By Don Macica
Photos by Elías Carmona and Charlie Billups
At 47 years and counting, Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center (SRBCC) is the longest-standing Latino cultural center in Chicago. Its rich history of service to the Puerto Rican community and tireless promotion of the island’s music and culture runs deep and long. The centro has brought countless important Puerto Rican artists and musicians to Chicago over the decades.
Still, after Friday, September 21, I have a suspicion that SRBCC’s story will always be told in terms of “before” and “after”. That’s the day that multiple Grammy Nominee and Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow Miguel Zenón and the Spektral Quartet presented their brand new album Yo Soy la Tradición to the world for the very first time with a benefit concert for the Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts. The fund was established by SRBCC to help struggling artists whose lives were severely impacted by Hurricane Maria.
I interviewed Miguel Zenón for Agúzate about the history of his new work and why he and Spektral chose to debut the album as a benefit for Puerto Rico. You can read that here. Still, nothing, including having had the privilege of hearing the album prior to its release and experiencing its only other public performance two years ago at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, quite prepared me for the moving performance at SRBCC. The depth and richness of feeling and extraordinary musicianship conveyed the very soul of Puerto Rico, whose cultural and musical traditions provided the source material for Zenón’s compositions. The saxophonist kept his between movement commentary brief, but heartfelt. From where I was sitting, it appeared that Zenón and the members of Spektral were moved and inspired by their surroundings.
Two wonderful Puerto Rican photographers who live in Chicago, Elías Carmona and Charlie Billups, were there to capture the scene. They are much more intimate with Puerto Rico than I, who only know of the island through my visits and interactions with the friends I’ve made with Puerto Ricans both there and here in Chicago. I thought it was only right to give them the last word along with their images, so I’ll leave the rest of this article to them.
“Miguel Zenón’s music is full of images and brings me reminiscences of my life in the place I was born and grew up. In my opinion, he truly represents the essence of the Puerto Rican music and I love the way he fuses it with other musical influences. What great performance! It was one of the best shows I ever attended and photographed at SRBCC.”
“Miguel Zenón and the Spektral Quartet, two GRAMMY-nominated performers together with a worthwhile cause in a performance venue like no other: Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Hermosa. I was touched by Zenón’s decision to release his latest project at SRBCC to raise money for Art projects affected by Hurricane Maria. The performance was flawless, crisp, rich and a cross of classic with the rich vibe of Puerto Rico in Zenón’s sax. It raised the bar for Segundo Ruiz Belvis into a new dimension as a world-class music venue.”
Finally, I’m including a video courtesy of SRBCC that includes part of the final movement of Yo Soy La Tradicion, “Villabeño”.
In September of 2016, jazz composer and alto saxophone player Miguel Zenón premiered a new composition at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. The Puerto Rico-born musician has used the music and culture of his home (and its corresponding diaspora in the U.S.) as conceptual source material for album length explorations ever since his 2005 release Jíbaro. Several more albums followed over the next decade, including Esta Plena, Alma Adentro, Oye! Live in Puerto Rico and Identities Are Changeable. With the exception of Oye!, which was more overt in its Latin instrumentation, all of these works were written with Zenón’s core jazz quartet (Luis Perdomo, Hans Glawischnig and Henry Cole) as its principal means of expression.
Yo Soy la Tradición, commissioned by Hyde Park’s David and Reva Logan Center for the Arts and the Festival, also mines Puerto Rican traditions for its subject material, but this time around the writing was in collaboration with the Chicago based classical new music ensemble Spektral Quartet (Clara Lyon, Maeve Feinberg, Doyle Armbrust and Russell Rolen). The concert was warmly received, and a year later Zenón returned to Chicago to enter the studio with Spektral. The album that resulted is a collection of 8 works for alto sax and string quartet that derive from Puerto Rico’s cultural, religious and musical traditions, yet sound startlingly fresh and contemporary. There are echoes of older Spanish traditions like flamenco (the hand claps on Cadenza are clearly inspired by flamenco, but not unrelated to composer Steve Reich’s Clapping Music) and dances that preceded the island’s European colonization, but also jagged harmonies, rapid minimalist rhythmic sections and beautifully lyrical passages that recall, to these ears, Zenón’s playing on Alma Adentro‘s boleros. The quartet is fully integrated into each movement, never merely a backup band to a sax player.
The CD will be released September 21 and celebrated with a concert at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center that will benefit Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts.
“My starting point for Tradición was studying the folkloric music of Puerto Rico and identifying the elements that make it unique, then extract that and use it without emulating it.” I’m speaking to Miguel Zenón by phone as he is heading to the airport for a flight to Buenos Aires to participate in an Astor Piazzolla festival. “Then I spent time studying classical chamber works from various periods until I felt ready to start writing. My early training as a player was in classical music, so I was at least familiar with it, but I didn’t begin studying it intently until much later when I started writing my own music.
“Writing for strings was a different and more challenging process than writing for my jazz quartet,” says Zenón. “We’re a working band and we know each other very well. When I’m writing for them I have a sound in mind that I know they can do, so even if it’s a difficult passage I’m confident that it can be played well.
“I had been a guest musician on one of Spektral Quartet’s albums and enjoyed working with them,” Zenón continues. “So I knew they were terrific and creative musicians, but I was still unfamiliar with the technical capabilities of string instruments. So I would write passages and send them to Spektral and I would get feedback like ‘This part is great but it would be hard on our instruments to do this part here.’ They would make suggestions based on those sorts of things.”
