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…
[Editor’s note: Although we mostly cover music at Agúzate, it must be noted that the word ‘Culture’ is in our title as well. Readers may recognize the subject of this piece as a member of Bomba con Buya, the world class traditional Puerto Rican ensemble that calls Chicago home. However, his commitment to culture runs deeper than just music. Read on, and enjoy!]
By Parker Asmann all photos courtesy of Urban Pilón
If there’s one utensil that’s been historically essential in Latin American cuisine, it’s the pilón. In the late 15th century, the Taíno indians who occupied the West Indies were documented to have used many variations of the pilón for cooking, sometimes made out of large hollowed out tree trunks. Today, variations of that same utensil line the walls of Roberto Pérez’s kitchen to fuel his own culinary movement, Urban Pilón.
Formed in 2012 with longtime friend and fellow cultural worker Angel Fuentes, Urban Pilón is a culinary movement that has set out to share the rich traditions and roots of Puerto Rican, Caribbean and Latin American food. Through a traditional approach to cooking that uses fresh vegetables, herbs and spices from the garden, and a hard line against any additives or preservatives, Urban Pilón creates healthy and innovative dishes unlike what’s on other menus in Chicago.
When most people think of the culinary capitals of the world, colonizing nations like Spain, France and Portugal come to mind. However, Pérez explained that Urban Pilón’s cooking philosophy revolves around looking within to his own family, their Taíno past and African roots.
“Even in Puerto Rican cooking, sometimes those roots are shunned when they aren’t a part of the norm,” Pérez said. “In a lot of our cooking we really try and dig deep into some older recipes that people may not want to do or are embarrassed to do, recipes that have heavy stigmas. We love doing those recipes and doing things that not everybody embraces.”
As has been the unfortunate case for far too many indigenous populations throughout the Americas, many of their people, traditions and languages have been wiped away as a result of colonization, leading to their displacement and eventual extinction. Urban Pilón draws their motivation from their desire to keep their roots and traditions alive.
“A lot of what we’ve learned has come from talking to elders and traveling,” Pérez said. “We’re very available and interested in doing those things. For example, one experience that comes to mind was going to Veracruz and sitting down with folks who really knew how to cook and just learning from them, drawing comparisons and using new techniques in our own cooking.”
Since 2012, Urban Pilón has grown in more ways than Pérez and Fuentes could have imagined when they were originally tossing the idea around. In the years since, Urban Pilón has hosted several dinner parties with the aim of bringing different people from different communities together to enjoy the experience of cooking and sharing a meal.
Pérez credits Urban Pilón’s ability to evolve and grow so much over the years to their willingness to be open and to learn from those around them. Aside from starting Chicago’s first Caribbean food blog, Urban Pilón has performed several cooking demonstrations and hosted a handful of cooking classes. Pérez stressed that Urban Pilón likes to think of the culinary world as an open book, and that’s very much reflected in the openness the two showcase with their cooking knowledge.
“We’ve had the opportunity to sit down with folks who really know how to cook,” Pérez said, “and they’ve been unbelievably kind and open with us. So really it’s just our way of treating those we cook and interact with the same way that we’ve been treated, with the same hospitality we’ve been provided.”
More than anything, though, Urban Pilón is all about bringing people together. When Pérez isn’t gathering people around a stage in the name of music with his bomba ensemble, Bomba con Buya, he shifts settings into the kitchen. Food and cooking have always had a unique ability to draw similarities between cultures, people and traditions without uttering a single word. In staying true to their commitment to preserving their Puerto Rican traditions, Urban Pilón have traveled extensively and spoken with many elders to try and connect with the roots their trying to reestablish through their cooking.
“One day we hope to be able to put together a recipe book,” Pérez said. “Angel and I have both been lucky enough to spend time and learn about our cooking traditions from elders, so it would be great to be able to put all of those things together in a book so we can continue to preserve those roots.”
One of the ways Pérez works to broaden his horizons and expand his culinary expertise in Chicago is by volunteering at a soul food restaurant whenever he has the opportunity. Aside from the natural enjoyment he gets from cooking, Pérez explained that he uses the opportunity to continue to learn and develop his knowledge in the kitchen, taking the new things he learns and incorporating them into Urban Pilón’s own cooking.
What makes Urban Pilón even more influential to Chicago’s culinary movement is their commitment to creating healthy dishes. Pérez explained that he feels that it wasn’t until society moved towards what he calls a ‘quick fix’ way of living that the quality of food started to decline. Instead of people harvesting vegetables and other ingredients planted and grown from gardens or small plots of land, companies have capitalized on that need for quick and easy consumption by using artificial ingredients and preservatives.
As an example, Pérez pointed to Goya and their premade sofrito base. Sofrito is a staple sauce used in Latin American cooking as a base for rice, beans, soups, chilis and stews. While at one time it was customary to make your own sofrito base from scratch using fresh ingredients, now more often than not people purchase this base from grocery stores. Urban Pilón goes beyond just sofrito, though. In every one of their cooking classes, all of the ingredients are 100 percent natural and they share their knowledge of cooking things from scratch, the traditional way.
For those interested in getting involved, Urban Pilón has their third meal sharing event lined up for Monday, Dec. 5. This time around it’s going to be Mofongo Monday, which embodies every aspect of traditional Puerto Rican cuisine through the Puerto Rican dish’s African origins and fried plantain base that’s mashed together with salt, garlic and oil in none other than a pilón.
“Moving forward we at Urban Pilón just want to continue to bring people together and share these recipes through our cooking classes and other events,” Pérez said. “For us this is so much more than cooking, it’s a passion and an artistic expression all while showcasing the traditions of our culture.”
________ Learn more about Urban Pilón, including some great recipes, at urbanpilon.com.