By Don Macica
Photos by Elías Carmona and Charlie Billups
At 47 years and counting, Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center (SRBCC) is the longest-standing Latino cultural center in Chicago. Its rich history of service to the Puerto Rican community and tireless promotion of the island’s music and culture runs deep and long. The centro has brought countless important Puerto Rican artists and musicians to Chicago over the decades.
Still, after Friday, September 21, I have a suspicion that SRBCC’s story will always be told in terms of “before” and “after”. That’s the day that multiple Grammy Nominee and Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow Miguel Zenón and the Spektral Quartet presented their brand new album Yo Soy la Tradición to the world for the very first time with a benefit concert for the Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts. The fund was established by SRBCC to help struggling artists whose lives were severely impacted by Hurricane Maria.
I interviewed Miguel Zenón for Agúzate about the history of his new work and why he and Spektral chose to debut the album as a benefit for Puerto Rico. You can read that here. Still, nothing, including having had the privilege of hearing the album prior to its release and experiencing its only other public performance two years ago at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, quite prepared me for the moving performance at SRBCC. The depth and richness of feeling and extraordinary musicianship conveyed the very soul of Puerto Rico, whose cultural and musical traditions provided the source material for Zenón’s compositions. The saxophonist kept his between movement commentary brief, but heartfelt. From where I was sitting, it appeared that Zenón and the members of Spektral were moved and inspired by their surroundings.
Two wonderful Puerto Rican photographers who live in Chicago, Elías Carmona and Charlie Billups, were there to capture the scene. They are much more intimate with Puerto Rico than I, who only know of the island through my visits and interactions with the friends I’ve made with Puerto Ricans both there and here in Chicago. I thought it was only right to give them the last word along with their images, so I’ll leave the rest of this article to them.
“Miguel Zenón’s music is full of images and brings me reminiscences of my life in the place I was born and grew up. In my opinion, he truly represents the essence of the Puerto Rican music and I love the way he fuses it with other musical influences. What great performance! It was one of the best shows I ever attended and photographed at SRBCC.”
“Miguel Zenón and the Spektral Quartet, two GRAMMY-nominated performers together with a worthwhile cause in a performance venue like no other: Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Hermosa. I was touched by Zenón’s decision to release his latest project at SRBCC to raise money for Art projects affected by Hurricane Maria. The performance was flawless, crisp, rich and a cross of classic with the rich vibe of Puerto Rico in Zenón’s sax. It raised the bar for Segundo Ruiz Belvis into a new dimension as a world-class music venue.”
Finally, I’m including a video courtesy of SRBCC that includes part of the final movement of Yo Soy La Tradicion, “Villabeño”.
In September of 2016, jazz composer and alto saxophone player Miguel Zenón premiered a new composition at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. The Puerto Rico-born musician has used the music and culture of his home (and its corresponding diaspora in the U.S.) as conceptual source material for album length explorations ever since his 2005 release Jíbaro. Several more albums followed over the next decade, including Esta Plena, Alma Adentro, Oye! Live in Puerto Rico and Identities Are Changeable. With the exception of Oye!, which was more overt in its Latin instrumentation, all of these works were written with Zenón’s core jazz quartet (Luis Perdomo, Hans Glawischnig and Henry Cole) as its principal means of expression.
Yo Soy la Tradición, commissioned by Hyde Park’s David and Reva Logan Center for the Arts and the Festival, also mines Puerto Rican traditions for its subject material, but this time around the writing was in collaboration with the Chicago based classical new music ensemble Spektral Quartet (Clara Lyon, Maeve Feinberg, Doyle Armbrust and Russell Rolen). The concert was warmly received, and a year later Zenón returned to Chicago to enter the studio with Spektral. The album that resulted is a collection of 8 works for alto sax and string quartet that derive from Puerto Rico’s cultural, religious and musical traditions, yet sound startlingly fresh and contemporary. There are echoes of older Spanish traditions like flamenco (the hand claps on Cadenza are clearly inspired by flamenco, but not unrelated to composer Steve Reich’s Clapping Music) and dances that preceded the island’s European colonization, but also jagged harmonies, rapid minimalist rhythmic sections and beautifully lyrical passages that recall, to these ears, Zenón’s playing on Alma Adentro‘s boleros. The quartet is fully integrated into each movement, never merely a backup band to a sax player.
The CD will be released September 21 and celebrated with a concert at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center that will benefit Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts.
“My starting point for Tradición was studying the folkloric music of Puerto Rico and identifying the elements that make it unique, then extract that and use it without emulating it.” I’m speaking to Miguel Zenón by phone as he is heading to the airport for a flight to Buenos Aires to participate in an Astor Piazzolla festival. “Then I spent time studying classical chamber works from various periods until I felt ready to start writing. My early training as a player was in classical music, so I was at least familiar with it, but I didn’t begin studying it intently until much later when I started writing my own music.
“Writing for strings was a different and more challenging process than writing for my jazz quartet,” says Zenón. “We’re a working band and we know each other very well. When I’m writing for them I have a sound in mind that I know they can do, so even if it’s a difficult passage I’m confident that it can be played well.
“I had been a guest musician on one of Spektral Quartet’s albums and enjoyed working with them,” Zenón continues. “So I knew they were terrific and creative musicians, but I was still unfamiliar with the technical capabilities of string instruments. So I would write passages and send them to Spektral and I would get feedback like ‘This part is great but it would be hard on our instruments to do this part here.’ They would make suggestions based on those sorts of things.”
