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.
It can be argued that Cuba has produced more innovative pianist/composers per capita than any other country on earth. A distinctly syncopated Cuban style emerged out of the blending of European classical music seasoned with African rhythms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Perhaps the most famous composer of this era is the orchestra leader Ernesto Lecuona, who wrote the classic tune Siboney, among many others. By the 1940s jazz was flavoring the stew along with a more overt reference to rhythms of African origin, leading to the development of mambo. When the descarga scene, marked by lengthy improvisational jam sessions, emerged in the 1950s, pianists Peruchín and Bebo Valdés often were often leading the band. It’s a tradition that continues to this day in the person of young pianists like Alfredo Rodríguez and Harold López-Nussa.
In between those early days of mambo and the emergence of this new generation, however, there are two pianists who tower over the rest.
Bebo Valdés’ son Chucho emerged in the 1970s as a founding member of the groundbreaking Irakere, arguably one of the best and most influential bands to emerge from post-revolution Cuba. The group, which also included trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, might very well be called Afro-Futurist today in the way that they combined deeply spiritual Afro-Cuban rhythms to forward thinking jazz and electric rock band energy. Chucho Valdés kept Irakere going after Sandoval and D’Rivera left Cuba for the United States, but he also grew as a solo artist and leader of several jazz ensembles, moving over to acoustic piano as his main instrument.
Meanwhile, another pianist from a musical family, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, was growing up listening to Valdés and Irakere. In the 1980s, he formed Grupo Proyecto, one of several young fusion bands inspired by the pioneering Irakere. By the end of the decade, Rubalcaba also turned to acoustic piano and was soon part of a trio that included American jazz giants Charlie Haden and Paul Motian (later Jack DeJonette). He made his international debut in 1991 with the album Discovery: Live in Montreaux. That album was put out by the legendary jazz label Blue Note, who also released Chucho Valdés’ U.S. debut Solo Piano the same year.
Both pianists went on to stellar jazz careers that nonetheless have the heartbeat of Cuba at their center, regardless of whether they are playing solo, small ensemble or big band dates. Both have proved adept at the two-piano format. Chucho’s 1998 duet album with his father Bebo, Juntos para Siempre, is a gorgeous masterpiece that stands as a testament to what can happen when you get two Cuban pianists in a room together.
On February 23, that room will be the stage at Symphony Center when Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdés, two brilliant pianists and composers with a historic relationship within the Cuban piano tradition, present Trance, a collaboration that explores the profound spiritual connection at the very heart of Cuban music. Expect an open-ended, respectful conversation between two friends whose mutual admiration for each other leads to careful listening and thoughtful response, adding as needed until ultimately they almost speak as one.
And lest you think this will be some laid back recital, be assured that there will be plenty of sonic fireworks from these master musicians. After all, their hearts beat to the rhythm of Cuba.
Chucho Valdés & Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Trance Friday, February 23 at Symphony Center, Chicago Tickets at cso.org.
If you’ve ever been to a festival or event in Chicago’s Puerto Rican community where artists are selling merchandise, you have likely encountered photographer Elías Carmona and his work. The images that he captures are compelling, detailed and, above all, profoundly humanistic. The subjects are often people, but there are also non-animate objects that tell their stories as well.
Carmona has an exhibit opening at the Humboldt Park Boathouse Gallery this Friday, February 16 (it was originally scheduled for last week, but one of Chicago’s capricious winter storms literally blew away those plans) entitled Humboldt Park: People and Community. I reached out to Carmona with a few questions about him and his work.
DM: Are you self-taught or did you study photography? If the latter, where?
EC: Yes. I’m a self-taught photographer. I became interested in cameras and as a teenager while working during summer at my uncle’s fonda in Santurce. I went to Rahola (a popular camera store) when I was 16 and got my first camera. By that time I had a friend that was studying photography and he gave me my first lessons. Later on, I was attending the University of Puerto Rico where I worked as a photo lab technician at the university library and also the assistant photographer at a horse racetrack. Later I was able to work for a few photo studios as a lab technician and that gave me the opportunity to learn and expand my knowledge in the field.
