Thursday, December 10, 2009

Homegrown: Boricua Traditions

The Latin Project played an intergenerational Christmas party at Carmen's last Saturday, for the Association of United Puerto Ricans of NC. It started early with a heavy salsa set I can only describe as enviable (because I envy the people who got to hear it--social obligations kept me from arriving before 10): "El Negro Bembón," "Anacaona," "El Cuarto de Tula," and "Juana Peña" were among the hot dance numbers I missed.

But, if I thought all the magic moments had seeped away, little did I know what lay in store: a homestyle parranda of plena and música jíbara, traditional folk music played around the holidays. This is a Puerto Rican Christmas party, after all.

First, a state of the band: Charlotte's Carlos Delarosa, former co-leader, is not active in Latin Project at the moment as he pursues other personal and business opportunities; so trumpeter Alberto Carrasquillo, local to the Triangle, is currently the band's sole leader/arranger. Jose Sanchez and Lucas Torres play hand drums, whereas Cuto plays timbales and adds smokey vocals befitting the classic '70s tunes of El Sonero Mayor, Cheo Feliciano, and Hector Lavoe favored by this group. Phil Merritt plays piano, and Columbia, SC's Rene Muñiz, normally on bass, couldn't make the long haul this time, so Raleigh bassist Pete Baez stepped in. Also missing was saxophonist Serena Wiley, replaced by Tim Smith.

Trombonist Andy Kleindienst blew some of THE wildest shit I have ever heard him play, shout-out-loud moñas and solos that extended with driving urgency. It's every salsa trombonist's destiny to be compared to Barry Rogers, whenever he or she skirts close to greatness; that's just the way it is, and always will be. No offense, Barry. Andy woke your memory that night, and totally buzzed your spirit, at least for this listener. THAT is what salsa is about. There's an ancestral connection in every good performance.

Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a one-man show. Alberto's golden horn sounded like Cuban coffee, strong and sweet, and overall the band gets a solid rating for old school grit and dancefloor polish.

The Latin Project with guest Jaime Roman performing a plena medley

Now, I guess you're primed for the surprising gem of the evening. Jaime Roman, who has lately been showing more and more sides of himself as a vocalist (singing lead on Charanga Carolina's Los Van Van tunes), sat in during the second set to reveal his core as a farmer poet. Not literally; but in the figurative sense of Puerto Rican jíbaros and their mountain traditions.

This style of music you are going to hear in this video, seis fajardeño (I think--or one of the MANY related seis genres) forms the basis for verbal improvisation, according to a strict rhyme and meter in a ten-line pattern known as décima. Often, the poet-singers show their prowess through true improv, taking lines suggested by the audience as their final line of the décima (called a pie forzado), and composing the song on the spot that leads up to it. Language is important here, so it's hard to feel the full, rousing pull of this art form without understanding Spanish.

While Jaime doesn't pull lines from the crowd, he just as impressively composes verses to suit this particular occasion, which gets a big reaction from the audience as you will see. It's amazing to stand there and see this art form performed right in front of you; these praisesingers of trova are like Puerto Rican griots.

The only thing missing from the parranda around here, Triangle, is a cuatro player--any volunteers out there? There are some holes in my personal orchestra, and that is one. I also want to hear vibes with a salsa band. That's got to be doable. Anyone? Brother, can you spare a dream?

EXTRA: the puerto rican art of improvisation

If you liked that, here's something similar by one of the greatest improvisors of trova verse singing in Puerto Rico, I reckon: Victor Manuel Reyes.

Talk about your farmer poets; he always dresses like this. I saw him throw down a seis controversia with Victoria Sanabria at El Dia Nacional de la Salsa in 2007, in a stadium in front of 40,000 people, surrounded by the best salsa musicians in the world in full concert mode--and he was dressed exactly the same way, like he just got off a tractor.

What I love about this art form: the way the you can see the guy thinking of what his next line will be, actually see the act of creation that is going on in his mind at the moment, in the concentration of his expression. It's pure concentrate all right. I like the way certain verbal scraps and flourishes are repeated, not hamhandedly, but artfully, repieced together, as needed, to make the quilting fit. And yet it's always, at its best, something completely new, spontaneous, and fitted, tailored, to the moment and the circumstance. It should be obvious what this art form has to do with salsa, as part of the deep cultural background, not just in Puerto Rico, but surely all over the Caribbean where these same traditions landed.

In this video (above), Victor Manuel Reyes makes up rhymes about the camera filming him, then goes into the audience to make up rhymes about the people there. He's accompanied by the splendid cuatro player Cristian Nieves, who embroiders some nice jazzy stuff on folkloric fabric.

That was the slow version; here's part two, where Victor Manuel Reyes does the same thing, but in doubletime, and in improv format, turning lines suggested by the audience into the last line of a décima (the much more challenging pie forzado).

Here especially, one can also hear some similarities with North American bluegrass. I can't really explain that, but it isn't surprising. All that picking had to come from somewhere. It's a big New World experience, and we are more related than we think.

Link: Handy guide to Puerto Rico's trovadores


Sylvia P. said...

"My only prior experience of the décima was in high school Spanish Lit....Until Puerto Rico, I'd never imagined that the archaic form had survived its 17th century flowering, and there were living, breathing, singing, practitioners all across the world from Spain to Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, even Louisiana, like fresh New World Jurassic Parks."

READ MORE by Kelly Cogswell at

An astounding account of a riveting décima performance by Victor Manuel Reyes a decade ago, drawing some of the same parallels and observations I did--I swear, I hadn't read this before!

Sylvia P. said...

No, no, no! I am heartbroken that these videos are no longer available. Apologies, but I will leave the post up anyway. BooTube!