Twenty years in the making: Enrique Calderón releases his first single

By Don Macica –

For salsa singer Enrique Calderón, when he finally felt it was time to write and record his first single, he kept his mind focused on one very important thing: For it to be a success, people needed to dance.

That’s how it started for Calderón, a young Mexican-American from the south suburbs who could play jazz and classical music on the trumpet, when he began hitting Chicago’s salsa nightclubs in the late 1990s.

Back then, there were actually a few full time salsa spots in the city, not just clubs that occasionally offered salsa nights. Calderón’s main haunt was Tropicana D’Cache, which occupied the space that is now Concord Music Hall. He admits that the scene was attractive: The dancing, the bands, the beautiful women. “I became a pretty good dancer, winning a couple of dance contests,” says Calderón.

I asked Calderón how, being of Mexican descent, he got into tropical music. “Both of my parents were from Mexico, my dad from Michoacán and my mom from Mexico City. Both her and my grandmother were big fans of tropical music, stuff like Perez Prado, Sonora Santanera, Sonora Mantancera. Groups like that would come to Mexico City all the time. So, when I was growing up here in the States, that sort of stuff would always get played around the house.”

Still, like most kids, he was not especially fond of his parent’s music. His tastes ran toward hip-hop, house and other urban music. At the same time, though, the jazz lessons that he’d been getting left an impression, and he even privately tried singing a bit, imitating Harry Connick, Jr.

Later, when he was immersed in the salsa scene and knowing that he had a decent singing voice, he began to pester bands into letting him sing back up, finally getting a big break when Jesus Enríquez, who was huge on the Chicago scene, invited him to sing with his group. Soon enough he was singing backup with lots of local orquestas as well as national artists whenever they came to town.

He eventually formed a group named La Unica with a couple of close friends while continuing to work with national artists. But in 2004, he decided to call it quits for a while. By 2011, though, he was ready to return. He got a few higher profile band gigs with Rica Obsesión, Nabori and the Humboldt Park Orchestra. He was also doing backup vocals with a new generation of salsa singers such as Willito Otero, Kayvan Vega, NG2, Carlos Mojica, Maelo Ruiz and Frankie Negron when they came to Chicago. Finally, in 2016, he formed his own group.

Now, most salsa bands survive on doing covers of popular songs, and Calderón’s certainly fills that bill. You don’t hear too many brand new songs on salsa night. But in 2017, Calderón decided to take the next step and began working with singer Ricky Luis and Afinca’o leader Joe Mende on producing new original music.


The result is a new single, Más Tiempo, debuting this Sunday night, September 3, at the Cubby Bear’s Salsa Sunday Labor Day show.  Also on the bill is Ricky Luis, a Chicago native who now lives in Los Angeles, and Afinca’o, who are also debuting a new single. So, it’s kind of all in the family, and a pretty big night for all three.

The sound of salsa has changed over the decades, and it is currently enjoying something of a back to basics moment. “That’s the sound I wanted to get on this first single,” says Calderon, “percussion and horns, kind of a classic approach. At the same time, I can’t ignore what gets the dance floor going, so there is a little bit of that romantic salsa feel, and the lyrics are about a relationship I was having at the time. People relate to it, they want to sing along, and they want to dance. Do you know how many people sing along to Yo No Sé Mañana?” Calderon asks, referring to the massive and often covered Luis Enrique song from 2009 that is a guaranteed dance floor filler.


Más Tiempo does a good job of navigating the gulf between salsa dura and salsa romántica. The arrangement is tight, with skillfully arranged horns and percolating percussion. Calderon’s voice is a little more rugged than the average crooner, and his sense of the rhythm is superb. At the same time, there is a hooky little chorus tailor-made for the audience sing along. A nice little touch comes near the end, when Calderón gives the shouted affirmation “México presente!”

Calderón is still a dancer at heart. “When I’m on stage with my band, and I notice that I’m not dancing, well, then I know it’s time for the band to bring the energy up.”

