigger than that, I think, is that the record was always meant to be inclusive and easily readable, even if you didn’t understand the language. The intent of the record was to communicate love and expansion.
Here’s an example: I bumped into a guy in a bar the other night. He’s a musician, but in a style that I’m not really into. I don’t really know him, but he pulled me aside to say, “Hey man, I listen to your record all the time… it puts me in a place that I really like to be.” That was very satisfying; it was something that I hoped to achieve. I know that when I was developing my ideas for the band, I got “professional” advice to sort of trim my vision, to target it this way or that. But I needed to be honest to myself. When we made the video for “3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé)” everybody told me to cut out the lengthy introduction of the band members, but I thought that it was important and in a way it was my homage to Yoruba Andabo. And it did take a few months before outlets started to add it. But I don’t regret it for a moment, because it was important for me to do it the way we did it.
DM: Many of Aguzate’s readers are deeply and personally connected to Puerto Rico, so we all looked on with collective horror at Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. I remember the relief I felt when the band posted on social media that everyone was safe, and then I started seeing individual members posting from different places around the U.S. and world. How did all that affect you as people, as Puerto Ricans and of course as an artistic ensemble based in Santurce?
OM: Well, actually, I wasn’t there when the hurricanes struck. After we completed our summer tour, I went to Europe to work on a project, stopped home for a day in August to produce a song for MIMA (the solo artistic persona of ÌFÉ member Yarimir Cabán) and then went to California. So, just like you, I didn’t hear anything for days, then slowly began to hook up with friends and band members. It was hard to get information. I remember seeing pictures on the internet of my street and it was total devastation. It was hard, but most of what I know about that time I learned from the accounts of others. We all didn’t get back together until February so we could rehearse for the Mexico and Brooklyn dates.
I live in the barrio, right, and there is a degree of lawlessness here that’s greater than before Maria. The electricity might be back on, but not all the street lights work. You can turn a corner and be in total darkness. You have to watch out. That attitude applies to the police, too. It’s like what the black community experiences in the States, but with even more impunity.
On the other hand, people have come together to help each other because there was nobody else, and there seems to be a movement toward more unity. The economic situation and the hurricane laid Puerto Rico’s colonial status bare and I think more people are waking up to that.
It’s always been hard to make it as an independent artist here, or as a folkloric artist. Even salsa suffers from that. If you’re not doing reggaeton, you will have a tough go of it. So in that way, things are the same. On the other hand, the international community is paying much more attention to Puerto Rico since the hurricane, so there are more opportunities for us to tell our stories.
Puerto Rico is where I want to be, despite all the difficulties. These are the people that I’ve been around for 20 years, and I think we are also closer than ever to getting a grip on our situation and making changes for the better.
DM: Are you working on new material? I’ve seen hints of a technology upgrade on the band’s Facebook page and wondering what we’ll be hearing at Navy Pier.
OM: We’ve been working a lot to bring our live performance to a higher level. We want our show to be impactful and somewhat challenging, not what you’ve seen before. We have a new dancer in the group, a woman from Mexico City named Pia Love, who’s traveled to Nigeria, Brazil, Cuba, India, Jamaica… that makes her familiar with my main influences and she brings all that to our collaboration. I’m almost going for a theatrical presentation with our live show.
Musically, there will be a new record, maybe later this year. I’ve spent a lot of time making notes and ideas for new songs. I’ve got 6 notebooks! I already know what the next record is going to be about. We are testing a new single in front of audiences, so we’ll be opening shows with it. Chicago will be the first place that people will get to experience this new stuff.
ÌFÉ in Chicago
ÌFÉ Acústico | Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center | Friday June 15 @ 7:30pm | Advance Tickets at segundoruizbelvis.org
LatiNxt presented by Sol | Navy Pier | Saturday June 16 @ 3pm (LatiNxt begins at 2pm) | Information at Facebook
The Midwest’s largest celebration of Colombian music and culture, Chicago’s Colombian Fest Al Parque, returns to Kelvyn Park, 4438 W. Wrightwood Avenue in Chicago, July 20, 21 and 22 as it celebrates its 4th year.
