By Omar Torres-Kortright, Photos by Charlie Billups
Last Saturday, February 8, iLe, the Latin Grammy-winning artistic persona of composer and singer Ileana Cabra, solidified her position as one of the most captivating and original music projects to come out of Puerto Rico in the last decade. Her Almadura Tour, which will visit 15 North American cities over the next month, had a dream start at Old Town School of Folk Music’s Mauer Hall in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood.
As always, the night offered an x-ray into the heart and soul of this highly committed artist. Wearing her heart on her sleeve, iLe invites the audience into a world inspired by the complex cultural and musical influences of her Caribbean identity. Every thought, every move, and every word had a purpose in this carefully-crafted, and highly personal artistic statement on the political and social struggles of her native Puerto Rico. Motivated and provoked by Hurricane María, her newest production provides context to the colonial status of Puerto Rico by delving deep into the island’s history with songs like Odio, inspired by the 1979 killings of two independentistas at Cerro Maravilla and Ñe, ñe, ñe; a clear dig at the island’s politicians using plena as its rhythmic driving force.
While many of iLe’s hits are made for the dancing public, I didn’t expect to see the audience standing from the first song to the last, creating a special bond with her Chicago fans that I had not witnessed in her previous visits. The intimate size and pristine acoustics of Mauer Hall allowed iLe to connect on a personal level with every one of the lucky 400+ music enthusiasts that filled the sold-out venue.
Ile’s performance included material from her Best New Artist Latin Grammy-winning Ilevitable (2016), as well as the multilayered and polyrhythmic 2020 Grammy Nominated Almadura (2019). Throughout the night she showcased the depth and range of her voice, capable of going from classic bolero in songs like Triángulo and Temes, to salsa (Te quiero con Bugalú and Déjame Decirte) and even Dominican palo in the closing song of the evening, the powerfully rhythmic La Curandera (The Healer). The healer, she explained before beginning the song, offers a deliberate pause to shake off bad energy and press the reset button… kind of like what many Puerto Ricans had to do after Hurricane María and, more recently, the January 2020 earthquakes.
ile’s performance showcased the talents of her swinging 9-piece band that combines an impressive mix of established and emerging talent from the Island of Enchantment, including musical director Ismael Cancel (drums and percussion), Bayoán Ríos (guitar), Adalberto Rosario (guitar), Jeren Guzmán (congas, percussion), Jonathan González (bass, percussion), Zacheaus Paul (keys, percussion), Jorge Echevarría (trombone), and Hommy Ramos (trombone). The impeccable sound was made possible thanks to the able hands and ears of Bobby Connelly-Nadal, who also came directly from Puerto Rico to nurture the distinctive sonic elements that make up iLe’s artistic DNA.
It has been truly amazing to watch Ileana Cabra’s growth as an artist over the course of just a few years and two albums. The timelessness of her sound disregards fashion in order to convey something deeper and more lasting. It’s easy to imagine a very long and rewarding artistic career to come.
Nathan Rodriguez is a Chicago-born Puerto Rican musician and dedicated salsero who was virtually raised on the music, being mentored and given opportunities to perform by veteran salsa musicians at the Latin jam sessions that dotted the city, often sneaking into clubs while underage for the chance to play. Now 36 years old, Rodriguez is a bandleader in his own right with both Conjunto Borikén and Azucar, a Celia Cruz tribute project.
Unfortunately, the last weekly Latin jazz jam session to
flourish in the city ended in 2012 when its founder, bassist Richie Pillot,
passed away and Café Bolero, the club where it was held, closed its doors.
That was a year before Roy McGrath, a Puerto Rico-born jazz saxophonist, moved to Chicago to study at Northwestern University. McGrath is first and foremost a jazz musician, but his Caribbean heritage is an indelible part of him and his music. Like Rodriguez, McGrath is a bandleader, composer and arranger, and his understanding of both the salsa and jazz idioms has made him an in-demand player in both camps.
A shopping mall in suburban Chicago is quite possibly the last place you might expect to find the heir to Café Bolero and the Latin jazz jam, but that is precisely where Nathan and Roy have teamed up to bring back what they both consider a vital resource and platform for Chicago’s jazz and Latin musicians. Of course, it helps that Lincolnwood Town Center houses an outpost of one of Chicago’s finer Cuban restaurants, 90 Miles Cuban Café.