I asked Zenón about the intersection of folkloric, jazz and classical music. “First of all, I’m a jazz musician, so there’s always an element of improvisation even when the writing is formal. But I’m also a Puerto Rican jazz musician. Puerto Rican music is an integral part of who I am. Lastly, even when I’m writing for jazz instrumentation, I’m aware of and applying harmonic and structural concepts learned from classical and new music composers. A string quartet is just a more identifiably classical format.”
As it happened, the long-reserved studio time booked to record the CD was scheduled just days after Hurricane María struck Puerto Rico. Thus it was that Miguel Zenón found himself in Chicago for three days beginning September 22, 2017.
“We were in the studio in Chicago just after María struck, so obviously it was on our minds while we were recording. So the CD will always be connected to that.”
Spektral Quartet just published a moving blog post on their website, describing the atmosphere at sessions and describing how Zenón would call home repeatedly during breaks trying to get updates at a time when much of the island was flooded and without power. It also touched on how artists play through adversity. The post, titled Why our album release is a benefit for Puerto Rico, states “Puerto Rico is home to vital and unique artistic traditions, and we hope to make a small but meaningful improvement in the lives of these artists.”
“At the same time I was calling home for updates,” Zenón says, “I was also calling musician friends in California to organize a benefit concert there. Later on I did one in Boston and another in New York. Spektral wanted to do something here and asked me if I knew somewhere in the community that would host. I immediately thought of Segundo Ruiz Belvis.”
This is not Miguel Zenón’s first visit to SRBCC. In May of 2016, the saxophonist preceded a full big band performance of Identities Are Changeable at the Logan Center with a community event at SRBCC that explained the concept of Identities (an exploration of identity and community of U.S. born Puerto Ricans) and included informal performances with the center’s youth ensemble, Chicago-based Puerto Rican saxophonist Roy McGrath, and local bomba powerhouses Bomba con Buya.
“I learned about the Centro years ago when I first started to come to Chicago to play the Jazz Showcase with David Sánchez’ band. I would always head to Humboldt Park to eat some food, hang out, buy records. I would hear about this place that was keeping the culture alive. Then about 3 or 4 years ago I was here for a Chicago Jazz Festival appearance and after my set I went to the neighborhood to jam with some salseros at Festival Boricua. It was there I met Omar.”
Omar is SRBCC Executive Director Omar Torres-Kortright [Full disclosure: Torres-Kortright is also a co-founder of Agúzate]. Zenón continues, “He told me about the Chamaco Ramirez documentary that he was working on and his work at the Centro. Then the University of Chicago chose them as the community partner for my Identities concert at the Logan, so I had the opportunity to go out there and see it first-hand.
“So it was an easy choice to do our benefit there.”
I’m speaking with Miguel a week after he returned from several days in Puerto Rico as an Artist in Residence at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico in San Juan. I ask him how things are there a full year after María.
“The infrastructure is a little better. Most people have electricity and running water. But deeper than that, there is still a struggle. There is still stuff to be fixed, but one thing that is obvious when you talk to people is that there is still a lot of trauma. People are traumatized. It is a deep experience that will influence a generation. But the overall situation is deeper than just the hurricane. A lot of negative things like the economic situation had been building for a while, and what the hurricane did was bring them to the surface.”
“What it boils down, too, at least in my opinion, is the political situation,” Zenón continues. “Puerto Rico continues to be in limbo. We’re connected to the states, but we don’t have the benefits of being a state. We have our own government, culture and language, but we are not a free country. And even our government isn’t really in charge because they have to answer to a fiscal control board created in the U.S.
“There is a realization shared by more people now that this limbo can’t continue because it isn’t working. Whether that is statehood or independence is open to debate, but the current situation is clearly not sustainable.”
What is clear is that, one year post-María, Puerto Rico is far from healed, and help is still needed. The particular fund for this benefit concert helps artists who, in many cases, are finding their roles more important than ever on this traumatized island. It doesn’t matter if that role explicitly addresses coping and constructive analysis or simply a balm from harsh daily realities. Both are vital as Puerto Rico heads into year two and an uncertain future.
Miguel Zenón & Spektral Quartet: Yo Soy la Tradición A Benefit for Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago Friday, September 21, 7pm $20 general admission, $50 and $100 VIP tickets available Tickets at segundoruizbelvis.org
For every star of salsa music, there are a dozen of unsung heroes that, despite their immense talents, are lesser known, providing the necessary support for the star to shine. Quick: How many salsa horn players can you name? Beyond Willie Colón and those who are primarily known as Latin jazz musicians, you are likely to have to think for a while. But a salsa song without horns would feel empty, and the same goes for the lead vocalists and most certainly the coro singers.
Jerry Medina is all three: A dynamic lead vocalist, expert coro singer and talented trumpet player. With the formation of Jerry Medina y La Banda earlier this decade, he became a terrific bandleader as well. His name might not immediately come to mind, but a deep perusal of your record collection will find him turning up all over the place. He’s appeared on something like 50 albums since 1981 (up to and including the recent Grammy-nominated Fase Dos by Juan Pablo Diaz), including releases by Ismael Miranda, José “El Canario” Alberto, Oscar d’Leon, Cheo Feliciano and more. He has a pair of Grammy Awards on his shelf for Palmieri’s 1987 album The Truth / La Verdad and the 2000 collaboration between Palmieri & Tito Puente, Masterpiece. When the stars of Fania regrouped for world tours in the 1980s and 90s, Medina was there with them.
Medina released a couple of solo albums in the 1980s, but a more lasting contribution came as a member of Batacumbele, a groundbreaking and deeply rooted Afro-Caribbean ensemble where he both played trumpet and sang lead. The group is notable for being entirely Puerto Rican at a time when people were looking to Cuba for new sounds, but one listen reveals a sprawling collective that more than held their own with their Cuban counterparts like Irakere.