Look for a lot of energy this Sunday night at the Cubby Bear.

Salsa Sundays at Cubby Bear featuring Enrique Calderón, Afinca’o, and Ricky Luis | Sunday, September 3, 10PM (doors open 7PM) | Facebook

 

Review: iLe at Pilsen Fest

By Don Macica – Photos by Charlie Billups –

Ileana Cabra returned to Chicago for her second show in a little over a year, and although you might think that she had nothing new to say, you could not deny that she has found a more deeply expressive way of saying it.

Her last visit, a 2016 headlining appearance at Millennium Park, was remarkable in its ability to transform that vast space into an intimate place for whispered conversation. It came on the heels of her debut album, Ilevitable, and consisted almost exclusively of songs from it. Ilevitable went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Latin rock, urban or alternative album, an impressive achievement for a new artist.

A year later, those same songs were presented once again, but in the intervening year it feels that iLe and her excellent backing band, now expanded modestly to include a pair of richly burnished trombones, have lived in them and become familiar with the knotty emotions buried deep within.

Pilsen Fest, with its explicit mission of showcasing Latino music and art in the context of cultural resistance in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, couldn’t be more different than the pristine setting of Millennium Park. In this way, it was perhaps a more appropriate setting for iLe’s art. It certainly provided an audience more attuned of the complex emotional nuances of Latin music.


That may have been a contributing factor to the powerful nature of iLe’s Pilsen Fest performance. Up close, you can read the impassioned meaning of each song in her face, posture and gestures. Some of this, of course, is a seasoned stage performer at work, but the role of the artist is to use the skills at their command to convey deeper truths. Above all, iLe remains committed to her truth as a woman from a family of strong women, navigating the joy and heartbreak of life, love and sexuality.

Two songs in particular demonstrate how thin the line between them can be. In both Rescatarme and Te quiero con Bugalú, iLe takes time to dance while the band propels a Latin groove behind her, but the interpretation is one of agony in the former and confident abandon in the latter.

It occurs to me as I write this that I have spent quite a few words on iLe’s visual presentation, but none on the equally powerful voice that accompanies it. There might be no better use of it than in Triángulo, a delicate yet moving ranchera that shifts from quiet hesitancy to heartbreak, drawing the audience in with every syllable. The weight of pain in Dolor, a song written in 1955 by her grandmother Flor Amelia de Gracia, is so great it drives her to the ground as she sings it. By contrast, she invests real power in the dramatic Canibal that you can feel all the way in the back.


The songs from Ilevitable are interrupted but once at mid-concert for a song about Puerto Rico. iLe introduces it by speaking of the island’s colonial status and the fear that many there have of being free of dependency. It occurs to me that the same condition applies to the women who populate her songs: Struggling to be free and happy, yet held back by fear and self-doubt. I also think of Pilsen itself, a community that feels under siege by commercial forces looking to colonize it with high priced apartments and expensive restaurants. “Yo soy boricua,” she sang, “Pero también soy un patriota.”


The show ends with the rousing Te quiero con Bugalú, conjuring New York City of the 1960s, and the encore is another song written by her grandmother, No te detengas, a simple, achingly beautiful showcase for guitar and voice.

The lack of new songs was a bit surprising, but Ilevitable was reportedly years in the making. Something tells me that Ileana Cabra has little interest in being a pop star, and thus no incentive to crank out a new song to satisfy the marketplace. Besides, there seems to be plenty of inspiration left to be mined from the ones she already has.

The importance of being Celso Piña


By Don Macica –

I have to start this out with a confession. Before it was announced that Celso Piña would headline a show at Thalia Hall on May 28, I knew very little about him. I figured he played Colombian music because I saw his name in an article a few months ago about a new album paying tribute to forgotten Colombian songwriter Magín Díaz. Piña is among an all-star cast of guest musicians that include Carlos Vives, Li Saumet of Bomba Estereo, Totó la Momposina and Monsieur Periné. That’s a pretty impressive list and it covers a lot of musical ground. I also knew that the group playing at Thalia was billed as “Celso Piña y su Ronda Bogotá.”

