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The Canadian Press

Latin Grammy Nominee William Cepeda Explores Roots Of Puerto Rican Music


September 18, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved. 

LOIZA, Puerto Rico (AP) _ When he was a boy, the teacher told him his lips were too thick to play the trumpet. Not knowing enough to argue, William Cepeda studied the trombone, instead.

It set him off on a journey exploring the little-heard African roots of Puerto Rican music that has won him a nomination at Wednesday night's Latin Grammys.

The recognition comes as Cepeda starts a prestigious fellowship from the Meet the Composer program of New York City. The fellowship gives him three years as composer in residence at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music and brings Cepeda back to his homeland for the first time in 10 years.

Home is the plot of land his grandfather owned in seaside Loiza, the only majority black town in this U.S. commonwealth and a village-type setting reminiscent of African households.

``In Loiza there is music all over the place, the African-rooted music, everybody plays something but as a hobby,'' Cepeda says, speaking of music produced by drums, harmonicas and accordions.

He hopes the fellowship will allow him to build respect for music he says is largely ignored because of racism among islanders descended from African slaves, Spanish conquistadors and Taino Indians.

The Cepeda family is credited with keeping alive the island's folkoric music. William Cepeda went further _ incorporating jazz with explosive African rhythms and his own bright-edged brass tones to create an innovative style he calls ``Afro-Rican,'' though he hates labels. He even refuses to give his age.

His last recording, Expandiendo Raices/Branching Out, has been nominated in the Latin Jazz category of the Latin Grammys. But even that he finds annoying: ``I don't know what Latin jazz is, I just play my music.'' he says. Some recent recordings include instruments indigenous to India, Morocco, Peru, India and Australia.

Cepeda is proud of the fact that ``I've never had a manager, never had a good opportunity with a label and don't have anybody selling me.'' He credits his career to chance.

As a boy, he started playing the drums. Then he wanted to play the trumpet.

``I went to the music room, but the teacher said I couldn't because my lips were too big,'' he says. ``I didn't know any better to argue with them, so they gave me a trombone.''

After high school, he headed to Connecticut at the invitation of childhood friend Luis Quinones, studying English there and playing with local orchestras and a jazz band. On a student loan, he went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston to study jazz, but the money eventually ran out and he returned to Puerto Rico.

His big break came in 1989, when Dizzy Gillespie's trombonist couldn't make it to Puerto Rico. Cepeda played, and a couple of months later Gillespie's people asked him to join a European tour.

Eventually he moved to New York City, where he earned a master's degree in trombone performance from the Aaron Copland School of Music.

Among his many projects, he hopes to continue the family tradition by recording aging artists whose music forms are dying out. One such subject was a 75-year-old man who knows the bomba tradition on the south of the island and sings in an African dialect.

The man, Cepeda says, has never been recorded. ``What are they waiting for, for him to die?''

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