Medina was in the studio throughout the 90s and into the new millennium providing support for many of the big crossover Latin records of that decade, but he always kept one foot in the world of improvisational and folkloric music with groups like Descarga Boricua, bomba legends Hermanos Ayala and Grupo Afro Boricua.
He came into his own as a bandleader and lead singer in the 2000s with the formation of Jerry Medina y La Banda. The group bridges Caribbean folklore and Latin jazz in an updated version of Batacumbele’s template, and even flexes some funk & hip-hop chops. They made an electrifying appearance at the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival in March 2014. In 2015 Medina and La Banda released A Mi Manera, which included the talents of Giovanni Hidalgo, Paoli Mejías, Efraín Toro, Pablo Rosario, Luisito Marín, Prodigio Claudio, and Ricardo Pons.
A Mi Manera is a stylistically diverse collection of songs that ranges from jazzy big band sounds (complete with scatted vocals) to driving timba to a radical reworking of the Rafael Hernandez classic Capullito de Alelí. The title track is not,thankfully, a cover of the Paul Anka chestnut but an original composition that is Medina’s manifesto for the group. You can hear a little bit of lots of stuff in it: A cuatro solo for the traditionalists, a rap, some scratching, a swinging horn chart, funk bass, Medina’s scatting and a snaky, shifting rhythm pattern. This is indeed Medina’s way.
It’s a tribute to Medina’s talent, energy and spirit that, after 35+ years in the business, he can come up with something this fresh and contemporary that still manages to be an extension of the great salsa records that he’s contributed to over the years. In the process, he honors Puerto Rican creativity, culture and music.
Jerry Medina y La Banda Wednesday, August 29, 8:30pm: Old Town School of Folk Music oldtownschool.org Thursday, August 30, 7:30pm: Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center srbcc.org Both shows are free with a suggested $10 donation
ÌFÉ, the “Future Afro-Caribeña” project from Puerto Rico led by drummer/producer/singer Otura Mun, last came to Chicago in July of 2017 for an acoustic show at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, an organization that they have longstanding ties to. They had been to Chicago twice before, most recently right after the release of their well-received first album, IIII+IIII, (pronounced “Edgy-Og-Beh”). You can read Agúzate’s review of that album here. The group, which also consists of Beto Torrens, Rafael Maya, Anthony Sierra and Yarimir Cabán, was tacking on a free show as something of a gift to Chicago at the end of a U.S. tour before going their separate ways for a bit.
Little did they know that the short break would turn into a lengthy hiatus after Hurricanes Irma and Maria delivered a near knockout blow to Puerto Rico in September, leaving some members of the band stranded on the mainland and forcing others to depart the island for their own safety.
The band essentially went silent for a few months. Band members stayed busy with their own projects and Mun would occasionally surface in the press with an interview. December found IIII+IIII showing up on virtually everybody’s end of the year “Best of” lists, from NPR Music to outlets covering dance and electronic music to folk music publications like England’s Songlines. By February the band was rehearsing in preparation for a Mexican tour and a double-bill with M.A.K.U. Soundsystem at BRIC, a cultural arts center in Brooklyn. They also found time to stop by the NPR studios in Washington, D.C. to tape a Tiny Desk Concert.
Now ÌFÉ is starting a tour that will eventually take them to the Kennedy Center in Washington and Central Park Summer Stage in New York, but their first stop is in Chicago. They will be back at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center this Friday night for their third ÌFÉ Acústico, a casual yet invigorating rumba session that usually ends in an all hands on deck jam that crosses from rumba to bomba and back again. They’ll be in concert at Navy Pier the following afternoon at LatiNxt, a new 2-day festival that explores new ways of connecting traditional Latin music with modern sounds.
I spoke with Otura Mun last week as he was preparing to travel from his home in Santurce, Puerto Rico for Cuba in order to continue the spiritual studies that led Mun, an African American from Indiana born with the name Mark Underwood, to become an Ifá priest or Babalawo in the Yoruba religion in 2015.
DM: First of all, congratulations on the success of your first album. It’s pretty amazing to have a debut gain all that international acclaim. Why do you think that album resonated with so many different people and was greeted so warmly?
OM: Well, I think there are a few things. First of all, we sing in three different languages; English, Spanish and Yoruba. There are three points of intersection language-wise, so we’re not put in one camp. We’re not only seen as a Latin American band. In fact, some of the biggest and most interesting reactions to our Tiny Desk performance came from Nigeria. I also think that I myself don’t fit neatly into the pre-determined cultural nooks and crannies, so personal and musical influences show up in the songwriting and structure that appeal to more than one group. But those are technical things. Bigger than that, I think, is that the record was always meant to be inclusive and easily readable, even if you didn’t understand the language. The intent of the record was to communicate love and expansion.
Here’s an example: I bumped into a guy in a bar the other night. He’s a musician, but in a style that I’m not really into. I don’t really know him, but he pulled me aside to say, “Hey man, I listen to your record all the time… it puts me in a place that I really like to be.” That was very satisfying; it was something that I hoped to achieve. I know that when I was developing my ideas for the band, I got “professional” advice to sort of trim my vision, to target it this way or that. But I needed to be honest to myself. When we made the video for “3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé)” everybody told me to cut out the lengthy introduction of the band members, but I thought that it was important and in a way it was my homage to Yoruba Andabo. And it did take a few months before outlets started to add it. But I don’t regret it for a moment, because it was important for me to do it the way we did it.
DM: Many of Aguzate’s readers are deeply and personally connected to Puerto Rico, so we all looked on with collective horror at Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. I remember the relief I felt when the band posted on social media that everyone was safe, and then I started seeing individual members posting from different places around the U.S. and world. How did all that affect you as people, as Puerto Ricans and of course as an artistic ensemble based in Santurce?
