by Don Macica
Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center is presenting Cumbanchero! A Big Band Tribute to Rafael Hernández this Saturday, March 21st at 7pm. It will feature his son, Alejandro ‘Chalí’ Hernández, on vocals and is led by one of Chicago’s most respected bandleaders, Edwin Sánchez.
To a non-Puerto Rican, or perhaps even to a mainland born Puerto Rican under a certain age, it might be hard to comprehend how major a musical figure Rafael Hernández was. Even if you are familiar with the rise of mambo, salsa and everything that came after, you might not know Hernández’s music, as the bulk of it pre-dates that era, consisting of mambo, guaracha, danzon, boleros and other classic forms.
That was the case with me. While I was familiar with the Cuban masters of that age like Ernesto Lecuona and Perez Prado, Hernandez had escaped my notice until saxophonist Miguel Zenón released his Alma Adentro, The Puerto Rican Songbook album in 2011, which focused exclusively on this golden age of Puerto Rican composers. That’s where I first heard Silencio. Even with the jazz liberties taken by Zenón’s modernist arrangement, it pulsed with the heart of one of the most exquisite boleros I had ever heard.
That was all I needed to start a little research into Rafael Hernández, who wrote that gorgeous song. He is perhaps the towering figure of Puerto Rican popular music. Dozens of his songs, including Silencio, Preciosa, Perfume de Gardenias, Lamento Borincano and, of course, Cumbanchero, are considered classics, but they are just a few of the over 3,000 that he wrote. Hernández was born at the end of the 19th century in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico (the airport there is now named after him) and, as it turns out, was not only part of Puerto Rican music history, but also present at the birth of jazz as a member of James Reese Europe’s 369th Infantry Military Band.
When I contacted Miguel Zenón to get his assessment of Hernández, he had this to say:
“Rafael Hernández is perhaps the most internationally relevant Puerto Rican in history. His accomplishments are almost too many to mention: he was part of James Reese Europe’s ‘Hell Fighters’, lived in Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba, where he’s considered a national treasure. He was an incredibly prolific and versatile composer, who wrote some of the most legendary songs in the history of Latin American music. A musical giant, in every sense of the word.”
Alejandro ‘Chalí’ Hernandez, of course, has a more personal take. Now 67 years old, he remembers his father, who passed away when Alejandro was 17, as a gentleman who treated his mother with great respect. “He was a beautiful personality,” he remembers. “He showed me that whenever I heard a bird sing, I could see the presence of God and the beauty of creation.” This is not to say that he isn’t appreciative of his father’s musical and cultural accomplishments. Quite the contrary, Alejandro tours the Americas performing tributes and still enjoys a career on the Island singing this classic music with Trio Bohemia Caribe. He is also the director of the repository of Rafael Hernández’s archives and museum at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico at its Metropolitan Campus in San Juan.
Pianist, composer and arranger Edwin Sánchez, on the other hand, was born in Chicago. He received his early musical education in the 1970s through the programs of the Puerto Rican Congress, a social and cultural organization in Humboldt Park that trained dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of “at risk” Puerto Rican youth how to play music via a program led by Carlos ‘Caribe’ Ruiz. Groups that emerged from the program like La Juventud Tipica, La Solucion and La Justicia received some measure of local fame and even got to record with the likes of Mongo Santamaria and Machito. A very young Edwin Sánchez was among them. A collection of 15 tracks from this era exists on the terrific and lavishly packaged CD Salsa Boricua en Chicago from the Numero Group. Seek it out, it’s worth it.
Sánchez has since gone on to an extensive musical career, leading several ensembles and salsa orchestras in Chicago and as a pianist and arranger on many others, including international artists like Jimmy Bosch, Ralphy Irizarry, Ray Colon, Oscar Hernandez and many more. He’s comfortable in many genres, including jazz and funky R&B in addition to salsa, and has been the bandleader for Agúzate’s Tribute to the Improvisational Singer for the last several years. This versatility can be traced to his Humboldt Park youth. “Musically you got a certain ‘street’ edge in your playing living in the city at that time,” he said when I asked him about it. “There was some amazing music back then being played all over the radio stations and clubs! So, what was being played on the radio influenced me at that time and it came out of my heart and fingers when I played. Those were awesome times for music lovers!”
Edwin Sánchez’s appraisal of Rafael Hernández is similar to Miguel Zenón’s, but perhaps carries even more emotional weight for the Chicago-born Puerto Rican. “Rafael Hernández compositions, to me, exemplify the spirit of a pure Puerto Rican culture and people proud of their heritage and roots—not only with Puerto Ricans on the island, but Puerto Ricans all over the world as well.” he says. “It helps us share our common love and nostalgia for our families, the Island and our culture.”
Sánchez concludes, “It’s so important for our young PR community to know where their passion and pride comes from. It is the true pioneers such as Rafael Hernández that culminated an art form like no other.” This statement strikes me as something born out of Sánchez’s own youth and the values and history he was exposed to through the efforts of the Puerto Rican Congress, much like SRBCC does for the youth of today.
Finally, I asked Sánchez how he could begin to select a program for the tribute concert from Rafael Hernández’s vast catalog of songs. “Well, you choose a few key and prominent compositions that were some of the peoples’ most favorite and popular songs,” to which he quickly added, “Lucky thing is that all of his compositions were so good that whatever you play will be pleasing to the ear.”
For tickets and information, visit: http://www.srbcc.org/events.html
About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.