“90 Miles’ owner Alberto Gonzales, who sees his restaurant as a means of celebrating and promoting Cuban food and culture, wanted to expand programming, and I was looking for a way to build more connection between Chicago’s salsa and Latin jazz musicians,” says Rodriguez, who was, at the time, booking and promoting the restaurant’s Friday and Saturday night live music. “Musicians don’t get that many opportunities to hang out together and play because most weekends we are all busy in other people’s bands,” Rodriguez continues. “I convinced him that a jam session would draw musicians from all over Chicago and that the music could be a draw with the general public as well.”
Judging by the sizable crowd that was there when I visited on a recent Tuesday, that prediction was proving accurate. But before he could get to that point, though, Rodriguez had to put together a core band that was good enough to attract others to join the action. For that, he called Roy McGrath for help. His connections in both the jazz and salsa communities blended perfectly with the solid reputation that Rodriguez had built in the last 20 years.
“As a Puerto Rican jazz musician, I’ve always straddled two worlds,” says McGrath. “Unfortunately, I don’t see that much crossover between the salsa and jazz communities. Salseros might have heard of Charlie Parker, and jazz musicians might know something about Chano Pozo playing with Dizzy Gillespie, but there are these two parallel worlds comprised of terrific musicians who often don’t know each other.”
When McGrath first arrived in Chicago, he knew he found the place he wanted to live and work and create art. “I immersed myself in the jazz scene and loved that there were regular jam sessions where I could learn a lot from working musicians and become a better player,” McGrath says. “Those places are so important for sharing knowledge and developing community, which in turn leads to more opportunities to play. But the salsa player in me didn’t have those same opportunities.”
Rodriguez agrees. “When I was a young player, getting the
chance to hang with professionals was incredibly valuable. Some of them became
mentors and inspired me to really take music seriously and work at becoming
The band that Rodriguez and McGrath assembled is a virtual all-star ensemble. Besides Rodriguez and McGrath, you’ll usually find Brian Rivera and Tito Sierra on percussion, bassist Freddy Quintero, and veteran keyboardist Edwin Sanchez, who brings a decades-long career as a bandleader and arranger to the proceedings. “Edwin is so amazing,” says McGrath. “He knows every song on the planet, his montunos are crazy good and he can really solo.”
For the sessions, Rodriguez and McGrath divide up
responsibilities along the lines of their own instruments, Nathan cuing the
percussionists and Roy calling the tunes and working with the horn players.
On the Tuesday I was there, plenty of musicians, both professional
and amateur, came to join in. Some of the pros included conguero Pete
Vale, a salsero who also plays with Dos Santos, drummer Jonathan Wenzel,
who is a member of, among others, Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic and
McGrath’s Remembranzas Quartet, jazz trumpeters Thomas Madeja and Leon Q. Allen,
bassist Chris Nolte and timbalero Eddie Dones. The joyful noise that they
created fairly levitated the room.
“I want the music to be at a high level, but not elitist,”
says McGrath. “It’s not always easy to mesh the jazz and salsa cats because the
two styles speak different languages that are second nature to one but unknown
by the other. So, I want the atmosphere to be inviting and fun, not intimidating
to either side. That way everybody benefits, even when mistakes are made. We’re
even drawing a lot of jazz vocalists who are willing to take a standard like ‘Misty’
and sing it as a bolero. It’s pretty cool. The learning curve can be steep for
both sides, but when folks relax and have fun good things happen and they come
back another week.”
Rodriguez voices a similar sentiment. “There are a lot of salsa players, but not a lot of venues that book salsa bands, so this gives them an opportunity to play more often, especially the young guys that are just breaking in but not yet getting called for gigs. At the same time, everyone gets to hang together, have some fun, and learn from each other.”
McGrath sees an additional benefit to the sessions,
something that says a lot about how he views music as a means of social engagement.
“I’m excited about this as a musician, of course, but my reasons for bringing these two worlds together run deeper. There’s a big racial divide in Chicago, and encountering it surprised and bothered me after coming from Puerto Rico and also spending a few years studying music in New Orleans. I want this to be a safe place where musicians of all types can come together to share and learn about each other and maybe overcome some of those barriers that segregate people. People can get past their fears and prejudices when the conditions are right, so that’s what I’m hoping will happen here.”