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered Piña is from Monterrey, Mexico and, at the age of 64, something of a legend.  A Google search seemed to indicate that while the singer, songwriter and accordion player (he’s sometimes called “El Rebelde del acordeón”) is held in high regard throughout Latin America, the reason for that admiration varies. Apparently, Celso Piña is many things to many people.

Rather than cobble together a bunch of stuff and call it my own, I decided to call on a few friends who I was quite sure knew more than me. The first person I spoke to was Jorge Ortega, a native of Barranquilla, Colombia and the driving force behind Chicago’s ever-expanding Colombian Festival / El Grand Festival Colombiano.

“I’ve tried to book Celso Piña into the Colombian Festival, but his travel schedule and our dates never lined up,” says Ortega. “The guy is devoted to Colombian cumbia and I respect that a lot. His accordion is tuned in the Colombian way. He’s open about his dedication to getting the Colombian sound right, having been inspired by Anibal Velázquez. He brings his own thing to it, of course, and he took cumbia to another level in Mexico, that whole urban Monterrey scene. He turned young people on to cumbia and was an inspiration to the whole cumbia sonidero movement. At the same time, he can play a festival in Colombia and people love it.”

Aqui Presente Compa is Piña’s latest album, and it’s a raucous gem of a party record. The cumbia beats and Piña’s accordion are front and center. But there is toughness to it as well: Electric guitar and a forcefully played drum set easily put it in a more rocking space, at times sounding like the sort of norteña rock that bands like the Texas Tornados do so well. But if you go back to 2001 and an album called Barrio Bravo, you’ll hear the sound that inspired a generation.

“Cumbia Sobre el Río is a masterpiece,” says Mexico City born musician Zacbé Pichardo, referring to Barrio Bravo’s lead track and mega-hit that features guest appearances by Pato Machete and Blanquito Man, both of whom were at the forefront of the rock en español scene. A 2002 profile of Piña in the Austin Chronicle article said of the song, “… there wasn’t a car or living room from Chicago to Chiapas that didn’t have the bass booming and the sonic onslaught layered with accordion rattling their windows.”

Pichardo, who leads the Chicago based cumbia sonidero outfit Guapachosos and is also a member of the highly respected Sones de México Ensemble, continues, “Celso has created a unique blend of traditional Colombian cumbia with the modern unique touch of urban chaos. Many cumbia groups have found a style and stuck to it, but Celso has always progressed alongside the current new trends and made something unique through his Ronda Bogotá filter. It has significantly influenced what I produce nowadays.”

Barrio Bravo featured guest appearances by several rock en español and Latin Alternative artists, some of whom joined Piña in a 2003 appearance at Mexico City’s Vive Latino Festival. YouTube videos of that performance show the rapturous reception that the crowd of several thousand gave to the performance, and the energy being thrown off by Piña and Ronda Bogotá is phenomenal.

I was beginning to get a clearer picture of exactly who Celso Piña is, but I wanted to check with one more person. Alex Chávez leads Dos Santos Anti Beat Orquesta, a band that initially made an impression by playing chicha, the Peruvian variant of cumbia, but quickly progressed to more of a pan-Latin sound. I knew from previous conversations that there was a philosophical foundation to the band’s embrace of cumbia as its starting point.

“Colombian cumbia bears witness to significant stylistic transformations in the 20th century, becoming a robust transnational musical phenomenon along the way,” says Chávez. “Commercial radio and recordings also emerge as a powerful force of dissemination at this time, taking cumbia to nearby and far off places like the industrial center of Monterrey, Mexico. So, when Cumbia Sobre el Río drops in 2001, it’s spread throughout Latin America is preceded by half a century of cumbia’s circulation along those same routes. While Piña had enjoyed success in Monterrey since the 1980s, his 2001 hit exhibits a unique blending of the accordion-based vallenato style he popularized with the slowed-down rebajada style pioneered by sonidero DJs in the working-class colonias of that city.”