OM: Well, actually, I wasn’t there when the hurricanes struck. After we completed our summer tour, I went to Europe to work on a project, stopped home for a day in August to produce a song for MIMA (the solo artistic persona of ÌFÉ member Yarimir Cabán) and then went to California. So, just like you, I didn’t hear anything for days, then slowly began to hook up with friends and band members. It was hard to get information. I remember seeing pictures on the internet of my street and it was total devastation. It was hard, but most of what I know about that time I learned from the accounts of others. We all didn’t get back together until February so we could rehearse for the Mexico and Brooklyn dates.
I live in the barrio, right, and there is a degree of lawlessness here that’s greater than before Maria. The electricity might be back on, but not all the street lights work. You can turn a corner and be in total darkness. You have to watch out. That attitude applies to the police, too. It’s like what the black community experiences in the States, but with even more impunity.
On the other hand, people have come together to help each other because there was nobody else, and there seems to be a movement toward more unity. The economic situation and the hurricane laid Puerto Rico’s colonial status bare and I think more people are waking up to that.
It’s always been hard to make it as an independent artist here, or as a folkloric artist. Even salsa suffers from that. If you’re not doing reggaeton, you will have a tough go of it. So in that way, things are the same. On the other hand, the international community is paying much more attention to Puerto Rico since the hurricane, so there are more opportunities for us to tell our stories.
Puerto Rico is where I want to be, despite all the difficulties. These are the people that I’ve been around for 20 years, and I think we are also closer than ever to getting a grip on our situation and making changes for the better.
DM: Are you working on new material? I’ve seen hints of a technology upgrade on the band’s Facebook page and wondering what we’ll be hearing at Navy Pier.
OM: We’ve been working a lot to bring our live performance to a higher level. We want our show to be impactful and somewhat challenging, not what you’ve seen before. We have a new dancer in the group, a woman from Mexico City named Pia Love, who’s traveled to Nigeria, Brazil, Cuba, India, Jamaica… that makes her familiar with my main influences and she brings all that to our collaboration. I’m almost going for a theatrical presentation with our live show.
Musically, there will be a new record, maybe later this year. I’ve spent a lot of time making notes and ideas for new songs. I’ve got 6 notebooks! I already know what the next record is going to be about. We are testing a new single in front of audiences, so we’ll be opening shows with it. Chicago will be the first place that people will get to experience this new stuff.
ÌFÉ in Chicago
ÌFÉ Acústico | Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center | Friday June 15 @ 7:30pm | Advance Tickets at segundoruizbelvis.org
LatiNxt presented by Sol | Navy Pier | Saturday June 16 @ 3pm (LatiNxt begins at 2pm) | Information at Facebook
One of the highlights of last year’s World Music Festival Chicago simply did not get heard by enough people, even with two shows. But that’s OK. One of the roles of the fest has always been to introduce artists to Chicago for the first time, paving the way for a return visit. Fortunately, Chicago didn’t have to wait long for the return of Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo.
The group is again doing two shows, both presentations of the Extended Play partnership between the Old Town School of Folk Music and Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. They’ll be joined at SRBCC on Saturday 3/24 by Chicago’s Bomba con Buya for the center’s annual Abolition of Slavery in Puerto Rico celebration, and the Old Town School will present them Sunday 3/25. The school is offering an Afro-Venezuelan Dance Workshop that Sunday afternoon as well.
All Afro-Latin music shares a common root which is, of course, Africa. The reasons for the considerable variances in sound and rhythm are multiple. First, Africa is a continent, not a country. The kidnapping of African people for the slave trade drew from seven distinct cultural regions over several centuries. Secondly, there were five European powers colonizing the Americas, each with their own customs and traditions. Lastly, you had the influences of whatever indigenous traditions survived the initial colonization, before the slave trade began in earnest.
All of which is to say that, when I first heard the music of Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo, it was both familiar and different. El Clavo, it should be noted, is a village in Venezuela, not a variation on the clave rhythm that is at the center of Afro-Cuban music. Like the town of San Basilio in neighboring Colombia, El Clavo was founded by escaped slaves. The residents trace their heritage back to what is now Senegal in West Africa. Because of this, you can hear some of the Senegalese sabar style of drumming in La Parranda El Clavo’s music. But you’ll also hear the call and response vocals of Cuban rumba and Puerto Rican bomba, originating in Central Africa. And where sabar almost exclusively uses high pitched drums rapidly hit with sticks as well as hands, La Parranda El Clavo’s rhythms also have a deeper bottom that supplies a pulse.
And then there is Machado herself, who cites Cuba’s Celia Cruz, Colombia’s Totó La Momposina and Cape Verde’s Cesaria Evora as influences on her powerful voice.
I thought I heard similarities to bomba when listening to the group at last year’s World Music Fest. The SRBCC show with Bomba con Buya will put that theory to the test, and I’m hoping the groups will play at least one song together. Regardless of whether or not that happens, I’ll be at both shows again this year, and might even bring my two left feet to the dance workshop.
Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo Saturday, March 24, 7:30PM, Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. Info & tickets…
Sunday, March 25, 7:00PM, Old Town School of Folk Music. Info & tickets…
Afro-Venezuelan Dance Workshop with La Parranda El Clavo
Sunday, March 25, 1:00PM, Old Town School of Folk Music. Info & tickets…
The second weekend of World Music Festival Chicago is upon us. We’ve already seen some great music downtown and around the city, but there is more to come. A fairly recent addition to the Fest, the Global Peace Picnic, takes place this Sunday afternoon, September 17, adjacent to the Humboldt Park Boathouse in the cultural heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. Despite its prime location in the highly active park (on any given Sunday you can find softball games, traditional food trucks and lively family parties scattered throughout the park’s 219 acres), the Picnic, now in its third year, wanted to do more to attract locals. Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) staff members and Fest organizers David Chavez and Carlos Tortelero worked out a plan with this objective in mind.