The Latin Jazz Jam is every Tuesday from 7:30 – 9:30 PM at 90 Miles Cuban Café, 3333 W. Touhy, Lincolnwood, IL (Lincolnwood Town Center)
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.”
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
For the last couple of decades, musicians from Chicago have placed the city squarely on the national musical map with their community based, multi-discipline artistic approach. It is perhaps most evident in hip-hop, where Chance the Rapper and Jamila Woods continue a legacy established by Common, Rhymefest and Kanye West.
Meanwhile, a parallel Latin scene has slowly developed, and the fruits of many years efforts are starting to pay off. Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta broke first in 2013 with their aggressive cumbia/chicha sound and thoughtful sociopolitical manifesto, making a strong case for the groove as an agent of social change. Their sound has since evolved to more of a pan-Latin rock reflective of its member’s Mexican, Panamanian, Puerto Rican and Texan backgrounds.
Now, ¡ESSO! Afrojam Funkbeat, who have been on the scene for almost as long, are making their move. They scored a SXSW gig earlier this year, then followed it up by opening for the legendary Café Tacvba at Taste of Chicago this summer. Now they have released their second album, Juntos, and are in the midst of an eighteen-date national tour.
ESSO might just be the band the country needs in these dark days of the Trump presidency. Like Dos Santos, the diversity of the band’s members contributes to its sound and message, with Mexican, Puerto Rican, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Colombian and African American backgrounds. The group also has two female members, adding another important perspective to the mix. A diverse cast of guest musicians, MCs and DJs further fills out the sound of Juntos.
Between them, they’ve been raised on everything: Afro-Caribbean folkloric music to be sure, but also R&B, house, funk, hip-hop, jazz and a healthy dose of DJ dance floor beats. All of this comes to bear in their music. Songs are supported by lively and intricate polyrhythmic percussion and there are flashes of electric guitar, but most tracks exude a gently insistent groove reminiscent of the down-tempo global excursions of groups like Thievery Corporation. The rhymes come out of the conscious rap movement of poetic persuasion, not nihilistic despair. The horn arrangements are jazzy.
That’s not to say that this is some kind of easy listening music. The music is built for the dance floor, not the VIP lounge. Electronic beats and squiggles help that along, but the overall sound is organic, and underneath the smooth exterior are real roots and genuine commitment. Lyrically, songs address the contradictions of urban life faced by immigrant communities, but also love and the virtues of coming together to face them. There’s real fire to this music, albeit with an incandescence that smolders rather than blazes. It pulls you to the dance floor, not pushes.
ESSO reaches back beyond the Caribbean to Africa and skillfully blends those motherland elements into its rhythmic sancocho. Fela’s Afrobeat can be felt in some songs, but so does the jùjú music of that other giant of Nigerian music, King Sunny Ade, as well as the loping guitars of Ghanaian highlife.
Playing spot the influence is a lot of fun with this album, but each of them are smoothly integrated into a band sound that is uniquely theirs. I have a few favorite tracks, and you’ll no doubt have yours, but this collection of 13 songs is best consumed whole from beginning to end, like a good meal among friends.
There was a moment midway through the evening when things got a little emotional. Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center Executive Director Omar Torres-Kortright (full disclosure: Torres-Kortright is also Agúzate’s founder) was talking about how, shortly after he first arrived in Chicago upon graduating from the University of Puerto Rico, the homesick young man began to seek out expressions of Puerto Rican culture in the city. He learned about SRBCC and showed up one day, where he was welcomed with open arms and, as he noted, “never asked for a penny.”
He took some percussion classes, but soon learned that “being a musician wasn’t exactly my calling”. Nonetheless, he stuck around and gradually deepened his involvement, eventually joining the organization’s board. Then, in early 2015, SRBCC found itself without a director. Torres-Kortright, by now a successful private sector executive, knew that his heart was with the organization and took a leap of faith to apply for the job.
Torres-Kortright voice wavered with emotion several times while relating this tale and that of his subsequent appointment. It only became more teary as he described the organization’s mission and the youth it serves. He mentioned the achievements of his tenure, but not in the sense of look what I did. Instead, it was more I can’t believe the incredible privilege that I’ve been granted.
The 45th Anniversary Gala for Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center at the Old Town School of Folk Music was a time to pause and celebrate, and they did it in the best way possible: with music. As percussionist John Santos noted in a recent talk at SRBCC, “My music is who I am.” Such is the power of music in Afro-Latin life.
