Nathan Rodriguez steps out as a leader

– By Don Macica –

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.”

Conjunto Borikén

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!”

Claudia La Gitana with ¡Azúcar!

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.”

Unity and displacement: The photography of Elías Carmona

– By Don Macica –

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.

Elías Carmona

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.

 

Henry Cole’s vision of a 21st century Puerto Rican music

– By Don Macica –

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 Before Branches available for sale as well.  And just think of how cool you’ll look in one of those SIMPLE tank tops this summer!

Review: David Sánchez at the Jazz Showcase

– By Don Macica –

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 World Music Fest teams up with the Puerto Rican community for the Global Peace Picnic

By Don Macica –

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.

Album review: ÌFÉ, IIII+IIII


By Don Macica –

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.

ÌFÉ at World Music Festival Chicago – photo by Charlie Billups

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.

ÌFÉ, IIII+IIII (Discos Ifá)

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.

Concert review: ÌFÉ and Mulatu Astatke at Concord Music Hall

ife-at-concord-23-1-of-1
photo by Charlie Billups

By Don Macica –

We still have a couple of “must-sees” on our list for World Music Festival Chicago. Still, we’ll be really surprised if we encounter a double bill as strong as the one that played Concord Music Hall on Saturday.

In a sense, the two acts couldn’t be more different. ÌFÉ is a brand new electronic music concept out of Puerto Rico that hasn’t even released their first album. Mulatu Astatke, by contrast, is known as the father of Ethio-jazz, which first flourished in the 1970s, and he is still composing, playing and recording compelling music to this day. Dig just below the surface, though, and you discover a trans-Atlantic range of sound that emerges from a mixture of Africa and the Americas, one that is showing no sign of becoming a historic relic.

The musicians of ÌFÉ come from various backgrounds ranging from dance music to rock, hip-hop and reggae, but they come together here united around a very traditional form: Cuban rumba. The distinct clave and rhythmic patterns form a foundation for a bold experiment in sound by being transformed electronically into something like a new tribal music, ancient and modern at the same time.

photo by Charlie Billups
photo by Charlie Billups

The group is led by Otura Mun and filled out by three additional percussionists (Anthony Sierra, Beto Torrens and Rafael Maya) and two singers (Katherine Cepeda and Yarimir Cabán A.K.A. Mima). Rather than play traditional drums, though, they employ a collection of electronic drum pads mixed with wired acoustic instruments on which they combine several variants of rumba patterns in both familiar and unexpected ways. The result is a sometimes bone-rattling, sometimes celestial experience infused with an intense groove.

It’s safe to say that the large crowd in attendance knew little about the band coming in because of the lack of recorded material, but each song was greeted rapturously. The group finished their performance by setting aside the electronics for a pure rumba session playing, as Mun remarked, the music they love and still gather to play every Tuesday night back home in Casa ÌFÉ Santurce, Puerto Rico.

photo by Charlie Billups
photo by Charlie Billups

There was a lengthy break between ÌFÉ’s departure and the start of Mulatu Astatke’s set, but that’s pretty understandable in light of the size and complexity of Astatke’s orchestra, which was made up of musicians from the U.S. and Europe. The leader’s main instrument is the vibraphone, but he also plays electric keyboards and percussion, all of which were arrayed in a semi circle in front of him. Add another keyboardist, two horn players, bassist, drummer and a second percussionist (Chicago’s own Juan Pastor, who leads the South American flavored jazz ensemble Chinchano) and you have a very powerful sound.

Astatke’s personal journey is instructive of the way music travels and cultures are exchanged. Born in the western Ethiopian city of Jimma, Mulatu was musically trained in London, New York City, and Boston where he combined his jazz and Latin music interests with traditional Ethiopian music.  In his music, then, you have two streams of the African Diaspora flowing back to the continent from which they sprang to create something new.

