There was a moment midway through the evening when things got a little emotional. Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center Executive Director Omar Torres-Kortright (full disclosure: Torres-Kortright is also Agúzate’s founder) was talking about how, shortly after he first arrived in Chicago upon graduating from the University of Puerto Rico, the homesick young man began to seek out expressions of Puerto Rican culture in the city. He learned about SRBCC and showed up one day, where he was welcomed with open arms and, as he noted, “never asked for a penny.”
He took some percussion classes, but soon learned that “being a musician wasn’t exactly my calling”. Nonetheless, he stuck around and gradually deepened his involvement, eventually joining the organization’s board. Then, in early 2015, SRBCC found itself without a director. Torres-Kortright, by now a successful private sector executive, knew that his heart was with the organization and took a leap of faith to apply for the job.
Torres-Kortright voice wavered with emotion several times while relating this tale and that of his subsequent appointment. It only became more teary as he described the organization’s mission and the youth it serves. He mentioned the achievements of his tenure, but not in the sense of look what I did. Instead, it was more I can’t believe the incredible privilege that I’ve been granted.
The 45th Anniversary Gala for Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center at the Old Town School of Folk Music was a time to pause and celebrate, and they did it in the best way possible: with music. As percussionist John Santos noted in a recent talk at SRBCC, “My music is who I am.” Such is the power of music in Afro-Latin life.
The program was sequenced in a way that traveled back & forth through time. First up was the SRBCC’s youth bomba ensemble, Arawak’Opia, whom the center will send to Puerto Rico in January to directly experience boricua culture and study with masters. They were quickly followed by Buya, Chicago’s (and perhaps the United States’) finest professional bomba ensemble, many of whom first learned how to play decades ago at SRBCC.
Torres-Kortright’s remarks followed, and then he introduced saxophonist Roy McGrath, a fiercely talented jazz musician born in Puerto Rico but now living in Chicago. McGrath designed and leads the Center’s Afro-Caribbean Youth Jazz Program, and his trio performed a version of Rafael Hernández’ Perfume de Gardenias that matched McGrath’s inventive improvisation to folkloric drumming in stunning fashion.
Finally, it was time for the headliner, whom Torres-Kortright personally recruited on a trip home earlier this year. Pirulo y la Tribu are without a doubt the most exciting salsa band on the island. They smoothly incorporate Cuban son and other Afro-Caribbean sounds, but they are unapologetically committed to salsa as their foundation and means of expression. The group is led by timbalero Francisco “Pirulo” Rosado, a charismatic, dreadlocked, baseball cap outfitted singer who one could easily mistake for a rapper or reggaeton artist. His youthful 8-piece band, wearing matching CangrejerosdeSanturce Roberto Clemente t-shirts, is salsa to the core, including a smokin’ horn section. Pirulo y la Tribu come hard, infusing the music with energy, attitude and, above all, crack musicianship. They filled the dance floor from the very first note, the joyous crowd singing every chorus and punctuating every call and response. I’d call them the future of salsa, but they are already here, tu sabes?
It was, in short, an incredible night. The concert over, it seemed no one wanted to go home. People filled the lobby, but even as they exited, they lingered on the sidewalk, not quite ready to let go of the magic.
Of course, there is no need to let go. Better to think of SRBCC’s past 45 years as the foundation for another 45 as a beacon of culture and community. There’s plenty of magic to come.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For 23 years the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, named in honor of Poet and activist Juan Antonio Corretjer, has mobilized hundreds of volunteers to organize and execute Fiesta Boricua, the only festival in Chicago that closes traffic for two full days in the area known as Paseo Boricua, located on Division Street between the famous Puerto Rican flags on Western and California in Humboldt Park. Every year the festivities take place during Labor Day Weekend.
During those 23 years the festival has undergone significant changes, adapting to the ups and downs in the economy and shrinking budgets from sponsors. For many community festivals, a $100,000 budget cut would mean the end of a well-intentioned volunteer-run initiative. The garbage pickup is also run by volunteers like Lourdes Lugo, who I’ve been trying to say hi to for the last hour but she’s too focused on getting as much done before night falls. She speeds by me and goes to the next pickup. Volunteers and paid staff are everywhere but the task at hand is immense.
Fiesta Boricua has managed to stay afloat and reinvent itself with the concept: “Lo Mejor de Nuestros Pueblos”, where PRCC collaborates with municipalities and cultural projects from the island, finding creative ways to raise funds and support the cultural groups that travel to Chicago for the festival.
As a Puerto Rican that was born and raised in the island and has lived in Chicago for 16 years, this is the Boricua festival that I enjoy the most. There’s something that feels right about closing Paseo Boricua to celebrate our art, our music, our businesses and our culture. I remember seeing Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colón, Andy Montañez, Cultura Profética and so many of Puerto Rico’s most recognizable acts right here not too long ago. While budget cuts mean that those artists are usually not accessible for Fiesta Boricua anymore, as I walked down Division Street this weekend from flag to flag, I understood why I continue to be so drawn to this festival even when I have been critical of it in the past. This year the quality of the Chicago and Puerto Rico-based “artesanos” (artists/arts & crafts), as well as the amazing food, and the combination of lesser known and internationally acclaimed musicians (Hermán Olivera and Pichi Pérez are salsa royalty for any good listener) made the experience worthwhile for festival goers of all ages.