Did I mention that Chávez, in addition to leading Dos Santos, is an anthropology professor and Latino Studies Fellow at Notre Dame University?

“Celso and the whole Monterrey scene have reconstructed a grassroots Colombian sound in their own image where we find the story of how cultural capital participates in assigning meaning to place, to migration, and all of the experiences in between. Monterrey is a center of Latin American music-making, but is also deeply connected to the United States economically. And so, Celso Piña’s sound tells the story of a cosmopolitan sensibility coated with working-class flare; it is “people’s music”—something which can be said about cumbia more broadly. Still, his story and his sound speak to how contemporary experiences of marginality provide the backdrop for powerful cultural constructions of place, of belonging, and of travel beyond nations and across borders.”

This is where it all connects and points to how a musician working in what seems to be a fixed style is in reality tapping into something that is all about migration, change and adaptation, one sensibility assuming the form of another to create something personally authentic, yet having a wide appeal to traditionalists as well as progressives. The Austin Chronicle may have referenced “Chicago to Chiapas”, but Celso Piña’s impact reaches much farther than that, all the way back to where cumbia was born.

Sharing the bill with Celso Piña y su Ronda Bogotá at Thalia Hall are Dos Santos Anti Beat Orquesta and ÌFÉ from Puerto Rico, who I have written about here, here and here.


Tickets at Ticketweb.

Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center


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.

Concert review: Herencia de Timbiquí at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center


By Don Macica, Photos by Charlie Billups –

When it all comes together, magic can happen.

Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center played host to the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Extended Play series Thursday night with a performance by Herencia de Timbiquí, a 10-person ensemble from Colombia’s Pacifico region who are already major stars in their home country but are just beginning to attract a global following. Their music derives from the African culture that dominates that region, specifically the currualo style, which is traditionally performed on percussion instruments and accompanied by call & response vocals. Like much Afro-Caribbean music, its roots lie in religious and ceremonial music.

Herencia de Timbiquí (Timbiquí is a small coastal town) preserves this core, building much of their sound around the marimba, guasá (a kind of shaker formed from a hollowed out log filled with dried seeds), and two or three drums of varying pitches. Indeed, the origins of the group lie in playing this traditional music, but beginning about a decade ago they modernized the sound with the addition of electric bass, guitar and keyboards plus a full drum kit and a horn section. They have since evolved into a polished professional ensemble whose sound is commercial enough to have one of their songs, Te Invito, become the theme of the Colombian-produced Netflix series La Niña. This contemporary approach has enough room for smooth urban balladry, rock and funk while remaining firmly anchored in those traditional percussive elements.

Full video of the hit single “Sabrás”, performed live at SRBCC.

Every element of this was fully on display at SRBCC. A song could start out sounding very contemporary, only to have the steady currualo heartbeat and melodic marimba become evident as the song progresses. Conversely, a folkloric beginning could suddenly explode with punchy horns or a virtuoso guitar solo. The group is fronted by two extremely charismatic vocalists who connected directly and repeatedly to a dancing and swaying audience that was mere feet away from SRBCC’s low-slung stage.

All of which is to say that Herencia de Timbiquí has the potential to be pan-Latin superstars with a universal appeal that nonetheless operates in the specific and identifiable context of traditional Afro-Colombian culture.


And that magic? What elevated this particular performance from great to something greater was the context. Herencia was preceded on stage by groups performing purely folkloric music and dance representing Afro-Mexican, Afro-Colombian and Afro-Puerto Rican traditions. SRBCC is generally Puerto Rico focused in its programming, but one can also sense the spirit of Ramón Emeterio Betances, a colleague of Segundo Ruiz Belvis and a mid-19th century Puerto Rican doctor, diplomat and abolitionist who was known as El Antillano because of his vision of a united, decolonized Caribbean identity. The center’s walls are adorned with paintings and artwork representative of the Puerto Rican experience, and among them is a portrait of another Puerto Rican patriot, Pedro Albizu Campos, flanked by Cuba’s José Martí and Mexico’s Emiliano Zapata.


