Photos by Charlie Billups, commentary by Don Macica –
Hundreds of people filled Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center last night while one of the most important bands in Cuban music history, Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro, performed a style of classic Cuban son that they practically invented in 1927 when they added a trumpet to the traditional tres Cubano, guitar and percussion. Of course, 90 years later, the band is in its fourth generation. While hardly innovative by 21st century standards, they provide a near perfect evocation of a sound that laid the foundation for what would become salsa 40 years later. If, as El Gran Combo has sung, “Sin Salsa no hay Paraiso (Without salsa, there is no paradise)”, then without Septeto Nacional, there is no salsa.
This was only the fourth time that Septeto Nacional has visited Chicago: Three since the Obama administration re-opened cultural exchange with Cuba and, before that, the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair. That made it something of a historic night as well.
At the SRBCC show, at least three generations of folks, from retirees to children, filled the dance floor with varying degrees of skill but equal measure of joy. Meanwhile, the back of the room was filled with round banquet tables where friends and strangers alike gathered like family. All in all, it was an atmosphere more akin to a community party than a concert. Adding to that feel was that Septeto Nacional invited saxophonist Roy McGrath, a Puerto Rico native who runs SRBCC’s youth Afro-Latin jazz program, to join them for a song. He responded with an improvised solo that evoked another genre that likely wouldn’t exist without Septeto Nacional: Latin jazz.
When I spoke with Old Town School of Folk Music’s Mateo Mulcahy a few months ago about their Extended Play series that partners with SRBCC, he talked about how Chicago’s network of cultural presenters allows the city’s residents to experience world renowned artists that any one organization could not afford to bring to town on their own. Septeto Nacional’s appearance was co-presented by HotHouse, who hosted the band the night before at Alhambra Palace. It is partnerships like this that allows an organization like SRBCC, whose main business is neighborhood youth services, to also be a place where people can come to hear world class music from Latin America.
Like the show by Colombia’s Herencia de Timbiquí just 2 weeks earlier, there was a sense of the barrier between performer and audience dissolving altogether, a vibe that SRBCC is increasingly adept at conjuring, as more and more people discover with each presentation. It is, I believe, a force that gives energy to the whole, resulting in an elevated experience on and off the stage.
Future shows at SRBCC include artists from Puerto Rico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and more. I suspect there are many more elevated experiences to come.
[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.
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.