Festival director Jorge Ortega has once again programmed with a multi-generational approach to the vast diversity of Colombia culture. Ortega, who was recently honored with the Keeper of the Flame Award by the Chicago International Salsa Congress, says “From the Pacific coast to the interior plains and mountains to the shores of the Caribbean, Colombia has a huge diversity of cultures made up of mixtures of Spanish, African and indigenous peoples. The music at the festival will represent both folkloric traditions and the newest sounds of the region.”
Headliners for this year’s Fest include the legendary salsa giant Willie Colón, making his first Chicago appearance since 2006. The Nuyorican trombonist, arranger and bandleader was an integral part of the Fania Records family in the late 1960s and early 70’s. Colombia’s embrace of salsa, especially in Cali, where they claim the title of “salsa capital of the world”, can be traced back to when the Fania All-Stars first performed there in the 1970s. Cali’s homegrown salsa scene will be represented by singer Javier Vásquez. Vásquez found salsa fame as the lead vocalist of the legendary Grupo Niche for 17 years before joining Son de Cali in 2002 and then as a solo artist in 2011. [Update 4/18: Javier Vásquez is unable to come to Chicago for the Fest due to visa issues. We’ll keep you informed of new Colombian Fest bookings as they happen via the Agúzate Facebook page.]
The accordion-driven Colombian music known as vallenato will be represented by two generations of musicians coming direct from Colombia. Singer and accordionist Alfredo Gutiérrez is the three-time winner of the Vallenato Legend Festival. Gutiérrez will be accompanied by Los Corraleros de Majagual, a group that he helped found in 1961 and for whom he was the lead vocalist throughout the 1960’s. A generation younger than Alfredo Gutiérrez is singer Iván Villazón, who released Arco Iris, the first of his many hit albums and songs, in 1984, an unbroken string that continues to this day.
Other cultural regions of Colombia are represented by Los Rolling Raunas, a group from Bogotá who bring rock energy, attitude and humor to the carranga music of the Colombian Andes, and Canolón de Timbiquí, who embody the rich musical mix of African and Latin American traditions unique to Colombia’s Pacific coast. The group consists of five female singers led by Nidia Gongora supported by a band using a range of traditional percussive instruments such as the tambora drum and the xylophone-style marimba.
Colombia has a cultural affinity with the rest of the Caribbean and, in turn, with Africa itself, whose rhythms are at the heart of all Afro-Caribbean music. Accordingly, the fest will present Raul Acosta & Oro Sólido, merengue stars from the Dominican Republic. Also performing are the Soukous All-Stars, comprised of several musicians who are major soukous artists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Soukous, along with Jamaican reggae, Haitian kompa and other Caribbean sounds, is a recognizable feature of Colombian champeta music from Cartagena and Barranquilla on Colombia’s Atlantic coast. The genre will be represented at the fest by one of its most popular groups, the Bazurto All Stars.
New to the Fest this year is the Friday night program Elektro Verbena al Parque, an electronic dance music party headlined by Colombia via New York City’s M.A.K.U. Soundsystem and featuring El Freaky Colectivo de Bogota, Future Roots, SONORAMA, the Ortega Bros. and Hector Truke. The night is curated by David Chávez of Sound Culture.
Asking the question “Why did one of the world’s leading flamenco singers make a salsa album?” overlooks 500+ years of history, migration and adaptation. Salsa, even after 50 years of development, exists more purely as an idea and a movement than a single musical genre. The sound that grew out of New York City in the 1960s and 70s was an urgent mix of all things Afro-Caribbean (plena, rumba, son, mambo, merengue) thrown together in an urban environment that also felt the force of rock and R&B. It expanded from there across the world as well as back to the place of its musical DNA. If subjected to a saliva test, salsa’s DNA would reveal West & Central African, American indigenous and European strains. Following the Spanish European strain farther back would lead to North Africa, the Middle East and even India. That strain’s contemporary musical signature is flamenco.
Yep. Flamenco is in salsa’s DNA.
