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Archive for the ‘Puerto Rico’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: iLe-Tiny Desk Concert #874 (August 3, 2019).

It’s not very often that you hear a song that is all percussion.  But the first song of this set is only percussion and (Spanish) vocals.

iLe is a singer in the Puerto Rican band Calle 13.  Her most recent solo album Almadura:

is filled with metaphors and allegories about the political, social and economic conditions in Puerto Rico.

When vocalist Ileana Cabra Joglar and her band visited the Tiny Desk, they’d just arrived from the front lines of the historic demonstrations taking place in Puerto Rico. Two days earlier, they were part of a crowd of tens of thousands who were on the streets calling for the resignation of embattled Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. (Rosselló recently stepped down, effective August 2.)

Right from the start, it was clear what was on iLe’s mind in her song “Curandera” — “I am a healer / I don’t need candles to illuminate / I bring purifying water to cleanse / Removing pains so they never return” — as congas and percussion shook the room with an Afro-Caribbean beat.

This is the song in which all of the band members play percussion–primarily congas although Ismael Cancel is on the drum kit.  While everyone plays congas, it is Jeren Guzmán who is the most accomplished and who plays the fast conga “solo.”

In the chorus of the slow-burning “Contra Todo,” iLe sings about channeling inner strengths and frustrations to win battles and remake the world. Her lyrics are rich with history, capturing the spirit of the streets of San Juan even as she stood, eyes closed, behind the Tiny Desk. Her entire performance is a startling reflection of this moment in Puerto Rican history.

“Contra Todo” has a rich deep five string bass from Jonathan Gonzalez and two trombones (Joey Oyola and Nicolás Márquez). Two guitars (Bayoán Ríos and Adalberto Rosario) add a kind of percussive strumming and a quiet song-ending riff.  Jeren Guzmán plays the congas with mallets, something I’ve never seen before.

By the time iLe and her band launched into “Sin Masticar,” they’d already captured the full power of protest, as their musical arrangements raged with the intensity of a crowd joined by a shared cause and pulse.

“Sin Masticar” has a super catchy chorus, perhaps the best way to get people involved in a protest.

[READ: August 2019] Midnight Light

Two years ago Dave Bidini co-founded The West End Phoenix, a newspaper that is for people in Toronto’s West End.  It’s print, it’s old school, and it’s pretty awesome.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to the West End, but I find the writing and the content to be interesting and really enjoyable.

It’s no surprise that Bidini has worked in journalism and loved and hated it.

I’ve always loved newspaper: the smell of the ink and the rough of the newsprint weighted in my hands, their broadsheets flapping like Viking sails.  When I was a kid, our family read them all–the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, The Sun, and before that The Telegram–at the kitchen table with each person drawing out whatever they needed: comics, sports, business, entertainment (and yet never Wheels, the Star’s automotive supplement).

He started writing before he picked up a guitar.  When he was 11 he submitted a poem about a hockey player to The Sun‘s “Young Sun” section.  It was accepted and he won a T-shirt.

In 1991, he was asked to write a regular column for a Star satellite weekly called Metropolis.  The day his first piece was to be in print he waited at the nearest newsbox for the delivery man.

But he had no stamina and fewer ideas and he was eventually let go.  Which led to writing books.  But he still wanted to write for the paper and then he remembered: Hey, Yellowknife had a newspaper.

This book is about journalism.  But it’s also about the Canadian North.  And while the journalism stuff is interesting–and the way it ties to the North is interesting too, it’s the outsider’s perspective of this region of the world (that most people don’t even think about) which is just amazing to read about–the people, the landscape, the conditions.  It’s fascinating. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ANDREA CRUZ-Tiny Desk Concert #836 (March 27, 2019).

I was really surprised by the music that Andrea Cruz played, especially when I learned she is from Puerto Rico.  It felt very folk-music, in the way she strummed and the trombone (Jomar Santana) was used more as a solo instrument rather than a dance-accompaniment.  That’s certainly reductive, and yet the blurb backs me up:

It’s important to note that the instrumentation of the band that traveled with her (keyboard, two percussionists and trombone) hardly fits what you’d expect music from the island to sound like these days. But Cruz is part of a movement in Puerto Rico that emphasizes largely acoustic instruments and a folk-based approach to interpreting life before and after the hurricane of 2017. It’s a bold creative statement in a land of reggaeton and salsa.

