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

ife
By Don Macica –

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

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

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

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

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

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

12274688_979513878790186_13693865739348414_n
“It was great to get invited to the World Music Fest for our U.S. debut. Many of the members of ÌFÉ have family and friends in Chicago. I myself was born in Hammond, Indiana, so it will be something like a homecoming to perform here at such an important festival.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All events are free.

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

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

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

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

 

 

Interview: John Santos, My Music is Who I Am

John-Santos
By Don Macica –

“My experience totally comes from the folkloric tradition. My grandparents on both sides were musicians. My dad’s family is from Cape Verde off the coast of Senegal while my mom is Puerto Rican. I grew up in that environment so I was listening to and playing traditional Cuban, Puerto Rican and African music at an early age.”

I’m speaking with San Francisco Bay area percussionist, band leader and educator John Santos via phone from Washington, DC, where he is making several appearances in connection with the Smithsonian Institute’s Folklife Festival. From there he’ll travel to Chicago for two Latin Jazz Festival appearances this week: A lecture and demonstration entitled My Music is Who I Am at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and leading the John Santos Sextet at the Humboldt Park Boathouse. Both events are presented by the Jazz Institute of Chicago.

Santos had led several bands over the course of his four-decade career. The best known of them was the Machete Ensemble, which lasted for 21 years but dissolved in 2006. That’s the group I caught at HotHouse, the South Loop venue that closed its physical doors several years ago but continues as a still vital organization with programming in various locations around the city. As it turns out, that’s the last time Santos played in Chicago until now.

“The economics of that group were really difficult,” says Santos. “It varied from 12-14 members, and a group of that size is very hard to take on the road. It was hard to get decent paying work for that many musicians. I downsized to 9 members, but even that was hard to support.”

After Machete Ensemble broke up, Santos started a quartet, which has gradually built up to the sextet that will visit Chicago this week. Besides being a top-shelf performing Latin jazz ensemble, they specialize in educational presentations from lecture/demonstrations to detailed clinics focusing on any number of relevant subjects such as composition, arrangement, rhythmic development, stylistic interpretation, studio performance, etc. Their repertoire consists of arrangements from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the US, as well as original compositions.

The conversation turns back to the importance of tradition in Santos’ music. “After my experiences playing with my family and during my development as a professional musician, I studied all sorts of African influenced music. As a percussionist, I was drawn to the conga and batá drums, and from there to Congolese and Nigerian music. I started collecting instruments and vintage recordings. That folk tradition became a driving force in my career.”

Santos continues, “Those folkloric traditions form the basis of what I do, but then we apply that to original music using contemporary jazz harmonies and themes that talk about experiences that are relevant to what we’re living through.”

With that, our conversation moves to Santos’ educational efforts and programs, one of which he is presenting this week in Chicago. “Workshops, lectures and classes are nearly half of what I do, with performing and composing being the other half,” he notes.  “I took the title My Music is Who I Am from a dissertation by the great Latin jazz bassist Andy Gonzáles.  That title really resonated with me, so I created this presentation that talks about Afro-Latinos like myself and the way music is intertwined with our identity, history and culture. The music is an almost sacred document that tells our story in our own voices and the voices of our ancestors.” He continues, “I’ll be using a lot of historical recordings from my collection to illustrate certain themes of who we are, in our own words, and I’ll show how those same themes are relevant to our lives today. It will show how connected we are to these older traditions, but at the same time have contemporary examples that play the same role.”

It is mid-afternoon, and Santos still has one more Smithsonian Folklife panel to attend. As we are saying our goodbyes, Santos remarks, “I’m really looking forward to coming back to Chicago. I’ve done events before with Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center at the old location. I’m honored to be presenting there again and of course I’m excited to be performing at the Latin Jazz Festival. It will be great to see old friends and make some new ones.”

My Music is Who I Am, Thursday, July 14, 7:00pm at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage, Chicago. Free admission, but registration is requested. srbcc.org

10th Annual Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, Friday-Saturday July 15-16 at the Humboldt Park Boathouse. 1301 N. Sacramento, Chicago. John Santos headlines Friday at 9:00pm. Free admission. jazzinchicago.org

Miramar: Return of the Bolero

Miramar 3
By Don Macica –

I remember the first time my girlfriend played an album of boleros for me. It was classic stuff, an album that she said her parents owned. I swooned over those gorgeously melancholic tunes, deep in romance and longing. That was five years ago, and I’ve learned a bit more since then. I thought I knew all the classics—Sabor a Mí, Tres Palabaras, Dos Gardenias—but it turns out I was just scratching the surface, unwittingly confining myself mostly to boleros from Cuba and Mexico. Like cumbia, though, the bolero is a phenomenon throughout Latin America.