An example of community art in action, the yearly bombazo organized by AfriCaribe at La Casita de Don Pedro continues to be the place to experience Afro-Puerto Rican roots music with the flourishing local bomba scene, further enriched by out-of-town bomberos coming from Puerto Rico, Florida, and New York among other places. The young, as is the case of the members of Arawak’Opia (SRBCC’s Youth Bomba Ensemble) are given their chance to hold their own with the masters. Also worth mentioning that Arawak’Opia had their first appearance on the Fiesta Boricua main stage as well, making this community event a place where dreams are realized. I could see the excitement in the faces of aspiring musicians from Humboldt Park and Hermosa that were given a real chance, and their accomplishments were enjoyed and celebrated this weekend. Most of these young men and women have to grow up very fast. With all the violence in Chicago these days, what they experienced at Fiesta Boricua means a lot.
Food Highlight: Fresh-made mofongo by el Caldero de Khalil
This review needs to reflect the religious experience of tasting a fresh-made trifongo, prepared by el Caldero de Khalil, a group of Puerto Rican chefs with a thriving culinary concept that traveled to Chicago from the island just for the Fiesta Boricua weekend.
I go to Puerto Rico at least three times per year and I can say without hesitation that El Caldero de Khalil is by far the best trifongo-maker this guy has ever known. For those who don’t know, a trifongo is a take on the mofongo (mashed plantain) that incorporates sweet plantain, green plantain and yuca. This tightly-run operation did not stop for two straight days, serving generous plates of island goodness that included mofongo topped with veal stew, slow-cooked pigeon peas, chicken or shrimp. Rumor has it that some VIPs showed up around 6:30 pm on Sunday and all that was left was a bit of “caldo” (broth).
After mofongo heaven, I washed down the hearty plate of food with some tamarind Pito Rico, the newer brand of only two producers of legal Pitorro (flavored Puerto Rican moonshine). This one came directly from the family’s production plant in Jayuya, Puerto Rico. The list of available flavors included coconut, passion fruit, orange, tamarind and sangría. Free samples were given all day long to festival participants on both Saturday and Sunday.
In the “artesano” columns, I’m giving four stars to Artesanía de Madera by Kerly, bringing locally produced wood products, including beautiful pilones (pestles) and tostoneras (toston-makers) made with three different kinds of wood.
Every year I’m blown away by Elias Carmona’s photography, which this time featured a breathtaking picture of the Pedro Albizu Campos’ statue located at La Casita de Don Pedro. The carefully shot picture in a dark snowy night in Paseo Boricua has a truly hypnotizing effect. Other pictures include his collection of “pleneros” and the amazing urban images from his trips to Puerto Rico and South and Central America.
We round up the artesano highlights with Urban Pilón’s hand-crafted pique (vinegar-based hot sauce) and Brenda Torres’ oneiric Freedom Effect t-shirt designs. Urban Pilón is Roberto Pérez’s completely original culinary concept, highlighting the use of fresh and locally sourced ingredients to produce bold and healthy island flavors. Brenda Torres is a Chicago artist producing high-quality wearable art that destines 10% of all profits to deserving Humboldt Park students seeking careers in the Creative Arts.
With all this talk of food and art, I almost forgot to talk about the music…
This year featured the voices of Sonora Ponceña’s Pichi Pérez and Eddie Palmieri’s Hermán Olivera to close Saturday and Sunday respectively. Both performances were exceptional, with special interventions by Chicago-based salsa bands Naborí (backing Pichi Pérez) and the Edwin Sánchez Project (backing Hermán Olivera). Both local bands demonstrated that we have plenty of talent in the midwest to hold our own with the very best international exponents of tropical music.
Other musical performances included the captivating voices of Chabela and Lester Ray, as well as salsa acts Yova Rodríguez, Orquesta Leal, and Willie García’s Sabor. Folkloric music from Puerto Rico was represented by Chicago’s own Buya, a group that has established itself as one of the very best Bomba projects in the United States. SRBCC’s Arawak’Opia Youth Bomba Ensemble, Ballet Folclórico Guajana (Puerto Rico) and Son d’Yavú (Puerto Rico) are also worth mentioning as the festival continues to bring more cultural acts to the stage.
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.
“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.
ÌFÉwith 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.
ÌFÉwith Mulatu Astatke and DJ AfroQbano: Saturday 9/10 at 10PM (9PM doors). Concord Music Hall, 2047 N. Milwaukee Ave. Info here.
