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 _____
Chicagoans are a hardy bunch. We suffer through what seems like endless winters because we know one thing: Summer music in Chicago is awesome! Nearly every weekend has one neighborhood festival or another. There’s the city-owned world class concert venue Pritzker Pavilion downtown, but in recent years the neighborhood parks have stepped up big time too. Besides all the free stuff, there are also a few privately run festivals where the music to dollar ratio is especially high.
There’s something for everyone, but we have a mission here at Agúzate that keeps us focused on places where the Afro-Latin quotient is high. Here then, is our guide to where we want to be this summer.
Of course, you’re invited too!
The 606 Block Party, June 4: We start in the ‘hood, or more accurately, the four neighborhoods that Chicago’s urban trail park runs through: Bucktown, Wicker Park, Logan Square and Humboldt Park. They are celebrating their first anniversary by throwing a huge party, and the Latino flavor of the trail’s western half leads to some pretty good music. Humboldt Boulevard between Cortland and Wabansia is where you’ll find salsa orchestra Luis Palermo and the Brasa All-Stars, the Latin ska of Los Vicios de Papá, and Bomba conBuya with special guest bomba maestroLeró Martinez. More action can be found in the smaller parks along the trail, including rumba Cubana from Iré Elese Abure, booming Brazilian samba from Bloco Maximo, Tango & folkloric music by bandoneón player Richard Scofano and even more bomba and plena with Leró Martinez, Jerry Ferrao, Arawak’Opia and saxophonist Roy McGrath.
Night Out in the Parks, various dates: Speaking of Roy McGrath, we’ve been following his Julia al Son de Jazz project ever since he premiered it at The 606 last year. McGrath reports that it is still growing and refining, and the public will get three more chances to check in on its progress in three spots around the city: June 24 at Fred Anderson Park in the South Loop, July 29 at Riis Park and August 26 at Gage Park. More 606 celebrants return as well, including Bomba con BuyaJuly 25 in Blackhawk Park and Iré Elese AbureAugust 27 at Julia de Burgos Park. Miramar, whose new album is a tribute to Puerto Rican songwriter Sylvia Rexach, performs June 24 in Hermosa Park. Finally, AfriCaribe brings the bomba y plena to three spots as well, June 23 in Churchill Park, July 11 in Wicker Park and August 10 in Foster Park.
Millennium Park Summer Music Series, various dates: There are many reasons to spend a summer evening here, but for us, none are more essential than the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra on June 27. Opening for El Maestro is Afro-Colombian folkloric ensemble Ecos del Pacifico. Other promising shows include Brazilian singer-songwriter Rodrigo Amarante (you might recognize him from his haunting theme to Netflix’s Narcos) on June 13, Afrobeat heir Femi Kuti and Positive Force on July 11, Congolese band Mbongwana Star with local favorites Dos Santos Antibeat Orquesta on August 11 and, making up for last year’s State Department visa meltdown, highlife legend King Sunny Ade on July 18. UPDATE: Puerto Rican singer Ileana Cabra Joglar, better known as iLe, has been added on July 14.
Square Roots Festival, July 8-10: The street fest version of its predecessor, the glorious Folk & Roots Festival, may never quite hit those heights of communal bliss, but the venerable Old Town School continues to bring in excellent music, and this year is no exception. We’ll be checking out roots reggae from Taj Weekes, the Ethiopian pop of Debo Band and the classic New York Latin sound of Los Hacheros.
Chicago SummerDance, various dates: A tradition going on 20 years, this globally generous three month dance party on Chicago’s front lawn will present several local and international artists, including Angel Melendez & the 911 Mambo Orchestra, Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca, Los Hacheros, Ola Fresca and Carpacho y Su Super Combo.
Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, July 15-16: Make sure your Uber account is in good standing, ‘cause you’re going to need it this weekend! We’ll start off Friday night with a festival that, without fail, presents the absolute best in Latin Jazz. And though we don’t yet know what they are planning for this year, it’s a sure bet that you’ll want to see some of it. UPDATE: Legendary San Francisco percussionist and bandleader John Santos has been announced as the Friday night headliner. Juan Pastor’s Chinchano opens.
El Gran Festival Colombiano, July 16-17: Back for its second year, they are working hard to build on last summer’s great lineup with 79 year old cumbia legend Anibal Velasquez, champeta master Charles King, salsa dura from Pibo Márquez’ Salsa Caribbean All Stars, Lucho Morales y Su Fiesta Vallenato, Afro-Colombian rising stars Explosión Negra and the old school salsa orchestra Sonora Carruseles. On the DJ side you’ll find Geko Jones from the Que Bajo?! collective and festival organizer Jorge Ortega himself spinning classic vinyl.