Miramar is a side project of sorts from the salsa band Bio Ritmo. The group will visit Chicago this weekend for a pair of concerts, and they have opened up another world to me that I knew little about. Their new album Dedication to Sylvia Rexach honors a Puerto Rican songwriter who is something of a cult figure. I know her name as the writer of two songs, including the title tune, on Miguel Zenón’s Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook, but that was about it. So, who is Sylvia Rexach, and why did Miramar dedicate an album to her?

Miramar consists of Marlysse Simmons-Argandoña and Reinaldo Alvarez from Bio Ritmo and singer Laura Ann Singh. Alvarez is of Puerto Rican heritage while Simmons-Argandoña is from Chile, and Singh was born in Tennessee but spent years singing in Brazil. Miramar was born out of a shared passion for boleros between Alvarez and Simmons-Argandoña that Bio Ritmo didn’t quite  have room for. “We decided to start a bolero group because there were only so many boleros we could do with a salsa band,” says Marlysse.

miramar-dedication-to-sylvia-rexach
They were particularly struck by a 1960s-era album of Rexach songs from Duo Irizarry de Córdova. In contrast to the Mexican trios that swept much of Latin America (Los Panchos, Los Tres Aces), this Puerto Rican duo featured male and female voices in unique interaction. “It was a new expression of pain and longing,” says Rei Alvarez. “It was a concrete manifestation of everything that I love about romantic music”.  Enter Laura Ann Singh as the perfect singing partner, and Miramar’s duo sound was born.

The resulting album is quite lovely and drenched in nostalgia. Seven of the album’s ten songs are Rexach compositions, with the remainder composed by Alvarez and Simmons-Argandoña. Inspired by bolero, they nonetheless evoke other sources, from waltzes to a Middle Eastern feel. While clearly anchored in the style and the era it pays homage to, the album’s nostalgia derives from its soulfulness, not imitation. I’m still curious, though. With songs as beautiful as this, why is Sylvia Rexach a cult figure, a term that implies devotion from a select but limited audience?

“In my opinion, it’s because she was a songwriter, not a performer. She only had one recording out [a simple and unadorned album of her voice accompanied by acoustic guitarist Tuti Umpierre] and while people may know her songs, they don’t necessarily know who wrote them, because they associate the song with the performer,” says Marlysse Simmons-Argandoña, speaking to me by phone from the road. “She gave songs away, so it’s possible that there are songs that we don’t even know are hers.”

Returning to the Miramar album, I ask about the Puerto Rican duo tradition that inspired the vocals. “We didn’t initially take the duo approach. Rei and I are both big record collectors. There is a café in Santurce right around the corner from a big record store that we would go to when visiting Puerto Rico. An older generation of musicians hangs out there. They introduced us to a lot of duo music, including Duo Irizarry de Córdova. We both loved the sound, but Rei was the only singer in Miramar at the time.  We didn’t know Laura Ann. We met her and she joined Rei for a couple of songs at one of our concerts and we were like wow, that’s it.”

Miramar 1
Instrumentally, the album has a classic feel: piano, guitar, bongos, maracas, strings – and one distinct feature that I’m not used to hearing in tropical music, organ. That last thing, I assumed, was sort of a hipster affectation, the way some indi-rock bands use ukuleles or toy pianos. Wrong. I found some Duo Irizarry de Córdova music on YouTube, and the organ is there in all its nostalgic glory. “Those albums are full of haunting organ,” says Marlysse.

There are thirteen songs on the one, rare Sylvia Rexach album (as far as I can tell – I’ve had to patch it together from YouTube videos containing the audio of old albums), so I ask Marlysse how they arrived at the seven that were recorded by Miramar. “The Irizarry de Córdova album of her songs was our starting point, so our sound and song selection originate there. However, we have since learned a few more and will be debuting them in Chicago.”

Sylvia Rexach will probably never be as well-known as Rafael Hernandez or Pedro Flores. But with Miramar’s help, some much needed recognition will surely come her way.
________

Miramar appears twice this weekend in Chicago, both shows presented by Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center

Friday, June 24 @ 3:00PM at Hermosa Park, 2240 N. Kilbourn Avenue – Free Admission (co-presented by Night Out in the Parks)
Saturday, June 25 @ 7:00PM at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage Avenue – $20 Donation goes to SRBCC’s educational and cultural programs. Tickets and info at srbcc.org

Review and photos: Miguel Zenón at SRBCC’s Folclórico

By Don Macica,
Photos by Charlie Billups

A long awaited community event took place last night in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. Saxophonist and MacArthur fellow Miguel Zenón, visiting the city to present his Identities are Changeable project at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center, came to Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center to share his motivations and processes behind Identities and explore different facets of Afro-Puerto Rican music with local musicians.