I’ll start by getting out of the way something that every article written about Ileana Cabra mentions: that she is the sister of Puerto Rican duo René Pérez & Eduardo Cabra, better known to the world as Calle 13, and that she has been singing under the name PG 13 with the massively popular group since the very beginning. Her music as a solo artist couldn’t be more different, though. Up until seeing her Chicago debut at the Millennium Park Summer Music Series last Thursday evening, I figured that the main relevance of that family connection was that when she launched her solo career, she instantly had the backing of music industry giant Sony, for whom Calle 13 has made a lot of money over the last decade.
I now see that all those years sharing a stage before thousands with Residente, one of the most charismatic performers in music, has rubbed off on her, because from the moment iLe strolled on stage, all eyes were on her and few strayed away for even a moment. She did it not through a manufactured sense of excitement, but rather by drawing the audience in with every gesture and with the power of her voice. This was a performer that clearly knows what to do in front of an audience.
She is also very sure of what she wants to express through her art. Her sense of the history of tropical music, especially from the 6os and 70s, is profound, but she doesn’t dabble in imitation. Rather, she locates the emotional core of longing that has embodied such forms as bolero, salsa, ranchera, tango and even American sources like girl-group pop a la Phil Spector or the ballads of Linda Ronstadt, who drew from her own Mexican heritage to inject sincerity and meaning into her string of her hits.
Her debut album, Ilevitable, is a survey of all of these influences, but this isn’t a historical retrospective. The sound may embody earlier eras, but with production that seems to simultaneously honor and mock its excesses; swelling strings, echo-laden percussion, overly punchy mambo-style horns. These dramatic flourishes lend a dark undercurrent, not unlike the way filmmaker David Lynch scores his hallucinogenic films, or, to use another cinematic example, the sometimes silly but always broodingly compelling James Bond themes, from Shirley Bassey through Adele. This is especially true on Caníbal, a song that describes how self-doubt can consume you.
On stage, the drama lies elsewhere. It’s just her and a quintet of backing musicians. All excess is removed to better focus on the artist and her songs.
And those songs! The family connections run much deeper than her famous brothers. Her sister Milena Pérez is the co-writer of three. Her grandmother, Flor Amelia de Gracia, wrote two (three, if you count the encore). Even her father, José Cabra, co-wrote one, the English language Out of Place. Ilevitable is very much a family affair, and Ileana Cabra made sure that everyone in the audience understood that as she introduced each song.
In concert, iLe replaces the maximalism of the album with the intimacy of subtle gesture infused with drama. She sits on the stage for her grandmother’s Dolor, a classic bolero. She dances with abandon, but not exaggeration, to uptempo rave-ups like Rescatarme and Te quiero con Bugalú. Extraña de Querer, were it not in Spanish, would be at home in a 60s era French café. The tango-infused Maldita sea al amor is belted out, aimed at the very last row of the cheap seats, yet she is nearly stock-still, head slightly bowed, for the ranchera and flamenco inspired Triángulo.
The evening ends with a simple and achingly beautiful duet for guitar and voice, the only song of the night not on Ilevitable. It’s another of her grandmother’s songs, No te detengas. Millennium Park is a huge place in the midst of a bustling city, but for a few precious minutes it’s as hushed as a midnight bedroom conversation.
I remember the first time my girlfriend played an album of boleros for me. It was classic stuff, an album that she said her parents owned. I swooned over those gorgeously melancholic tunes, deep in romance and longing. That was five years ago, and I’ve learned a bit more since then. I thought I knew all the classics—Sabor a Mí, Tres Palabaras, Dos Gardenias—but it turns out I was just scratching the surface, unwittingly confining myself mostly to boleros from Cuba and Mexico. Like cumbia, though, the bolero is a phenomenon throughout Latin America.
Miramar is a side project of sorts from the salsa band Bio Ritmo. The group will visit Chicago this weekend for a pair of concerts, and they have opened up another world to me that I knew little about. Their new album Dedication to Sylvia Rexach honors a Puerto Rican songwriter who is something of a cult figure. I know her name as the writer of two songs, including the title tune, on Miguel Zenón’s Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook, but that was about it. So, who is Sylvia Rexach, and why did Miramar dedicate an album to her?
Miramar consists of Marlysse Simmons-Argandoña and Reinaldo Alvarez from Bio Ritmo and singer Laura Ann Singh. Alvarez is of Puerto Rican heritage while Simmons-Argandoña is from Chile, and Singh was born in Tennessee but spent years singing in Brazil. Miramar was born out of a shared passion for boleros between Alvarez and Simmons-Argandoña that Bio Ritmo didn’t quite have room for. “We decided to start a bolero group because there were only so many boleros we could do with a salsa band,” says Marlysse.
They were particularly struck by a 1960s-era album of Rexach songs from Duo Irizarry de Córdova. In contrast to the Mexican trios that swept much of Latin America (Los Panchos, Los Tres Aces), this Puerto Rican duo featured male and female voices in unique interaction. “It was a new expression of pain and longing,” says Rei Alvarez. “It was a concrete manifestation of everything that I love about romantic music”. Enter Laura Ann Singh as the perfect singing partner, and Miramar’s duo sound was born.