photo by Don Macica
photo by Don Macica

There was a sizable Ethiopian contingent in the audience, gathering to enthusiastically welcome a hero, and they were especially excited when the band, on the third song of the night, reached back to the 70s for Yekermo Sew. This was no nostalgia fest, though. Astatke’s music has seen a revival in this millennium, and the man has used this opportunity to create anew, recording albums as both a leader and collaborator. The musicians for this show are working on yet another new album project. A case could easily be made for a headlining slot at the Chicago Jazz Festival (and someday they absolutely should), but tonight, hearing this amazing mix of jazz improvisation matched to Ethiopian scales and rhythms in the company of several hundred Ethiopians, Puerto Ricans and world music fans was blissfully intoxicating.

photo by Don Macica
photo by Don Macica

Impressions of Fiesta Boricua 2016

Buya at Fiesta Boricua 2016, Photo by Charlie Billups.
Buya at Fiesta Boricua 2016, Photo by Charlie Billups.

By Omar Torres-Kortright –

For 23 years the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, named in honor of Poet and activist Juan Antonio Corretjer, has mobilized hundreds of volunteers to organize and execute Fiesta Boricua, the only festival in Chicago that closes traffic for two full days in the area known as Paseo Boricua, located on Division Street between the famous Puerto Rican flags on Western and California in Humboldt Park. Every year the festivities take place during Labor Day Weekend.

During those 23 years the festival has undergone significant changes, adapting to the ups and downs in the economy and shrinking budgets from sponsors. For many community festivals, a $100,000 budget cut would mean the end of a well-intentioned volunteer-run initiative. The garbage pickup is also run by volunteers like Lourdes Lugo, who I’ve been trying to say hi to for the last hour but she’s too focused on getting as much done before night falls. She speeds by me and goes to the next pickup. Volunteers and paid staff are everywhere but the task at hand is immense.

Fiesta Boricua has managed to stay afloat and reinvent itself with the concept: “Lo Mejor de Nuestros Pueblos”, where PRCC collaborates with municipalities and cultural projects from the island, finding creative ways to raise funds and support the cultural groups that travel to Chicago for the festival.

As a Puerto Rican that was born and raised in the island and has lived in Chicago for 16 years, this is the Boricua festival that I enjoy the most. There’s something that feels right about closing Paseo Boricua to celebrate our art, our music, our businesses and our culture. I remember seeing Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colón, Andy Montañez, Cultura Profética and so many of Puerto Rico’s most recognizable acts right here not too long ago. While budget cuts mean that those artists are usually not accessible for Fiesta Boricua anymore, as I walked down Division Street this weekend from flag to flag, I understood why I continue to be so drawn to this festival even when I have been critical of it in the past. This year the quality of the Chicago and Puerto Rico-based “artesanos” (artists/arts & crafts), as well as the amazing food, and the combination of lesser known and internationally acclaimed musicians (Hermán Olivera and Pichi Pérez are salsa royalty for any good listener) made the experience worthwhile for festival goers of all ages.

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Bombazo at La Casita de Don Pedro. Photo by Charlie Billups.

An example of community art in action, the yearly bombazo organized by AfriCaribe at La Casita de Don Pedro continues to be the place to experience Afro-Puerto Rican roots music with the flourishing local bomba scene, further enriched by out-of-town bomberos coming from Puerto Rico, Florida, and New York among other places. The young, as is the case of the members of Arawak’Opia (SRBCC’s Youth Bomba Ensemble) are given their chance to hold their own with the masters. Also worth mentioning that Arawak’Opia had their first appearance on the Fiesta Boricua main stage as well, making this community event a place where dreams are realized. I could see the excitement in the faces of aspiring musicians from Humboldt Park and Hermosa that were given a real chance, and their accomplishments were enjoyed and celebrated this weekend. Most of these young men and women have to grow up very fast. With all the violence in Chicago these days, what they experienced at Fiesta Boricua means a lot.

Food Highlight: Fresh-made mofongo by el Caldero de Khalil

This review needs to reflect the religious experience of tasting a fresh-made trifongo, prepared by el Caldero de Khalil, a group of Puerto Rican chefs with a thriving culinary concept that traveled to Chicago from the island just for the Fiesta Boricua weekend.