We were there, and it was truly a once in a lifetime experience, requiring the collaboration and mutual respect of many individuals and institutions to make it happen. Miguel Zenón, of course, but also the University, SRBCC’s executive director Omar Torres-Kortright and several Chicago musicians who help keep Puerto Rican culture alive: jazz saxophonist Roy McGrath and his quartet, traditional bomba ensemble Buya, and SRBCC’s own youth ensemble, Arawak’Opia.

Zenón opened the evening by talking about the process of creating Identities are Changeable, a multi-media big band project about the idea of identity among Puerto Ricans born in the United States. The concepts were illustrated by video excerpts. He then took several questions from the audience, which he answered thoughtfully and at length.

The music that followed was wonderful, starting with Zenón playing with the young musicians, singers and dancers of Arawak’Opia. A little loose, perhaps, but genuinely inspirational. McGrath, who was born in San Juan but now lives in Chicago, joined Zenón for a jazz take on three Puerto Rican classics, Obsesión, Perfume de Gardenaias and Capullito de Alelì. Finally, Buya took the stage with their usual energy and spirit while Zenón improvised in and around their powerful drumming, singing and dancing. The group learned Zenón’s composition Esta Plena especially for this occasion, and they nailed it.

Equal to the music was the sense of shared community in the room going back and forth between the performers on the stage and the people in the audience as barriers between the two dissolved. In just a couple of years, SRBCC has established themselves in Hermosa after over four decades based in Wicker Park. They have gone where the community needs them most, and bringing a world class talent like Miguel Zenón and presenting him for free is a testament to their commitment to the neighborhood. They have a huge summer of activity planned, starting almost immediately with programs presented in collaboration with The 606 and Night Out in the Parks. Visit their website srbcc.org for a complete schedule.

Photographer Charlie Billups, who has been documenting Puerto Rican and Latino culture in Chicago, was at the Zenón event and took the pictures below. You can view more of his work at his Tumblr blog or at charliebillups.com.

photo by Charlie Billups
Miguel Zenón with Buya
photo by Charlie Billups
With Arawak’Opia
photo by Charlie Billups
With Roy McGrath
photo by Charlie Billups
With Buya
photo by Charlie Billups
Miguel Zenón and Buya perform “Esta Plena”

 

Concert preview: Miguel Zenón’s Identities are Changeable

13177768_1204225342923978_3128776917367298585_n

By Don Macica –

“The Puerto Rican community in Chicago is one of the most important and historic communities outside of the island, so all of the ideas from the project would definitely apply there as well. But then again, I think that this is an idea that could apply to any immigrant community anywhere.”

Composer and saxophonist Miguel Zenón is talking about Identities are Changeable, his multi-media big band project based on interviews he conducted with New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent. It is making its long awaited Chicago debut on Thursday, May 26 at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Chicago.

Zenón, however, is not confining his Chicago visit to just this concert. On Tuesday, May 24, he’ll participate in Folclórico, An Exploration of Jazz and Afro-Puerto Rican Music at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. And while one project might represent contemporary, cutting edge jazz and the other traditions that date back hundreds of years, the former almost certainly would not exist without the latter. That’s how tightly Zenón has interwoven his heritage into his art.

Beginning with his third album as a leader, Jíbaro (2005), and continuing with Esta Plena (2009) and Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook (2011), and Oye!!! Live In Puerto Rico (2013), Zenón created a series of thoughtfully framed works that interpret different facets of Puerto Rican culture. Along the way, he became a MacArthur Fellow, a recipient of what’s been called the “Genius Grant”, placing him at the forefront of a new movement that has brought Zenón to prominence in jazz. But beyond his facility at writing and playing music, there is a great intellectual subject at the center of Zenón’s artistic world: the complexity of Puerto Rican culture.

“I consider myself a jazz musician,” says Zenón.  “It is the music that speaks to me the most and the reason why I became a musician in the first place. But I’m also a Latin American musician from Puerto Rico, and that’s always going to be there and is going to be represented in everything I do, no matter what.  The music I write for my band represents these two sides of who I am musically.”

When I last interviewed Miguel Zenón at length, Identities are Changeable was still months from being released. Zenón and his quartet were previewing a more portable version of it at the 2014 Chicago Jazz Festival, and they would return the following year for a weekend run at the Jazz Showcase. Until now, though, the full project had only been performed in a handful of cities. This complete version finds the Miguel Zenón Quartet joined by an additional 12 musicians and augmented by a video installation that brings to life the words and people from which Zenón built the music. Given its size and expense, it is rarely performed.