The resulting album is quite lovely and drenched in nostalgia. Seven of the album’s ten songs are Rexach compositions, with the remainder composed by Alvarez and Simmons-Argandoña. Inspired by bolero, they nonetheless evoke other sources, from waltzes to a Middle Eastern feel. While clearly anchored in the style and the era it pays homage to, the album’s nostalgia derives from its soulfulness, not imitation. I’m still curious, though. With songs as beautiful as this, why is Sylvia Rexach a cult figure, a term that implies devotion from a select but limited audience?
“In my opinion, it’s because she was a songwriter, not a performer. She only had one recording out [a simple and unadorned album of her voice accompanied by acoustic guitarist Tuti Umpierre] and while people may know her songs, they don’t necessarily know who wrote them, because they associate the song with the performer,” says Marlysse Simmons-Argandoña, speaking to me by phone from the road. “She gave songs away, so it’s possible that there are songs that we don’t even know are hers.”
Returning to the Miramar album, I ask about the Puerto Rican duo tradition that inspired the vocals. “We didn’t initially take the duo approach. Rei and I are both big record collectors. There is a café in Santurce right around the corner from a big record store that we would go to when visiting Puerto Rico. An older generation of musicians hangs out there. They introduced us to a lot of duo music, including Duo Irizarry de Córdova. We both loved the sound, but Rei was the only singer in Miramar at the time. We didn’t know Laura Ann. We met her and she joined Rei for a couple of songs at one of our concerts and we were like wow, that’s it.”
Instrumentally, the album has a classic feel: piano, guitar, bongos, maracas, strings – and one distinct feature that I’m not used to hearing in tropical music, organ. That last thing, I assumed, was sort of a hipster affectation, the way some indi-rock bands use ukuleles or toy pianos. Wrong. I found some Duo Irizarry de Córdova music on YouTube, and the organ is there in all its nostalgic glory. “Those albums are full of haunting organ,” says Marlysse.
There are thirteen songs on the one, rare Sylvia Rexach album (as far as I can tell – I’ve had to patch it together from YouTube videos containing the audio of old albums), so I ask Marlysse how they arrived at the seven that were recorded by Miramar. “The Irizarry de Córdova album of her songs was our starting point, so our sound and song selection originate there. However, we have since learned a few more and will be debuting them in Chicago.”
Sylvia Rexach will probably never be as well-known as Rafael Hernandez or Pedro Flores. But with Miramar’s help, some much needed recognition will surely come her way.
Miramar appears twice this weekend in Chicago, both shows presented by Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center
Friday, June 24 @ 3:00PM at Hermosa Park, 2240 N. Kilbourn Avenue – Free Admission (co-presented by Night Out in the Parks) Saturday, June 25 @ 7:00PM at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage Avenue – $20 Donation goes to SRBCC’s educational and cultural programs. Tickets and info at srbcc.org
By Don Macica,
Photos by Charlie Billups
A long awaited community event took place last night in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. Saxophonist and MacArthur fellow Miguel Zenón, visiting the city to present his Identities are Changeable project at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center, came to Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center to share his motivations and processes behind Identities and explore different facets of Afro-Puerto Rican music with local musicians.
We were there, and it was truly a once in a lifetime experience, requiring the collaboration and mutual respect of many individuals and institutions to make it happen. Miguel Zenón, of course, but also the University, SRBCC’s executive director Omar Torres-Kortright and several Chicago musicians who help keep Puerto Rican culture alive: jazz saxophonist Roy McGrath and his quartet, traditional bomba ensemble Buya, and SRBCC’s own youth ensemble, Arawak’Opia.
Zenón opened the evening by talking about the process of creating Identities are Changeable, a multi-media big band project about the idea of identity among Puerto Ricans born in the United States. The concepts were illustrated by video excerpts. He then took several questions from the audience, which he answered thoughtfully and at length.
The music that followed was wonderful, starting with Zenón playing with the young musicians, singers and dancers of Arawak’Opia. A little loose, perhaps, but genuinely inspirational. McGrath, who was born in San Juan but now lives in Chicago, joined Zenón for a jazz take on three Puerto Rican classics, Obsesión, Perfume de Gardenaias and Capullito de Alelì. Finally, Buya took the stage with their usual energy and spirit while Zenón improvised in and around their powerful drumming, singing and dancing. The group learned Zenón’s composition Esta Plena especially for this occasion, and they nailed it.
Equal to the music was the sense of shared community in the room going back and forth between the performers on the stage and the people in the audience as barriers between the two dissolved. In just a couple of years, SRBCC has established themselves in Hermosa after over four decades based in Wicker Park. They have gone where the community needs them most, and bringing a world class talent like Miguel Zenón and presenting him for free is a testament to their commitment to the neighborhood. They have a huge summer of activity planned, starting almost immediately with programs presented in collaboration with The 606 and Night Out in the Parks. Visit their website srbcc.org for a complete schedule.