One of the first decisions that they made was to program a headliner from Puerto Rico, and they have found a great one in La Tribu de Abrante. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves just a bit.
Unlike a lot of the “world music” acts that tour the U.S., Puerto Rican artists tend not to be represented by the handful of U.S. based booking agencies that specialize in music from beyond our borders. This could be because the island is not, technically, beyond here because of its colonial status. Secondly, there is a rich music scene on the island that enjoys immense popularity both there and among its Diaspora, but remains nearly invisible to the rest of the world. This, of course, is related to the first point made above in that there is little U.S. based infrastructure for marketing their music to radio and press tastemakers.
DCASE needed a direct pipeline to the island, and they found one in Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center (SRBCC), an organization that has been bringing the best of Puerto Rico to Chicago for several decades. With the help of a few foundations and sponsors, SRBCC has stepped up the pace in the past year or so, presenting artists like Leró Martinez, Orquesta el Macabeo, Pirulo y la Tribu, Chalí Hernández and acoustic “unplugged” shows with new global sensation ÌFÉ. They’ve done this while simultaneously showcasing the best of Chicago’s folkloric Afro-Caribbean scene and music from other sister countries, like the legendary Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro from Cuba.
SRBCC, in turn, has forged a partnership with the The 606, the pedestrian and bike trail that cuts through Logan Square, Wicker Park and Humboldt Park. Artists that perform or conduct workshops at SRBCC often can be found the same weekend along the several small parks adjacent to the trail.
All of this comes together for this year’s World Music Festival and Global Peace Picnic. First of all, there is headliner La Tribu de Abrante. We’ve been in love with them ever since we watched them stroll through the streets of Santurce in their first YouTube video for Dale pa’ la Calle a couple of years ago. The band is led by Hiram Abrante, a deeply rooted percussionist who has been playing since the age of 5. The Loiza (one of Puerto Rico’s most African-influenced towns) based group weds folkloric bomba rhythms (if you stripped away everything else, what’s left is pure bomba) to a reggaeton feel and hip-hop attitude. Unlike most reggaeton artists, though, Tribu keeps it primarily acoustic, only adding electric bass and a horn section. To these ears, it’s reminiscent of a New Orleans brass band: rhythm, horns, voice and, above all, energy.
Tribu will conduct a percussion workshop at 11AM on Saturday morning at SRBCC. On Sunday morning at 11AM, musicians and artists from AfriCaribe, Buya, Chicago Cuatro Orchestra, and Seneke will gather at the parks along the 606 for performances and family workshops before embarking on A Walk with Peace and Music toward each other on the trail. They’ll meet up at the Humboldt Boulevard overlook with Los Pleneros de Don Segundo and the entire group will head for the Boathouse around 1:30 pm, just in time for the beginning of the Global Peace Picnic at 2PM.
In addition to Tribu, the Peace Picnic will also have performances by the powerful Afro-Venezuelan singer Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo and the wonderful West African Tuareg musician Mdou Moctar. Taken together, this could very well be the most powerful lineup of the entire Fest.
All events are free. Miss them at your own risk.
La Tribu de Abrante Bomba Workshop. Saturday, September 16 at 11AM, Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. Facebook link.
A Walk With Peace and Music. September 17 at 11AM, The 606 at Park 567 & Walsh Park. Facebook link.
Global Peace Picnic featuring La Tribu de Abrante, Betsayda Machadoy y La Parranda El Clavo and Mdou Moctar. September 17 at 2PM, Humboldt Park Boathouse. Facebook link.
The San Juan, Puerto Rico born saxophonist and bandleader Roy McGrath is a ubiquitous presence on Chicago’s jazz and salsa scenes. I first interviewed him for Agúzate over a year ago when he was preparing two new projects. The first was leading a tribute concert to John Coltrane’s classic Blue Train album for the Jazz Record Art Collective. The second, a month later, was an original Latin jazz project inspired by the poems and life of Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos called Julia al Son de Jazz that included recitations of de Burgos’ verse over the band’s playing.
While the Blue Train show was something of a one-off, Julia al Son de Jazz was an ongoing project that started the previous fall and would continue into the summer. As it turns out, though, they are related in ways that weren’t obvious at the time. Now, with summer approaching, McGrath has no less than four projects in development, one of which, Cumbanchero II: The Music of Rafael Herńandez, will have multiple performances this weekend.
“When I was growing up in Puerto Rico, Rafael Hernández was a revered figure. His music was everywhere,” Roy McGrath tells me over coffee one afternoon. “In fact, I was singing his songs in a youth choir well before I ever thought of becoming a musician, before I ever even heard his name. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered who he was.”
McGrath continues, “Once I learned that those tunes I sung as a kid were written by him, I started checking out all of his songs. They’re great tunes with great harmonies, and as an aspiring jazz musician, I was eager to play them.”
Flashing forward to the spring of 2015, McGrath was living and working in Chicago after earning his jazz performance degree from Northwestern University. He learned that Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center (SRBCC) was bringing the great composer’s son, Alejandro “Chalí” Hernández, to Chicago to sing a tribute to his father’s music with a 14 piece big band, and knew he had to be a part of it. He managed to snag a saxophone chair in the band when the first Cumbanchero tribute played a single concert in March of that year.