“I think we’ve had about 8 performances with the Big Band and the Video and maybe 3 or 4 with just the Quartet and the Video,” says Zenón. “We performed in New York City twice, at Carnegie Hall and Hostos College in the Bronx. [They were] both very different experiences. On one side it was amazing to get to perform at such a historic venue; on the other it was really great to get to perform in the Bronx, which has a very large Puerto Rican community.”

He continues, “The music on this album is inspired by the idea of national identity, as experienced by the Puerto Rican community in New York City. The music was written around a series of interviews I conducted with New Yorkers of Puerto Rican decent.  I asked them all a series of question and then used their answers to create a narrative, which is then translated into specific themes such as ‘Language’, ‘Home’ or ‘Traditions’ and so forth. I wrote music with the idea of creating an interaction between the band and the audio you hear from the interviews.”

The voices heard on the Identities album, which was released in November 2014, include thinkers, musicians, poets and family members. The live performance further employs David Dempewolf’s video installation as something of a seventeenth member of the band, illuminating and enhancing the heart of the music and thoughts expressed.

This is music that is intensely rhythmic, though not in a standard way that you would hear with, for example, a mambo orchestra. It’s definitely jazz, but this big-band score – Zenón’s first – presents a different kind of compositional and polyrhythmic challenge.  It’s more like modern symphonic writing, with multiple meters and layers that keep all sixteen musicians, especially drummer Henry Cole, on their toes. The different rhythms that play against and with each other suggest the different identities that are the subject of the work.

mz_identities_are_changeable_cover

I asked Zenón what to expect from Folclórico, which is being presented free of charge as a community outreach effort of Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and UChicago Presents.

“The plans for the center is to have a little presentation about Identities are Changeable, where I’ll talk about the genesis of the project and break down some of its essential elements. Then we’ll have a musical presentation, with me joining some local groups, Arawak’Opia, [bomba ensemble] Buya and jazz saxophonist Roy McGrath. Omar [Torres-Kortright, the director of the center] and I have been talking about this collaboration for many years now, so I’m really looking forward to this.”

Taken together, the local musicians playing with Zenón at SRBCC are a cross section of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. The members of Buya are, for the most part, U.S. born Puerto Ricans, but have dedicated themselves to roots music. Saxophonist McGrath, meanwhile, was born in San Juan but now lives in Chicago, where he leads a pair of jazz ensembles and plays in salsa and reggae bands around town.

Arawak’Opia is the center’s youth bomba ensemble, so I ask Zenón about working with kids. “It is something that I enjoy very much.  I have this project in Puerto Rico called ‘Caravana Cultural’, which basically involves presenting free-of-charge jazz concerts in the rural areas of Puerto Rico. One of the essential elements of the project is the inclusion of a group of young music students from the area, who join us on stage for the final concert. It is always the highlight of the performance and something that gives me a lot of faith in the project and faith on the power of music in general.”

The Logan Center show presents a rare opportunity to hear one of the most compelling composers and performers in jazz working at peak capacity, while SRBCC’s community presentation will allow Chicagoans to go inside the artist himself. Chicago couldn’t be more fortunate.
________

Folclórico, An Exploration of Jazz and Afro-Puerto Rican Music – Tuesday, May 24, 7pm. Free admission. Reserve tickets at segundoruizbelvis.org.

Miguel Zenon, Identities are Changeable – Thursday, May 26, 7:30pm, Reva and David Logan Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets at chicagopresents.uchicago.edu.

Concert Review: Roy McGrath’s Julia al Son de Jazz

By Don Macica –

20160324_202836_HDR
Roy McGrath Quintet with students of Arawak’Opia

Jazz is, at its best, ever evolving and in the moment. You need to bring a ton of skill and creativity to the table, but once the meal is served, the conversation really begins, elevating what was notes and words on paper into the realm of the spirit.

That’s the context in which I caught the March 24th performance of the Roy McGrath Quintet’s work in progress, Julia al Son de Jazz, at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood.

The suite of original (with one exception.. more on that later) Latin jazz compositions take their inspiration from the life and poetry of Puerto Rican activist and poet Julia de Burgos. The idea was first commissioned by SRBCC last summer for an outdoor performance at the park named after de Burgos that’s part of The 606, an urban trail that stretches for a few miles through a handful of Chicago neighborhoods, reaching Hermosa at its western end. Saxophonist McGrath, seizing the opportunity, immediately starting writing new songs instead of falling back on standards and familiar tunes. A crack assemblage of Chicago’s top Latin jazz musicians was quickly put together and actress Rossanna Rodriguez was tapped to recite de Burgos’ poetry.