Photographer Charlie Billups, who has been documenting Puerto Rican and Latino culture in Chicago, was at the Zenón event and took the pictures below. You can view more of his work at his Tumblr blog or at charliebillups.com.
“The Puerto Rican community in Chicago is one of the most important and historic communities outside of the island, so all of the ideas from the project would definitely apply there as well. But then again, I think that this is an idea that could apply to any immigrant community anywhere.”
Composer and saxophonist Miguel Zenón is talking about Identities are Changeable, his multi-media big band project based on interviews he conducted with New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent. It is making its long awaited Chicago debut on Thursday, May 26 at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Chicago.
Zenón, however, is not confining his Chicago visit to just this concert. On Tuesday, May 24, he’ll participate in Folclórico, An Exploration of Jazz and Afro-Puerto Rican Music at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. And while one project might represent contemporary, cutting edge jazz and the other traditions that date back hundreds of years, the former almost certainly would not exist without the latter. That’s how tightly Zenón has interwoven his heritage into his art.
Beginning with his third album as a leader, Jíbaro (2005), and continuing with Esta Plena (2009) and Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook (2011), and Oye!!! Live In Puerto Rico (2013), Zenón created a series of thoughtfully framed works that interpret different facets of Puerto Rican culture. Along the way, he became a MacArthur Fellow, a recipient of what’s been called the “Genius Grant”, placing him at the forefront of a new movement that has brought Zenón to prominence in jazz. But beyond his facility at writing and playing music, there is a great intellectual subject at the center of Zenón’s artistic world: the complexity of Puerto Rican culture.
“I consider myself a jazz musician,” says Zenón. “It is the music that speaks to me the most and the reason why I became a musician in the first place. But I’m also a Latin American musician from Puerto Rico, and that’s always going to be there and is going to be represented in everything I do, no matter what. The music I write for my band represents these two sides of who I am musically.”
When I last interviewed Miguel Zenón at length, Identities are Changeable was still months from being released. Zenón and his quartet were previewing a more portable version of it at the 2014 Chicago Jazz Festival, and they would return the following year for a weekend run at the Jazz Showcase. Until now, though, the full project had only been performed in a handful of cities. This complete version finds the Miguel Zenón Quartet joined by an additional 12 musicians and augmented by a video installation that brings to life the words and people from which Zenón built the music. Given its size and expense, it is rarely performed.
“I think we’ve had about 8 performances with the Big Band and the Video and maybe 3 or 4 with just the Quartet and the Video,” says Zenón. “We performed in New York City twice, at Carnegie Hall and Hostos College in the Bronx. [They were] both very different experiences. On one side it was amazing to get to perform at such a historic venue; on the other it was really great to get to perform in the Bronx, which has a very large Puerto Rican community.”
He continues, “The music on this album is inspired by the idea of national identity, as experienced by the Puerto Rican community in New York City. The music was written around a series of interviews I conducted with New Yorkers of Puerto Rican decent. I asked them all a series of question and then used their answers to create a narrative, which is then translated into specific themes such as ‘Language’, ‘Home’ or ‘Traditions’ and so forth. I wrote music with the idea of creating an interaction between the band and the audio you hear from the interviews.”
The voices heard on the Identities album, which was released in November 2014, include thinkers, musicians, poets and family members. The live performance further employs David Dempewolf’s video installation as something of a seventeenth member of the band, illuminating and enhancing the heart of the music and thoughts expressed.
This is music that is intensely rhythmic, though not in a standard way that you would hear with, for example, a mambo orchestra. It’s definitely jazz, but this big-band score – Zenón’s first – presents a different kind of compositional and polyrhythmic challenge. It’s more like modern symphonic writing, with multiple meters and layers that keep all sixteen musicians, especially drummer Henry Cole, on their toes. The different rhythms that play against and with each other suggest the different identities that are the subject of the work.
I asked Zenón what to expect from Folclórico, which is being presented free of charge as a community outreach effort of Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and UChicago Presents.
“The plans for the center is to have a little presentation about Identities are Changeable, where I’ll talk about the genesis of the project and break down some of its essential elements. Then we’ll have a musical presentation, with me joining some local groups, Arawak’Opia, [bomba ensemble] Buya and jazz saxophonist Roy McGrath. Omar [Torres-Kortright, the director of the center] and I have been talking about this collaboration for many years now, so I’m really looking forward to this.”
Taken together, the local musicians playing with Zenón at SRBCC are a cross section of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. The members of Buya are, for the most part, U.S. born Puerto Ricans, but have dedicated themselves to roots music. Saxophonist McGrath, meanwhile, was born in San Juan but now lives in Chicago, where he leads a pair of jazz ensembles and plays in salsa and reggae bands around town.
