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Island History Plays Into Sica's Afro-Puerto Rican Rhythms
By Bob Young
May 27, 2004
The Buena Vista Social Club may have done a world of good introducing Western audiences to older styles of Cuban music, but it also managed to spread one unfortunate misconception: that Afro- Cuban music is the only tropical sound with roots in Mother Africa.
Not so, says Desmar Guevara, pianist and founder of the band Sica.
"When most people who are not Latino talk about Latin music as only Afro-Cuban," he said, "they don't consider the African influences in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia.
"The African culture is very strong there, too. Especially in Puerto Rico."
Guevara and his six-member band, which performs tomorrow at the Center for Latino Arts, are doing their best to make sure the link between Africa and Puerto Rico is secure. Their Afro-Puerto Rican jazz ensemble mixes such traditional folkloric sounds as the bomba and plena with modern-edged jazz harmonies, never losing sight of the fact that Africa gave birth to their 21st century style.
"Salsa is ours, too, but the bomba and plena are the real African music from Puerto Rico," said the 34-year-old pianist.
The band's name, Sica, is taken from one of bomba's best known rhythms. It's the bomba - which took root among slaves on the island's sugar plantations centuries ago - and the newer plena that Guevara gravitated to when he was growing up in a town outside San Juan in the '70s.
"The first instrument my father gave me was a pair of plena hand drums," he recalled. "I was about 6. I used to play plena with my friends. At Christmas, we would go around the houses in my neighborhood and play for cents."
Sometimes called a "sung newspaper," the plena was often as much community chronicle as dance-inducing sound. Grounded in both bomba and plena, Guevara eventually decided to help keep the traditions alive by juicing them with sounds, primarily jazz, that he honed when he was a student at Berklee College of Music from 1987 to 1991.
So Sica features a jazz horn lineup along with bass and two percussionists. In the percussion section, you'll find one of the keys to how the band bridges past and present: bomba's cavernous- sounding barrel drum.
"When the slaves were in Puerto Rico, (the Spanish colonists) didn't let them play their regular instruments," Guevara said. "Eventually they did let them play barrels, which were used to bring wine, cheese, stuff like that to the island.
"But at first they didn't let them use skins, so it was only the (barrels') wood they could play. In time they did let them use the skin."
Sica incorporates the rhythms and dynamics of that instrument with a jazz approach that uses both odd meters and solid grooves to tie together the influence of Africa. The band will showcase the result on its debut CD later this year.
"We experiment with all these sounds," said Guevara. "What we do is not traditional. It's a fusion of the Afro-Puerto Rican tradition with the jazz idiom."
Caption: BOMBA BEAT: Pianist Desmar Guevara, third from right, says Sica showcases a mix of African and Puerto Rican rhythms.