I asked Zenón about the intersection of folkloric, jazz and classical music. “First of all, I’m a jazz musician, so there’s always an element of improvisation even when the writing is formal. But I’m also a Puerto Rican jazz musician. Puerto Rican music is an integral part of who I am. Lastly, even when I’m writing for jazz instrumentation, I’m aware of and applying harmonic and structural concepts learned from classical and new music composers. A string quartet is just a more identifiably classical format.”
As it happened, the long-reserved studio time booked to record the CD was scheduled just days after Hurricane María struck Puerto Rico. Thus it was that Miguel Zenón found himself in Chicago for three days beginning September 22, 2017.
“We were in the studio in Chicago just after María struck, so obviously it was on our minds while we were recording. So the CD will always be connected to that.”
Spektral Quartet just published a moving blog post on their website, describing the atmosphere at sessions and describing how Zenón would call home repeatedly during breaks trying to get updates at a time when much of the island was flooded and without power. It also touched on how artists play through adversity. The post, titled Why our album release is a benefit for Puerto Rico, states “Puerto Rico is home to vital and unique artistic traditions, and we hope to make a small but meaningful improvement in the lives of these artists.”
“At the same time I was calling home for updates,” Zenón says, “I was also calling musician friends in California to organize a benefit concert there. Later on I did one in Boston and another in New York. Spektral wanted to do something here and asked me if I knew somewhere in the community that would host. I immediately thought of Segundo Ruiz Belvis.”
This is not Miguel Zenón’s first visit to SRBCC. In May of 2016, the saxophonist preceded a full big band performance of Identities Are Changeable at the Logan Center with a community event at SRBCC that explained the concept of Identities (an exploration of identity and community of U.S. born Puerto Ricans) and included informal performances with the center’s youth ensemble, Chicago-based Puerto Rican saxophonist Roy McGrath, and local bomba powerhouses Bomba con Buya.
“I learned about the Centro years ago when I first started to come to Chicago to play the Jazz Showcase with David Sánchez’ band. I would always head to Humboldt Park to eat some food, hang out, buy records. I would hear about this place that was keeping the culture alive. Then about 3 or 4 years ago I was here for a Chicago Jazz Festival appearance and after my set I went to the neighborhood to jam with some salseros at Festival Boricua. It was there I met Omar.”
Omar is SRBCC Executive Director Omar Torres-Kortright [Full disclosure: Torres-Kortright is also a co-founder of Agúzate]. Zenón continues, “He told me about the Chamaco Ramirez documentary that he was working on and his work at the Centro. Then the University of Chicago chose them as the community partner for my Identities concert at the Logan, so I had the opportunity to go out there and see it first-hand.
“So it was an easy choice to do our benefit there.”
I’m speaking with Miguel a week after he returned from several days in Puerto Rico as an Artist in Residence at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico in San Juan. I ask him how things are there a full year after María.
“The infrastructure is a little better. Most people have electricity and running water. But deeper than that, there is still a struggle. There is still stuff to be fixed, but one thing that is obvious when you talk to people is that there is still a lot of trauma. People are traumatized. It is a deep experience that will influence a generation. But the overall situation is deeper than just the hurricane. A lot of negative things like the economic situation had been building for a while, and what the hurricane did was bring them to the surface.”
“What it boils down, too, at least in my opinion, is the political situation,” Zenón continues. “Puerto Rico continues to be in limbo. We’re connected to the states, but we don’t have the benefits of being a state. We have our own government, culture and language, but we are not a free country. And even our government isn’t really in charge because they have to answer to a fiscal control board created in the U.S.
“There is a realization shared by more people now that this limbo can’t continue because it isn’t working. Whether that is statehood or independence is open to debate, but the current situation is clearly not sustainable.”
What is clear is that, one year post-María, Puerto Rico is far from healed, and help is still needed. The particular fund for this benefit concert helps artists who, in many cases, are finding their roles more important than ever on this traumatized island. It doesn’t matter if that role explicitly addresses coping and constructive analysis or simply a balm from harsh daily realities. Both are vital as Puerto Rico heads into year two and an uncertain future.
Miguel Zenón & Spektral Quartet: Yo Soy la Tradición A Benefit for Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago Friday, September 21, 7pm $20 general admission, $50 and $100 VIP tickets available Tickets at segundoruizbelvis.org
For every star of salsa music, there are a dozen of unsung heroes that, despite their immense talents, are lesser known, providing the necessary support for the star to shine. Quick: How many salsa horn players can you name? Beyond Willie Colón and those who are primarily known as Latin jazz musicians, you are likely to have to think for a while. But a salsa song without horns would feel empty, and the same goes for the lead vocalists and most certainly the coro singers.
Jerry Medina is all three: A dynamic lead vocalist, expert coro singer and talented trumpet player. With the formation of Jerry Medina y La Banda earlier this decade, he became a terrific bandleader as well. His name might not immediately come to mind, but a deep perusal of your record collection will find him turning up all over the place. He’s appeared on something like 50 albums since 1981 (up to and including the recent Grammy-nominated Fase Dos by Juan Pablo Diaz), including releases by Ismael Miranda, José “El Canario” Alberto, Oscar d’Leon, Cheo Feliciano and more. He has a pair of Grammy Awards on his shelf for Palmieri’s 1987 album The Truth / La Verdad and the 2000 collaboration between Palmieri & Tito Puente, Masterpiece. When the stars of Fania regrouped for world tours in the 1980s and 90s, Medina was there with them.
Medina released a couple of solo albums in the 1980s, but a more lasting contribution came as a member of Batacumbele, a groundbreaking and deeply rooted Afro-Caribbean ensemble where he both played trumpet and sang lead. The group is notable for being entirely Puerto Rican at a time when people were looking to Cuba for new sounds, but one listen reveals a sprawling collective that more than held their own with their Cuban counterparts like Irakere.
