Concert Review: ¡Súbelo! at World Music Festival Chicago

By Don Macica, photos by Charlie Billups

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

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

Centavrvs

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

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

Los Wemblers de Iquitos

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

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

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

Francisco “Pirulo” Rosado

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

Pirulo y la Tribu

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

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

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

Miguel Zenón discusses “Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera”

By Don Macica

“He’s a larger than life figure. I’ve been connected to him for as long as I can remember listening to music. When I was a child, his music was always present around the house. This was before I had any thought of becoming a musician. When he passed, it was like a president had died or something, a period of national mourning. That really affected me.”

I’m speaking by phone with Miguel Zenón about his new album with the Miguel Zenón Quartet, “Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera,” the latest of several albums spanning almost 15 years in which the saxophonist and composer explores the emblematic subject of Puerto Rico, both musically and culturally.

“Later on, when I began to study music, I realized that Rivera was a genius,” Zenón continues. “Since then, he’s always been my guy. Over the years, I dabbled around the edges, arranging some of Rivera songs for David’s group (Zenón played alto sax for nearly 5 years in a group led by fellow Puerto Rican David Sánchez before forming his own quartet in 2005) and later on for my ‘Alma Adentro’ album. I finally felt it was time for a full investigation.”

The product of that investigation will make its Chicago debut September 19 at the Jazz Showcase when the Miguel Zenón Quartet (Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Henry Cole, drums) begin a four-night residency. Zenón has been coming to the historic Chicago jazz venue regularly for almost twenty years, first as a member of David Sánchez’ group, then as leader of his current quartet. In 2013, he brought his Rhythm Collective side project.

L to R: Hans Glawischnig, Luis Perdomo, Miguel Zenón, Henry Cole – Photo by Noah Shaye

Although I’ve long known that Rivera was an important figure, I didn’t quite understand the depth of that reverence. I knew that Zenón was preparing this tribute from a conversation that I had with him last fall at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center when he celebrated the release of his previous album, “Yo Soy la Tradición”, with a concert there. I immersed myself in the music and story of Ismael Rivera before calling Zenón. I believed it was necessary to understand more about Ismael Rivera before I could approach a tribute to him.

The story is considerably more complex than this brief outline, but Ismael Rivera’s career is roughly divided into two periods: His work as lead vocalist in the groundbreaking 1950s and early 60s pre-salsa output of Cortijo y Su Combo, led by his childhood friend Rafael Cortijo, and the 1970s, when he formed Ismael Rivera y sus Cachimbos after the ascendency of salsa in New York. In between those two periods are five years in prison due to a 1962 drug bust, which ended Cortijo’s combo.

Rivera, nicknamed Maelo, is a genius in the way that saxophonist Charlie Parker is a genius: employing an unprecedented and innovative approach to art and technique so that their field (in Parker’s case jazz, in Rivera’s Afro-Caribbean improvised sonero singing) is forever divided up into pre- and post-eras. No less than the great Cuban singer Benny Moré dubbed Rivera “El Sonero Mayor.” It was natural, then, that Zenón would study Rivera’s vocal improvisations the same way he would study Parker.

“Rivera and Cortijo were grounded in traditional Afro-Puerto Rican music,” says Zenón, “and they brought that to the stage and dance floor, putting a specifically Puerto Rican spin to a sonero tradition that comes out of Cuba, Arsenio Rodríguez, Benny Moré. What Maelo built on top of that was unprecedented. Maelo’s melodic and rhythmic gifts of invention took sonero to another level.”

“Rivera is an important cultural figure,” continues Zenón. “Maelo and Cortijo were guys from the ‘hood.” Zenón is referring to Santurce, San Juan’s historic working-class neighborhood (where, many years later, Zenón was born as well) populated largely by Afro-Puerto Ricans. “They took street music like bomba and plena and built a modern, popular sound out of it that didn’t rely on Cuban son as its only reference. No one had done that before, and people loved it. The story goes that songwriter Bobby Capó, who was a big advocate, arranged for them to perform on a popular television show. When the band showed up, the producers saw they were these black guys from the streets and didn’t want to even let them in the hotel where the show was broadcast from, let alone put them on the air. Bobby argued that they’re here, what else are you gonna do? The producers relented, and Cortijo y su Combo became a huge sensation. People loved their attitude, their rhythms, their choreography, everything.”

“Later on, they became the backup band for Benny Moré, and that took them to big stages everywhere, not only in Puerto Rico, but all over Latin America and in New York.”

Many an academic study has been written examining Rivera and Cortijo’s significance to everyday Puerto Ricans, and I won’t quote them here, but suffice it to say it’s a big deal. It’s no surprise, then, that Zenón was drawn to Maelo for personal, socio-cultural and artistic reasons. To drive the point home, Zenón brought in one of those scholars, César Colón-Montijo, to write Sonero’s liner notes.

“I didn’t make the album to expose Rivera to a wider audience, especially among jazz fans,” says Zenón, “but if that happens it would be great. His music deserves it.”