The program was sequenced in a way that traveled back & forth through time. First up was the SRBCC’s youth bomba ensemble, Arawak’Opia, whom the center will send to Puerto Rico in January to directly experience boricua culture and study with masters. They were quickly followed by Buya, Chicago’s (and perhaps the United States’) finest professional bomba ensemble, many of whom first learned how to play decades ago at SRBCC.
Torres-Kortright’s remarks followed, and then he introduced saxophonist Roy McGrath, a fiercely talented jazz musician born in Puerto Rico but now living in Chicago. McGrath designed and leads the Center’s Afro-Caribbean Youth Jazz Program, and his trio performed a version of Rafael Hernández’ Perfume de Gardenias that matched McGrath’s inventive improvisation to folkloric drumming in stunning fashion.
Finally, it was time for the headliner, whom Torres-Kortright personally recruited on a trip home earlier this year. Pirulo y la Tribu are without a doubt the most exciting salsa band on the island. They smoothly incorporate Cuban son and other Afro-Caribbean sounds, but they are unapologetically committed to salsa as their foundation and means of expression. The group is led by timbalero Francisco “Pirulo” Rosado, a charismatic, dreadlocked, baseball cap outfitted singer who one could easily mistake for a rapper or reggaeton artist. His youthful 8-piece band, wearing matching CangrejerosdeSanturce Roberto Clemente t-shirts, is salsa to the core, including a smokin’ horn section. Pirulo y la Tribu come hard, infusing the music with energy, attitude and, above all, crack musicianship. They filled the dance floor from the very first note, the joyous crowd singing every chorus and punctuating every call and response. I’d call them the future of salsa, but they are already here, tu sabes?
It was, in short, an incredible night. The concert over, it seemed no one wanted to go home. People filled the lobby, but even as they exited, they lingered on the sidewalk, not quite ready to let go of the magic.
Of course, there is no need to let go. Better to think of SRBCC’s past 45 years as the foundation for another 45 as a beacon of culture and community. There’s plenty of magic to come.
For 23 years the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, named in honor of Poet and activist Juan Antonio Corretjer, has mobilized hundreds of volunteers to organize and execute Fiesta Boricua, the only festival in Chicago that closes traffic for two full days in the area known as Paseo Boricua, located on Division Street between the famous Puerto Rican flags on Western and California in Humboldt Park. Every year the festivities take place during Labor Day Weekend.
During those 23 years the festival has undergone significant changes, adapting to the ups and downs in the economy and shrinking budgets from sponsors. For many community festivals, a $100,000 budget cut would mean the end of a well-intentioned volunteer-run initiative. The garbage pickup is also run by volunteers like Lourdes Lugo, who I’ve been trying to say hi to for the last hour but she’s too focused on getting as much done before night falls. She speeds by me and goes to the next pickup. Volunteers and paid staff are everywhere but the task at hand is immense.
Fiesta Boricua has managed to stay afloat and reinvent itself with the concept: “Lo Mejor de Nuestros Pueblos”, where PRCC collaborates with municipalities and cultural projects from the island, finding creative ways to raise funds and support the cultural groups that travel to Chicago for the festival.
As a Puerto Rican that was born and raised in the island and has lived in Chicago for 16 years, this is the Boricua festival that I enjoy the most. There’s something that feels right about closing Paseo Boricua to celebrate our art, our music, our businesses and our culture. I remember seeing Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colón, Andy Montañez, Cultura Profética and so many of Puerto Rico’s most recognizable acts right here not too long ago. While budget cuts mean that those artists are usually not accessible for Fiesta Boricua anymore, as I walked down Division Street this weekend from flag to flag, I understood why I continue to be so drawn to this festival even when I have been critical of it in the past. This year the quality of the Chicago and Puerto Rico-based “artesanos” (artists/arts & crafts), as well as the amazing food, and the combination of lesser known and internationally acclaimed musicians (Hermán Olivera and Pichi Pérez are salsa royalty for any good listener) made the experience worthwhile for festival goers of all ages.