Diego El Cigala is one of the most popular flamenco singers in the world. He is also one of the genre’s most curious and adventurous minds. He’s 100% Gitano from the “Old World”, but also very much interested in how his heritage and culture have played out in the New. He rocketed to international attention and a Latin GRAMMY Award in 2004 in his first foray into Afro-Cuban sounds with pianist Bebo Valdés, Lagrimas Negras. That album also served to help reclaim the legacy of Bebo as a major figure in Cuban music history.
Lagrimas Negras is a lovely, spare album that gradually builds toward a satisfying finish, highlighting Cigala’s powerfully raspy voice and Valdés’ piano in a flamenco-infused journey through Cuban son. Cigala revisited Cuban music in 2008 for Dos Lagrimas, but then also traveled to Argentina for investigations of tango and Argentine folkloric music. He relocated his home to the Dominican Republic in 2014, all but guaranteeing that Afro-Latin sounds would never be far from his ears.
When he set out to record Indestructible, his third exploration of Afro-Latin music, he took things a step further by jumping to the 1970s and New York City. The title track is taken from the landmark Ray Barretto album and song that features singer Tito Allen. Cigala’s album is a high-energy celebration of the Fania Records era that also includes dips into a few pre-salsa tunes like Beny Moré’s Como Fue.
Recorded in New York, Miami, San Juan and Cali as well as in Spain, Indestructible features a superb cast that includes figures such as Venezuelan singer Oscar D’Leon, pianists Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Larry Harlow, trumpeter Luis “Perico” Ortiz, and many of the original Fania studio musicians. That diversity of recording locations highlights the global phenomenon that salsa became and remains.
Remember when I said that salsa was more of an idea than a genre? That is both true and not true in that, after the initial explosion of the 70s, salsa did indeed become codified into a certain commercial style, all of its rough edges smoothed into slick contours for maximum sales. What Cigala does brilliantly with Industructible is reclaim the urgency of the 70s by interpreting it through the passionate prism of flamenco. It’s sensual and earthy, an honest reflection of salsa’s legacy.
Cigala’s voice is a remarkable instrument, powerfully expressive, strong and vulnerable, seemingly fraying at the edges. It invests these songs with the same raw authenticity that Hector Lavoe’s Puerto Rican jibaro roots brought to Willie Colon’s brassy Nuyorican arrangements. Two of Lavoe’s signature tunes, Juanito Alimaña and Periódico de Ayer, are interpreted here, as is Sonora Ponceña’s Moreno Soy and a classic Cheo Feliciano tune, El Ratón. Many of the songs are composed by the unmatched Puerto Rican songwriter Tite Curet Alonso.
When Diego El Cigala arrives at Symphony Center this Friday, April 6, he and his 10-member band will draw much of the repertoire from his three Afro-Latin projects. Expect salsa fireworks for sure, but also intimate boleros like Como Fue.
At the same time, Cigala will remain Cigala, 100% Gitano, flamenco to the core.
Diego El Cigala: Indestructible – Friday, April 6 at 8pm. Symphony Center, Chicago. Tickets at cso.org
Unless you are a musician deeply involved in Chicago’s salsa scene, you may not have heard of Nathan Rodriguez. If, like me, you are an audience member that pays more attention to congueros than singers, though, you’ve likely taken notice of his skill and regular presence without knowing his name.
That all started to change in the last year as Rodriguez began stepping out as a bandleader with two projects, Conjunto Borikén and ¡Azúcar!, a Celia Cruz tribute band. A casual observer might think that Rodriguez is the new kid on the block, but it turns out that the Chicago-born Puerto Rican musician has been at this for quite a while.
“I joined my first professional band, La Unica, in 2000 at the age of 16, but I had already been playing bongos since the age of 11 and congas at 13, learning from my friend and mentor Daniel Feliciano after our church services. At the age of 16, I also joined a Salsa Ministry band called Orchestra Ebenezer as a conguero, and I still play with them today as their bassist.”
Nathan and I are enjoying a late breakfast and some café con leche at Señor Pan, a Cuban restaurant near his home. “But I wasn’t really serious about it,” he continues, “I had talent and a feel, but I couldn’t read music, which is a necessary skill if you want to really be a professional.”