I go to Puerto Rico at least three times per year and I can say without hesitation that El Caldero de Khalil is by far the best trifongo-maker this guy has ever known. For those who don’t know, a trifongo is a take on the mofongo (mashed plantain) that incorporates sweet plantain, green plantain and yuca. This tightly-run operation did not stop for two straight days, serving generous plates of island goodness that included mofongo topped with veal stew, slow-cooked pigeon peas, chicken or shrimp. Rumor has it that some VIPs showed up around 6:30 pm on Sunday and all that was left was a bit of “caldo” (broth).

Shrimp Trifongo by "El Caldero de Khalil"
Shrimp Trifongo by “El Caldero de Khalil”

After mofongo heaven, I washed down the hearty plate of food with some tamarind Pito Rico, the newer brand of only two producers of legal Pitorro (flavored Puerto Rican moonshine). This one came directly from the family’s production plant in Jayuya, Puerto Rico. The list of available flavors included coconut, passion fruit, orange, tamarind and sangría. Free samples were given all day long to festival participants on both Saturday and Sunday.

Artesanos’ highlights

In the “artesano” columns, I’m giving four stars to Artesanía de Madera by Kerly, bringing locally produced wood products, including beautiful pilones (pestles) and tostoneras (toston-makers) made with three different kinds of wood.

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Photo by Roberto Pérez

Every year I’m blown away by Elias Carmona’s photography, which this time featured a breathtaking picture of the Pedro Albizu Campos’ statue located at La Casita de Don Pedro. The carefully shot picture in a dark snowy night in Paseo Boricua has a truly hypnotizing effect. Other pictures include his collection of “pleneros” and the amazing urban images from his trips to Puerto Rico and South and Central America.

By Elías Carmona
By Elías Carmona

We round up the artesano highlights with Urban Pilón’s hand-crafted pique (vinegar-based hot sauce) and Brenda Torres’ oneiric Freedom Effect t-shirt designs. Urban Pilón is Roberto Pérez’s completely original culinary concept, highlighting the use of fresh and locally sourced ingredients to produce bold and healthy island flavors. Brenda Torres is a Chicago artist producing high-quality wearable art that destines 10% of all profits to deserving Humboldt Park students seeking careers in the Creative Arts.

Pique by Urban Pilón. I took the pretty Don Q bottle in the middle.
Pique by Urban Pilón

With all this talk of food and art, I almost forgot to talk about the music…

This year featured the voices of Sonora Ponceña’s Pichi Pérez and Eddie Palmieri’s Hermán Olivera to close Saturday and Sunday respectively. Both performances were exceptional, with special interventions by Chicago-based salsa bands Naborí (backing Pichi Pérez) and the Edwin Sánchez Project (backing Hermán Olivera). Both local bands demonstrated that we have plenty of talent in the midwest to hold our own with the very best international exponents of tropical music.

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Hermán Olivera, Photo by Charlie Billups

Other musical performances included the captivating voices of Chabela and Lester Ray, as well as salsa acts Yova Rodríguez, Orquesta Leal, and Willie García’s Sabor. Folkloric music from Puerto Rico was represented by Chicago’s own Buya, a group that has established itself as one of the very best Bomba projects in the United States. SRBCC’s Arawak’Opia Youth Bomba Ensemble, Ballet Folclórico Guajana (Puerto Rico) and Son d’Yavú (Puerto Rico) are also worth mentioning as the festival continues to bring more cultural acts to the stage.

 

 

Interview: Otura Mun brings his future Afro-Caribeña group ÌFÉ to the Chicago World Music Festival

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By Don Macica –

When I last spoke with Otura Mun, founder and director of the Puerto Rico-based future Afro-Caribeña group ÌFÉ, in early May, we discussed the group’s origins as well as Mun’s personal journey from being Mark Underwood, an African-American born just outside of Chicago, to Puerto Rico and finally Cuba, where he became a Babalawo in the Yoruba religion, a transformation that is inextricably intertwined with his learning of traditional Cuban rumba and further evolution of the electronic artistic concept that would become ÌFÉ. You can read that Agúzate interview here.