An example of community art in action, the yearly bombazo organized by AfriCaribe at La Casita de Don Pedro continues to be the place to experience Afro-Puerto Rican roots music with the flourishing local bomba scene, further enriched by out-of-town bomberos coming from Puerto Rico, Florida, and New York among other places. The young, as is the case of the members of Arawak’Opia (SRBCC’s Youth Bomba Ensemble) are given their chance to hold their own with the masters. Also worth mentioning that Arawak’Opia had their first appearance on the Fiesta Boricua main stage as well, making this community event a place where dreams are realized. I could see the excitement in the faces of aspiring musicians from Humboldt Park and Hermosa that were given a real chance, and their accomplishments were enjoyed and celebrated this weekend. Most of these young men and women have to grow up very fast. With all the violence in Chicago these days, what they experienced at Fiesta Boricua means a lot.
Food Highlight: Fresh-made mofongo by el Caldero de Khalil
This review needs to reflect the religious experience of tasting a fresh-made trifongo, prepared by el Caldero de Khalil, a group of Puerto Rican chefs with a thriving culinary concept that traveled to Chicago from the island just for the Fiesta Boricua weekend.
I go to Puerto Rico at least three times per year and I can say without hesitation that El Caldero de Khalil is by far the best trifongo-maker this guy has ever known. For those who don’t know, a trifongo is a take on the mofongo (mashed plantain) that incorporates sweet plantain, green plantain and yuca. This tightly-run operation did not stop for two straight days, serving generous plates of island goodness that included mofongo topped with veal stew, slow-cooked pigeon peas, chicken or shrimp. Rumor has it that some VIPs showed up around 6:30 pm on Sunday and all that was left was a bit of “caldo” (broth).
After mofongo heaven, I washed down the hearty plate of food with some tamarind Pito Rico, the newer brand of only two producers of legal Pitorro (flavored Puerto Rican moonshine). This one came directly from the family’s production plant in Jayuya, Puerto Rico. The list of available flavors included coconut, passion fruit, orange, tamarind and sangría. Free samples were given all day long to festival participants on both Saturday and Sunday.
In the “artesano” columns, I’m giving four stars to Artesanía de Madera by Kerly, bringing locally produced wood products, including beautiful pilones (pestles) and tostoneras (toston-makers) made with three different kinds of wood.
Every year I’m blown away by Elias Carmona’s photography, which this time featured a breathtaking picture of the Pedro Albizu Campos’ statue located at La Casita de Don Pedro. The carefully shot picture in a dark snowy night in Paseo Boricua has a truly hypnotizing effect. Other pictures include his collection of “pleneros” and the amazing urban images from his trips to Puerto Rico and South and Central America.
We round up the artesano highlights with Urban Pilón’s hand-crafted pique (vinegar-based hot sauce) and Brenda Torres’ oneiric Freedom Effect t-shirt designs. Urban Pilón is Roberto Pérez’s completely original culinary concept, highlighting the use of fresh and locally sourced ingredients to produce bold and healthy island flavors. Brenda Torres is a Chicago artist producing high-quality wearable art that destines 10% of all profits to deserving Humboldt Park students seeking careers in the Creative Arts.
With all this talk of food and art, I almost forgot to talk about the music…
This year featured the voices of Sonora Ponceña’s Pichi Pérez and Eddie Palmieri’s Hermán Olivera to close Saturday and Sunday respectively. Both performances were exceptional, with special interventions by Chicago-based salsa bands Naborí (backing Pichi Pérez) and the Edwin Sánchez Project (backing Hermán Olivera). Both local bands demonstrated that we have plenty of talent in the midwest to hold our own with the very best international exponents of tropical music.
Other musical performances included the captivating voices of Chabela and Lester Ray, as well as salsa acts Yova Rodríguez, Orquesta Leal, and Willie García’s Sabor. Folkloric music from Puerto Rico was represented by Chicago’s own Buya, a group that has established itself as one of the very best Bomba projects in the United States. SRBCC’s Arawak’Opia Youth Bomba Ensemble, Ballet Folclórico Guajana (Puerto Rico) and Son d’Yavú (Puerto Rico) are also worth mentioning as the festival continues to bring more cultural acts to the stage.
Words and images by Charlie Billups, edited by Don Macica –
“His strong cumbia beat with his very skilled accordion play reminded me of parties in my wife’s hometown of Corozal. I could close my eyes on Sunday and imagined that I was in Corozal or at the beach with his music on in the background and people dancing in a beach side restaurant. The atmosphere at the festival was exactly like that of a festival in Colombia.”