Before listening closely to Zenón’s album, I researched and assembled the original versions of the source material in the same order as the tunes appear on “Sonero”, then committed them to memory as best I could. It’s worth noting that neither Rivera nor Cortijo were songwriters. Some of Puerto Rico’s best, including Capó and the great Tite Curet Alonso, took care of that, often writing tunes expressly for them. Rivera’s genius was in his improvised singing, essentially “composing” in real time much like a great jazz musician.

For “Sonero,” Zenón and his quartet take those written and improvised compositions, examine them, break them down, reassemble them and build new themes on top of them. The album’s 10 tracks are divided equally between the early Cortijo material and the later sides that he recorded for Fania.

Capó’s 1975 tune “Las Tumbas”, as an example, begins with Rivera’s verse (his “prison blues” according to Colón-Montijo) played gracefully by pianist Luis Perdomo and then gradually picked up by the rest of the quartet. The simple melody is lovingly spun out over the course of 3 minutes until, just as the coro is briefly hinted at, Zenón and company abruptly take on the original’s opening horn fanfare before exploring variations the coro for several minutes, returning to the fanfare at the end.

The 1958 Cortijo y su Combo classic “El Negro Bembón”, also penned by Capó, once again starts by taking Rivera’s vocal as Zenón’s initial theme, only this time it’s one of his exuberant improvisations, which is then played against the band’s ensemble work. A similar approach carries Curet Alonso’s 1978 “Las Caras Lindas”, Rivera’s ode to the varied and beautiful black faces of the Caribbean.

The rest of the album continues in this vein, with Colón-Montijo’s liner notes helpfully providing the social and personal context of each song. [Author’s note: Yes, I am suggesting that you buy the CD for its beautiful and informative packaging rather than simply streaming the audio. You won’t regret it.]

Zenón and the rest of his quartet, while all fans of salsa, resist the urge to “salsify” the tunes. “Although salsa and jazz both emerge out of popular traditions and the music of the people, they took different directions,” remarks Zenón. “But the source is the same.”

The Miguel Zenón Quartet may be masters of modern jazz, but the heart and soul of Puerto Rico embeds its spirit into every note of “Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera.”

Miguel Zenón Quartet, Jazz Showcase, September 19-22, two shows nightly plus Sunday matinee. Tickets and information at jazzshowcase.com

The Return of the Chicago Latin Jazz Jam Session

By Don Macica –

Nathan Rodriguez is a Chicago-born Puerto Rican musician and dedicated salsero who was virtually raised on the music, being mentored and given opportunities to perform by veteran salsa musicians at the Latin jam sessions that dotted the city, often sneaking into clubs while underage for the chance to play. Now 36 years old, Rodriguez is a bandleader in his own right with both Conjunto Borikén and Azucar, a Celia Cruz tribute project.

Unfortunately, the last weekly Latin jazz jam session to flourish in the city ended in 2012 when its founder, bassist Richie Pillot, passed away and Café Bolero, the club where it was held, closed its doors.

That was a year before Roy McGrath, a Puerto Rico-born jazz saxophonist, moved to Chicago to study at Northwestern University. McGrath is first and foremost a jazz musician, but his Caribbean heritage is an indelible part of him and his music. Like Rodriguez, McGrath is a bandleader, composer and arranger, and his understanding of both the salsa and jazz idioms has made him an in-demand player in both camps.

A shopping mall in suburban Chicago is quite possibly the last place you might expect to find the heir to Café Bolero and the Latin jazz jam, but that is precisely where Nathan and Roy have teamed up to bring back what they both consider a vital resource and platform for Chicago’s jazz and Latin musicians. Of course, it helps that Lincolnwood Town Center houses an outpost of one of Chicago’s finer Cuban restaurants, 90 Miles Cuban Café.

“90 Miles’ owner Alberto Gonzales, who sees his restaurant as a means of celebrating and promoting Cuban food and culture, wanted to expand programming, and I was looking for a way to build more connection between Chicago’s salsa and Latin jazz musicians,” says Rodriguez, who was, at the time, booking and promoting the restaurant’s Friday and Saturday night live music. “Musicians don’t get that many opportunities to hang out together and play because most weekends we are all busy in other people’s bands,” Rodriguez continues. “I convinced him that a jam session would draw musicians from all over Chicago and that the music could be a draw with the general public as well.”

Judging by the sizable crowd that was there when I visited on a recent Tuesday, that prediction was proving accurate. But before he could get to that point, though, Rodriguez had to put together a core band that was good enough to attract others to join the action. For that, he called Roy McGrath for help. His connections in both the jazz and salsa communities blended perfectly with the solid reputation that Rodriguez had built in the last 20 years.

“As a Puerto Rican jazz musician, I’ve always straddled two worlds,” says McGrath. “Unfortunately, I don’t see that much crossover between the salsa and jazz communities. Salseros might have heard of Charlie Parker, and jazz musicians might know something about Chano Pozo playing with Dizzy Gillespie, but there are these two parallel worlds comprised of terrific musicians who often don’t know each other.”