ÌFÉ is about to embark on their first European tour, but before they do so they are coming to Chicago to make several appearances connected to the Chicago World Music Festival, starting this Thursday at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center when Mun and other members of the group talk about their individual musical projects and how they were drawn to the concept of ÌFÉ. The evening will end in a jam session with ÌFÉ and musicians from Chicago’s Afro-Caribbean community.

Otura Mun and I spoke by phone earlier this week, so I asked him what was happening with the group, including when we might get to hear some new music beyond the spectacular one-two punch of 3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé) and House of Love (Ogbe Yekun), both of which were released earlier this year.

“At this point I have enough material for an album,” says Mun. “We spent a lot of time in our home studio in Santurce, Puerto Rico laying down tracks. That’s how I write songs. We record all the drum patterns and electronic sounds, basically jamming to see what happens. Later on I comb through all of that to look for ideas for songs. I’ll take it apart, write lyrics, record the vocals and put it all back together.

“Sometimes I have a very specific idea about what I want to write about. Other times, the rhythms might suggest certain themes like freedom and what that means in the context of my Puerto Rican existence. The subject matter tends to be more spiritual and philosophical rather than political.”

A new single, UMBO, is coming out soon and there have been brief snippets posted on social media all summer, all of which makes this writer very eager to hear more.

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“It was great to get invited to the World Music Fest for our U.S. debut. Many of the members of ÌFÉ have family and friends in Chicago. I myself was born in Hammond, Indiana, so it will be something like a homecoming to perform here at such an important festival.”

ÌFÉ will officially perform twice at the fest. Friday night finds them at Chop Shop paired with Chilean rocker Nano Stern, and Saturday will feature them alongside the great Ethiopian jazz legend Mulatu Astatke and DJ AfroQbano at Concord Music Hall.

It’s unusual for a band without a deep professional history, or at the very least a commercially available recording, to get booked at the prestigious fest, but Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events programmer David Chavez leads a double life as the forward-thinking DJ SoundCulture. He heard ÌFÉ’s music through the global bass community on SoundCloud, where the band gave both of their songs away as free downloads, and he realized their potential to create truly groundbreaking music.

I asked Mun about Thursday’s event at Segundo Ruiz Belvis. “All of the group members have journeys that led them to ÌFÉ. I was a DJ and producer of several groups in Puerto Rico. Other members come from more traditional musical backgrounds, but all of us unite here around Cuban rumba, which I fell in love with back when I first moved to San Juan in 1999. So, we’ll talk about that a bit, play a bit acoustically, maybe listen to a track or two as samples of our work as a demo of how ÌFÉ’s sound relates to tradition. We’ll finish with an open jam session where people from Chicago’s great rumba and bomba scenes can join us. It’ll be a lot of fun.”

ÌFÉ returns to Segundo Ruiz Belvis Saturday morning for a percussion workshop (that’s right, you, too, can get lessons from these terrific musicians) in preparation for a musical ‘Polyrhythmic Procession’ taking place the following Sunday, September 18th at The 606 and the Humboldt Park Boathouse.

While ÌFÉ will not be part of the procession on 9/18 as they continue their North America and Europe tours, local acts like Los Hermanos del Tambor and The Four Star Brass Band will lead the early festivities, culminating in more CWMF international acts, including Herencia de Timbiquí, Rocky Dawuni, and Rajab Suleiman & Kithara.

I finally ask Otura Mun about the European tour. “We’re starting small, just four major cities: Paris, London, Madrid and Barcelona. But they are important cities in a cultural sense, so we’ll build from there.”

Now, if they would just release that album, all will be well in the world.
___

All events are free.

Unidos por el Tambor: ÌFÉ Residency in Chicago: Thursday 9/8 at 7:30PM. Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage Ave, Chicago. Info here.

ÌFÉ with Nano Stern: Friday 9/9 at 10PM (9PM doors). Chop Shop, 2033 W. North Ave, Chicago. Info here.

Polyrhythmic Procession Workshop: Saturday 9/10 at 11AM. Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. Info here.

ÌFÉ with Mulatu Astatke and DJ AfroQbano: Saturday 9/10 at 10PM (9PM doors). Concord Music Hall, 2047 N. Milwaukee Ave. Info here.