Chicago’s Colombian community turned out in force to see Herencia de Timbiquí, joining Puerto Ricans and more generally fans of Latin and world music for an evening that, if only briefly, accomplished Betances dream of a united Caribbean. I think Herencia could sense they were part of something special that transcended entertainment and entered the realm of spiritual uplift and pure joy.

It sure sounded like it.

Carlos Vives at the Rosemont Theatre


By Charlie Billups –

[Ed. Note: Good music is good music, regardless of your relationship to it. Sometimes, though, it’s best to go with something more personal when reviewing an artist so popular as to be almost a human embodiment of an entire country. Agúzate photographer Charlie Billups attended the recent concert by Colombia’s Carlos Vives with his entire family. His lightly edited impressions of a memorable evening follow.]
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I have waited a very long time to see Carlos Vives perform live and it was worth the wait. Even before the concert started, the feeling was like a festival. I felt that I was in Colombia at Las Fiestas de Santa Marta. Most of those in attendance wore Colombian colors or Sombreros Vueltiaos. Vives emerged without an introduction to sing “Ahi llego yo” and everyone was immediately on their feet singing and shouting to the song. It felt like a religious event. For those there it was a great moment of Colombian and Latin American pride.

Carlos’s performance was very polished and it did not reflect at all that the previous night’s performance in Radio City Music Hall in NYC was just the first show of an eight-city U.S. tour. Most of the numbers in the performance had a very strong accordion lead coupled with Colombian Gaitas. The sound was rich and soulful with no flaws, mixed with very strong accents of pop and rock and strong playing by all members of the band, including new accordionist Christian Camilo Peña, who was voted a Vallenato King in 2008, particularly on the number “La Cañaguatera” which was masterful beyond any level of skill. It felt like Colombia itself to me. I was somehow transported to Valledupar even though I have never been there.

The climax of the concert came when he performed “Bailar contigo”, truly a remarkable emotional number with video filmed in historic Cienaga, Magdalena. Emotions at this point were topped out.

The concert concluded with a five-song encore and the final number “La bicicleta” in which Carlos entered the stage in his own bicycle to the adulation of fans.

Carlos Vives continues to be at his prime as part of the top three of Colombia along with Shakira and Juanes. Not only does his musical skill shine but a human part as well, he continues to unite Colombia and Latinos beyond.

Interview: Travels with Monsieur Periné


By Don Macica –

Bogotá, Colombia’s capital city, is where it all comes together. Like urban centers everywhere, it attracts people from both rural areas and smaller towns. It is where traditions meet and are fused with energy and experimentation to become something new.

In 2007, university student Catalina Garcia, who was studying anthropology, met Nicolás Junca and Santiago Prieto, a pair of aspiring musicians enthralled by French gypsy jazz. She joined the duo as a singer and they began playing informally for friends at parties, weddings and other gatherings. Catalina was studying French as well, so her language skills and the duo’s musical direction were a perfect fit. Thus was born Monsieur Periné, likely the world’s first and only Colombian gypsy jazz band.

They began performing professionally a few years later. In 2012 they recorded and released their first album, Hecho en Mano, and began to attract attention beyond Colombia. Their second album, Caja de Musica, featured an expanded musical palette and was produced by Eduado Cabra, whom you may know better as Visitante of Calle 13.

“When we recorded our first album, we still hadn’t performed much outside of Colombia.” I’m speaking by phone with Catalina Garcia during a break in rehearsals for a North American tour that will bring them to Thalia Hall in Chicago this Wednesday, March 22. “Our songs were limited a bit by that, although we brought in other Latin influences like boleros. So what we were doing mostly was blending French gypsy jazz with Colombian folkloric sounds, especially in percussion.”