Medina was in the studio throughout the 90s and into the new millennium providing support for many of the big crossover Latin records of that decade, but he always kept one foot in the world of improvisational and folkloric music with groups like Descarga Boricua, bomba legends Hermanos Ayala and Grupo Afro Boricua.
He came into his own as a bandleader and lead singer in the 2000s with the formation of Jerry Medina y La Banda. The group bridges Caribbean folklore and Latin jazz in an updated version of Batacumbele’s template, and even flexes some funk & hip-hop chops. They made an electrifying appearance at the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival in March 2014. In 2015 Medina and La Banda released A Mi Manera, which included the talents of Giovanni Hidalgo, Paoli Mejías, Efraín Toro, Pablo Rosario, Luisito Marín, Prodigio Claudio, and Ricardo Pons.
A Mi Manera is a stylistically diverse collection of songs that ranges from jazzy big band sounds (complete with scatted vocals) to driving timba to a radical reworking of the Rafael Hernandez classic Capullito de Alelí. The title track is not,thankfully, a cover of the Paul Anka chestnut but an original composition that is Medina’s manifesto for the group. You can hear a little bit of lots of stuff in it: A cuatro solo for the traditionalists, a rap, some scratching, a swinging horn chart, funk bass, Medina’s scatting and a snaky, shifting rhythm pattern. This is indeed Medina’s way.
It’s a tribute to Medina’s talent, energy and spirit that, after 35+ years in the business, he can come up with something this fresh and contemporary that still manages to be an extension of the great salsa records that he’s contributed to over the years. In the process, he honors Puerto Rican creativity, culture and music.
Jerry Medina y La Banda Wednesday, August 29, 8:30pm: Old Town School of Folk Music oldtownschool.org Thursday, August 30, 7:30pm: Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center srbcc.org Both shows are free with a suggested $10 donation
ÌFÉ, the “Future Afro-Caribeña” project from Puerto Rico led by drummer/producer/singer Otura Mun, last came to Chicago in July of 2017 for an acoustic show at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, an organization that they have longstanding ties to. They had been to Chicago twice before, most recently right after the release of their well-received first album, IIII+IIII, (pronounced “Edgy-Og-Beh”). You can read Agúzate’s review of that album here. The group, which also consists of Beto Torrens, Rafael Maya, Anthony Sierra and Yarimir Cabán, was tacking on a free show as something of a gift to Chicago at the end of a U.S. tour before going their separate ways for a bit.
Little did they know that the short break would turn into a lengthy hiatus after Hurricanes Irma and Maria delivered a near knockout blow to Puerto Rico in September, leaving some members of the band stranded on the mainland and forcing others to depart the island for their own safety.
The band essentially went silent for a few months. Band members stayed busy with their own projects and Mun would occasionally surface in the press with an interview. December found IIII+IIII showing up on virtually everybody’s end of the year “Best of” lists, from NPR Music to outlets covering dance and electronic music to folk music publications like England’s Songlines. By February the band was rehearsing in preparation for a Mexican tour and a double-bill with M.A.K.U. Soundsystem at BRIC, a cultural arts center in Brooklyn. They also found time to stop by the NPR studios in Washington, D.C. to tape a Tiny Desk Concert.
Now ÌFÉ is starting a tour that will eventually take them to the Kennedy Center in Washington and Central Park Summer Stage in New York, but their first stop is in Chicago. They will be back at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center this Friday night for their third ÌFÉ Acústico, a casual yet invigorating rumba session that usually ends in an all hands on deck jam that crosses from rumba to bomba and back again. They’ll be in concert at Navy Pier the following afternoon at LatiNxt, a new 2-day festival that explores new ways of connecting traditional Latin music with modern sounds.
I spoke with Otura Mun last week as he was preparing to travel from his home in Santurce, Puerto Rico for Cuba in order to continue the spiritual studies that led Mun, an African American from Indiana born with the name Mark Underwood, to become an Ifá priest or Babalawo in the Yoruba religion in 2015.
DM: First of all, congratulations on the success of your first album. It’s pretty amazing to have a debut gain all that international acclaim. Why do you think that album resonated with so many different people and was greeted so warmly?
OM: Well, I think there are a few things. First of all, we sing in three different languages; English, Spanish and Yoruba. There are three points of intersection language-wise, so we’re not put in one camp. We’re not only seen as a Latin American band. In fact, some of the biggest and most interesting reactions to our Tiny Desk performance came from Nigeria. I also think that I myself don’t fit neatly into the pre-determined cultural nooks and crannies, so personal and musical influences show up in the songwriting and structure that appeal to more than one group. But those are technical things. Bigger than that, I think, is that the record was always meant to be inclusive and easily readable, even if you didn’t understand the language. The intent of the record was to communicate love and expansion.
Here’s an example: I bumped into a guy in a bar the other night. He’s a musician, but in a style that I’m not really into. I don’t really know him, but he pulled me aside to say, “Hey man, I listen to your record all the time… it puts me in a place that I really like to be.” That was very satisfying; it was something that I hoped to achieve. I know that when I was developing my ideas for the band, I got “professional” advice to sort of trim my vision, to target it this way or that. But I needed to be honest to myself. When we made the video for “3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé)” everybody told me to cut out the lengthy introduction of the band members, but I thought that it was important and in a way it was my homage to Yoruba Andabo. And it did take a few months before outlets started to add it. But I don’t regret it for a moment, because it was important for me to do it the way we did it.