That initial project took place on a sunny fall Saturday, and though promoted ahead of time, it served more as an unexpected and delightful curiosity to people strolling, biking and rollerblading the trail. That could have been the end of it, but McGrath, it turns out, was only getting started.

He continued writing over the winter and workshopped a version of the project at Sabor a Café, a Colombian restaurant and intimate music venue, in early February. In that informal performance, McGrath himself handled the poetry, and, um, he’s not a bad reader for a saxophone player. Still, you could hear new ideas and arrangements continue to be fleshed out. McGrath had already agreed to present Julia al Son de Jazz at SRBCC in March, and he needed to work things out in front of an audience, which is essential for jazz. The audience will let you know what works and what doesn’t.

Roy McGrath at Sabor a Café
Roy McGrath at Sabor a Café

Armed with what he learned at Sabor a Café, he put together the band for last week’s performance, which included pianist Edwin Sanchez, drummer Jean-Christophe Leroy, bassist Freddy Quintero and conguero Victor Junito. And, thankfully, actress and writer Veronica Rodriguez Gotay handling the poetry recitatives.

A quick word about Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center: It’s an absolute gem. In addition to providing a full slate of cultural and after-school programs for the neighborhood and wider Chicago community, the space itself is gorgeous in a funky, loft inspired way: Exposed brick walls covered with Puerto Rican art, groovy mid-century modern furniture, a nice antique bar off to one side, and great sight lines for its large stage. One of their youth programs is the Arawak’Opia dance and music ensemble, and these bright and talented kids performed a short set before McGrath took the stage.

Julia al Son de Jazz now opens with a solo recitation of a de Burgos poem, Rio Grande de Loiza, carefully setting the tone for what is to come. The band then kicks into a mid-tempo groove with a gentle keyboard flourish, supporting an original English language poem by Abner Bardeguez that honors Julie de Burgos (sort of a mini-biography/introduction). McGrath pays close attention to his band, directing them even as he plays. The saxophonist is well on his way to becoming a respected player in jazz, equally adept in straight-ahead as well as Latin idioms. I caught him last January covering John Coltrane’s Blue Train in its entirety, and he and his straight-ahead ensemble did a great job honoring ‘Trane’s spirit. McGrath takes chances and goes to inventive places with his horn.

Roy McGrath was born and raised in Puerto Rico, yet inspired to pursue jazz by Coltrane and Miles Davis. He brings his boricua heritage to his writing, but jazz is the primary language. Various strains of folkloric and popular Puerto Rican sounds are interwoven into his Julia compositions, never more apparent than when he invited Arawak’Opia to join the band to add a solid bomba foundation to the introduction to one of the songs.  They nailed it.

The rhythm and cadence of Julia de Burgos’s poetry inspire as well, and it is very apparent that the music is fully integrated into the words and vice-versa. This isn’t poetry with jazz, but poetry and voice as one more essential instrument in a cohesive ensemble arrangement.

12744676_1171937449486101_6484030723212590728_n
Julia al Son de Jazz

The one tune not written by McGrath was Rafael Hernández’ Los Carreteros, which he introduced by saying he learned it in choir long before he ever picked up a saxophone.  But, like Miguel Zenón on his Puerto Rican songbook album Alma Adentro, McGrath put his own writing and arranging skills to work in adapting it for de Burgos’ poetry.

Julia al Son de Jazz is still a work in progress. The Chicago Park District will be presenting it three more times around the city this summer, and each performance will come with much valued rehearsal time. As with the Sabor a Café performance, McGrath will take what he learned at SRBCC to continue development with the eventual aim of recording it for an album.

I’ll be in the park, and I’ll be first in line to buy the album when it comes out.

All photos by Don Macica

 About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

San Juan to Chicago: Roy McGrath’s Jazz Journey

Puerto Rican tenor saxophonist upends stereotypes to carve his own musical path.

roymcgrath-web-768x1024

By Don Macica –

At some point in the summer of 2015, Roy McGrath’s name became ubiquitous, so much so that I began to wonder, “Who is this guy?”