When McGrath first arrived in Chicago, he knew he found the place he wanted to live and work and create art. “I immersed myself in the jazz scene and loved that there were regular jam sessions where I could learn a lot from working musicians and become a better player,” McGrath says. “Those places are so important for sharing knowledge and developing community, which in turn leads to more opportunities to play. But the salsa player in me didn’t have those same opportunities.”

Rodriguez agrees. “When I was a young player, getting the chance to hang with professionals was incredibly valuable. Some of them became mentors and inspired me to really take music seriously and work at becoming better.”

The band that Rodriguez and McGrath assembled is a virtual all-star ensemble. Besides Rodriguez and McGrath, you’ll usually find Brian Rivera and Tito Sierra on percussion, bassist Freddy Quintero, and veteran keyboardist Edwin Sanchez, who brings a decades-long career as a bandleader and arranger to the proceedings. “Edwin is so amazing,” says McGrath. “He knows every song on the planet, his montunos are crazy good and he can really solo.”

For the sessions, Rodriguez and McGrath divide up responsibilities along the lines of their own instruments, Nathan cuing the percussionists and Roy calling the tunes and working with the horn players.

On the Tuesday I was there, plenty of musicians, both professional and amateur, came to join in. Some of the pros included conguero Pete Vale, a salsero who also plays with Dos Santos, drummer Jonathan Wenzel, who is a member of, among others, Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic and McGrath’s Remembranzas Quartet, jazz trumpeters Thomas Madeja and Leon Q. Allen, bassist Chris Nolte and timbalero Eddie Dones. The joyful noise that they created fairly levitated the room.

“I want the music to be at a high level, but not elitist,” says McGrath. “It’s not always easy to mesh the jazz and salsa cats because the two styles speak different languages that are second nature to one but unknown by the other. So, I want the atmosphere to be inviting and fun, not intimidating to either side. That way everybody benefits, even when mistakes are made. We’re even drawing a lot of jazz vocalists who are willing to take a standard like ‘Misty’ and sing it as a bolero. It’s pretty cool. The learning curve can be steep for both sides, but when folks relax and have fun good things happen and they come back another week.”

Rodriguez voices a similar sentiment. “There are a lot of salsa players, but not a lot of venues that book salsa bands, so this gives them an opportunity to play more often, especially the young guys that are just breaking in but not yet getting called for gigs. At the same time, everyone gets to hang together, have some fun, and learn from each other.”

McGrath sees an additional benefit to the sessions, something that says a lot about how he views music as a means of social engagement.

“I’m excited about this as a musician, of course, but my reasons for bringing these two worlds together run deeper. There’s a big racial divide in Chicago, and encountering it surprised and bothered me after coming from Puerto Rico and also spending a few years studying music in New Orleans. I want this to be a safe place where musicians of all types can come together to share and learn about each other and maybe overcome some of those barriers that segregate people. People can get past their fears and prejudices when the conditions are right, so that’s what I’m hoping will happen here.”

The Latin Jazz Jam is every Tuesday from 7:30 – 9:30 PM at 90 Miles Cuban Café, 3333 W. Touhy, Lincolnwood, IL (Lincolnwood Town Center)

Concert Preview: Salsa and Latin jazz veteran Jerry Medina y La Banda

– By Don Macica –

For every star of salsa music, there are a dozen of unsung heroes that, despite their immense talents, are lesser known, providing the necessary support for the star to shine. Quick: How many salsa horn players can you name? Beyond Willie Colón and those who are primarily known as Latin jazz musicians, you are likely to have to think for a while. But a salsa song without horns would feel empty, and the same goes for the lead vocalists and most certainly the coro singers.

Jerry Medina is all three: A dynamic lead vocalist, expert coro singer and talented trumpet player. With the formation of Jerry Medina y La Banda earlier this decade, he became a terrific bandleader as well.  His name might not immediately come to mind, but a deep perusal of your record collection will find him turning up all over the place. He’s appeared on something like 50 albums since 1981 (up to and including the recent Grammy-nominated Fase Dos by Juan Pablo Diaz), including releases by Ismael Miranda, José “El Canario” Alberto, Oscar d’Leon, Cheo Feliciano and more.  He has a pair of Grammy Awards on his shelf for Palmieri’s 1987 album The Truth / La Verdad and the 2000 collaboration between Palmieri & Tito Puente, Masterpiece. When the stars of Fania regrouped for world tours in the 1980s and 90s, Medina was there with them.

Medina released a couple of solo albums in the 1980s, but a more lasting contribution came as a member of Batacumbele, a groundbreaking and deeply rooted Afro-Caribbean  ensemble where he both played trumpet and sang lead. The group is notable for being entirely Puerto Rican at a time when people were looking to Cuba for new sounds, but one listen reveals a sprawling collective that more than held their own with their Cuban counterparts like Irakere.

Medina was in the studio throughout the 90s and into the new millennium providing support for many of the big crossover Latin records of that decade, but he always kept one foot in the world of improvisational and folkloric music with groups like Descarga Boricua, bomba legends Hermanos Ayala and Grupo Afro Boricua.