Garcia continues, “That album gave us a chance to tour outside of Colombia and we used those travels as a journal of ideas and impressions when we started working on Caja de Musica. We were very lucky that Eduardo Cabra noticed us and offered to produce, because he had done considerable traveling throughout Latin America to explore those sounds for Calle 13. It was a good fit, and he was a big help in bringing those instruments in and building the songs.”


The results were successful artistically and commercially. You can still hear the gypsy jazz influence on Caja de Musica, but now it is (if I could use a cooking metaphor) a broth to which several other spices and ingredients have been carefully added, resulting in a pan-Latin sancocho where reggae riddims overlay French strumming and jaunty Venezuelan clarinets sit alongside Argentine charango, all of it filtered through Monsieur Periné’s sunny sound.

It was a sound good enough to earn Monsieur Periné a Latin Grammy for Best New Artist in 2015. The band, which has grown to 8 members, is just now beginning to compose songs for its follow up. “We’ve now toured both Europe and North America,” says Garcia. “We’re reaching audiences that aren’t necessarily fans of Latin American music, and we’re meeting and learning from them. We are really excited to be coming back to the United States because there are people from different nationalities and backgrounds that identify with our music. It’s a beautiful place to play.”

The final stop on Monsieur Periné’s 2016 tour was at Pilsen Fest, where they wowed a large audience late into the night, blowing past the curfew that usually closes down street festivals at 10pm. Live, their music takes on yet a third dimension, as they play lengthy instrumental build ups to their songs and follow with extensive soloing in their midsections. Somehow, they make traditional Colombian rhythms one with Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing.

It’s great, then, that the first stop on this tour is back in Pilsen, just a bit down 18th Street at the crown jewel of Chicago’s mid-sized music venues. They’ll likely road test some new songs, as they hope to begin recording the new album in June. Garcia tells me that they are working with collaborators on the new songs.  “We did all the composing on our first two albums by ourselves, but this time we want to work with other artists that we admire. Some of them are Colombian, but some are also from other parts of the world. We are looking for ways to learn from other kinds of music than ours. We want to continue to enrich our sound.”
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Monsieur Periné with Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta and Los Gold Fires
Wednesday, March 22, 8PM at Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport, Chicago
Tickets at thaliahallchicago.com

Interview with Omara Portuondo: “I’m grateful to do what I love most.”

Omara Portuondo 2014
Photo credit: Fernand Forcade

By Don Macica –

Many of us made it out to Ravinia last summer to catch the Buena Vista Social Club’s “Adiós Tour.” By this time, sadly, several of the legends who rocketed to worldwide fame in the 1990s were no longer with us, most notably Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén Gonzáles. Still, it was definitely worth the trip up to Highland Park to revel in nostalgia one more time.

There is one member of this club, however, who not only still walks the planet, but has no intention of saying adiós: Omara Portuondo. This year finds the legendary Cuban vocalist back out on the road for her “85 Tour,” named for the birthday that she will celebrate later this month. Don’t mistake this for another nostalgia fest, though. The world tour, which comes to Symphony Center on October 21, finds her accompanied by an all-star band of first rate jazz musicians, including American violinist Regina Carter, Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen and Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca, whose band (Yandy Martinez, Ramsés Rodríguez and Andrés Coayo) powers the rhythm section.

The standard narrative that accompanies the BVSC phenomenon is that these amazing artists were rescued from obscurity by Ry Cooder and filmmaker  Wim Wenders. There is some truth in that, but it doesn’t apply to all of its members. In fact, Portuondo was actively performing and recording in the years immediately preceding the release of the BVSC album and movie. She has been active separately from the group in the years since as well, singing with everyone from the flamenco star Diego El Cigala to American avant-garde saxophonist David Murray and Brazilian singer Maria Bethânia.