The concert was a huge success, and plans were made to bring Chalí Hernández back to Chicago. This time around, though, McGrath is Music Director for the project, leading concerts on three consecutive nights. The first of these is at Simons Park Friday evening in the Hermosa neighborhood. The second will be part of the huge 606 Block Party on Humboldt Boulevard, and the final performance is back at SRBCC on Sunday.
McGrath sees each show through a different prism. “I like that the first one is in a small neighborhood park. There’s not a lot of publicity, and I think we’ll mostly play for neighbors who happen to stumble across us. They’re probably going to be amazed to hear this amazing singer and son of a historic figure right in their midst. The 606 Block Party is a huge deal, a highly promoted event that will draw a multi-ethnic crowd from around the city. And, of course, SRBCC is for the community that has worked hard to nurture and promote music from Puerto Rico and other Afro-Caribbean countries.”
In addition to being a singer and musician, Chalí Hernández is also manages the archive of his father’s music at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico. “It’s been great working with Chalí,” says McGrath. “I hung out with him after the last show and got to know him a bit. It turns out his wife and my mom know each other back in San Juan, so we became friends. I hadn’t spoken to him in a while, so when the call came to do this project, we reconnected and now we talk all the time.” McGrath adds, “But we only talk about the music some of the time… He’s a big Cubs fan and hopes to see a game while he’s here.”
Cumbanchero II is just the start of McGrath’s busy summer. This year’s edition of the Chicago Latin Jazz Festival is joining in the celebration of the 100th birthday of Dizzy Gillespie by taking a look at his crucial role as one of the first American jazz musicians to explore Afro-Cuban music, giving birth to what became known as Latin jazz. McGrath will lead a septet on Friday, July 14 that salutes the music of Dizzy’s United Nations Orchestra, a true all-star band that Gillespie put together in the late 1980’s that included at various times the likes of jazz stalwarts James Moody, Slide Hampton and Ed Cherry along with musicians with roots in Latin America: Danilo Pérez, Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera, Diego Urcola, Giovanni Hidalgo, Flora Purim and more. Their 1992 album Live at Royal Festival Hall won a Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble.
McGrath is no stranger to the Latin Jazz Fest, having played in and led bands in almost every fest since he graduated from Northwestern. When he got the call from festival director Carlos Flores to put together the Gillespie project, he jumped at it. “I’m really excited about this. I’ve hired some of the best jazz musicians in Chicago for this one. Heck, most of them are better than me! I’m interested in what this stellar group of musicians can do with this music.”
McGrath continues, “What’s cool and interesting about the United Nations band is that they didn’t just play Latin jazz. All the Latin guys swung hard when they played Coltrane’s Giant Steps, but they also played Afro-Latin tunes like Manteca and Perdido. And a lot of it was pretty funky. We’re going to try to capture all of that.”
In August, McGrath returns to Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center to lead a group of musicians in a tribute to another Puerto Rican legend, Antonio Cabán Vale, or “El Topo.” The nueva trova songwriter and singer is perhaps best known for his song Verde Luz, and he’s in Chicago for a 50th Anniversary concert at the Copernicus Center on August 6 celebrating that song, which has become something of a second national anthem on the island. SRBCC is hosting a meet and greet with El Topo the previous evening, August 5. McGrath and a select group of musicians will perform arrangements of Verde Luz and other El Topo songs.
The final item in Roy McGrath’s busy summer is the release of his second album, Remembranzas, but most of the hard work on that project is already behind him. It’s an album that grew out of both of the projects that open this article. McGrath kept developing the Julia al Son de Jazz project throughout the summer of 2016, but finally retired it because it didn’t work out to his expectations. “I kept trying to make it work, but at some point I realized that I couldn’t force it, so I scraped it. But the process of working on it taught me a lot. Jazz is serious, but so is poetry and spoken word. I needed to be faithful to all three, and I wasn’t quite getting there. So I went back to basics and the format of a jazz quartet. I kept four of the tunes I had written for Julia, stripped out the words, and wrote new arrangements for them.”
Part of Remembranzas grew out of the Julia de Burgos project, but McGrath also composed new, unrelated tunes as well. He put together a new quartet that included versatile bassist Kitt Lyles (a member of McGrath’s first post-Northwestern quartet) and two musicians who helped him execute the Coltrane project, pianist Bill Cessna and drummer Jonathan Wenzel.
The band rehearsed over the winter and then headed to Asia for month-long tour to work out playing live in front of audiences. Two Chicago performances followed in the spring before they headed into the studio to record the album. The finished tunes are reflective of McGrath’s Puerto Rican heritage in the way the folkloric rhythms of the island are woven into the arrangements without being at the forefront. The album feels unmistakably Latin, but it is not Latin jazz. McGrath made sure his band mates fully internalized the rhythmic rules that govern its folkloric sources before turning them loose as improvising jazz musicians. As McGrath put it, “You have to know where the lines are before you can color outside them.” Adding to the feel are guest appearances by percussionists Victor Junito on congas and Bomba con Buya member Ivelisse Díaz on traditional barril seguidor. Respected Puerto Rican MC Siete Nueve added a rap inspired by de Burgos as well.
“A remembranza is a reminiscence, evocation, or memory,” says McGrath in explaining the album’s title. “A deeply etched memory that forms part of one’s life and due to its emotional nature, whether positive or negative, is there to stay forever. I named the album Remembranzas because, despite the Julia de Burgos project not fully achieving what I wanted it to be, that process is ingrained in me as a lived experience. It wasn’t a failure, but something that passed organically into this new thing.” McGrath continues, “The other tunes are one with them in that they, too, come from a genuine life experience that I had.”
Remembranzas is scheduled for August release and plans are being made for an album release concert to follow. Through all of this, you can still find McGrath playing live somewhere several nights a week in one of the many bands he performs with.