He came into his own as a bandleader and lead singer in the 2000s with the formation of Jerry Medina y La Banda. The group bridges Caribbean folklore and Latin jazz in an updated version of Batacumbele’s template, and even flexes some funk & hip-hop chops. They made an electrifying appearance at the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival in March 2014. In 2015 Medina and La Banda released A Mi Manera, which included the talents of Giovanni Hidalgo, Paoli Mejías, Efraín Toro, Pablo Rosario, Luisito Marín, Prodigio Claudio, and Ricardo Pons.

A Mi Manera is a stylistically diverse collection of songs that ranges from jazzy big band sounds (complete with scatted vocals) to driving timba to a radical reworking of the Rafael Hernandez classic Capullito de Alelí. The title track is not,thankfully, a cover of the Paul Anka chestnut but an original composition that is Medina’s manifesto for the group. You can hear a little bit of lots of stuff in it: A cuatro solo for the traditionalists, a rap, some scratching, a swinging horn chart, funk bass, Medina’s scatting and a snaky, shifting rhythm pattern.  This is indeed Medina’s way.

It’s a tribute to Medina’s talent, energy and spirit that, after 35+ years in the business, he can come up with something this fresh and contemporary that still manages to be an extension of the great salsa records that he’s contributed to over the years. In the process, he honors Puerto Rican creativity, culture and music.

Jerry Medina y La Banda
Wednesday, August 29, 8:30pm: Old Town School of Folk Music oldtownschool.org
Thursday, August 30, 7:30pm: Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center srbcc.org
Both shows are free with a suggested $10 donation

Willie Colón tops a diverse lineup at Chicago’s Colombian Fest

By Don Macica –

The Midwest’s largest celebration of Colombian music and culture, Chicago’s Colombian Fest Al Parque, returns to Kelvyn Park, 4438 W. Wrightwood Avenue in Chicago, July 20, 21 and 22 as it celebrates its 4th year.

Festival director Jorge Ortega has once again programmed with a multi-generational approach to the vast diversity of Colombia culture. Ortega, who was recently honored with the Keeper of the Flame Award by the Chicago International Salsa Congress, says “From the Pacific coast to the interior plains and mountains to the shores of the Caribbean, Colombia has a huge diversity of cultures made up of mixtures of Spanish, African and indigenous peoples. The music at the festival will represent both folkloric traditions and the newest sounds of the region.”

Headliners for this year’s Fest include the legendary salsa giant Willie Colón, making his first Chicago appearance since 2006. The Nuyorican trombonist, arranger and bandleader was an integral part of the Fania Records family in the late 1960s and early 70’s. Colombia’s embrace of salsa, especially in Cali, where they claim the title of “salsa capital of the world”, can be traced back to when the Fania All-Stars first performed there in the 1970s. Cali’s homegrown salsa scene will be represented by singer Javier Vásquez. Vásquez found salsa fame as the lead vocalist of the legendary Grupo Niche for 17 years before joining Son de Cali in 2002 and then as a solo artist in 2011. [Update 4/18: Javier Vásquez is unable to come to Chicago for the Fest due to visa issues. We’ll keep you informed of new Colombian Fest bookings as they happen via the Agúzate Facebook page.]

Alfredo Gutiérrez

The accordion-driven Colombian music known as vallenato will be represented by two generations of musicians coming direct from Colombia. Singer and accordionist Alfredo Gutiérrez is the three-time winner of the Vallenato Legend Festival. Gutiérrez will be accompanied by Los Corraleros de Majagual, a group that he helped found in 1961 and for whom he was the lead vocalist throughout the 1960’s. A generation younger than Alfredo Gutiérrez is singer Iván Villazón, who released Arco Iris, the first of his many hit albums and songs, in 1984, an unbroken string that continues to this day.

Other cultural regions of Colombia are represented by Los Rolling Raunas, a group from Bogotá who bring rock energy, attitude and humor to the carranga music of the Colombian Andes, and Canolón de Timbiquí, who embody the rich musical mix of African and Latin American traditions unique to Colombia’s Pacific coast. The group consists of five female singers led by Nidia Gongora supported by a band using a range of traditional percussive instruments such as the tambora drum and the xylophone-style marimba.

Canalón de Timbiquí

Colombia has a cultural affinity with the rest of the Caribbean and, in turn, with Africa itself, whose rhythms are at the heart of all Afro-Caribbean music. Accordingly, the fest will present Raul Acosta & Oro Sólido, merengue stars from the Dominican Republic. Also performing are the Soukous All-Stars, comprised of several musicians who are major soukous artists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Soukous, along with Jamaican reggae, Haitian kompa and other Caribbean sounds, is a recognizable feature of Colombian champeta music from Cartagena and Barranquilla on Colombia’s Atlantic coast. The genre will be represented at the fest by one of its most popular groups, the Bazurto All Stars.

M.A.K.U. Soundsystem

New to the Fest this year is the Friday night program Elektro Verbena al Parque, an electronic dance music party headlined by Colombia via New York City’s M.A.K.U. Soundsystem and featuring El Freaky Colectivo de Bogota, Future Roots, SONORAMA, the Ortega Bros. and Hector Truke. The night is curated by David Chávez of Sound Culture.