First, I noticed that his quintet was performing at the Chicago Latin Jazz Festival. A few weeks after that, I was having lunch with the owner of Sabor a Café, a Colombian restaurant that presents live music on weekends. “Roy McGrath, man, ooo, you gotta hear him.” I finally heard him in early September when he joined the groove-jazz backing band of Puerto Rican rapper Siete Nueve at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. A week later I caught him backing up master percussionist Michael Spiro at Sabor a Café, and a week after that I unexpectedly stumbled across him in a comparsa de plena as part of the Chicago World Music Festival. He led a Latin jazz ensemble in a project that matched original music to poetry a week later, and shortly after that I learned he was taking his straight-ahead quartet, with whom he had recorded Martha, an excellent CD of original compositions (and a couple of well chosen covers), on a month-long tour of Mexico.

And then there was this mystery: How could a 6’2” white guy with the name McGrath be a Puerto Rican? I needed to get to the bottom of this, so when he returned from Mexico we made arrangements to meet for coffee, which was remarkably easy to do because it turned out we were neighbors.

“When I was around 15 and in high school, a friend gave me her father’s saxophone because she heard me say that I wanted to play one. It supposedly belonged to a member of El Gran Combo, who gave it to her father, and it was in horrible shape, really beat up. Two weeks later, I was playing a gig in front of 5,000 people at Roberto Clemente Coliseum.”

McGrath pauses, no doubt reading the incredulity on my face. “Oh. Well, I had a friend who had a reggae band, and they were opening up for Israel Vibration. My friend wanted horns in this gig because Israel Vibration had horns in their band. I sounded terrible, and I did for a long time.”

He continues, “A couple of weeks later I went to the San Juan Borders store and bought two CDs out of their bargain bin: John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. That was it. I knew I wanted to play jazz.”

McGrath had a friend who played guitar and they formed a quartet which almost immediately scored a gig making $50 a week. He was already a working jazz musician, learning and playing the standards.

Things changed less than a year later. “I was in a bad car accident when I was 16, and that experience really made me reflect and get serious about playing. I replaced the beat up horn with a new one.”

I should point out that while McGrath is serious about his work ethic, he is more modest, even critical, of his talent. I should also point out that, a little more than a year after first picking up a horn, McGrath was offered a 3/4 scholarship by Loyola University in New Orleans to study music.

“Yeah, New Orleans,” McGrath says. “I was offered scholarships to a few schools, but I wanted to study jazz. Of course I picked New Orleans.”

McGrath completed his undergraduate work in three years, but hung around the Crescent City for two more, soaking up culture and seeking knowledge. “I loved New Orleans. It felt like home. It was hot, so that felt right. The traditions there are similar to the Caribbean. People say ‘Hi’ to you on the street, and you could become friends just like that. It was also musically similar to Puerto Rico in the way that music is heard everywhere. They blast jazz like we blast salsa.”

And, of course, he was working as often as he could, playing in brass bands, jazz bands, funk bands. “Never turn down a gig,” he says. “You’ll always learn something.”

After five years in New Orleans, McGrath arrived in Chicago in 2012 to continue his studies at Northwestern University, where he earned a master’s degree in 2014. “It was great. Like, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is on the faculty there! I studied directly with Victor Goines, who heads up the jazz department.” He recorded Martha a few months later with a quartet formed with fellow Northwestern grads.

I ask him why he remained here after graduation instead of moving to, say, New York. “Chicago, man. What a great music city. The jazz scene here is epic. There are so many good players. Some of the best in the world are here. The salsa scene is amazing as well. There’s a brass band and funk scene, even reggae. Everything’s here! Plus, there’s a lot of Puerto Ricans, so I don’t miss my culture. If I’m homesick, I can just go down to La Bomba for dinner.”

His ‘never turn down a gig’ work ethic remains strong. On the morning we met, he had just returned from an out of state gig with a merengue band. “Merengue is hard, man, all these rapid, percussive runs. Not at all like jazz or salsa. I learned a few things.”

McGrath has another habit that influences his growth as a musician. He is completely unafraid to seek out established musicians he admires and talk to them. “It’s like playing all the different kinds of music, but in addition to practical knowledge, you might learn something spiritual or cultural from their experiences, and that’s valuable too.”

The saxophonist has two projects as a leader coming up in the near future. First, he’ll lead a straight-ahead sextet in January performing what, for him, was a seminal jazz influence—the entire John Coltrane Blue Train album. “We’re in pretty intense rehearsals right now, because I want to honor ‘Trane, not copy him.” The performance is presented by the Jazz Record Art Collective, a monthly series at the Fulton Street Collective in Chicago, and visual artist Sarah Mueller will paint as McGrath’s sextet plays.

The other is a further extension of the Latin jazz project he first created last fall for Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and The 606 called Julia al Son de Jazz, in which original compositions are performed with one or possibly two poets reciting the words of Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. “I’m trying to get two voices, one female and the other male, so I can arrange the tonal quality like I would with different horns.” Sabor a Café is presenting the project in February.