Then, at the age of 19, Rodriguez was suddenly married with a child and working double shifts to make ends meet. That left little time for music. “I was still playing a little, subbing with Orquesta Sabor and the Angel Melendez 911 Mambo Orchestra, but I wasn’t advancing. After a couple of years I decided I didn’t want that for my life and that I had a hunger to study music.”
Mentors and advocates are an important part of any professional experience, and this is certainly the case in a music career. In Rodriguez’ case, it was the highly regarded percussionist Rubén Alvarez, who is a faculty member at the VanderCook College of Music. Recognizing Nathan’s raw talent and hunger for improvement, Alvarez, his wife Susan Frost and another VanderCook faculty member, Marc Jacoby, spoke to the president of the college on his behalf. In 2004, Rodriguez was accepted to VanderCook on a probationary basis, owing to his inability to read music.
Thus began “the hardest 5 years of my personal life with financial struggles, raising a family, and learning how to read and perform on orchestral instruments,” says Rodriguez. “However, I fell in love with all my learning and new experiences, learned what I wanted to learn musically, pulled through and graduated in 2009.”
Fortified with his new skills and knowledge, Rodriguez began transcribing his own music and formed his first band, the short-lived Orquesta Rumbaye. At VanderCook, he had learned to play piano, bass, vibraphone, trombone, guitar and ukulele in addition to several more percussion instruments. Of these, he paid special attention to the bass, acquiring a baby bass and advancing enough that he was able to freelance professionally as a bassist as well as percussionist, most notably in Rico Obsesión. He also joined Son de la Habana as a conguero, who he still plays with to this day. He’s recently turned up supporting other local projects as well, like the Chicago debut of Grammy-nominated salsa singer Juan Pablo Diaz and a tribute show to Puerto Rican songwriting legend Rafael Hernández.
In 2017, Rodriguez felt the time was right to become a leader again with not one, but two new projects. The first of these was a long held vision to form a traditional conjunto style salsa band. “It was a style that I grew up loving, that New York-Puerto Rico sound best epitomized by Conjunto Classico and Johnny Pacheco. Nobody in Chicago was playing with that style or instrumentation. It’s a favorite for all salsa lovers. True salseros know conjunto is not easy to play but is full of flavor.” Thus was born Conjunto Borikén, a nine person ensemble featuring three trumpets, bongos, congas, bass, keyboards, a singer and, as a slight deviation from the norm, a Puerto Rican cuatro instead of the Cuban tres.
Rodriguez explains, “The cuatro‘s sound makes any Puerto Rican smile and remember the island. I chose to add a cuatro because I wanted to incorporate the jibaro sounds of the island to our music, giving that ‘ummff’ of more Puerto Rican flavor in our sound. Also,” he adds with a laugh, “There are no Puerto Rican tres players in Chicago!”
The other project started out as a chance meeting with the Colombia-born singer Claudia La Gitana. “I heard Claudia sing at 90 Miles Cuban Café a year and a half ago, and I was dumbfounded. I asked her if she liked Celia Cruz, and she said, ‘Yes, I love Celia, she’s my idol, I know all her hits by memory.’ I told her right then and there, I want to put together a band just for you because your voice needs to be heard and you deserve a 5-star band!”
That was the beginning of ¡Azúcar! – A Celia Cruz Tribute Project. Rodriguez put together another classic salsa band to back up Claudia’s powerful voice. This band has a harder, more urban edge than Conjunto Borikén. And, whereas Rodriguez is the bongocero in Borikén, he moves over to bass for Azúcar. Both bands were on the bill at Mike Oquendo’s recent Sunday Salsa Social tribute to the legends of Fania.
Nathan Rodriguez is fully confident in his talent, abilities and musicianship, but overall, he gives off a humble vibe of gratefulness. He is a music teacher at Nathan Davis Elementary School in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, passing on the lessons he learned and encouraging the love of music in the next generation. On the other end, both of his professional bands are packed with veterans of Chicago’s salsa scene. It’s worth noting that some of these players gave Nathan his first opportunities when he was breaking into the business, including his childhood friend and mentor, Daniel Feliciano.