I was very pleased to see that Cruz’s live performance is very much like the stripped-down sound on her album and the handful of singles she’s released. In fact, I would say her music is a perfect soundtrack to a growing, back-to-nature movement in Puerto Rico that encourages local farming and a careful stewardship of the environment.

Cruz sings three songs, all from her first album, 2017’s Tejido de Laurel.

“No Toquemos Tierra,” opens with a lone trombone and Cruz’ guitar.  I love the delicate keyboard accents from Antony Granados. It looks funny that there are two of them playing the tiny percussion kit, but that changes later.  The way Cruz plays her guitar here I almost expected her to bust out into something like Laura Marling a few times.  The coda at the end is really pretty, too.

The emotion of the lyrics of the first song, “No Toquemos Tierra,” is evident in her angelic voice as she makes a declaration of love for the earth as a metaphor for a lover. The beauty of the song is in her poetic lyrics set to a melody that defies language.

“Santas Flores” is a prayer to the flowers.  I love in the middle that everything drops away except for the percussion and her voice.  I’m very curious how that trombone is so quiet.

“Canción de Amargura” begins with a martial beat from Francisco Marrero but when Ángel Rafael Rivera plays the cuatro venezolano, the mood lightens.  Despite the fact that this is an intense song

there was no mistaking the intense feeling behind her song about femicide on the island in the song, “Canción de Amargura.”

Their voices raised in harmony at the end are really powerful and the way her own voice just soars in the last few seconds is really lovely.

“Contigo” is listed as a fourth song but she doesn’t play it, I don’t think.

[READ: March 31, 2019] “The Match”

This is an excerpt from Whitehead’s not-yet-released book The Nickel Boys, which is set around 1964.

This part is about a boxing match at The Nickel Academy, a reform school for boys.  The main competitor is a black boy named Griff.   He is a miserable bully most of the time and the other boys really hate him.  But if he has the chance to defeat a white boy, they are all for him.

The “colored boys” had held the boxing title for fifteen years.  “Old hands on the staff still remembered the last white champion [Terry (Doc) Burns] and talked him up.”

Griff arrived at Nickel just after the last champ turned eighteen and was released back in to the free world.  Griff pulverized his opponents.  At the end of the school year, they would pit the dorm’s best fighters against each other and then in the finale, the best black fighter fought “whatever chump the white guys put up.”

Obviously, racism is inherent in this system.  Indeed, Trevor Nickel who opened the Academy was a member of the Klan.  During one of the brief asides, Turner, brought Elwood to the two trees in the back.  There were rings embedded in the trees, part of the trunk now: “Human bones would break before it came loose.”  This was where the black boys who disobeyed were brought.  The official word was that they escaped, obviously they did not. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MIGUEL ZENÓN feat. SPEKTRAL QUARTET-Tiny Desk Concert #814 (January 4, 2019).

When I saw that the artist was a quartet, I assumed this was classical music.  But then I saw that the main guy played saxophone.  So was this jazz?

In the end it doesn’t matter.  It’s glorious, modern instrumental music with instruments that at times fit so perfectly, you don;t realize there’s a reed in the strings.  And at times an instrument that stands out like its own unique thing.

Saxophonist Miguel Zenón is a big thinker — that much is clear from his recorded output, with its deep and inspiring connection to the folk traditions of his native Puerto Rico. But you also get that sense from his turn behind the Tiny Desk, where we can watch the concentration on his face and those of his adventurous band, the Spektral Quartet. This is life-affirming music with curious twists and turns, expertly performed by amazingly talented musicians.

The three songs work on mainly the same principle: fast, intricate string melodies with sudden time changes.  And a saxophone that either accompanies them or solos around them.

“Rosario” opens with the strings and sax playing an almost warm up sound before the pizzicato strings support the main sax melody.  There’s some very modern frenetic striking string music (with no sax) which is followed by the same strings with a lead sax solo over it.  The end of the piece features a delicately plucked cello and a lovely violin melody.

