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.
When I first heard Orquesta el Macabeo live in 2013, I was transported to a place that lived more in my imagination than anywhere else. I had seen documentaries about the birth of salsa in New York City and enjoyed every gritty, grainy frame. These films hinted at what it must have been like when these brash young upstarts first rose from the streets of the Bronx and Spanish Harlem. Listening to Orquesta el Macabeo, however, made me feel like I was there. I was blown away. This was a far cry from your average ‘salsa night’ in a club.
They’ve only been back to Chicago once, playing Agúzate’s Afro-Caribbean Improvised Music Festival later that same year. On September 4, however, I’ll return once again to el barrio when Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center presents Orquesta el Macabeo in a benefit concert.
Before the 11 musicians who make up the band got together, they each had a musical history in anything but salsa: hardcore, metal, ska, reggae, hip-hop. And yet, as they put it on their SoundCloud page, “They do not mix salsa with those music genres. This is straight up Salsa.”
“I was touring the world with different hardcore punk bands, and I come from a DIY background. I had an idea that when I got home I would gather some friends from other bands and see if we could jam some of our favorite Puerto Rican songs, like you would hear in any bar.” This is Macabeo’s founder and director, bassist José lbañez, speaking to me by phone from his home in Trujillo Alto, PR. “Originally, the idea was just for us, with no expectations, and if somebody would let us play in a bar or something, great. But all of us being DIY people, we soon wanted to write our own songs. We got really excited, doing things our way, learning but not feeling constrained by rules of what we could or couldn’t do.
“We got our first show in a little bar that only fit 40 people. We only had three songs, so we repeated them 2 or 3 times! People seemed to like it right away. I have a home studio, so we started working on writing more and making our first record.” That record eventually came out in 2010 as Salsa Macabra, followed by El Entierro in 2011 and Lluvia con sol in 2013.
Bending or breaking rules is not a minor issue, and even now there are serious salseros who don’t believe Orquesta el Macabeo is doing it right, just as there are purist rockers who think Macabeo is only joking around. But, as lbañez notes, “Normal people who have normal lives listen to the music and like it. They don’t care if it’s this way or the other way.” Most rockers in Puerto Rico, he says, like salsa just fine. I can’t help but compare this attitude to early salsa’s creators, who took whatever they needed from tropical music—son, bomba y plena, merengue, boleros—and adapted it to their particular situation as urban dwellers also familiar with rock and R&B. In other words, the ‘rules’ of salsa weren’t written yet.
In addition to their dynamic live sound and unconventional stage presence, there is another quality that makes Orquesta el Macabeo stand out, and it is one that owes as much to punk as it does to the early days of salsa. Their lyrics have a reality to them, describing everyday life in circumstances that are sometimes harsh. It’s not always pretty, but it’s real. At the same time, they wield a sharp sense of humor as one of their weapons.
Willie Colón once said, in defining salsa as a thing culturally separate from the Cuban son that it sprang from, called it “… a manifestation of cultural resistance… its melodies are essentially urban. Salsa is like a newspaper, a chronicle of our lives in the big city, and that’s why it talks about such topics as crime, drugs, pain, uprootedness and even about our history of exploitation and underdevelopment.” In a different context, it’s why Chuck D of Public Enemy called rap the “Black CNN”, and the same spirit is at the heart of hardcore punk as well, a way of articulating anger at an unjust system. It’s protest music.
Decades later, lbañez says much the same thing. “I like to listen to music that says something to me, and I want to write music like that, stories from the neighborhood, stories of the city, the social situation… things that mean something to me. Our songs are not empty. They have something to say.” In addition to lbañez, another six members contribute lyrics and music, all of it original and all of it reflective of a continuing DIY ethos.
Macabeo isn’t doing protest songs per se, but they are not turning a blind eye to society either. Se Pone Difícil describes someone who lives off the system but doesn’t give back, and predicts their demise. Cogiendo pon is a Puerto Rican expression for claiming achievement through others efforts. Alacrán compares gangsters to scorpions and warns of their sting. Perhaps the most poignant of all is Lluvia con sol, which deftly sketches out the difficulties of simply living your life in a system that leaves you powerless. The video for Lluvia starkly contrasts these lyrics against cheerful images of vintage tourism, introduced as “… the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a land of song and laughter, a tiny bit of the United States in the warm seas of the Caribbean,” and later extols the island’s progress “under the guidance of the Stars and Stripes.” Ouch.
Yet, in the midst of this, there is time to dance, time to boast and time to party with songs like Macabiónico, La Conga, Swing and La Dieta, which extols the glories of delicious and fatty food. As someone who believes chuletas can-can is both the most delectable and dangerous recipe ever invented, I can relate.
Our conversation turns to Orquesta el Macabeo’s recently released 7” single for Spain’s Vampisoul label, which salsifies a pair of punk rock songs from mid-90s Spain, Eutanasia and En la luna. “I was into heavy metal first, then hardcore around the age of 15” says lbañez. “These bands [La Polla Records and Eskorbuto] were very popular at the time, and because they sung in Spanish I could understand them. They were among my favorites.” He continues “I think it’s important to pay these bands a tribute and make these songs we love so much part of our own history. Music has no limits or barriers, and we show it this way: turning these two 100% punk songs into Latin tropical rhythms, while respecting the atmosphere of the original tracks.”
The other new Orquesta el Macabeo song couldn’t be more different from Eutanasia. La puerta está abierta is a flat out gorgeous tune performed as a duet with Mimi Maura, a Puerto Rico born singer who splits her time between San Juan and Buenos Aires. It’s structured a bit like the Miguel Matamoros classic Lagrimas Negras, with Maura’s languid bolero giving way to a cha-cha-cha chorus about halfway in. Even here, though, a DIY approach is in play. Maura comes from a rock & ska background and is the partner of Sergio Rotman, a member of Argentina’s legendary Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. “Sergio loves our project and asked us to make a song together with Mimi, which we totally accepted, as we love them and it is a good way to be known in Argentina.” says Ibañez. “He then put out Siete años macabros to expose us in his country, a compilation of our three albums plus the bonus track with Mimi.” In a final homegrown twist, the song itself was written by Maura’s father, Puerto Rican singer Mike Acevedo, back in the 1960s.
The band’s DIY principles have remained firm since its founding in 2008. lbañez explains, “We write our own songs, make our own music, record in our home studio and distribute our own albums. Our decisions are still made as friends getting together to play music, not dictated by a business scheme dreamed up in an office. We don’t want a record company telling us what to do.”
Lest all of this sound too serious, don’t worry. Salsa is, at heart, designed for dancing, and a Macabeo show is first and foremost a dance party. Given that the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center can hold several hundred people, this should be a very big party indeed.
Orquesta el Macabeo, Friday, September 4, 8pm at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4046 W. Armitage, Chicago. Tickets at srbcc.org.
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.