DM: Your work had a documentary and photo journalism aspect, but it is also can be artful and carefully composed. What has influenced this direction?
EC: The work of the photographer Jack Delano, definitely his work gave me a lot of inspiration. [Ed. note: Delano was an American photographer working for the Farm Services Administration who went to Puerto Rico in 1941. He returned in 1946 on a Guggenheim Fellowship, then stayed permanently and spent the next 40 years as a photographer, documentary film maker and composer.] Another person was Axel Santana. He was the director of the University photo lab and also the son of one of the master photographers on the Island.
DM: When and at what age did you move to Chicago? Why did you move here?
EC: I moved to Chicago in August of 2007, when I was 34 years old. I had established a connection with the Humboldt Park community in 2004 while visiting during the summers to participate in presenting my work with other artists from the Island during the Puerto Rican festivities. Then I had the opportunity to work in the photo documentation of the community of Humboldt Park and at the community high school (Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School).
DM: Much of you work centers on the island of Puerto Rico and its cultural manifestations in Chicago, but you’ve also included images from Chiapas, Mexico. Is there a larger idea at the center of your work?
EC: The human condition, the beauty of nature, the displacement, how culture can unify, the humor, seeing the past in the present day…. That is what I try to capture and show with my work.
DM: Your Instagram and Facebook feeds have some great images as well, and I know you were recently in Jamaica. Most of these are shot on an iPhone. Is that sort of a sub-genre of photography? Are you after anything different with these than your more formal works?
EC: Thanks. I have been using the iPhone for a little more than a year and I opened my Instagram account at about the same time. I’m a late bloomer to this idea of immediately of posting images using social media platforms. And yes, I’m fascinated by the possibilities this gives to the photographer to showcase their work. I’m now in the process of digitizing the negatives of the images I took while still living in Puerto Rico that were shot on film from the early 90s to mid-2006.
I went to Jamaica on a family vacation. While there, I had the chance to walk around and take photos using my phone and doing some “study.” Using a phone instead of a camera provides a certain discretion and doesn’t call attention at all. But, yes, I’m always curious to catch an interesting image that shows what I see in the moment.
All images courtesy of Elías Carmona
Humboldt Park: People and Community, Photos by Elías Carmona. Humboldt Park Boathouse Gallery, 1301 N. Sacramento Avenue, Chicago. Opening reception February 16 at 6PM (Facebook event link). The exhibit will be up for two weeks.
Up until a few years ago, Brett Benteler was one of the elite Latin jazz bass players in Chicago. In 2015, though, he moved to New York City to further his musical ambitions. Before he did so, he told bandleaders and club owners not to worry: He knew a guy.
It was right around then that I started seeing this kid playing funky yet intricate electric bass guitar with bands like Roy McGrath’s Latin Sextet, Eric Hines & Pan Dulce and others. As it turns out, a newly arrived to Chicago Freddy Quintero was that guy.
Since then, I’ve seen Quintero play with several more bands, including the Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, James Sanders & Conjunto, the Humboldt Park Orchestra, the Luciano Antonio Quartet and even supporting the New York/Colombian singer songwriter Gregorio Uribe on a solo trip to Chicago sans his Big Band. This Thursday, the young Venezuelan bassist takes another step forward by joining Cuban pianist Chuchito Valdés for a four-night stand at Chicago’s legendary Jazz Showcase.
When I said “kid” above I was not exaggerating. Quintero moved to Chicago in 2015 at the age of 19 and I was seeing him play shortly after that. I finally got a chance to talk with him a bit last summer, and I followed that conversation up this week with a few more questions. How did this kid become fully integrated into Chicago’s Latin and salsa scene in just a couple of years?
“I first came to Chicago because, while attending a music seminar in 2012, I met a group of musicians that were part of a program called ‘The Abreu Fellowship’ from the New England Conservatory, and one of these musicians helped me to find a full-tuition scholarship at North Park University,” says Quintero. “However, I could not come to Chicago during that time due to many reasons, and not being able to speak English was the most crucial. Three years later my father sent me to Chicago to study English at an ESL program with the intentions of getting back the offer from NPU, but the scholarship was not available anymore.”