Tickets for Chicago’s Colombian Fest al Parque are on sale now at colombianfestchicago.com.

Concert preview: Diego El Cigala’s Love Letter to Salsa

– by Don Macica –

Asking the question “Why did one of the world’s leading flamenco singers make a salsa album?” overlooks 500+ years of history, migration and adaptation. Salsa, even after 50 years of development, exists more purely as an idea and a movement than a single musical genre. The sound that grew out of New York City in the 1960s and 70s was an urgent mix of all things Afro-Caribbean (plena, rumba, son, mambo, merengue) thrown together in an urban environment that also felt the force of rock and R&B. It expanded from there across the world as well as back to the place of its musical DNA. If subjected to a saliva test, salsa’s DNA would reveal West & Central African, American indigenous and European strains. Following the Spanish European strain farther back would lead to North Africa, the Middle East and even India. That strain’s contemporary musical signature is flamenco.

Yep. Flamenco is in salsa’s DNA.

Diego El Cigala is one of the most popular flamenco singers in the world. He is also one of the genre’s most curious and adventurous minds. He’s 100% Gitano from the “Old World”, but also very much interested in how his heritage and culture have played out in the New. He rocketed to international attention and a Latin GRAMMY Award in 2004 in his first foray into Afro-Cuban sounds with pianist Bebo Valdés, Lagrimas Negras. That album also served to help reclaim the legacy of Bebo as a major figure in Cuban music history.

Lagrimas Negras is a lovely, spare album that gradually builds toward a satisfying finish, highlighting Cigala’s powerfully raspy voice and Valdés’ piano in a flamenco-infused journey through Cuban son. Cigala revisited Cuban music in 2008 for Dos Lagrimas, but then also traveled to Argentina for investigations of tango and Argentine folkloric music. He relocated his home to the Dominican Republic in 2014, all but guaranteeing that Afro-Latin sounds would never be far from his ears.

When he set out to record Indestructible, his third exploration of Afro-Latin music, he took things a step further by jumping to the 1970s and New York City. The title track is taken from the landmark Ray Barretto album and song that features singer Tito Allen. Cigala’s album is a high-energy celebration of the Fania Records era that also includes dips into a few pre-salsa tunes like Beny Moré’s Como Fue.

Recorded in New York, Miami, San Juan and Cali as well as in Spain, Indestructible features a superb cast that includes figures such as Venezuelan singer Oscar D’Leon, pianists Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Larry Harlow, trumpeter Luis “Perico” Ortiz, and many of the original Fania studio musicians. That diversity of recording locations highlights the global phenomenon that salsa became and remains.

Remember when I said that salsa was more of an idea than a genre? That is both true and not true in that, after the initial explosion of the 70s, salsa did indeed become codified into a certain commercial style, all of its rough edges smoothed into slick contours for maximum sales. What Cigala does brilliantly with Industructible is reclaim the urgency of the 70s by interpreting it through the passionate prism of flamenco. It’s sensual and earthy, an honest reflection of salsa’s legacy.

Cigala’s voice is a remarkable instrument, powerfully expressive, strong and vulnerable, seemingly fraying at the edges. It invests these songs with the same raw authenticity that Hector Lavoe’s Puerto Rican jibaro roots brought to Willie Colon’s brassy Nuyorican arrangements. Two of Lavoe’s signature tunes, Juanito Alimaña and Periódico de Ayer, are interpreted here, as is Sonora Ponceña’s Moreno Soy and a classic Cheo Feliciano tune, El Ratón. Many of the songs are composed by the unmatched Puerto Rican songwriter Tite Curet Alonso.

When Diego El Cigala arrives at Symphony Center this Friday, April 6, he and his 10-member band will draw much of the repertoire from his three Afro-Latin projects. Expect salsa fireworks for sure, but also intimate boleros like Como Fue.

At the same time, Cigala will remain Cigala, 100% Gitano, flamenco to the core.
______

Diego El Cigala: Indestructible – Friday, April 6 at 8pm. Symphony Center, Chicago. Tickets at cso.org

Nathan Rodriguez steps out as a leader

– By Don Macica –

Unless you are a musician deeply involved in Chicago’s salsa scene, you may not have heard of Nathan Rodriguez. If, like me, you are an audience member that pays more attention to congueros than singers, though, you’ve likely taken notice of his skill and regular presence without knowing his name.

That all started to change in the last year as Rodriguez began stepping out as a bandleader with two projects, Conjunto Borikén and ¡Azúcar!, a Celia Cruz tribute band. A casual observer might think that Rodriguez is the new kid on the block, but it turns out that the Chicago-born Puerto Rican musician has been at this for quite a while.

“I joined my first professional band, La Unica, in 2000 at the age of 16, but I had already been playing bongos since the age of 11 and congas at 13, learning from my friend and mentor Daniel Feliciano after our church services. At the age of 16, I also joined a Salsa Ministry band called Orchestra Ebenezer as a conguero, and I still play with them today as their bassist.”

Conjunto Borikén

Nathan and I are enjoying a late breakfast and some café con leche at Señor Pan, a Cuban restaurant near his home. “But I wasn’t really serious about it,” he continues, “I had talent and a feel, but I couldn’t read music, which is a necessary skill if you want to really be a professional.”

