It's about time somebody stood up for Puerto Rico. For much of the past century, the island's musicians have played a key role in the development of Latin jazz and son, the folkloric Cuban style that has served as fountainhead for a huge stream of Afro-Caribbean music. Particularly during the Cold War, when Cuban musicians were locked out of the United States (and vice versa, of course), a cast of largely Puerto Rican and Nuyorican musicians forged contemporary salsa, alongside occasional Panamanians, Dominicans, and various Cuban expats and exiles. So when the cultural blockade eased during the Clinton administration, and Cuban artists began crisscrossing the States in the boom sparked by the Buena Vista Social Club album and documentary, it's not surprising that US-based musicians hoped the rising tide of clave would lift their boats too.
Now, however, the Cuban bands are once again locked out (a brave blow for democracy, that), 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. John Santos has had enough. "Cuban music is the most influential in terms of salsa and Latin jazz," says the charismatic Oakland-based percussionist, who has led the Grammy-nominated Machete Ensemble for the past twenty years. "But throughout the 1960s, '70s, and '80s there was very little movement in terms of Cuban groups coming here, very little exchange of information, 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, I feel that it's my obligation to reexamine it and not let it get forgotten."
As part of his campaign to reassert Puerto Rico's central role in Latin music, Santos has assembled an unforgettable cast of musicians for the Fiesta Boricua at Los Cenzontles Mexican Art Center in San Pablo tonight (August 4) at 7:30. Fiesta Boricua: The Puerto Rican Element in Jazz and Salsa features the John Santos Quartet with bassist Saul Sierra, pianist Marco Diaz, and legendary timbales master Orestes Vilat. They will be joined by a multigenerational cast of guest artists who rarely perform on the West Coast, including vocalist, trumpeter, and Puerto Rican icon Jerry Medina, and Rico Pabn, the poet, rapper, and performance artist best known for his work in O-Maya. The concert also features two rising percussion stars -- 21-year-old Obanilu Allende, scion of the illustrious Puerto Rican Allende family that includes percussion great Papiro Allende; and fifteen-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 nine-piece Machete Ensemble at ODC Theatre on Friday and Saturday, and at the San Jose Jazz Festival on Sunday afternoon. For more info: LosCenzontles.com or 510-233-8015.
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