DM: Many of Aguzate’s readers are deeply and personally connected to Puerto Rico, so we all looked on with collective horror at Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. I remember the relief I felt when the band posted on social media that everyone was safe, and then I started seeing individual members posting from different places around the U.S. and world. How did all that affect you as people, as Puerto Ricans and of course as an artistic ensemble based in Santurce?
OM: Well, actually, I wasn’t there when the hurricanes struck. After we completed our summer tour, I went to Europe to work on a project, stopped home for a day in August to produce a song for MIMA (the solo artistic persona of ÌFÉ member Yarimir Cabán) and then went to California. So, just like you, I didn’t hear anything for days, then slowly began to hook up with friends and band members. It was hard to get information. I remember seeing pictures on the internet of my street and it was total devastation. It was hard, but most of what I know about that time I learned from the accounts of others. We all didn’t get back together until February so we could rehearse for the Mexico and Brooklyn dates.
I live in the barrio, right, and there is a degree of lawlessness here that’s greater than before Maria. The electricity might be back on, but not all the street lights work. You can turn a corner and be in total darkness. You have to watch out. That attitude applies to the police, too. It’s like what the black community experiences in the States, but with even more impunity.
On the other hand, people have come together to help each other because there was nobody else, and there seems to be a movement toward more unity. The economic situation and the hurricane laid Puerto Rico’s colonial status bare and I think more people are waking up to that.
It’s always been hard to make it as an independent artist here, or as a folkloric artist. Even salsa suffers from that. If you’re not doing reggaeton, you will have a tough go of it. So in that way, things are the same. On the other hand, the international community is paying much more attention to Puerto Rico since the hurricane, so there are more opportunities for us to tell our stories.
Puerto Rico is where I want to be, despite all the difficulties. These are the people that I’ve been around for 20 years, and I think we are also closer than ever to getting a grip on our situation and making changes for the better.
DM: Are you working on new material? I’ve seen hints of a technology upgrade on the band’s Facebook page and wondering what we’ll be hearing at Navy Pier.
OM: We’ve been working a lot to bring our live performance to a higher level. We want our show to be impactful and somewhat challenging, not what you’ve seen before. We have a new dancer in the group, a woman from Mexico City named Pia Love, who’s traveled to Nigeria, Brazil, Cuba, India, Jamaica… that makes her familiar with my main influences and she brings all that to our collaboration. I’m almost going for a theatrical presentation with our live show.
Musically, there will be a new record, maybe later this year. I’ve spent a lot of time making notes and ideas for new songs. I’ve got 6 notebooks! I already know what the next record is going to be about. We are testing a new single in front of audiences, so we’ll be opening shows with it. Chicago will be the first place that people will get to experience this new stuff.
ÌFÉ in Chicago
ÌFÉ Acústico | Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center | Friday June 15 @ 7:30pm | Advance Tickets at segundoruizbelvis.org
LatiNxt presented by Sol | Navy Pier | Saturday June 16 @ 3pm (LatiNxt begins at 2pm) | Information at Facebook
Unless you are a musician deeply involved in Chicago’s salsa scene, you may not have heard of Nathan Rodriguez. If, like me, you are an audience member that pays more attention to congueros than singers, though, you’ve likely taken notice of his skill and regular presence without knowing his name.
That all started to change in the last year as Rodriguez began stepping out as a bandleader with two projects, Conjunto Borikén and ¡Azúcar!, a Celia Cruz tribute band. A casual observer might think that Rodriguez is the new kid on the block, but it turns out that the Chicago-born Puerto Rican musician has been at this for quite a while.
“I joined my first professional band, La Unica, in 2000 at the age of 16, but I had already been playing bongos since the age of 11 and congas at 13, learning from my friend and mentor Daniel Feliciano after our church services. At the age of 16, I also joined a Salsa Ministry band called Orchestra Ebenezer as a conguero, and I still play with them today as their bassist.”
Nathan and I are enjoying a late breakfast and some café con leche at Señor Pan, a Cuban restaurant near his home. “But I wasn’t really serious about it,” he continues, “I had talent and a feel, but I couldn’t read music, which is a necessary skill if you want to really be a professional.”
Then, at the age of 19, Rodriguez was suddenly married with a child and working double shifts to make ends meet. That left little time for music. “I was still playing a little, subbing with Orquesta Sabor and the Angel Melendez 911 Mambo Orchestra, but I wasn’t advancing. After a couple of years I decided I didn’t want that for my life and that I had a hunger to study music.”
Mentors and advocates are an important part of any professional experience, and this is certainly the case in a music career. In Rodriguez’ case, it was the highly regarded percussionist Rubén Alvarez, who is a faculty member at the VanderCook College of Music. Recognizing Nathan’s raw talent and hunger for improvement, Alvarez, his wife Susan Frost and another VanderCook faculty member, Marc Jacoby, spoke to the president of the college on his behalf. In 2004, Rodriguez was accepted to VanderCook on a probationary basis, owing to his inability to read music.
Thus began “the hardest 5 years of my personal life with financial struggles, raising a family, and learning how to read and perform on orchestral instruments,” says Rodriguez. “However, I fell in love with all my learning and new experiences, learned what I wanted to learn musically, pulled through and graduated in 2009.”
Fortified with his new skills and knowledge, Rodriguez began transcribing his own music and formed his first band, the short-lived Orquesta Rumbaye. At VanderCook, he had learned to play piano, bass, vibraphone, trombone, guitar and ukulele in addition to several more percussion instruments. Of these, he paid special attention to the bass, acquiring a baby bass and advancing enough that he was able to freelance professionally as a bassist as well as percussionist, most notably in Rico Obsesión. He also joined Son de la Habana as a conguero, who he still plays with to this day. He’s recently turned up supporting other local projects as well, like the Chicago debut of Grammy-nominated salsa singer Juan Pablo Diaz and a tribute show to Puerto Rican songwriting legend Rafael Hernández.