Then, at the age of 19, Rodriguez was suddenly married with a child and working double shifts to make ends meet. That left little time for music. “I was still playing a little, subbing with Orquesta Sabor and the Angel Melendez 911 Mambo Orchestra, but I wasn’t advancing. After a couple of years I decided I didn’t want that for my life and that I had a hunger to study music.”

Mentors and advocates are an important part of any professional experience, and this is certainly the case in a music career. In Rodriguez’ case, it was the highly regarded percussionist Rubén Alvarez, who is a faculty member at the VanderCook College of Music. Recognizing Nathan’s raw talent and hunger for improvement, Alvarez, his wife Susan Frost and another VanderCook faculty member, Marc Jacoby, spoke to the president of the college on his behalf. In 2004, Rodriguez was accepted to VanderCook on a probationary basis, owing to his inability to read music.

Thus began “the hardest 5 years of my personal life with financial struggles, raising a family, and learning how to read and perform on orchestral instruments,” says Rodriguez. “However, I fell in love with all my learning and new experiences, learned what I wanted to learn musically, pulled through and graduated in 2009.”

Fortified with his new skills and knowledge, Rodriguez began transcribing his own music and formed his first band, the short-lived Orquesta Rumbaye. At VanderCook, he had learned to play piano, bass, vibraphone, trombone, guitar and ukulele in addition to several more percussion instruments. Of these, he paid special attention to the bass, acquiring a baby bass and advancing enough that he was able to freelance professionally as a bassist as well as percussionist, most notably in Rico Obsesión. He also joined Son de la Habana as a conguero, who he still plays with to this day. He’s recently turned up supporting other local projects as well, like the Chicago debut of Grammy-nominated salsa singer Juan Pablo Diaz and a tribute show to Puerto Rican songwriting legend Rafael Hernández.

In 2017, Rodriguez felt the time was right to become a leader again with not one, but two new projects. The first of these was a long held vision to form a traditional conjunto style salsa band. “It was a style that I grew up loving, that New York-Puerto Rico sound best epitomized by Conjunto Classico and Johnny Pacheco. Nobody in Chicago was playing with that style or instrumentation. It’s a favorite for all salsa lovers. True salseros know conjunto is not easy to play but is full of flavor.” Thus was born Conjunto Borikén, a nine person ensemble featuring three trumpets, bongos, congas, bass, keyboards, a singer and, as a slight deviation from the norm, a Puerto Rican cuatro instead of the Cuban tres.

Rodriguez explains, “The cuatro‘s sound makes any Puerto Rican smile and remember the island. I chose to add a cuatro because I wanted to incorporate the jibaro sounds of the island to our music, giving that ‘ummff’ of more Puerto Rican flavor in our sound. Also,” he adds with a laugh, “There are no Puerto Rican tres players in Chicago!”

The other project started out as a chance meeting with the Colombia-born singer Claudia La Gitana. “I heard Claudia sing at 90 Miles Cuban Café a year and a half ago, and I was dumbfounded. I asked her if she liked Celia Cruz, and she said, ‘Yes, I love Celia, she’s my idol, I know all her hits by memory.’ I told her right then and there, I want to put together a band just for you because your voice needs to be heard and you deserve a 5-star band!”

Claudia La Gitana with ¡Azúcar!

That was the beginning of ¡Azúcar! – A Celia Cruz Tribute Project. Rodriguez put together another classic salsa band to back up Claudia’s powerful voice. This band has a harder, more urban edge than Conjunto Borikén. And, whereas Rodriguez is the bongocero in Borikén, he moves over to bass for Azúcar. Both bands were on the bill at Mike Oquendo’s recent Sunday Salsa Social tribute to the legends of Fania.

Nathan Rodriguez is fully confident in his talent, abilities and musicianship, but overall, he gives off a humble vibe of gratefulness. He is a music teacher at Nathan Davis Elementary School in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, passing on the lessons he learned and encouraging the love of music in the next generation. On the other end, both of his professional bands are packed with veterans of Chicago’s salsa scene. It’s worth noting that some of these players gave Nathan his first opportunities when he was breaking into the business, including his childhood friend and mentor, Daniel Feliciano.

“I’m extremely grateful to the guys that gave me a break when I was just a kid,” says Rodriguez. “They gave me opportunities when they didn’t have to, and were generous with their time and sharing their craft with me. And, of course, they are incredible musicians. I knew I needed them when I formed Borikén and Azúcar. It’s very gratifying to share this experience with them.”

Concert Review: Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band

| By Don Macica | Photos by Charlie Billups –

Eddie Palmieri brought what was, for the celebrated salsa orchestra leader and NEA Jazz Master, a smallish ensemble with him to the Old Town School of Folk Music on Friday night, but the joyful noise that they made together was a testament to the power of Eddie’s playing, composing and arranging skills. When you add in the charm and personality that El Maestro carries with him always, you have the recipe for a truly special night. Mixing references to both family and his beloved Puerto Rico into the between songs commentary, Eddie engaged the audience emotionally as well as musically.