Arawak’Opia is the center’s youth bomba ensemble, so I ask Zenón about working with kids. “It is something that I enjoy very much. I have this project in Puerto Rico called ‘Caravana Cultural’, which basically involves presenting free-of-charge jazz concerts in the rural areas of Puerto Rico. One of the essential elements of the project is the inclusion of a group of young music students from the area, who join us on stage for the final concert. It is always the highlight of the performance and something that gives me a lot of faith in the project and faith on the power of music in general.”
The Logan Center show presents a rare opportunity to hear one of the most compelling composers and performers in jazz working at peak capacity, while SRBCC’s community presentation will allow Chicagoans to go inside the artist himself. Chicago couldn’t be more fortunate.
Folclórico, An Exploration of Jazz and Afro-Puerto Rican Music – Tuesday, May 24, 7pm. Free admission. Reserve tickets at segundoruizbelvis.org.
Miguel Zenon, Identities are Changeable – Thursday, May 26, 7:30pm, Reva and David Logan Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets at chicagopresents.uchicago.edu.
In late 2015, a YouTube video appeared and immediately started shooting around the internet via Remezcla, LargeUp and other ear-to-the ground sites that track Latin and Caribbean music and culture. 3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé) by ÌFÉ was both straightforward and a bit mysterious at the same time. I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but I loved it. Luckily, there was a free download from SoundCloud too, so I immediately put it into my iPod rotation.
3 Mujeres is a rumba workout, except it’s not, exactly. Almost all of the sounds come from electronic instruments, played by hand by expert percussionists. The production is ultra-modern, yet the vocals have a very traditional feel, mixing Spanish and Yoruba languages. The video explains things a bit via a lengthy prelude in which we are introduced to each member of the group before the song proper even begins. The whole thing is a live-as-it-happens take recorded at the studio and home of project leader Otura Mun in Santurce, Puerto Rico.
That introductory tease was followed up this spring with another video and SoundCloud track, House of Love (Ogbe Yekun). It’s much less traditional sounding, yet still deeply rooted. With its shifting and seductive rhythmic bed and floating vocals, it is practically an R&B slow jam, something like Sade at her most minimalist. It’s gorgeous, and the accompanying video is mysteriously seductive as well, beautiful black and white imagery that follows Otura Mun through a space that is equal parts spiritual and sensual, blurring the distinctions between them.
As it turns out, before Otura Mun put together ÌFÉ, he was musician, DJ and producer Mark Underwood, sometimes known by his identity as DJ Nature. Before that, though, Underwood was an African American raised in Indiana and living in Texas. His move to Puerto Rico in 1999 was, as they say in what has become an overused term, transformative. In the case of Otura Mun, however, it is completely apropos. It was there he discovered rumba as well as the spirit world at its foundation, the practice of Ifá, the African Yoruba religion in the western hemisphere.
I was heading down to Puerto Rico last week for some cultural exploration (OK, I was on vacation), so I e-mailed Otura / Mark in advance with a few questions. We met at Mareabaja, a small restaurant and bar in Isla Verde, where he was playing traditional rumba sets with friends. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
My first question was “Should I call you Mark or Otura?”
OM: Otura Mun is better. It’s my name in Ifá. All Babaláwos (ed. note: a Babaláwo is a priest of the Yoruban Ifá religion. Mun became a Babaláwo in April 2015 in a ceremony in Havana, Cuba.) receive a letter or sign in Ifá from the 256 possible Odu Ifá that defines them and becomes their name moving forward. Mine is Otura Mun.
DM: Did your understanding of the roots of rumba and batá lead to your interest in Yoruba spirituality, or was it the other way around?
OM: I’ve been interested in both since the very first time I saw a rumba in San Juan and heard my first Orisha songs, all on the same night played by the same group, Grupo Carabalí. But I also sensed an implied level of devotion and dedication that both the music and the spiritual practice seemed to require or demand. When I finally reached a place where I felt like I was ready to embrace the music, rumba specifically, I was also at a point where I felt that I wanted to find a way to explore the “invisible world” and my spiritual self. I chose Ifá and La Regla de Ocha as my way to access that world. So yeah, I guess you could say they happened simultaneously.
DM: I’ve read that you moved to Puerto Rico on a whim, but that doesn’t seem quite complete to me. Were you seeking anything other than island style fun and an opportunity to work as a DJ? Was there a culture, attitude or scene that attracted you that didn’t exist in the U.S.?