Agúzate photographer Charlie Billups is recalling his two days spent at Colombian Fest / El Gran Festival Colombiano, which took place at the Copernicus Center July 16-17 during a sweltering mid-summer heatwave. He’s speaking about the artist who closed the weekend, the 80-year-old cumbia legend Anibal Velasquez from Barranquilla, a port city on the country’s Atlantic coast. “His music represented the joy and fun of being Colombian.”
Billups continues, “The sounds that filled the festival represented several genres of music from different parts of Colombia, all of which are very popular. Cumbia, vallenato, champeta, salsa and merengue. When one of the many, many bands weren’t performing, DJs played vintage records to keep the energy high. The capacity crowd that packed the place on both days loved every minute of it.”
Experiencing Sunday night’s headliner was not the only time Billups felt himself transported from the northwest side of Chicago to the South American nation. He recalls Sunday’s late afternoon set by Charles King, who delivered a stirring performance with his champeta criolla, and how it brought him to another time and place. “The music was sweet reggae sounding but with deep roots in the Colombian coast town of Palenque and enhanced by Mr. King’s deep facial expressions. I closed my eyes and imagined that I was in Cartagena on a taxi ride to the bus station and the driver had the radio on playing Mr. King’s El Martillo.”
Two of Saturday’s headliners especially stood out in Billup’s memory as well.
“Sonora Carrusales, the last performer that night, is a salsa band from Medellin. La Sonora has an extremely powerful sound that evokes Fruko and many bands from Medellin and Cali. The crowd exploded as the band played non-stop for 90 minutes. This band represents the strong salsa legacy that Colombia has. Cali is called the salsa capital of the world. Passion ran high thru the entire place and people did not want to leave even after the three encores by La Sonora.
“Earlier Saturday afternoon Jimmy Zambrano and former Binomio de Oro member Duban Bayona delivered to me what represents the heart of coastal Colombian music, vallenato. People in the crowd were transfixed by the soulful melodic performance of Grammy winner Zambrano’s accordion with Bayona’s strong voice. I have to say that this was like going to Colombia and walking down the street on a Saturday night and listening to this duo on picos [Colombian sound systems] in the balconies.”
Charlie Billups’ great photos are a testament to his love of Latin American culture and community. Several illustrate this article, and you can find many, many more at his website. For his part, Charlie has just one more thing to say.
In the distance a tall, white party tent extends far above the fence line and into a cloudless sky. With every step the microphones and instruments being sound checked start to sound more like a Tejano band from Texas. Nearly in perfect unison, Jorge Ortega and his team of sound technicians are running around meticulously preparing for their latest event. With only a week until Colombian Fest one would think this had something to do with the festival, but today is just a typical birthday celebration for Ortega.
Colombian Fest, the Midwest’s largest celebration of Colombian music and culture, returns to the Copernicus Center July 16-17 for their second annual festival. Coinciding with Colombian Independence Day, the festival will include legendary and contemporary musicians directly from Colombia as well as artists from Chicago’s thriving Colombian community. From cumbia, vallenato and champeta to currulao and salsa, the festival highlights the richness and diversity of Colombian music and culture.
Ortega, the festival’s director and founder, was born in the seaport town of Barranquilla, in the Atlantico of Colombia. Known for its enormous carnival celebrations equipped with costumed performers and cumbia music, Ortega had to rely on his parents and uncles to understand and experience that Colombian culture after moving to the United States at a young age.
Every weekend Ortega’s father would have loud music from every region in Colombia singing throughout the house, blasting until the wee hours of the morning. While he wasn’t taking notes on what his father had playing in the house, Ortega would be carefully combing through his uncle’s record collection filled with Colombian artists he had brought with him to the United States.
At family parties when his uncle got tired of being in control of the music, Ortega was left to command the sound system as the adults around him danced and sang into the night.
“My parents would have a party and the adults would be doing their thing and the only one left playing with the music was me,” Ortega said. “I was young, my uncle would just let me go ahead and play the music. I was always right there with the sound system.”
Since the age of 18, Ortega has been surrounded by music and has worked countless music festivals. With over 30 years working as a sound engineer and production manager, Ortega and his partner Luis Garcia decided that hosting their own music festival was the next appropriate step to take.
“Colombian Fest started about four years ago,” Ortega said. “We did a picnic in a forest preserve on Irving Park and Cumberland, I think it was for my birthday since it’s a couple days after Colombian Independence on July 20.”