Celebrate Clark Street, July 16-17: Back for its eleventh year, the music at this humble and slightly gritty festival (I can say that ‘cause it’s in my neighborhood) always turns it into something of a mini-World Music Fest. This year is no exception. We’re especially excited about Palenke SoulTribe, Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars and the El Freaky collective.
Evanston Ethnic Arts Festival, July 16-17: Uber goes to the suburbs, right? It is, as they say, cooler by the lake, and you can’t get any closer than at this summertime favorite. This year, check out the Cuban-Arabic-Flamenco-Gypsy Swing of Sultans of String, the Chicago Afrobeat Project, and the hard hitting Johnny Blas Afro Libre Orchestra.
Festival Cubano, August 12-14: No lineup has yet been made public, but in the past they have showcased such giants as Willy Chirino, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico and Alfredo de la Fe. Last year brought the first visits of Cubans directly from the island, and there’s no reason to think that will stop now. UPDATE: Reunited hip-hop trio Orishas plus Albita and La India have been announced as headliners.
Chicago Jazz Festival, September 1-4: There are few better ways to end your summer than by immersing yourself in jazz at this 38 year old tradition. The Big Papi of jazz fests promises something for everyone, but we are especially excited about two performances: The experimental Afro-Latin collective James Sanders’ Proyecto Libre on Friday and the closing night concert, a Latin Jazz All Stars 95th birthday tribute to legendary Cuban congueroCandido Camero with Candido himself.
You have to come indoors sometime, and the early part of the summer provides a few excellent opportunities to do just that, including:
Venezuela by way of New York hedonists Los Amigos Invisibles hit Bottom Lounge June 9.
Darwin Noguera & Victor Garcia’s CALJE(June 10) and Colombian/New York band leader Gregorio Uribe(June 12), both at Sabor a Café Steakhouse.
Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez Trio at the Jazz ShowcaseJune 16-19.
Triple Threat! Dos Santos Antibeat Orquesta with funk/soul/reggae band Fatbook and global jazz beatmaster Makaya McCraven at Martyrs June 17.
Puerto Rican tenor saxophonist upends stereotypes to carve his own musical path.
By Don Macica –
At some point in the summer of 2015, Roy McGrath’s name became ubiquitous, so much so that I began to wonder, “Who is this guy?”
First, I noticed that his quintet was performing at the Chicago Latin Jazz Festival. A few weeks after that, I was having lunch with the owner of Sabor a Café, a Colombian restaurant that presents live music on weekends. “Roy McGrath, man, ooo, you gotta hear him.” I finally heard him in early September when he joined the groove-jazz backing band of Puerto Rican rapper Siete Nueve at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. A week later I caught him backing up master percussionist Michael Spiro at Sabor a Café, and a week after that I unexpectedly stumbled across him in a comparsa de plena as part of the Chicago World Music Festival. He led a Latin jazz ensemble in a project that matched original music to poetry a week later, and shortly after that I learned he was taking his straight-ahead quartet, with whom he had recorded Martha, an excellent CD of original compositions (and a couple of well chosen covers), on a month-long tour of Mexico.
And then there was this mystery: How could a 6’2” white guy with the name McGrath be a Puerto Rican? I needed to get to the bottom of this, so when he returned from Mexico we made arrangements to meet for coffee, which was remarkably easy to do because it turned out we were neighbors.
“When I was around 15 and in high school, a friend gave me her father’s saxophone because she heard me say that I wanted to play one. It supposedly belonged to a member of El Gran Combo, who gave it to her father, and it was in horrible shape, really beat up. Two weeks later, I was playing a gig in front of 5,000 people at Roberto Clemente Coliseum.”
McGrath pauses, no doubt reading the incredulity on my face. “Oh. Well, I had a friend who had a reggae band, and they were opening up for Israel Vibration. My friend wanted horns in this gig because Israel Vibration had horns in their band. I sounded terrible, and I did for a long time.”
He continues, “A couple of weeks later I went to the San Juan Borders store and bought two CDs out of their bargain bin: John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. That was it. I knew I wanted to play jazz.”
McGrath had a friend who played guitar and they formed a quartet which almost immediately scored a gig making $50 a week. He was already a working jazz musician, learning and playing the standards.
Things changed less than a year later. “I was in a bad car accident when I was 16, and that experience really made me reflect and get serious about playing. I replaced the beat up horn with a new one.”
I should point out that while McGrath is serious about his work ethic, he is more modest, even critical, of his talent. I should also point out that, a little more than a year after first picking up a horn, McGrath was offered a 3/4 scholarship by Loyola University in New Orleans to study music.