OM: It was definitely a big change culturally for me. I’m African American and I didn’t speak Spanish when I moved in ‘99. Old San Juan put me in the mix with Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Haitians, Colombians, Argentinians, Venezuelans…. San Juan in the late 90’s was a vibrant place. The island’s music and art scenes were centered in that small beautifully built Spanish colonial city. Music seemed to be a huge part of the cultural expression of everyday people and there seemed to be a sort of unquenchable thirst for it. Learning the language presented a welcome challenge and helped me, I think, to re-envision the world I had been living in from the bottom up. [I was] literally constructing a world vision with these new words and sentiments as the building blocks. I have a Spanish language personality now that doesn’t really read like my English self. I saw the people in Puerto Rico as culturally different from myself and the folks I knew both in Texas and Indiana and their attitudes and expressions of that culture were attractive. There seemed to be a conscious sense of Africaness in the music, a strong sense of the importance of family and brotherhood or sisterhood in general, and a love for life, for the moment, youthfulness. Puerto Rico in 1999 called to me in a clear enough way that I picked up and moved from zero, no family, no points of reference and not much of a plan. I saw the move as an opportunity for self-improvement, an opportunity to build a cultural bridge that I could use later, and I think in that sense I’ve been quite successful.
DM: Were there Latin sounds and beats in your DJ sets before you moved to Puerto Rico? Could you differentiate between the Afro-Latin sounds and rhythms of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Colombia, Dominican Republic etc.?
OM: Before moving to PR I wasn’t so in touch with Latin music. I listened to primarily Hip Hop, Dancehall Reggae and Jazz. I studied a semester or two of Brazilian samba and batucada at the University of North Texas and had heard a little bit of salsa and rumba through friends. I really heard, saw and experienced Latin music for the first time on a 2 week trip to San Juan in 1997. There I saw rumba, salsa, bomba, plena, flamenco, charanga live for the first time. I heard merengue, bachata, reggaeton. When I moved to PR in ‘99 I didn’t know the difference between merengue and salsa.
DM: Why, as you were in Puerto Rico, were you inspired by rumba and batá instead of bomba and plena?
OM: I’m just more into rumba as a genre. I’ve fallen in love with rumba. It consumes me. I respect and appreciate bomba, but I’m much more drawn to the musical conversations I hear between the drums, singers and dancers in rumba personally. The genres are just so different. I try not to compare them. Yes I heard rumba first in Puerto Rico, and yes I learned to play it in Puerto Rico, but I’m a student of the music and admirer of the Cuban musicians who created and built this beautiful form we rumberos live to play.
DM: Is it accurate to say that ÌFÉ is electro-rumba?
OM: I would never say that what ÌFÉ is doing is rumba. We’re drawing heavily from that established musical dialogue. We’re using the rumba clave, the drummers are playing parts similar to the language of the 3 main drums, but the singing, the song structure, the intent, cadence are all quite different. We’re breaking too many rules to call it rumba since a large part of what makes that genre work so well is that all the players are respecting the basic rules of the conversation. ÌFÉ draws heavily from there, but what we are doing is something different.
DM: There is a fairly established nu-cumbia movement that’s swept Latin America and the Global Bass community in the U.S., especially from a DJ standpoint but also live bands. Were you listening to any of that when you started to consider what to do as an artist/bandleader rather than a producer or DJ?
OM: No I wasn’t. I really just listen to rumba, Orisha music and Jamaican Dancehall. If anything else sneaks in there it’s probably Coltrane or Art Blakey, something very straight bebop. I try not to look outward as much as possible when creating. Lately my inspiration comes from a more visual place or from reading. I don’t listen to music at the house as a general rule. I wasn’t trying to make something that was going to fall into an established movement or community at all. It was really just about making something that was powerful to me first, with the hopes that some folks could feel the message and sentiments in the music. It’s been sort of cool seeing where ÌFÉ has gotten played and who has really responded to it. There’s definitely a Latin American Bass music community that I’m just now discovering that have supported the songs. They’re doing great things. It’s refreshing to see what else is going on in music right now. And I have discovered artists via shows that have played ÌFÉ’s music that I have quite liked.
DM: The two songs that are out so far are almost entirely constructed of processed percussion and vocals, very minimal, close to a very traditional rumba ensemble. Is that the foundation from which you’ll be building, or is that the sound itself?
OM: I would feel confined if I were to say that that’s the definitive sound itself but it’s certainly a place I like to be. The minimalism is intentional. I like the restrictions that are implied there. Set board sounds, clave, percussion as basses, no keyboards, vocal and chorus heavy, one solo acoustic instrument. There are boundaries there, but the beauty is in how you navigate them.
DM: Are the musicians and singers in the 3 Mujeres video the working band? Could we expect to see them live in concert? After all, you go through a lot of trouble to introduce them one by one.
OM: For the most part yes. One of our members, Jhan Lee Aponte, moved to LA a few months back so I convinced Anthony Sierra, a great young rumbero who I had just met in San Francisco to move from the Bay to Puerto Rico to play with the group. He’s an incredible player and we’ve had a lot of fun exploring the island while working on new material for our upcoming EP. So yes, what you see in 3 Mujeres and House of Love is the crew. We may travel a little lighter on chorus singers outside of PR but yes. This is the group. Blessed to be working with such talented folks, all leaders of their own projects who have come together to be part of this group. I’m a lucky man.
Word has it that Chicago might get to see and hear ÌFÉ live later this year, and Otura Mun assures me that they are recording songs for a debut EP this summer. So there’s a lot to look forward to.