But if you want to hear him express his own approach to music, your first opportunity is this weekend.
Photos by Charlie Billups, commentary by Don Macica –
Hundreds of people filled Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center last night while one of the most important bands in Cuban music history, Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro, performed a style of classic Cuban son that they practically invented in 1927 when they added a trumpet to the traditional tres Cubano, guitar and percussion. Of course, 90 years later, the band is in its fourth generation. While hardly innovative by 21st century standards, they provide a near perfect evocation of a sound that laid the foundation for what would become salsa 40 years later. If, as El Gran Combo has sung, “Sin Salsa no hay Paraiso (Without salsa, there is no paradise)”, then without Septeto Nacional, there is no salsa.
This was only the fourth time that Septeto Nacional has visited Chicago: Three since the Obama administration re-opened cultural exchange with Cuba and, before that, the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair. That made it something of a historic night as well.
At the SRBCC show, at least three generations of folks, from retirees to children, filled the dance floor with varying degrees of skill but equal measure of joy. Meanwhile, the back of the room was filled with round banquet tables where friends and strangers alike gathered like family. All in all, it was an atmosphere more akin to a community party than a concert. Adding to that feel was that Septeto Nacional invited saxophonist Roy McGrath, a Puerto Rico native who runs SRBCC’s youth Afro-Latin jazz program, to join them for a song. He responded with an improvised solo that evoked another genre that likely wouldn’t exist without Septeto Nacional: Latin jazz.
When I spoke with Old Town School of Folk Music’s Mateo Mulcahy a few months ago about their Extended Play series that partners with SRBCC, he talked about how Chicago’s network of cultural presenters allows the city’s residents to experience world renowned artists that any one organization could not afford to bring to town on their own. Septeto Nacional’s appearance was co-presented by HotHouse, who hosted the band the night before at Alhambra Palace. It is partnerships like this that allows an organization like SRBCC, whose main business is neighborhood youth services, to also be a place where people can come to hear world class music from Latin America.
Like the show by Colombia’s Herencia de Timbiquí just 2 weeks earlier, there was a sense of the barrier between performer and audience dissolving altogether, a vibe that SRBCC is increasingly adept at conjuring, as more and more people discover with each presentation. It is, I believe, a force that gives energy to the whole, resulting in an elevated experience on and off the stage.
Future shows at SRBCC include artists from Puerto Rico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and more. I suspect there are many more elevated experiences to come.
Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center played host to the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Extended Play series Thursday night with a performance by Herencia de Timbiquí, a 10-person ensemble from Colombia’s Pacifico region who are already major stars in their home country but are just beginning to attract a global following. Their music derives from the African culture that dominates that region, specifically the currualo style, which is traditionally performed on percussion instruments and accompanied by call & response vocals. Like much Afro-Caribbean music, its roots lie in religious and ceremonial music.
Herencia de Timbiquí (Timbiquí is a small coastal town) preserves this core, building much of their sound around the marimba, guasá (a kind of shaker formed from a hollowed out log filled with dried seeds), and two or three drums of varying pitches. Indeed, the origins of the group lie in playing this traditional music, but beginning about a decade ago they modernized the sound with the addition of electric bass, guitar and keyboards plus a full drum kit and a horn section. They have since evolved into a polished professional ensemble whose sound is commercial enough to have one of their songs, Te Invito, become the theme of the Colombian-produced Netflix series La Niña. This contemporary approach has enough room for smooth urban balladry, rock and funk while remaining firmly anchored in those traditional percussive elements.
Full video of the hit single “Sabrás”, performed live at SRBCC.
Every element of this was fully on display at SRBCC. A song could start out sounding very contemporary, only to have the steady currualo heartbeat and melodic marimba become evident as the song progresses. Conversely, a folkloric beginning could suddenly explode with punchy horns or a virtuoso guitar solo. The group is fronted by two extremely charismatic vocalists who connected directly and repeatedly to a dancing and swaying audience that was mere feet away from SRBCC’s low-slung stage.
All of which is to say that Herencia de Timbiquí has the potential to be pan-Latin superstars with a universal appeal that nonetheless operates in the specific and identifiable context of traditional Afro-Colombian culture.
And that magic? What elevated this particular performance from great to something greater was the context. Herencia was preceded on stage by groups performing purely folkloric music and dance representing Afro-Mexican, Afro-Colombian and Afro-Puerto Rican traditions. SRBCC is generally Puerto Rico focused in its programming, but one can also sense the spirit of Ramón Emeterio Betances, a colleague of Segundo Ruiz Belvis and a mid-19th century Puerto Rican doctor, diplomat and abolitionist who was known as El Antillano because of his vision of a united, decolonized Caribbean identity. The center’s walls are adorned with paintings and artwork representative of the Puerto Rican experience, and among them is a portrait of another Puerto Rican patriot, Pedro Albizu Campos, flanked by Cuba’s José Martí and Mexico’s Emiliano Zapata.
Chicago’s Colombian community turned out in force to see Herencia de Timbiquí, joining Puerto Ricans and more generally fans of Latin and world music for an evening that, if only briefly, accomplished Betances dream of a united Caribbean. I think Herencia could sense they were part of something special that transcended entertainment and entered the realm of spiritual uplift and pure joy.
If you live in Chicago and experience live Latin and world music on a regular basis, chances are you know, or at least have seen, Mateo Mulcahy. If you recognize the name, it’s because you know he’s the guy who brings all the cool world music to the Old Town School of Folk Music, located in the city’s north side Lincoln Square neighborhood.
Unlike a commercial talent booker or promoter, though, Mulcahy has a broader mission. The Old Town School is a non-for-profit organization, and Mulcahy is its Director of Community Projects and Events. He’s leading a new initiative called Extended Play that launches on February 1 in partnership with institutions in two other parts of the city; The DuSable Museum of African American History on the south side in Hyde Park and Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Hermosa on the west side.