After receiving positive feedback from the first picnic, Ortega decided to hold another picnic the following year, only this time with about double the amount of people. Before long, what started out as a small picnic transformed itself into a full blown music festival.
Colombian culture is anything but simple. From Colombia’s Pacific coast to the interior plains and mountains, and on to the shores of the Caribbean, to its African, Spanish and indigenous roots, Colombia’s diversity is showcased both geographically and culturally. Arguably the epicenter of Latin America, Colombia’s identity is unavoidably influenced by and exported to its neighbors. All of this leaves Ortega with one big question: How could he possibly incorporate all of this diversity into two days?
For Ortega, it all started with the verbenas in Colombia that his parents would describe in stories of their time spent enjoying them. Throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s in Barranquilla, Ortega’s parents would frequent the verbenas, popular street parties along Colombia’s Atlantic coast. At the verbenas in Barranquilla, it was as if all of the musical and cultural influences that had shaped Colombia had fallen onto one town.
“The music was introduced in the barrios and the streets of Barranquilla through these sound systems called pickups, or picos for short,” Ortega said. “And that music would come through the boats. With Barranquilla being a port town, a lot of the music that came from Haiti, Jamaica, the United States, Africa and France, all that music came in through the boats.”
Soon enough, Colombian verbenas developed a certain ebb and flow to them that Ortega saw replicated at his parents’ parties.
“Those were the early verbenas, they would play cumbia, vallenato, salsa, African music, and then the African music transitioned into champeta,” Ortega said. “It’s a mix, and I grew up with that mix.”
That mix that Ortega grew up with is showcased in the Colombian artists and local Chicago bands that are slated to perform at this year’s festival. One of the most notable musicians is 80-year-old Anibal Velasquez y Los Locos del Swing. Also a native of Barranquilla, Velasquez universalized the accordion and introduced a livelier form of cumbia known as the Colombian Guaracha. His innovations influenced music in Colombia and throughout Latin America. In Mexico, it’s known as cumbia sonidero.
Also accompanying Velasquez on the list of elite musicians and performers from Colombia are the salsa orchestra Sonora Carruseles and champeta master Charles King. All three of these performers will be receiving Colombian Heritage Awards at the festival for their lifetime of cultural contributions.
While some of Colombia’s native talent will be on full display, a variety of other acts from around the world and Chicago will also be exhibiting their abilities. Chicago’s own Diana Mosquera Ensemble, Ecos del Pacífico Afrocolombiano and Tierra Colombiana Folkloric Dance Company will be highlighting Chicago’s own Colombian heritage.
Ortega is particularly excited about a couple new additions to this year’s lineup, especially Explosión Negra from Colombia’s Pacific coast, representing a new evolution in Colombian music, mixing it with urban hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall, uniting three strains of African music in the Americas.
“Here in Chicago you have a Colombian community that’s pretty diverse,” Ortega said. “You have a mix of Colombians that are from the coast, from Bogota, Medellin, and so with the festival we try and have a little bit of everything.”
Representing all of Colombia’s different cultural and musical identities is important to Ortega and the festival’s organizers, but what’s more important is maintaining and providing the type of sound quality that’s needed to really appreciate the intricacies of the music being performed.
Producing the festival will be LD Audio, one of the largest concert and festival production companies in the Midwest. As head of production management, Ortega and LD Audio owner Luis Garcia have made a commitment to ensuring that the sound quality of the festival exceeds everyone’s expectations. In Ortega’s words, “it’s a ‘sound guys’ festival.”
“My background is as a sound engineer and a production manager for many years, I’ve toured with many big Latin American artists,” Ortega said. “LD Audio and myself have more than 30 years of experience with sound engineering and production.
“We have a level of professionalism and expertise, and we have to bring that because it’s our festival, we’re representing our country, our Colombia.”
Colombia is African, it’s Spanish and it’s indigenous. There are foods and traditions that are entirely unique to a particularly region that can’t be found anywhere else in the country. Colombia is a fusion, a blending of cultures, tastes, and best of all, musical styles. Ortega isn’t focused on having the biggest festival that gains the most attention; he’s committed to having the highest quality festival that displays just how diverse his Colombian culture is. He wants you to experience his verbena.
“This is not a festival, it’s a verbena, a carnival. You want to experience our verbena, come to Colombian Fest.”
Colombian Fest / El Gran Festival Colombiano, July 16-17, Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Avenue, Chicago colombianfestchicago.com _____