This evening in Isla Verde, however, there’s a final set of rumba to be played. I recognize people from the 3 Mujeres video in both the ensemble and the audience. I’m awestruck by the sheer complexity of the interlocking drums. The Orishas are invoked. Women are dancing at the bar. It’s a sweaty, sexy and, yes spiritual experience. The mojitos are strong and the garlic shrimp arepas are delicious. It’s heaven.
Jazz is, at its best, ever evolving and in the moment. You need to bring a ton of skill and creativity to the table, but once the meal is served, the conversation really begins, elevating what was notes and words on paper into the realm of the spirit.
That’s the context in which I caught the March 24th performance of the Roy McGrath Quintet’s work in progress, Julia al Son de Jazz, at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood.
The suite of original (with one exception.. more on that later) Latin jazz compositions take their inspiration from the life and poetry of Puerto Rican activist and poet Julia de Burgos. The idea was first commissioned by SRBCC last summer for an outdoor performance at the park named after de Burgos that’s part of The 606, an urban trail that stretches for a few miles through a handful of Chicago neighborhoods, reaching Hermosa at its western end. Saxophonist McGrath, seizing the opportunity, immediately starting writing new songs instead of falling back on standards and familiar tunes. A crack assemblage of Chicago’s top Latin jazz musicians was quickly put together and actress Rossanna Rodriguez was tapped to recite de Burgos’ poetry.
That initial project took place on a sunny fall Saturday, and though promoted ahead of time, it served more as an unexpected and delightful curiosity to people strolling, biking and rollerblading the trail. That could have been the end of it, but McGrath, it turns out, was only getting started.
He continued writing over the winter and workshopped a version of the project at Sabor a Café, a Colombian restaurant and intimate music venue, in early February. In that informal performance, McGrath himself handled the poetry, and, um, he’s not a bad reader for a saxophone player. Still, you could hear new ideas and arrangements continue to be fleshed out. McGrath had already agreed to present Julia al Son de Jazz at SRBCC in March, and he needed to work things out in front of an audience, which is essential for jazz. The audience will let you know what works and what doesn’t.
Armed with what he learned at Sabor a Café, he put together the band for last week’s performance, which included pianist Edwin Sanchez, drummer Jean-Christophe Leroy, bassist Freddy Quintero and congueroVictor Junito. And, thankfully, actress and writer Veronica Rodriguez Gotay handling the poetry recitatives.
A quick word about Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center: It’s an absolute gem. In addition to providing a full slate of cultural and after-school programs for the neighborhood and wider Chicago community, the space itself is gorgeous in a funky, loft inspired way: Exposed brick walls covered with Puerto Rican art, groovy mid-century modern furniture, a nice antique bar off to one side, and great sight lines for its large stage. One of their youth programs is the Arawak’Opia dance and music ensemble, and these bright and talented kids performed a short set before McGrath took the stage.
Julia al Son de Jazz now opens with a solo recitation of a de Burgos poem, Rio Grande de Loiza, carefully setting the tone for what is to come. The band then kicks into a mid-tempo groove with a gentle keyboard flourish, supporting an original English language poem by Abner Bardeguez that honors Julie de Burgos (sort of a mini-biography/introduction). McGrath pays close attention to his band, directing them even as he plays. The saxophonist is well on his way to becoming a respected player in jazz, equally adept in straight-ahead as well as Latin idioms. I caught him last January covering John Coltrane’s Blue Train in its entirety, and he and his straight-ahead ensemble did a great job honoring ‘Trane’s spirit. McGrath takes chances and goes to inventive places with his horn.
Roy McGrath was born and raised in Puerto Rico, yet inspired to pursue jazz by Coltrane and Miles Davis. He brings his boricua heritage to his writing, but jazz is the primary language. Various strains of folkloric and popular Puerto Rican sounds are interwoven into his Julia compositions, never more apparent than when he invited Arawak’Opia to join the band to add a solid bomba foundation to the introduction to one of the songs. They nailed it.
The rhythm and cadence of Julia de Burgos’s poetry inspire as well, and it is very apparent that the music is fully integrated into the words and vice-versa. This isn’t poetry with jazz, but poetry and voice as one more essential instrument in a cohesive ensemble arrangement.
The one tune not written by McGrath was Rafael Hernández’ Los Carreteros, which he introduced by saying he learned it in choir long before he ever picked up a saxophone. But, like Miguel Zenón on his Puerto Rican songbook album AlmaAdentro, McGrath put his own writing and arranging skills to work in adapting it for de Burgos’ poetry.
Julia al Son de Jazz is still a work in progress. The Chicago Park District will be presenting it three more times around the city this summer, and each performance will come with much valued rehearsal time. As with the Sabor a Café performance, McGrath will take what he learned at SRBCC to continue development with the eventual aim of recording it for an album.
I’ll be in the park, and I’ll be first in line to buy the album when it comes out.
All photos by Don Macica
About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.