Magia Negra
Omara Portuondo circa 1959

Omara Portuondo was kind enough to answer a few of my questions via e-mail. The following responses have minor edits for clarity.

Don Macica – The common assumption in the United States is that your career, along with many of your colleagues in the film and album Buena Vista Social Club, was revived, even rescued by that project. It’s true that world wide fame followed it, but tell me a bit more about the years from 1967 up until the late 1990’s.

Omara Portuondo – Well, some of us were active. Actually I was invited to join the band because I was recording and they invited me to sing with Ibrahim Ferrer. I started [my career] dancing with my sister at the Tropicana, and from then I joined the Loquibamba, Cuarteto las D’aida, until the moment I recorded my first solo album in 1959, Magia Negra. I joined Orquesta Aragón in the 1970s [and] recorded albums with Adalberto Alvarez and Chucho Valdes… Some people do not know that, but I toured a lot before the success of Buena Vista.

(Editor’s Note: I did a bit of research, and there’s even more to the pre-BVSC years, including a 1983 documentary and being awarded an Alejo Carpentier Award for artistic achievement in 1988.)

DM – After over half a century of singing, what keeps you going? Has your work with younger musicians like Roberto Fonseca introduced another phase?

OP – Music is my life. It’s the source to keep going, along with my son and my granddaughter. I love what I do, and when this happens things are easier. Well, it does not mean that you have to be lazy. You have to work hard, but when things comes from your heart, people can feel it.

DM – You’ll be accompanied by a pair of incredible jazz musicians, Regina Carter and Anat Cohen, who aren’t particularly known for playing Latin music, although Cohen loves Brazilian choro. What can we expect from this collaboration and concert?

OP – Oh, I’m so excited and happy about this. For my 85th anniversary tour I wanted to invite artists that I admire and that could give a personal touch to the music. They are very talented and they understand perfectly the music connection. Your know, music is universal and we are simply enjoying so much of the reunion.

DM – Last summer’s BVSC tour was the “Adiós” tour, but you are still going strong. Any plans for retirement?

OP – Retirement? I’m just a young girl! There are some good things happening, a documentary movie, a lot of ideas, recordings… I’m grateful to do what I love most.
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Omara Portuondo at Symphony Center. Friday, October 21 at 8:00PM. Tickets at cso.org.

Harold López-Nussa: The next great Cuban jazz pianist?

Harold López-Nussa
photo: Eduardo Rodriguez

By Don Macica –

When producer and DJ Gilles Peterson went to Havana in 2009 to explore a new generation of young Cuban musicians for his first Havana Cultura project, he encountered plenty of vocalists with talent to burn. It was from that album that I first learned about Daymé Arocena, Melvis Santa, Telmary Diaz and Danay Suárez. Helping him find these talented artists was the Cuban-born pianist Roberto Fonseca, who had toured the world with the Buena Vista Social Club and released a handful of critically acclaimed albums. Tucked away among the many singers and rappers who populated the albums 27 tracks was one outlier: Jazz pianist Harold López-Nussa, who closed the album like a Cuban Herbie Hancock with the lively La Jungla.

Now, through some wonderful cosmic alignment, Chicago will host both López-Nussa and Fonseca in the next week. The latter is part of an all-star band supporting Omara Portuondo, but it’s Lopez-Nussa that is touring behind a brand new album, the terrific El Viaje (Mack Avenue Records), and leading his own trio at Evanston SPACE on October 19.

The conservatory-trained pianist has actually been on the scene for over a decade, and this is certainly not his first trip off the island. He can be heard supporting David Sánchez, Stefon Harris and Christian Scott on their Cuban excursion Ninety Miles, recorded in Havana in 2010. He, too, has toured the world with Omara Portuondo and other musicians associated with the Buena Vista Social Club. El Viaje, notably, is the first international release of a Cuba-based artist since the lifting of restrictions associated with the longstanding trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba, and López-Nussa’s subsequent U.S. tour follows in its wake.