In 2017, Rodriguez felt the time was right to become a leader again with not one, but two new projects. The first of these was a long held vision to form a traditional conjunto style salsa band. “It was a style that I grew up loving, that New York-Puerto Rico sound best epitomized by Conjunto Classico and Johnny Pacheco. Nobody in Chicago was playing with that style or instrumentation. It’s a favorite for all salsa lovers. True salseros know conjunto is not easy to play but is full of flavor.” Thus was born Conjunto Borikén, a nine person ensemble featuring three trumpets, bongos, congas, bass, keyboards, a singer and, as a slight deviation from the norm, a Puerto Rican cuatro instead of the Cuban tres.
Rodriguez explains, “The cuatro‘s sound makes any Puerto Rican smile and remember the island. I chose to add a cuatro because I wanted to incorporate the jibaro sounds of the island to our music, giving that ‘ummff’ of more Puerto Rican flavor in our sound. Also,” he adds with a laugh, “There are no Puerto Rican tres players in Chicago!”
The other project started out as a chance meeting with the Colombia-born singer Claudia La Gitana. “I heard Claudia sing at 90 Miles Cuban Café a year and a half ago, and I was dumbfounded. I asked her if she liked Celia Cruz, and she said, ‘Yes, I love Celia, she’s my idol, I know all her hits by memory.’ I told her right then and there, I want to put together a band just for you because your voice needs to be heard and you deserve a 5-star band!”
That was the beginning of ¡Azúcar! – A Celia Cruz Tribute Project. Rodriguez put together another classic salsa band to back up Claudia’s powerful voice. This band has a harder, more urban edge than Conjunto Borikén. And, whereas Rodriguez is the bongocero in Borikén, he moves over to bass for Azúcar. Both bands were on the bill at Mike Oquendo’s recent Sunday Salsa Social tribute to the legends of Fania.
Nathan Rodriguez is fully confident in his talent, abilities and musicianship, but overall, he gives off a humble vibe of gratefulness. He is a music teacher at Nathan Davis Elementary School in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, passing on the lessons he learned and encouraging the love of music in the next generation. On the other end, both of his professional bands are packed with veterans of Chicago’s salsa scene. It’s worth noting that some of these players gave Nathan his first opportunities when he was breaking into the business, including his childhood friend and mentor, Daniel Feliciano.
“I’m extremely grateful to the guys that gave me a break when I was just a kid,” says Rodriguez. “They gave me opportunities when they didn’t have to, and were generous with their time and sharing their craft with me. And, of course, they are incredible musicians. I knew I needed them when I formed Borikén and Azúcar. It’s very gratifying to share this experience with them.”
If you’ve ever been to a festival or event in Chicago’s Puerto Rican community where artists are selling merchandise, you have likely encountered photographer Elías Carmona and his work. The images that he captures are compelling, detailed and, above all, profoundly humanistic. The subjects are often people, but there are also non-animate objects that tell their stories as well.
Carmona has an exhibit opening at the Humboldt Park Boathouse Gallery this Friday, February 16 (it was originally scheduled for last week, but one of Chicago’s capricious winter storms literally blew away those plans) entitled Humboldt Park: People and Community. I reached out to Carmona with a few questions about him and his work.
DM: Are you self-taught or did you study photography? If the latter, where?
EC: Yes. I’m a self-taught photographer. I became interested in cameras and as a teenager while working during summer at my uncle’s fonda in Santurce. I went to Rahola (a popular camera store) when I was 16 and got my first camera. By that time I had a friend that was studying photography and he gave me my first lessons. Later on, I was attending the University of Puerto Rico where I worked as a photo lab technician at the university library and also the assistant photographer at a horse racetrack. Later I was able to work for a few photo studios as a lab technician and that gave me the opportunity to learn and expand my knowledge in the field.
DM: Your work had a documentary and photo journalism aspect, but it is also can be artful and carefully composed. What has influenced this direction?
EC: The work of the photographer Jack Delano, definitely his work gave me a lot of inspiration. [Ed. note: Delano was an American photographer working for the Farm Services Administration who went to Puerto Rico in 1941. He returned in 1946 on a Guggenheim Fellowship, then stayed permanently and spent the next 40 years as a photographer, documentary film maker and composer.] Another person was Axel Santana. He was the director of the University photo lab and also the son of one of the master photographers on the Island.
DM: When and at what age did you move to Chicago? Why did you move here?
EC: I moved to Chicago in August of 2007, when I was 34 years old. I had established a connection with the Humboldt Park community in 2004 while visiting during the summers to participate in presenting my work with other artists from the Island during the Puerto Rican festivities. Then I had the opportunity to work in the photo documentation of the community of Humboldt Park and at the community high school (Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School).
DM: Much of you work centers on the island of Puerto Rico and its cultural manifestations in Chicago, but you’ve also included images from Chiapas, Mexico. Is there a larger idea at the center of your work?
EC: The human condition, the beauty of nature, the displacement, how culture can unify, the humor, seeing the past in the present day…. That is what I try to capture and show with my work.
DM: Your Instagram and Facebook feeds have some great images as well, and I know you were recently in Jamaica. Most of these are shot on an iPhone. Is that sort of a sub-genre of photography? Are you after anything different with these than your more formal works?