“Yeah, New Orleans,” McGrath says. “I was offered scholarships to a few schools, but I wanted to study jazz. Of course I picked New Orleans.”
McGrath completed his undergraduate work in three years, but hung around the Crescent City for two more, soaking up culture and seeking knowledge. “I loved New Orleans. It felt like home. It was hot, so that felt right. The traditions there are similar to the Caribbean. People say ‘Hi’ to you on the street, and you could become friends just like that. It was also musically similar to Puerto Rico in the way that music is heard everywhere. They blast jazz like we blast salsa.”
And, of course, he was working as often as he could, playing in brass bands, jazz bands, funk bands. “Never turn down a gig,” he says. “You’ll always learn something.”
After five years in New Orleans, McGrath arrived in Chicago in 2012 to continue his studies at Northwestern University, where he earned a master’s degree in 2014. “It was great. Like, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is on the faculty there! I studied directly with Victor Goines, who heads up the jazz department.” He recorded Martha a few months later with a quartet formed with fellow Northwestern grads.
I ask him why he remained here after graduation instead of moving to, say, New York. “Chicago, man. What a great music city. The jazz scene here is epic. There are so many good players. Some of the best in the world are here. The salsa scene is amazing as well. There’s a brass band and funk scene, even reggae. Everything’s here! Plus, there’s a lot of Puerto Ricans, so I don’t miss my culture. If I’m homesick, I can just go down to La Bomba for dinner.”
His ‘never turn down a gig’ work ethic remains strong. On the morning we met, he had just returned from an out of state gig with a merengue band. “Merengue is hard, man, all these rapid, percussive runs. Not at all like jazz or salsa. I learned a few things.”
McGrath has another habit that influences his growth as a musician. He is completely unafraid to seek out established musicians he admires and talk to them. “It’s like playing all the different kinds of music, but in addition to practical knowledge, you might learn something spiritual or cultural from their experiences, and that’s valuable too.”
The saxophonist has two projects as a leader coming up in the near future. First, he’ll lead a straight-ahead sextet in January performing what, for him, was a seminal jazz influence—the entire John Coltrane Blue Train album. “We’re in pretty intense rehearsals right now, because I want to honor ‘Trane, not copy him.” The performance is presented by the Jazz Record Art Collective, a monthly series at the Fulton Street Collective in Chicago, and visual artist Sarah Mueller will paint as McGrath’s sextet plays.
The other is a further extension of the Latin jazz project he first created last fall for Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and The 606 called Julia al Son de Jazz, in which original compositions are performed with one or possibly two poets reciting the words of Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. “I’m trying to get two voices, one female and the other male, so I can arrange the tonal quality like I would with different horns.” Sabor a Café is presenting the project in February.
The two very different gigs are illustrative of McGrath’s artistic ambitions. “I don’t want to be categorized as a ‘Latin’ musician because I consider myself primarily a straight-ahead player. At the same time, I’m Puerto Rican and my culture is invested in what I create. I really admire Miguel Zenón. He doesn’t play Latin jazz, but he came up playing in salsa bands and everything he’s done and learned is in his music.”
He hopes to study with Zenón sometime soon. “I feel that I’m finally ready. Before this, I would have been wasting his time.” McGrath’s modesty is on display once more, but if you’re keeping score, you’ll realize that he’s barely a decade out of high school and already possesses degrees from two of the best music schools in the country. He also makes a living in music, gigging in one band or another several nights a week in addition to leading two of his own. “Oh, yeah, I never want to go back to making pizzas or washing dishes.”
And, in case you’re still wondering about the name. “My father was a half Irish Mexican-American from Texas who moved to Puerto Rico, where he met my mom, who is German-American and was born in Thailand but grew up on the island, so she considers herself as boricua.” This fairly complex multi-cultural background perhaps offers a clue to McGrath’s artistic goals. Jazz itself is a confluence of cultures, rising as it did out of New Orleans, where the African Diaspora met and mingled with French, Spanish and other influences, including the ‘Latin tinge’ of the Caribbean. It is the United States’ great gift to the rest of the world, and McGrath is determined to take his music there. “Besides the Mexican tour, I’ve already played in China and I want to go back soon.”
I hope he continues to call Chicago home for a long time to come.
John Coltrane’s Blue Train by the Roy McGrath Sextet – Wednesday, January 20, 9pm at the Fulton Street Collective, 1821 W. Hubbard St, Chicago. jazzrecordartcollective.com
Julia al Son de Jazz with The Roy McGrath Latin Jazz Quintet – Friday, February 12, 9pm at Sabor a Café, 2435 W. Peterson, Chicago. No cover, but reservations are recommended. saboracaferestaurant.com
About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.