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But enough of context. On to the music!

López-Nussa is a superb pianist regardless of whether he is hewing to traditional Cuban folkloric sources or straying farther afield to straight ahead jazz, pan-African influences (his bass player and sometimes singer Alune Wade hails from Senegal) or even into tango and other South American sounds. Tracks alternate between the serene and introspective (the title track and the breathtakingly lovely Oriente) to lively and percussive (Bacalao con Pan, Feria), but overall the feeling is relaxed, not frantic. It feels as though López-Nussa has already figured out that he doesn’t need to show off his virtuosity, but just play. To these ears, the record sounds something like Weather Report in their prime, with its comfortable coexistence of global influences residing in the same song, propelled along by Wade’s electric bass.

The same tune opens and closes the album, Me Voy pa’ Cuba. It appears first as a bright and cheerful danzón that morphs into some furious piano runs, then returns as the framework for a boisterous rumba jam. In between are stops on a journey that begins and ends in Havana, but finds plenty of inspiration along the way.
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Harold López-Nussa Trio, Wednesday, October 19, 7:30pm, Evanston SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave, Evanston. Tickets at evanstonspace.com

Preview: Caetano Veloso at Symphony Center

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By Don Macica –

There is a saying that goes something like this: If you live long enough, you become respectable. It’s a phrase that comes to mind almost every time I consider the life and music of Caetano Veloso. Revolutionary avant-gardist of the Tropicalia movement in the 1960s and forced into exile, he is now perhaps the ultimate Brazilian icon, on par with his hero, the late João Gilberto. It’s been that way since at least the 1980s, when he was described in the American press as something of a cross between the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson, a massively popular and influential musician that is also a poet and incisive observer of Brazilian society.

I’ve been fortunate to see Veloso in concert twice in the last twenty years, and both times he was accompanied by a full band supporting him with lush harmonics, Afro-Brazilian rhythms and bracing modernism. Now, on the heels of his appearance at the opening ceremonies of the Rio Olympics with his friend and fellow Tropicalia legend Gilberto Gil, Symphony Center is bringing him to Chicago with just his voice, guitar and one very special guest, samba singer Teresa Cristina, a respected artist in Brazil and founding member of the Carioca samba movement.

Caetano Veloso’s voice, at the age of 74, remains a supple and beautiful instrument. If anything, his phrasing is even better, in the manner of a jazz musician who never stops seeking the most meaningful way to play a series of notes. As an artist, Veloso is still something of an adventurer, seeking new sounds and youthful collaborators, as on his most recent studio release, Abraçaço.

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Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, circa 1970

A better indication to what to expect in this concert, though, might be his recent live album with Gilberto Gil, Dois Amigos, um Século de Música, in which the two old friends from Bahia are accompanied only by their own guitars, singing each others songs from the last 50 years along with favorites of theirs written by others.

Since the mid 1980s, Nonesuch Records has done North America a huge service by releasing Caetano Veloso’s albums here. Now, they are doing the same for Rio de Janeiro native Teresa Cristina, making her new Canta Cartola album, recorded live with guitarist Carlinhos Sete Cordas, available mere months after its Brazilian release. It’s a beautiful and intimately recorded document of a special night in Rio. Her Symphony Center appearance will find her accompanied by the guitarist as well.

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On Canta Cartola, Cristina eschews the exuberant rhythms and high energy level normally associated with samba, instead burrowing into the heart of the songs for the saudade within. Veloso will do much the same in this similarly intimate context, revisiting his 50 year catalog with the sort of nuance that can only come with the simplicity of voice and guitar.

Their Symphony Center show is one of only four scheduled in the United States, and two of them are in New York City. That alone makes this night a special one indeed.
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Caetano Veloso with Teresa Cristina, Symphony Center, Sunday October 16, 7:00PM. Tickets at CSO.org