The two very different gigs are illustrative of McGrath’s artistic ambitions. “I don’t want to be categorized as a ‘Latin’ musician because I consider myself primarily a straight-ahead player. At the same time, I’m Puerto Rican and my culture is invested in what I create. I really admire Miguel Zenón. He doesn’t play Latin jazz, but he came up playing in salsa bands and everything he’s done and learned is in his music.”

He hopes to study with Zenón sometime soon. “I feel that I’m finally ready. Before this, I would have been wasting his time.” McGrath’s modesty is on display once more, but if you’re keeping score, you’ll realize that he’s barely a decade out of high school and already possesses degrees from two of the best music schools in the country. He also makes a living in music, gigging in one band or another several nights a week in addition to leading two of his own. “Oh, yeah, I never want to go back to making pizzas or washing dishes.”

And, in case you’re still wondering about the name. “My father was a half Irish Mexican-American from Texas who moved to Puerto Rico, where he met my mom, who is German-American and was born in Thailand but grew up on the island, so she considers herself as boricua.” This fairly complex multi-cultural background perhaps offers a clue to McGrath’s artistic goals. Jazz itself is a confluence of cultures, rising as it did out of New Orleans, where the African Diaspora met and mingled with French, Spanish and other influences, including the ‘Latin tinge’ of the Caribbean. It is the United States’ great gift to the rest of the world, and McGrath is determined to take his music there. “Besides the Mexican tour, I’ve already played in China and I want to go back soon.”

I hope he continues to call Chicago home for a long time to come.

John Coltrane’s Blue Train by the Roy McGrath Sextet – Wednesday, January 20, 9pm at the Fulton Street Collective, 1821 W. Hubbard St, Chicago. jazzrecordartcollective.com

Julia al Son de Jazz with The Roy McGrath Latin Jazz Quintet – Friday, February 12, 9pm at Sabor a Café, 2435 W. Peterson, Chicago. No cover, but reservations are recommended. saboracaferestaurant.com
________

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

Orquesta el Macabeo: Old school salsa for the 21st Century

maca mayaguez 21 ago 2014-1

By Don Macica.

When I first heard Orquesta el Macabeo live in 2013, I was transported to a place that lived more in my imagination than anywhere else. I had seen documentaries about the birth of salsa in New York City and enjoyed every gritty, grainy frame. These films hinted at what it must have been like when these brash young upstarts first rose from the streets of the Bronx and Spanish Harlem. Listening to Orquesta el Macabeo, however, made me feel like I was there. I was blown away. This was a far cry from your average ‘salsa night’ in a club.

They’ve only been back to Chicago once, playing Agúzate’s Afro-Caribbean Improvised Music Festival later that same year. On September 4, however, I’ll return once again to el barrio when Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center presents Orquesta el Macabeo in a benefit concert.

Before the 11 musicians who make up the band got together, they each had a musical history in anything but salsa: hardcore, metal, ska, reggae, hip-hop. And yet, as they put it on their SoundCloud page, “They do not mix salsa with those music genres. This is straight up Salsa.”

“I was touring the world with different hardcore punk bands, and I come from a DIY background. I had an idea that when I got home I would gather some friends from other bands and see if we could jam some of our favorite Puerto Rican songs, like you would hear in any bar.” This is Macabeo’s founder and director, bassist José lbañez, speaking to me by phone from his home in Trujillo Alto, PR. “Originally, the idea was just for us, with no expectations, and if somebody would let us play in a bar or something, great. But all of us being DIY people, we soon wanted to write our own songs. We got really excited, doing things our way, learning but not feeling constrained by rules of what we could or couldn’t do.

“We got our first show in a little bar that only fit 40 people. We only had three songs, so we repeated them 2 or 3 times! People seemed to like it right away. I have a home studio, so we started working on writing more and making our first record.” That record eventually came out in 2010 as Salsa Macabra, followed by El Entierro in 2011 and Lluvia con sol in 2013.

orquesta-macabeo-band

Bending or breaking rules is not a minor issue, and even now there are serious salseros who don’t believe Orquesta el Macabeo is doing it right, just as there are purist rockers who think Macabeo is only joking around. But, as lbañez notes, “Normal people who have normal lives listen to the music and like it. They don’t care if it’s this way or the other way.” Most rockers in Puerto Rico, he says, like salsa just fine. I can’t help but compare this attitude to early salsa’s creators, who took whatever they needed from tropical music—son, bomba y plena, merengue, boleros—and adapted it to their particular situation as urban dwellers also familiar with rock and R&B. In other words, the ‘rules’ of salsa weren’t written yet.