EC: Thanks. I have been using the iPhone for a little more than a year and I opened my Instagram account at about the same time. I’m a late bloomer to this idea of immediately of posting images using social media platforms. And yes, I’m fascinated by the possibilities this gives to the photographer to showcase their work. I’m now in the process of digitizing the negatives of the images I took while still living in Puerto Rico that were shot on film from the early 90s to mid-2006.
I went to Jamaica on a family vacation. While there, I had the chance to walk around and take photos using my phone and doing some “study.” Using a phone instead of a camera provides a certain discretion and doesn’t call attention at all. But, yes, I’m always curious to catch an interesting image that shows what I see in the moment.
All images courtesy of Elías Carmona
Humboldt Park: People and Community, Photos by Elías Carmona. Humboldt Park Boathouse Gallery, 1301 N. Sacramento Avenue, Chicago. Opening reception February 16 at 6PM (Facebook event link). The exhibit will be up for two weeks.
Drummer Henry Cole is well known in the jazz world. The native of Mayagüez, Puerto Rico has recorded and toured with the likes of David Sánchez, Gary Burton and the 90 Miles project, and he is a permanent member of the Miguel Zenón Quartet. He’s lived in New York City for more than a decade, where he’s active in the city’s rich jazz scene, but when he turns his attention to his own projects, he finds inspiration back home on the Island.
His first album as a leader, Roots Before Branches, was a sprawling collection of funk rhythms, spoken word, folkloric percussion and jazz horn lines that all swirled around Cole’s inventive and powerful drumming. The band was called the Afrobeat Collective because of the loose jamming structure inspired by Fela Kuti’s work in the 70s and 80s. Their December 2012 Mayne Stage show in Chicago (it was presented as part of Agúzate’s Afro-Caribbean Improvisational Music Festival) was a concert highlight of that year.
Cole and his band, the 14-piece band Villa Locura, create what Cole calls Interstellar Puerto Rican Funk. “Villa Locura are inspired by my land and the things I miss when I’m away from my roots, away from the coast of Puerto Rico, the feeling of not having to rush and not feeling stress at all, just joy,” says Cole. “At the same time, there is a global influence on the sound, just as African music inspired Cuban and Puerto Rican folkloric music and that in turn became a basis for mambo and son, which then gave rise to Latin jazz and later salsa when it reached New York.”
Cole and I spoke a few weeks ago as he was preparing to release El Diablo, the first single from sessions that he and Villa Locura recorded at New York’s famed Electric Lady Studios. Those sessions produced over a dozen tracks that will eventually be released as an album entitled Simple. Cole gathered an international cast of musicians at Electric Lady, many from the jazz world, but also percussionists from Puerto Rico and Cuba. Villa Locura, like the Afrobeat Collective, is a large ensemble, and here, too, there is space for the musicians to jam and build the songs together.
El Diablo was written over 60 years ago by the legendary Puerto Rican songwriter Rafael Hernández, but Cole’s version was inspired by a recording of it found on Ray Barretto’s 1973 Fania album Indestructible, and it features the same lead vocalist from that record, Tito Allen. What Cole has done with Villa Locura is to locate the DNA that both the original Hernández and Barretto recordings share: The folkloric Puerto Rican bomba rhythm, then build the track back up from there.
The result is a churning and very funky track that retains the contours of Barretto’s horn arrangement and Allen’s vocals (which have aged into a rougher but deeply expressive timbre) but sounds almost entirely different due the corp of bomberos laying the foundation, Cole’s inventive use of the drum kit and twin electric guitars that alternately play in and around the melody. It finds time for a sizzling Fender Rhodes solo from Luis Perdomo before the horns come wailing back in. Meanwhile, Allen’s vocal improvisations are the sound of a man having the time of his life.
It’s definitely not salsa.
“My love for Diablo starts with my love for Ray Barretto which comes from studying my idol Giovanni Hidalgo,” says Cole by way of explaining his choice of El Diablo as the first release from Villa Locura. “If you study Ray Barretto, Indestructible is perhaps the first thing you’ll learn. If you play percussion, that timbale solo on (the song) Indestructible and all of Barretto’s conga solos are something that you’ll memorize and imitate. Ray Barretto is a master and Indestructible is his masterpiece.”
When I note that Indestructible and the prime years of Fania were over by the time he was born, Cole schools me on the huge ongoing presence of that music. “If you are connected to Puerto Rican culture and its music, you just can’t avoid Fania… the original Fania is for Latin music what Blue Note label is for jazz. Some music stays new forever. Same thing happens with all of Cortijo’s albums with Ismael Rivera.”
On equal footing with Fania in El Diablo is the 4-person percussion section that drives the tune. Three of them are Puerto Ricans playing bomba (among them is Beto Torrens, who you might recognize from last year’s critically lauded album by ÌFÉ, IIII + IIII) while the rhythmic accents come from a Cuban rumba tradition.
I ask Cole about folkloric traditions where he grew up. “Mayagüez is one of the most important cities of Puerto Rico regarding bomba and plena and at some point all major artists in popular music in Puerto Rico and in New York were from Mayagüez. So my background is very, very rich and powerful. But,” he adds, “when I was a kid I didn’t know that. I was playing ska and all types of rock and Latin jazz. It was later on while I was in San Juan that I started exposing myself to folklore and I discovered that I have a profound love for it. Then I realized that some of the most important folkloric figures in Mayagüez studied with my family and that some of the younger exponents were even friends of mine!”