“I’m extremely grateful to the guys that gave me a break when I was just a kid,” says Rodriguez. “They gave me opportunities when they didn’t have to, and were generous with their time and sharing their craft with me. And, of course, they are incredible musicians. I knew I needed them when I formed Borikén and Azúcar. It’s very gratifying to share this experience with them.”
One of the highlights of last year’s World Music Festival Chicago simply did not get heard by enough people, even with two shows. But that’s OK. One of the roles of the fest has always been to introduce artists to Chicago for the first time, paving the way for a return visit. Fortunately, Chicago didn’t have to wait long for the return of Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo.
The group is again doing two shows, both presentations of the Extended Play partnership between the Old Town School of Folk Music and Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. They’ll be joined at SRBCC on Saturday 3/24 by Chicago’s Bomba con Buya for the center’s annual Abolition of Slavery in Puerto Rico celebration, and the Old Town School will present them Sunday 3/25. The school is offering an Afro-Venezuelan Dance Workshop that Sunday afternoon as well.
All Afro-Latin music shares a common root which is, of course, Africa. The reasons for the considerable variances in sound and rhythm are multiple. First, Africa is a continent, not a country. The kidnapping of African people for the slave trade drew from seven distinct cultural regions over several centuries. Secondly, there were five European powers colonizing the Americas, each with their own customs and traditions. Lastly, you had the influences of whatever indigenous traditions survived the initial colonization, before the slave trade began in earnest.
All of which is to say that, when I first heard the music of Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo, it was both familiar and different. El Clavo, it should be noted, is a village in Venezuela, not a variation on the clave rhythm that is at the center of Afro-Cuban music. Like the town of San Basilio in neighboring Colombia, El Clavo was founded by escaped slaves. The residents trace their heritage back to what is now Senegal in West Africa. Because of this, you can hear some of the Senegalese sabar style of drumming in La Parranda El Clavo’s music. But you’ll also hear the call and response vocals of Cuban rumba and Puerto Rican bomba, originating in Central Africa. And where sabar almost exclusively uses high pitched drums rapidly hit with sticks as well as hands, La Parranda El Clavo’s rhythms also have a deeper bottom that supplies a pulse.
And then there is Machado herself, who cites Cuba’s Celia Cruz, Colombia’s Totó La Momposina and Cape Verde’s Cesaria Evora as influences on her powerful voice.
I thought I heard similarities to bomba when listening to the group at last year’s World Music Fest. The SRBCC show with Bomba con Buya will put that theory to the test, and I’m hoping the groups will play at least one song together. Regardless of whether or not that happens, I’ll be at both shows again this year, and might even bring my two left feet to the dance workshop.
Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo Saturday, March 24, 7:30PM, Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. Info & tickets…
Sunday, March 25, 7:00PM, Old Town School of Folk Music. Info & tickets…
Afro-Venezuelan Dance Workshop with La Parranda El Clavo
Sunday, March 25, 1:00PM, Old Town School of Folk Music. Info & tickets…
There’s little chance that, on encountering him for the first time, you would mistakenly guess that Omar Sosa is anything other than Cuban. Dressed in white, he’s a practicing santero whose personal Orisha is Obatala, the deity of purity, wisdom and the light of consciousness. He often begins his performances with a lighted candle which he then extinguishes, wafting the dissipating smoke over his piano as something of a blessing to the instrument. In the santería faith, music and ceremony are one.
Yet Sosa is very much a global citizen. Though born in Camaguey, Cuba in 1965, he’s lived abroad since 1993, first in South America, then the San Francisco Bay area (where he established himself as a major force on the local Latin jazz scene) and now Barcelona, Spain. More than that, though, he tours and records around the world almost without pause, releasing albums at an astonishing rate of almost two a year, ranging from solo piano to big band sessions.
Transparent Water, his collaboration with Senegalese musician Seckou Keita that he’ll bring to the Old Town School of Folk Music on March 15, isn’t even his newest album. That would be Es:sensual, recorded with Germany’s NDR Bigband and arranged by the legendary Brazilian producer Jaques Morelenbaum. Both albums are the product of Sosa’s globetrotting ways and ceaseless artistic curiosity, as is yet another already recorded album that will be released this September. (More on that below.)
