Concert Review: ¡Súbelo! at World Music Festival Chicago

By Don Macica, photos by Charlie Billups

Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which helps present the city’s many free festivals along with other programming throughout the year, has increasingly recognized the growth and diversity of Chicago’s many Latino communities. It was not only appropriate, but savvy, that one of the first major shows of this year’s World Music Festival Chicago, falling on a weekend in which Central America nations and Mexico both celebrate their independence, would draw from Mexico, Peru and Puerto Rico for its first ever all-Latin American show. Dubbed “¡Súbelo! – A Celebration of Pan Latin Music & Culture”, it took place at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park.

Summer-like temperatures and abundant sunshine greeted Mexico City’s “Electrónica Regional Mexicana” band Centavrvs, cumbia amazónica pioneers Los Wemblers de Iquitos, and Puerto Rico’s Pirulo y la Tribu, whose 21st century salsa borrows elements from Cuban timba, hip-hop, bomba and R&B.

Centavrvs

Although a band like Centavrvs might seem to fall outside of Agúzate’s dedication to Afro-Latin music, their sound carries many tropical influences including cumbia, cha-cha-chá, danzón and even some vintage salsa, smoothly integrated into their widescreen corrido-like narratives. That’s not surprising, given the way that cumbia has migrated across Latin America and the Caribbean influences that enter Mexico through the port city of Veracruz.

This is, by my count, Centavrvs third visit to Chicago, the first one being at the much missed Celebrate Clark Street Festival in Rogers Park and the second paired with Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno at a 2017 Millennium Park Summer Music Series show. Each time the band comes their sound gets a little bigger and more compelling, and this time around they’ve added a Venezuelan percussionist to the mix to bring the tropical elements more to the foreground. Electronic effects and samples blended seamlessly with guitar, bass and drums to powerful effect.

Los Wemblers de Iquitos

When cumbia reached Peru from Colombia in the late 1960s, it found a receptive audience among the country’s marginalized, indigenous population, who blended it with local sounds and a big helping of rock guitar. This was certainly true in urban centers like Lima, but no less so in seemingly isolated towns deep in the Amazon. It was there that a genre variously known as chicha, psychedelic cumbia and cumbia amazónica was taken up in the town of Iquitos by Los Wemblers. The veteran ensemble made several classics in the 1970s, including one that served as yet another name for the genre: Sonido Amazonico. They were discovered by a wider audience earlier in this century after Barbès Records included some of their songs in their “Roots of Chicha” compilation. Collaborations with the Meridian Brothers and Dengue Dengue Dengue led to them recording the brand-new album “Vision del Ayahuasca” for Barbès and now a world tour.

After a mid-tempo start, Los Wemblers quickly picked up the pace, mixing their 40-year-old classics with new tunes that matched their exuberant spirit and experimental tendencies, relishing the opportunity to play in front of an audience diverse in both age and national identity. The band would have had the crowd dancing in the aisles had the Millennium Park security let them. Instead, they danced in their seats, enthusiastically singing along.

The sun was beginning to set behind the Chicago skyline when one of Puerto Rico’s hottest groups took the stage. Pirulo y la Tribu are a salsa band, but one that generously welcomes other influences, including its Cuban cousin timba, boricua sources both traditional (bomba) and more recent (reggaeton), and American style R&B and hip-hop. They are a perfect example of how a music moves forward and thrives without abandoning its roots. After all, that’s what salsa was in its early days, a new way of absorbing and interpreting diverse Afro-Caribbean and American sources into something new and relevant to an urban audience. It’s not all that different than what Los Wembler’s did back then and Centavrvs do today.

Francisco “Pirulo” Rosado

Francisco “Pirulo” Rosado is a percussionist by training and a showman by nature. In La Tribu, he’s assembled a 10-person juggernaut that he leads from his custom-made timbales. Pirulo keeps the pace accelerated with a clave that manages to squeeze an extra beat into the 2/3 form somewhere between the 4 & 5. The band’s lineup doesn’t stray too far from the classic: three horns, three coro singers, a conguero, keyboardist and Pirulo’s timbales. The extra jolt comes from electric guitar, bass guitar and Pirulo himself, whose gruff vocals exhort both the band and the crowd higher and higher. Once again, the audience was up and dancing pretty much from the first note. A standout moment occurred when the band switched gears to do a straight up bomba number led by coro singer Chamir Bonano’s powerful voice. There was a little tinkering for modernization’s sake, but the spirit and authenticity were a clear signifier of Pirulo’s reverence for his roots.

Pirulo y la Tribu

Pirulo’s set had people dancing throughout the park, and eventually security relented enough to allow some aisle dancing down in front. Ever the master of ceremonies, he peppered the songs with audience chant-along interludes, gradually building each to a climax before turning the band loose to keep up with his hyper-drive clave. At the end, the crowd got their “otra” without excessive delay, and the whole day closed on a very high note.

Puerto Rico, unlike the countries represented by the other bands at Súbelo, is certainly not celebrating its independence this week. There is an anniversary on the horizon, though, marking 2 years since Hurricane María devastated the island. Pirulo’s set, though, was the opposite of somber. Instead, it celebrated resilience, pride, determination, spirit, and even gratitude, all of it expressed in his audience chant, “Gracias… Thank you!”

World Music Festival Chicago continues through September 29. For a complete schedule, visit worldmusicfestivalchicago.org

Appreciation: SRBCC’s 45th Anniversary Celebration

SRBCC music
Clockwise from upper left: Buya, Pirulo y la Tribu, Roy McGrath, Arawak’Opia

By Don Macica, Photos by Charlie Billups –

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.

Francisco "Pirulo" Rosado and Omar Torres-Kortright
Francisco “Pirulo” Rosario and Omar Torres-Kortright

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 Cangrejeros de Santurce 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.