Mateo Mulcahy was born in Chicago. He has both Mexico and Ireland in his heritage and grew up in a bilingual household. He spent several years in St. Louis leading a salsa band, hosting a radio show, promoting live Latin and world music and even owning a nightclub. These various capacities allowed him to make connections with that city’s various ethnic communities and continually expand his network. At times he reproduced shows in St. Louis that originated at the Old Town School’s La Peña series. Upon returning to Chicago in 2006, he was hired by the School to take over La Peña, but his background of working with many diverse communities led to him also programming the School’s Afro-Folk series and being assigned the broader task of connecting the School to communities beyond its immediate geographical area and to create more diversity at the school itself.
“We (the Old Town School) pull almost exclusively from a 20 block radius of the building,” Mulcahy tells me over coffee in the school’s main performance hall. “but we always have had an interest in expanding our reach into the south and west sides. Early on I took Afro-Folk out to the South Shore Cultural Center and we hoped to extend classes out there as well.” That effort ran out of funding pretty quickly, and Mulcahy has been searching for a way ever since to do something similar.
The Old Town School’s reputation beyond Chicago is highly regarded. “I can’t tell you how many artists that I work with say that they wish their cities had something like the Old Town School. New York City, London, Memphis, it doesn’t matter,” says Mulcahy. “There might be programs there that do something similar, but their focus is usually narrower, aimed at a particular community. The Old Town School’s mission tries to reach out to all of Chicago’s communities. We are the largest community arts school in the country.”
Even so, Mulcahy recognizes that there is unequal distribution of arts activity and education in Chicago. “There’s our 20 block radius, but virtually 90% of the city’s arts organizations are either downtown or on the north side like us. Vast parts of the city get very little.”
Cooperation between the Old Town School and community partners is crucial. A recently created 2 person engagement department has made these citywide partnerships more feasible. Last year’s 77 Beats program sought to celebrate the music and food of Chicago’s 77 distinct neighborhoods by producing over 45 events throughout the city in everything from cultural centers to parks and festivals, often utilizing the resources and talent in those neighborhoods.
Extended Play, which will bring Afro-Latin artists to Chicago this year, is a further step in that direction. As its name implies, the series extends the School’s long-running World Music Wednesday to three days and two additional venues. “We need to partner with organizations in other parts of the city and not keep everything to ourselves over there,” he says, gesturing toward the darkened stage. “Correspondingly, it is a benefit for the artists who come a long way to perform in Chicago to get the opportunity to play more than once.” Like 77 Beats, Extended Play is funded by the Chicago Community Trust, who have in recent years begun to focus more on the city’s under served neighborhoods.
The partner organization’s missions are crucial to the programming decisions as well. Artists are selected in close consultation with partner venues to ensure that they reflect the programming objectives and mission of all institutions. In the case of this year’s launch of Extended Play, the thread that connects the DuSable Museum and Segundo Ruiz Belvis is the African Diaspora. The initial artists that will perform include El Tuyero Ilustrado, who play joropo music from Venezuela, and Colombia’s Herencia de Timbiquí. Artists perform for three consecutive days. In keeping with outreach goals, all concerts are free to the public.
“I can’t tell you how pleased I am that I was able to get artists of this high caliber to launch this series,” Mulcahy says with a big smile. “Herencia de Timbiquí are superstars in Colombia, and El Tuyero Ilustrado are truly at the forefront of the joropo tuyero movement.”
Like a lot of Chicagoans, I first heard Herencia de Timbiquí at last year’s World Music Festival, and their show at Pritzker Pavilion was one of my personal fest high points. The 10-man ensemble mines a rich vein of traditional rhythms and instruments from Colombia’s Afro-Pacific region while modernizing it just enough to not sound like an anthropology lesson. They will be here in April.
El Tuyero Ilustrado, who kick off the series this Wednesday, are making their first appearance in Chicago. The duo consists of cuatro virtuoso Edward Ramírez and composer/singer/maraca player Rafa Pino. The project combines the joropo from the central region of Venezuela with original songwriting and uses the cuatro as a main instrument, rather than the more traditional arpa llanero.
Mulcahy discovered them at a music conference in Caracas and was totally blown away. “Venezuela has an incredibly diverse and rich musical offering,” says Mulcahy, “but joropo is the national music and the cuatro is definitely the national instrument. However, if you are going to replace a harp which has dozens of strings with a cuatro that has 4, it better be one incredible cuatro player. Edward Ramírez is at that level.”
Mulcahy and I end our conversation talking about Chicago’s world music community. “I’ve worked in other markets,” he says, “and I’m very happy to report that, in Chicago, the people who work on the cultural side of Latin and world music all get along and collaborate. It’s not a given that it works like that in other places. And working together enables us to get great artists to come to Chicago that individually we couldn’t afford.”
Extended Play works much the same way. It would simply not be possible to get El Tuyero Ilustrado or Herencia de Timbiquí to come all the way to Chicago for a single audience of a few hundred people. That makes us a very lucky city indeed.
Extended Play: El Tuyero Ilustrado
Old Town School of Folk Music, Wednesday February 1 at 8:30pm. oldtownschool.org
DuSable Museum of African American History, Thursday February 2 at 7pm. dusablemuseum.org
Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, Friday February 3 at 7:30pm. segundoruizbelvis.org
Extended Play: Herencia de Timbiquí
Old Town School of Folk Music, Wednesday April 19 at 8:30pm
Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, Thursday April 20 at 7:30pm
DuSable Museum of African American History, Friday April 21 at 7pm