The evening opened with a solo piano meditation on Palmieri’s late wife, weaving together two compositions, Mi Novia and Life, together in her honor. From there on, though, it was time for el ritmo.


As Eddie said in last week’s Agúzate interview, the man absolutely refuses to indulge in mediocrity. He reiterated this at the show, noting that the harmonic complexities of jazz wed to the African derived rhythms of Cuban drumming are pretty much everything that’s worth doing musically. And, of course, he had a band with him that was spectacular at both.

The all-Puerto Rico rhythm section of bassist Rubén Rodriguez, timbalero Camilo Molina, conguero Vicente “Little Johnny” Rivero and El Rumbero del Piano himself absolutely killed it all night long. Meanwhile, Alex Norris’ trumpet and Louis Fouché’s alto sax burned with fire and grace.


In addition to selections from his latest album Sabiduria, the group went back to the 70s several times for recasts of classic Palmieri tunes like La Libertad Logico, Puerto Rico and Chocolate Ice Cream (written with the great Cuban trumpeter Chocolate Armenteros). Each was introduced with an anecdote from Palmieri’s life about the origins of the song. Some were humorous. Others addressed the tragic situation of Puerto Rico’s slow recovery from Hurricane Maria but also the strength, resilience and pride of the Puerto Rican people, even suggesting that it was time for the island to resume its pre-conquest name of Borikén.


All in all, it was an extraordinary night. Today, as I go back and listen to classic records like Vamanos Pa’l Monte and Sentido, I’ll also have photographer Charlie Billups‘ images from the concert to remind me of just how extraordinary it was.




 

Eddie Palmieri: 80 Years and Growing

By Don Macica –

Chicago is a fortunate city in that The Sun of Latin Music, El Maestro Eddie Palmieri, has visited us with various bands in tow four times in as many years. Despite the enormous expense of taking a big band on the road, the good folks at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events have dug deep into their pockets not once, but twice, to bring the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra to Millennium Park. Interspersed with those huge events were a show at the deeply missed Mayne Stage with trumpeter and Simpático album collaborator Brian Lynch and a Latin Jazz Septet performance at Symphony Center.

Chicago’s hot streak continues this Friday when the intimate Old Town School of Folk Music presents the Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band for two shows. The visit follows up the April release of Sabiduria, a richly textured and rhythmically exciting album featuring Eddie’s core band and a diverse cast of guest musicians ranging from Cuban violinist Alfredo de la Fé to New Orleans saxophonist (and Mardi Gras Indian Chief) Donald Harrison and the king of funky drumming himself, Bernard Purdie, who first played with Eddie on the 1971 landmark album Harlem River Drive.

Sabiduria / Wisdom

Sabiduria expertly covers everything from Afro-Cuban roots music to New Orleans second line funk, all under the wide umbrella of Latin Jazz. When salsa took a turn into slick corporate vapidity in the early 90’s, Palmieri refused to go along for the ride, instead concentrating his formidable talents as a composer, arranger and pianist into jazz and producing the frankly amazing Palmas in 1994. La Perfecta II in 2002 was something of a return to classic salsa, charanga, and mambo in honor of the 4oth anniversary of his groundbreaking debut as a bandleader, but it, too, was graced with tremendous jazz improvisers given plenty of room to do their thing. Simpático won a much deserved Grammy for best Latin Jazz Album in 2007.

That was followed by a long period of studio silence until filmmaker Bobbito Garcia asked him to contribute music to Doin’ It In the Park, his documentary on New York street basketball, in 2012. Three tunes from those sessions made it to Sabiduria. We have the visionaries at Ropeadope Records to thank for adding nine more and making them all widely available.

Core musicians from these sessions (Vicente “Little Johnny” Rivero congas, Camilo Molina timbales, Louis Fouche alto sax) will be joined by trumpeter Alex Norris and bassist Ruben Rodriguez at the Old Town School shows.

Eddie Palmieri was kind enough to answer a few of my questions when I reached out to him last week.

Don Macica (DM) – I’ve read that you turned to jazz because it’s hard to land salsa gigs, but I also know that you studied the jazz greats along with the Cuban greats when you were coming up in the 50s. Do you have a preference? What do you consider yourself as an artist?

Eddie Palmieri (EP) – I have always been a leader of Orchestra Dance Bands. The writing was on the wall in the early 90’s when the (salsa) genre changed regarding true dance music. The structures were changed to emphasize the vocalist and the tension and resistance needed in the arrangement were abolished. Salsa Romantica or Salsa Sensual became the popular sound and personally I will never succumb to musical mediocrity.

So, Latin Jazz was the mission. In 1994 I became a Governor in the New York Chapter of NARAS and I was able to become a driving force for the Academy to recognize and open up a category. I consider myself a sincere musical student. The playback of my discography does not lie.

DMSabiduria feels a little bit like a career summation, albeit a very adventurous one. There’s great jazz, but also some very pure Afro-Cuban stuff and the title track is a fat slice of jazz-funk that recalls Harlem River Drive. Is there any separation between these genres in your approach?