I note that Villa Locura and his previous band, the Afrobeat Collective, share many similarities, even some of the same members, so I ask Henry about the difference. “Having ‘afrobeat’ in the name of the group was causing confusion, as many people regarded that word as a style of play, a specific sound and pattern, whereas my intent was one of spirit. While it’s true that I was referencing Fela, I wasn’t copying him, because the Puerto Rican element was very important too. The name Villa Locura immediately takes my music out of the Afrobeat box. Fela is still an influence, but it’s not as obvious now. I’ve brought more of a Puerto Rican identity to the fore, and that identity represents the Mestizo culture that I am a part of: a mix of indigenous, African and European.”
Henry and I turn our discussion to the recording of El Diablo and other songs to still be released from Simple. Specifically, I want to know why he chose Electric Lady Studios, the facility created by Jimi Hendrix in 1970 that has since become one of the legendary recording studios in the entire world. Was Cole looking for the spirit of Hendrix?
“No, that wasn’t it,” says Cole. “Residente was recording there and I was playing on some tracks for his new album. I visited Studio A and the smaller upstairs studio the day before to check out their drums. And I immediately thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is a Temple. This is where I want to record my music!’ I was not going for the brand, the name or even the equipment. I went to see some drums and I just felt the space… It talked to me. I felt the space welcome me.”
Our conversation concludes as Henry needs to head to a rehearsal. He’s back home in Puerto Rico for a Villa Locura show at El Boricua in Rio Piedras, and there are also a couple of things to do to get El Diablo ready for release the day before the show. He’s rolled out something of his own self-designed Kickstarter campaign, hoping that sales of downloads and related merchandise like t-shirts and art prints will bring in money so that the rest of the Simple sessions can be mixed and released as a full-fledged album. The sessions were also filmed for a planned documentary. Henry played a few rough audio mixes for me, so trust me when I say, after hearing El Diablo, you are going to want to hear more.
Downloads can be purchased from villalocura.com, and there are autographed CD copies of Roots BeforeBranches available for sale as well. And just think of how cool you’ll look in one of those SIMPLE tank tops this summer!
It has been far too long since Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sánchez has released any new music under his own name.
It’s not that he hasn’t kept busy since Cultural Survival came out in 2008. He was one third of the Ninety Miles Cuban project along with vibraphonist Stefon Harris and trumpeter Christian Scott that toured heavily for a few years. He’s turned up as a guest on several excellent albums, and he tours regularly, swinging through Chicago at least once every year or two.
So when, after Sánchez announced that he and his quartet (pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Ricky Rodriguez and drummer Obed Calvaire) were playing new material and heading into the studio next week, it was very good news. Some of the tunes were getting their first public performance. A key element of jazz improvisation is, essentially, composing on the spot, and that makes this weekend of shows something of an intense road test of the ideas that will make the final cut in the studio next week. Jazz fans could hardly ask for anything more.
The new songs are for an album to be titled Caribe, and they explore exactly that, folkloric traditions of the Caribbean, particularly from Puerto Rico and Haiti, where Miami-born drummer Calvaire has roots. Rodriguez, like Sánchez, hails from Puerto Rico and Perdomo is Venezuelan, but the thing that they share in addition to their Caribbean heritage is that they are all dedicated jazz musicians. The music they made together Thursday night demonstrated just how jazz absorbs and embraces diverse influences, and they did so with profound artistry and commitment.
This is a band certainly capable of fireworks, which they delivered handily on tunes like “A Thousand Yesterdays” and “Land of the Hills,” titled after what the French colonizers called Haiti. On these tunes and others, Sánchez temporarily set down his horn to take up a barril de bomba to underscore the folkloric foundations of the rhythm. It was the quieter moments, however, that impressed the most: “Canto” with Rodriguez’s bass intro and “Waves Under Silk,” that built on Perdomo’s repeated chords.
The David Sánchez Quartet has three more nights at the Jazz Showcase, two shows a night plus a Sunday afternoon kid-friendly matinee. If you want to explore creativity in action and gain an exclusive preview of an album to come, you’re advised not to miss it.
David Sánchez Quartet, December 14 – 17, Jazz Showcase, Chicago – jazzshowcase.com
The second weekend of World Music Festival Chicago is upon us. We’ve already seen some great music downtown and around the city, but there is more to come. A fairly recent addition to the Fest, the Global Peace Picnic, takes place this Sunday afternoon, September 17, adjacent to the Humboldt Park Boathouse in the cultural heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. Despite its prime location in the highly active park (on any given Sunday you can find softball games, traditional food trucks and lively family parties scattered throughout the park’s 219 acres), the Picnic, now in its third year, wanted to do more to attract locals. Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) staff members and Fest organizers David Chavez and Carlos Tortelero worked out a plan with this objective in mind.
One of the first decisions that they made was to program a headliner from Puerto Rico, and they have found a great one in La Tribu de Abrante. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves just a bit.
Unlike a lot of the “world music” acts that tour the U.S., Puerto Rican artists tend not to be represented by the handful of U.S. based booking agencies that specialize in music from beyond our borders. This could be because the island is not, technically, beyond here because of its colonial status. Secondly, there is a rich music scene on the island that enjoys immense popularity both there and among its Diaspora, but remains nearly invisible to the rest of the world. This, of course, is related to the first point made above in that there is little U.S. based infrastructure for marketing their music to radio and press tastemakers.
DCASE needed a direct pipeline to the island, and they found one in Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center (SRBCC), an organization that has been bringing the best of Puerto Rico to Chicago for several decades. With the help of a few foundations and sponsors, SRBCC has stepped up the pace in the past year or so, presenting artists like Leró Martinez, Orquesta el Macabeo, Pirulo y la Tribu, Chalí Hernández and acoustic “unplugged” shows with new global sensation ÌFÉ. They’ve done this while simultaneously showcasing the best of Chicago’s folkloric Afro-Caribbean scene and music from other sister countries, like the legendary Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro from Cuba.