Quintero continues, “I didn’t know anyone when I moved to the city besides that one person that I kept in touch with from North Park University. When I arrived to Chicago, they sent me an invitation to participate in a meeting where I met Brett Benteler, and I would say that everything started right after that. I got my first gig subbing out for Brett with a Latin jazz band called Contrabanda. I remember being super nervous because I thought that we were going to have a rehearsal or at least they would send me the sheet music, but it never really happened. Nonetheless, I think I did a good job. After the gig, I made some connections with the musicians who later invited me to sit in with a salsa band at Sabor a Café. A couple the months later, Benteler moved to New York City and he decided to leave all his gigs with me. I believe this is how more people started to call me to play with them. First, they would say that Brett recommended me. Then, they would just ask if I was available to play with them, and I guess this is when I realized that I must have been doing something good and that I was already part of the music scene in Chicago.”
I’m curious as to how someone so young made such an impression on Benteler and other musicians, so I ask Freddy about growing up in Venezuela. “My formal music education started when I was twelve years old in my hometown Punto Fijo, Venezuela. I was very fortunate to be part of El Sistema (Venezuela’s internationally renowned national music program) where I had the opportunity to perform with different orchestras and conductors for several years until I decided to move to the United States. My education within El Sistema was strictly classical. The instrument that I chose to play was the upright bass, and I remember being the only child playing that huge instrument at my nucleo, which is what the El Sistema programs are called around the country.”
When I point out that he is obviously not making his reputation as a classical musician in Chicago, Quintero tells me “El Sistema helped me a lot with my music reading and basic concepts of theory, so it was a very smooth transition by the time I decided to play the bass guitar. Although my formal education was classical, on my own time I would play rock with a band I had, and years later a group of friends and I gathered to create what it was the first big band in the history of my city, the Falcon Latin Jazz Big Band. I would say that jazz was one of the last genres that I ended up discovering and I feel it was sort of magical. The first recording I remember listening to was Spain by Chick Corea from his album Light as a Feather. After that I just wanted to keep digging to find new jazz artists.”
Quintero cites several artists as influences, from classical composers to rock, salsa and jazz bands, including over a dozen bassists from across the musical spectrum. When I ask him how he views himself, he states “I consider myself as a musician that is capable of playing different styles of music and enjoying all of them at the same time. I grew up in a house listening to Venezuelan music every morning, Pop, Rock, Funk and R&B in the afternoon, and Latin music at night. So, this is how I see myself, as a musician with no limits. “
Quintero is grateful for the strong foundation that El Sistema provided him, and credits it for his success so far. “I was very fortunate to be part of El Sistema because I believe that most of the musicians that come from that music program have a strong foundation in discipline, respect, perseverance, humility, and musicality that sometimes is really hard to find in others. In my personal opinion, this is really the only way I was able to be introduced to people like Victor Garcia and his band the Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, where I have learned and I keep learning every time I have the opportunity to perform with them.”
In addition to all of this performing, Freddy is finally back at school as well, majoring in Music Education at Northeastern Illinois University.
Quintero appreciates the unique quality of the music scene in Chicago, saying “You never know when you are about to play with a famous or really good musician because there are no boundaries, meaning that the only mission is to play the gig, not to discuss who has more gigs, or a bigger house, you know? This is why I strongly believe that preparation is everything.”
That brings us to playing with Chuchito Valdés. “Working with an artist such as Chuchito has been a blessing. Just recently I had the honor to play with him at Yoshi’s, a legendary jazz club located in Oakland, California. When he called me to do that gig, I couldn’t believe it. For the same reason, I am extremely grateful that someone like Chuchito trusts in the work that I do. Hopefully we will keep touring the US, and this is going to be just the beginning of something bigger.”
So, I ask him, what can we expect from this weekend’s Chuchito Valdés shows?
“I would say that the music will lean towards both jazz and Latin directions and probably some funk, too. The drummer for the gig will be Luis Prieto Rosario. He is an amazing drummer and a great timbalero.”
Chuchito Valdés Trio with Freddy Quintero and Luis Prieto Rosario
Jazz Showcase, January 25-28. Two shows nightly plus Sunday matinee jazzshowcsase.com