EPSabiduria, in my opinion, is the greatest “Latin Jazz” recording ever! The personnel that my son Eddie Palmieri II put together and produced was outstanding. Like I said earlier I have always loved musical extensions throughout my career.

DM – What was the inspiration that brought Donald Harrison to Sabiduria?

EP – Donald Harrison has always been a part of this family since Palmas in 1994. We love him dearly and not only is he a great musician but a great human being.

DM – At the age of 80, where do you get your energy and creativity? What does the future hold for Eddie Palmieri?

EP – Getting stronger every day! Chocolate Armenteros, the great Cuban trumpet player, said “When you get to the age of 50 you start counting by ones”, so I am only 30 years old with 60 years of musical and bandstand experience!
__________

Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band: Eddie at 80 – Friday, October 27, 7:00 & 9:30pm. Old Town School of Folk Music. Tickets at oldtownschool.org

Twenty years in the making: Enrique Calderón releases his first single

By Don Macica –

For salsa singer Enrique Calderón, when he finally felt it was time to write and record his first single, he kept his mind focused on one very important thing: For it to be a success, people needed to dance.

That’s how it started for Calderón, a young Mexican-American from the south suburbs who could play jazz and classical music on the trumpet, when he began hitting Chicago’s salsa nightclubs in the late 1990s.

Back then, there were actually a few full time salsa spots in the city, not just clubs that occasionally offered salsa nights. Calderón’s main haunt was Tropicana D’Cache, which occupied the space that is now Concord Music Hall. He admits that the scene was attractive: The dancing, the bands, the beautiful women. “I became a pretty good dancer, winning a couple of dance contests,” says Calderón.

I asked Calderón how, being of Mexican descent, he got into tropical music. “Both of my parents were from Mexico, my dad from Michoacán and my mom from Mexico City. Both her and my grandmother were big fans of tropical music, stuff like Perez Prado, Sonora Santanera, Sonora Mantancera. Groups like that would come to Mexico City all the time. So, when I was growing up here in the States, that sort of stuff would always get played around the house.”

Still, like most kids, he was not especially fond of his parent’s music. His tastes ran toward hip-hop, house and other urban music. At the same time, though, the jazz lessons that he’d been getting left an impression, and he even privately tried singing a bit, imitating Harry Connick, Jr.

Later, when he was immersed in the salsa scene and knowing that he had a decent singing voice, he began to pester bands into letting him sing back up, finally getting a big break when Jesus Enríquez, who was huge on the Chicago scene, invited him to sing with his group. Soon enough he was singing backup with lots of local orquestas as well as national artists whenever they came to town.

He eventually formed a group named La Unica with a couple of close friends while continuing to work with national artists. But in 2004, he decided to call it quits for a while. By 2011, though, he was ready to return. He got a few higher profile band gigs with Rica Obsesión, Nabori and the Humboldt Park Orchestra. He was also doing backup vocals with a new generation of salsa singers such as Willito Otero, Kayvan Vega, NG2, Carlos Mojica, Maelo Ruiz and Frankie Negron when they came to Chicago. Finally, in 2016, he formed his own group.

Now, most salsa bands survive on doing covers of popular songs, and Calderón’s certainly fills that bill. You don’t hear too many brand new songs on salsa night. But in 2017, Calderón decided to take the next step and began working with singer Ricky Luis and Afinca’o leader Joe Mende on producing new original music.


The result is a new single, Más Tiempo, debuting this Sunday night, September 3, at the Cubby Bear’s Salsa Sunday Labor Day show.  Also on the bill is Ricky Luis, a Chicago native who now lives in Los Angeles, and Afinca’o, who are also debuting a new single. So, it’s kind of all in the family, and a pretty big night for all three.

The sound of salsa has changed over the decades, and it is currently enjoying something of a back to basics moment. “That’s the sound I wanted to get on this first single,” says Calderon, “percussion and horns, kind of a classic approach. At the same time, I can’t ignore what gets the dance floor going, so there is a little bit of that romantic salsa feel, and the lyrics are about a relationship I was having at the time. People relate to it, they want to sing along, and they want to dance. Do you know how many people sing along to Yo No Sé Mañana?” Calderon asks, referring to the massive and often covered Luis Enrique song from 2009 that is a guaranteed dance floor filler.


Más Tiempo does a good job of navigating the gulf between salsa dura and salsa romántica. The arrangement is tight, with skillfully arranged horns and percolating percussion. Calderon’s voice is a little more rugged than the average crooner, and his sense of the rhythm is superb. At the same time, there is a hooky little chorus tailor-made for the audience sing along. A nice little touch comes near the end, when Calderón gives the shouted affirmation “México presente!”

Calderón is still a dancer at heart. “When I’m on stage with my band, and I notice that I’m not dancing, well, then I know it’s time for the band to bring the energy up.”

Look for a lot of energy this Sunday night at the Cubby Bear.

Salsa Sundays at Cubby Bear featuring Enrique Calderón, Afinca’o, and Ricky Luis | Sunday, September 3, 10PM (doors open 7PM) | Facebook