SRBCC, in turn, has forged a partnership with the The 606, the pedestrian and bike trail that cuts through Logan Square, Wicker Park and Humboldt Park. Artists that perform or conduct workshops at SRBCC often can be found the same weekend along the several small parks adjacent to the trail.
All of this comes together for this year’s World Music Festival and Global Peace Picnic. First of all, there is headliner La Tribu de Abrante. We’ve been in love with them ever since we watched them stroll through the streets of Santurce in their first YouTube video for Dale pa’ la Calle a couple of years ago. The band is led by Hiram Abrante, a deeply rooted percussionist who has been playing since the age of 5. The Loiza (one of Puerto Rico’s most African-influenced towns) based group weds folkloric bomba rhythms (if you stripped away everything else, what’s left is pure bomba) to a reggaeton feel and hip-hop attitude. Unlike most reggaeton artists, though, Tribu keeps it primarily acoustic, only adding electric bass and a horn section. To these ears, it’s reminiscent of a New Orleans brass band: rhythm, horns, voice and, above all, energy.
Tribu will conduct a percussion workshop at 11AM on Saturday morning at SRBCC. On Sunday morning at 11AM, musicians and artists from AfriCaribe, Buya, Chicago Cuatro Orchestra, and Seneke will gather at the parks along the 606 for performances and family workshops before embarking on A Walk with Peace and Music toward each other on the trail. They’ll meet up at the Humboldt Boulevard overlook with Los Pleneros de Don Segundo and the entire group will head for the Boathouse around 1:30 pm, just in time for the beginning of the Global Peace Picnic at 2PM.
In addition to Tribu, the Peace Picnic will also have performances by the powerful Afro-Venezuelan singer Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo and the wonderful West African Tuareg musician Mdou Moctar. Taken together, this could very well be the most powerful lineup of the entire Fest.
All events are free. Miss them at your own risk.
La Tribu de Abrante Bomba Workshop. Saturday, September 16 at 11AM, Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. Facebook link.
A Walk With Peace and Music. September 17 at 11AM, The 606 at Park 567 & Walsh Park. Facebook link.
Global Peace Picnic featuring La Tribu de Abrante, Betsayda Machadoy y La Parranda El Clavo and Mdou Moctar. September 17 at 2PM, Humboldt Park Boathouse. Facebook link.
I think it’s fairly safe to say that, here at Agúzate, few album releases have been more anticipated than the debut from ÌFÉ, IIII+IIII. As a concept, the group seemed to come out of nowhere just a little over 15 months ago when the single and video dropped for 3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé) and quickly attracted the attention of electronic dance music fans, especially followers of the global bass movement. The track was something of a digital rumba, a deeply spiritual groove that sounded like a ceremonial field recording from the future.
That song and video was followed a few months later by a second, House of Love (Ogbe Yekun). We’ve wanted more ever since. As it turns out, there is a deep connection between ÌFÉ and Chicago. The group is from Puerto Rico, and this publication’s roots were first watered there. We interviewed ÌFÉ leader Otura Mun about his spiritual and cultural journey that led to the group’s founding when we visited the island in May 2016 (read that here), then caught up with him again (read that here) just before the group made their U.S. debut at World Music Festival Chicago in September.
Some snippets of music surfaced here and there, including a third full song, UMBO (Come Down), but we were as surprised as anybody when we learned in early March that a full album would drop at the end of the month.
It was worth the wait. IIII+IIII is a minimalist masterpiece built on Afro-Cuban rumba, but thoroughly infused in a warm electronic bath. In a sense, it is nothing more than percussion and voice, like you would experience in a traditional rumba performance, but wired and sonically processed. Within that very tight framework, however, emerges a fairly expansive sound that integrates bits of R&B, Afropop, Jamaican dancehall and Nyabinghi ritual drumming, and even one certified 80s pop hit, Steve Winwood’s Higher Love. It sounds entirely authentic and lived in, the very opposite of the cultural anthropology that global bass movement often dabbles in. ÌFÉ isn’t borrowing sounds and styles. They are the thing itself.
Group leader Mun is a Babaláwo of the Yoruban Ifá religion. But he’s also a techno-savvy DJ and producer who happens to be an African-American who was born in Hammond, Indiana. Other members of the group include full time rumberos Beto Torrens, Rafael Maya and Anthony Sierra; powerful singer Kathy Cepeda and Latin Alternative musician Yarimir Cabán (MIMA). The entire album was recorded at Casa ÌFÉ, a house in Santurce that is also Mun’s residence. There are no outside producers and the album was released on the group’s own label, Discos Ifá. When they were in Chicago for the World Music Fest, they took time to stop by Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center to jam acoustically with local rumberos and bomberos, and then returned two days later to lead a percussion workshop.
By and large, the album simmers rather than boils. One notable exception is Bangah (Pico y Palo), Mun’s reflections on Ogun, the Yoruban orisha of war. The lyrics alternate comfortably between Spanish, English and Yoruban. Many of the tracks stretch out beyond the 6 minute mark, the better to let the groove take its time inviting you in to explore. They thoroughly mine the hints of Afro-Cuban rhythms that seasoned the aforementioned Higher Love, and the song’s spiritual underpinnings and positive message are brought to the fore.
That positivity may be the key to the spiritual uplift that this music provides, much the same way that Chance the Rapper’s gospel influences power his vision. In the specificity of its Yoruban cosmos, it delivers a universal and much needed message of humanity.