Fortunately for Chicago, Sosa has found time in his schedule to put together a tour for Transparent Water with kora player Keita and a frequent collaborator, Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalle. As you might imagine from the title, Transparent Water is a meditative invocation of the flowing of the human spirit, and the Old Town School’s flawless acoustics and reverent audiences are a perfect match. (It was at OTS where I first heard Omar Sosa live almost 15 years ago, and that indelible performance remains my favorite.)
I reached out to Omar Sosa with a few questions about the album and the creative spirit that brought it into existence.
DM: The last time you visited Chicago, it was on the heels of your album ilé with your Quarteto AfroCubano. And while that album was billed as a “homecoming” because it celebrated your Cuban roots, it was anything but inward looking or strictly bound to Cuba. Now, with Transparent Water, you are directly engaging with Africa in the form of kora player Seckou Keita and extending that to Japan by utilizing the koto and China with the sheng and bawu. What are you looking for in these sounds and collaborations?
OS: I first heard and played with Seckou Keita in London in March 2012, when I was invited by drummer Marque Gilmore to a special show he was producing called Exhibiton of Sound. I was completely captivated by Seckou’s kora playing – it’s propulsive but gentle rhythmic qualities, its sophisticated but accessible melodic and harmonic elements. I felt a really good chemistry with Seckou that night, so I was inspired to invite him to join me for a recording project. About a year later, we gathered at a studio in Osnabrück, Germany and shared song ideas and co-created and prepared the music we recorded that same week.
Just prior to meeting Seckou in Germany, I had been invited to participate in a multi-artist residency in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, curated by Spanish bagpipe player Christina Pato. One of the musicians there was Wu Tong from Beijing, who plays a traditional flute-like instrument from China called the sheng. Again, I was captivated, and the extraordinary bending sounds of the sheng stayed in my head and I started hearing them mix with the recordings that Seckou and I made.
As fortune would have it, I was invited to a festival in Shanghai in September of 2013 with my Quarteto AfroCubano, and was able to arrange to travel to Beijing after the show and visit with Wu Tong in his home studio and record tracks that we used in the mixing of the basic tracks with Seckou, and Wu Tong and I recorded a few new pieces as well.
At some point during this process, I saw a show in Paris of the Vietnamese guitarist, Nguyen Le, who has long been a hero of mine. In his ensemble was Mieko Miyazaki, the koto player from Japan, and yet again, I was captivated by her sound and expressiveness. As I was planning to mix the Transparent Water tracks in Paris with my producer friend, Steve Argüelles, I was able to invite Mieko to come to Steve’s studio and contribute a few parts to the project.
So, to a large extent, I do not have a fully formed conception or vision of a musical project mapped out in advance. I am open and susceptible to incorporating sounds into the creative process that I hear along the way. It’s a matter of being flexible and curious about how various sounds can combine.
DM: Similarly, you’ve gone back to Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles multiple times. What is it about his playing that works with your approach to music?
OS: Gustavo’s exceptional musical sensitivity playing the folkloric percussion instruments from his homeland and the closeness of those instruments to their roots in Africa has always attracted me greatly. He is a master with the maracas, and quitiplas, and culo’e puya. And he’s such a swinging ensemble player, always listening carefully, and never trying to overplay, which can happen with drummers. Gustavo will also be joining me on the touring portion of an upcoming project with Cuban violinist / vocalist, Yilian Cañizares, who lives in Switzerland. Yilian and I have recorded a CD called Aguas which will be released in September this year.
DM: You’ve put out close to 30 albums is a little over 20 years. Why are you so prolific? Is there a common theme that runs through all of your projects?
OS: There is so much amazing music on the planet, and everywhere I go (upward of 100 shows on five continents a year) I’m inspired by the new sounds and new instruments I encounter, often in traditional and folkloric contexts. So many of these sounds inspire me to want to create new music! So there really isn’t a common theme involved, except the expression of my own musical roots in the ritual melodic and rhythmic elements of African music that came to Cuba on the slave ships.
Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita, Transparent Water | Old Town School of Folk Music, Thursday, March 15. Tickets at oldtownschool.org.