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Contra Costa Times
Puerto Rican Music Finally Getting Its Due
By Andrew Gilbert
July 30, 2004
There's an old expression that Cubans and Puerto Ricans use to describe the deep cultural, historical, almost familial bonds between the two islands. Translated from Spanish, it goes "Cuba and Puerto Rico, wings of the same bird."
But the relationship is more complicated than that. Rather than wings, the islands are more like siblings locked in an affectionate but intense rivalry, with Cuba playing the role of the self-confident older brother, and Puerto Rico cast as the striving younger one.
This dynamic has played itself out most vividly when it comes to music, where Cuban players receive the lion's share of attention, and the Puerto Rican contribution is often overlooked. That's the situation that "Fiesta Boricua: The Puerto Rican Element in Jazz & Salsa" is designed to rectify. Created by the great Oakland-based percussionist John Santos, "Fiesta Boricua" assembles some of the most exciting Puerto Rican musicians on the scene for a rare West Coast showcase at Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center in San Pablo on Thursday, and Aug. 6 and 7 at ODC Theater in San Francisco.
Santos readily acknowledges that Cuban music has been a primary influence in salsa and Latin jazz. "But throughout the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, there was very little movement in terms of Cuban groups coming here, very little exchange of information," Santos said. "And the flag of traditional Cuban music was defended and represented by the Puerto Rican community. But with the Buena Vista Social Club and all the Cuban bands that were until recently touring a great deal here in the States, the Puerto Rican thing has really been overlooked to a great extent."
"Being of Puerto Rican descent myself," he adds, "I feel that it's my obligation to re-examine it and not let it get forgotten."
The frustration with the lack of recognition given to the Puerto Rican contribution partly stems from the recent boom in Cuban music triggered by the Buena Vista Social Club album and documentary, which coincided with an easing of the United States' cultural boycott of Cuban artists. In the late '90s, bands such as Cubanismo, Maraca, Bamboleo, Orchestra Aragon and Los Van Van toured widely throughout the States.
Now Cuban bands are once again locked out, and instead of looking to the Puerto Rican musicians who have been here all along to carry the torch, too many clubs, record labels and festivals are simply neglecting Latin music.
As part of his campaign to reassert Puerto Rico's central role in Latin jazz and salsa, Santos has assembled an unforgettable cast of musicians for "Boricua," which is the indigenous Taino name for someone or something from Puerto Rico. The event features the John Santos Quartet with bassist Saul Sierra, pianist Marco Diaz and legendary timbales master Orestes Vilato, as well as a multigenerational cast of guest artists, including Rico Pabon, the poet and rapper who performs with Prophets of Rage and O-Maya; and vocalist, trumpeter and Puerto Rican icon Jerry Medina, best known as a founding member of the seminal Caribbean jazz group Batacumbele.
"Jerry Medina is one of the greatest singers and trumpeters in Puerto Rico today," Santos said. "His voice is incredible, with a huge range that can go very strong and high. He's kind of a jazzer, he can scat, and he sings in Spanish and English. He's made some great solo albums, and he's probably the most recorded background singer in Puerto Rico, because everyone wants him on their sessions."
The concert also features two rising percussion stars in 21-year-old Obanilu Allende, scion of the illustrious Puerto Rican Allende family that includes percussion great Papiro Allende, and 15-year-old Afro-Puerto Rican percussion wizard Camilo Gaetan Molina, who has performed around the Bay Area with Boston-based band Insight.
More than showcasing the musicians' virtuosity, the festival's concept is to explore original and traditional tunes and arrangements that feature distinctive Puerto Rican elements, such as the West-African-derived bomba and plena grooves.
Santos presents the same guest artists with an expanded program and his full 10-piece Machete Ensemble at San Francisco's ODC Theater on Aug. 6 and 7. The fiesta moves to the South Bay on Sunday afternoon, Aug. 8, as part of the 15th annual San Jose Jazz Festival, billed as the largest free jazz event in the country. Santos' Machete Ensemble and the Puerto Rican players are just one of many Latin jazz, salsa and Afro-Caribbean-influenced groups featured at the San Jose festival this year, an event that truly recognizes that jazz and the Afro-Caribbean tradition are wings of the same bird. Contact 408-288-7557 or www.sanjosejazz.org for more information.
WHAT: "Fiesta Boricua: The Puerto Rican Element in Jazz & Salsa," featuring John Santos
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center, 13108 San Pablo Ave., San Pablo
HOW MUCH: $10
CONTACT: 510-233-8015, www.loscenzontles.com
ADDITIONAL CONCERTS: Aug. 6 and 7, conversation with artists 8 p.m., concert 9:30 p.m., ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., S.F., $20, 415-863-9834