In addition to their dynamic live sound and unconventional stage presence, there is another quality that makes Orquesta el Macabeo stand out, and it is one that owes as much to punk as it does to the early days of salsa. Their lyrics have a reality to them, describing everyday life in circumstances that are sometimes harsh. It’s not always pretty, but it’s real. At the same time, they wield a sharp sense of humor as one of their weapons.

Willie Colón once said, in defining salsa as a thing culturally separate from the Cuban son that it sprang from, called it “… a manifestation of cultural resistance… its melodies are essentially urban. Salsa is like a newspaper, a chronicle of our lives in the big city, and that’s why it talks about such topics as crime, drugs, pain, uprootedness and even about our history of exploitation and underdevelopment.” In a different context, it’s why Chuck D of Public Enemy called rap the “Black CNN”, and the same spirit is at the heart of hardcore punk as well, a way of articulating anger at an unjust system. It’s protest music.

Decades later, lbañez says much the same thing. “I like to listen to music that says something to me, and I want to write music like that, stories from the neighborhood, stories of the city, the social situation… things that mean something to me. Our songs are not empty. They have something to say.” In addition to lbañez, another six members contribute lyrics and music, all of it original and all of it reflective of a continuing DIY ethos.

Macabeo isn’t doing protest songs per se, but they are not turning a blind eye to society either. Se Pone Difícil describes someone who lives off the system but doesn’t give back, and predicts their demise. Cogiendo pon is a Puerto Rican expression for claiming achievement through others efforts. Alacrán compares gangsters to scorpions and warns of their sting. Perhaps the most poignant of all is Lluvia con sol, which deftly sketches out the difficulties of simply living your life in a system that leaves you powerless. The video for Lluvia starkly contrasts these lyrics against cheerful images of vintage tourism, introduced as “… the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a land of song and laughter, a tiny bit of the United States in the warm seas of the Caribbean,” and later extols the island’s progress “under the guidance of the Stars and Stripes.” Ouch.

Yet, in the midst of this, there is time to dance, time to boast and time to party with songs like Macabiónico, La Conga, Swing and La Dieta, which extols the glories of delicious and fatty food. As someone who believes chuletas can-can is both the most delectable and dangerous recipe ever invented, I can relate.

Our conversation turns to Orquesta el Macabeo’s recently released 7” single for Spain’s Vampisoul label, which salsifies a pair of punk rock songs from mid-90s Spain, Eutanasia and En la luna. “I was into heavy metal first, then hardcore around the age of 15” says lbañez. “These bands [La Polla Records and Eskorbuto] were very popular at the time, and because they sung in Spanish I could understand them. They were among my favorites.” He continues “I think it’s important to pay these bands a tribute and make these songs we love so much part of our own history. Music has no limits or barriers, and we show it this way: turning these two 100% punk songs into Latin tropical rhythms, while respecting the atmosphere of the original tracks.”

 

The other new Orquesta el Macabeo song couldn’t be more different from Eutanasia. La puerta está abierta is a flat out gorgeous tune performed as a duet with Mimi Maura, a Puerto Rico born singer who splits her time between San Juan and Buenos Aires. It’s structured a bit like the Miguel Matamoros classic Lagrimas Negras, with Maura’s languid bolero giving way to a cha-cha-cha chorus about halfway in. Even here, though, a DIY approach is in play. Maura comes from a rock & ska background and is the partner of Sergio Rotman, a member of Argentina’s legendary Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. “Sergio loves our project and asked us to make a song together with Mimi, which we totally accepted, as we love them and it is a good way to be known in Argentina.” says Ibañez. “He then put out Siete años macabros to expose us in his country, a compilation of our three albums plus the bonus track with Mimi.” In a final homegrown twist, the song itself was written by Maura’s father, Puerto Rican singer Mike Acevedo, back in the 1960s.

 

The band’s DIY principles have remained firm since its founding in 2008. lbañez explains, “We write our own songs, make our own music, record in our home studio and distribute our own albums. Our decisions are still made as friends getting together to play music, not dictated by a business scheme dreamed up in an office. We don’t want a record company telling us what to do.”

Lest all of this sound too serious, don’t worry. Salsa is, at heart, designed for dancing, and a Macabeo show is first and foremost a dance party. Given that the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center can hold several hundred people, this should be a very big party indeed.

Orquesta el Macabeo, Friday, September 4, 8pm at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4046 W. Armitage, Chicago. Tickets at srbcc.org.

____

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.