“Milagrosa” opens with everyone playing the same melody.  It’s fascinating how much the sax does not contribute–until it does.  But I’ll let the blurb talk about the amazing ending of this song:

There are two ways to marvel at the stunning unison playing that comes about three-quarters of the way through “Milagrosa.” First, listen with your eyes closed. The notes cascade at a such a fast clip, it can leave you breathless. Now, watch with your eyes open: It’s a joy to see Zenón and his band read the notes from the page, at times sneaking in visual cues with smiles just below the surface. It must be such a pleasure to make music like this.

The way the song starts and stops and starts again with such speed is really spellbinding.

He says that these songs were inspired by cultural and musical traditions from Puerto Rico.  Specifically, the final song, “Villabeño” alludes to a subgenre of Puerto Rican music–from the mountains

It is the quietest and lest intense song of the bunch.  The strings, even though they are largely playing staccato, are kind of hushed as Miguel plays the most jazzy solos of the set.  There’s a brief moment near the end where the strings come back to the fore, but it’s more as a supporting agent than a competitor.  It’s quite cool.

[READ: January 11, 2019] “Wrong Object”

I loved the way this story revealed the heart of itself.

It is written from the point of view of a therapist.  She writes that she has a new patient and he is very dull: “He is a nondescript man.”

He said his problem was himself–that his wife was thoroughly nice.  While she preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer, there was just nothing to him.  Usually her notebooks were full after a session, but she wrote very little about him: “Talks about wife, what a good person she is.  Annoying.”

She actually had to google him to find out even a little bit of information about him.  She felt bored by him.

She was about to suggest he seek a new therapist when he finally revealed what he had been holding back.

“I’m a pedophile,” he said. (more…)

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 SOUNDTRACK: AJ DAVILA-“Es Verano Ya” (Field Recordings, September 24, 2014). 

AJ Davila is part of the “unhinged Puerto Rican garage-rock band” Davila 666. For this Field Recording [Garage-Rocker AJ Davila Unplugs In A Hair Salon] he plays an acoustic song in a hair salon.

Davila says that New York is like another town of Puerto Rico.  That people from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic have made their homes and communities here.

There’s a joke that says the biggest town in Puerto Rico is called New York. Several waves of diaspora have created a deep and complex relationship between Puerto Ricans and the city. Boricuas have had an immense influence on the Big Apple — its music, its literature, its landscape, and even its cuisine.

He says that a small place like a barbershop (or beauty salon) can feel like you’re in your house.  “This is a song about hanging out with your friends.  It’s a summer song.”

We asked Davila to delight a Spanish Harlem beauty salon with a summer song. It’s appropriate: He’s one of the warmest souls I know — someone with whom it’s a pleasure to discuss art and music, argue about politics or tell silly jokes. He’s also a uniquely talented musician, with a style that combines garage-rock, punk and even elements of hip-hop.

This song probably rocks, but this acoustic version is lighter, with some bouncy chords from the other guitarist Daniel Ortiz and delightful backing vocals from Lola Pistola.  It’s somehow even better when they laugh off a tiny mistake.

[READ: September 14, 2017] ”Sunrise, Sunset”

This is a story of three generations of a Haitain family.

Carole is elderly and is slowly forgetting a lot–a blank look comes over her face and she forgets that she put her keys in the fridge or that her daughter is related to her.

Her daughter, Jeanne, and son-in-law James (they were known as JJ) just had a son, Jude (now known as Triple J).  But Jeanne has been in the throes of post-partum depression. James is a saint about it but Carole is furious that her daughter is lying around.  Back in Haiti, Carole did not have the luxury of depression.

Carole lived under a dictator.  She watched her neighbors get dragged out of their houses by the dictator’s henchmen.  Carole’s father fled the country and she never saw him again. (more…)

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stuffedSOUNDTRACK: BIO RITMO-Tiny Desk Concert #392 (September 29, 2014).

bioritBio Ritmo is a nine-piece band that has played salsa music for 23 years (as of 2014).  The back beat and rhythm is pure salsa–there’s a drummer (who has that classic salsa drum sound) and two bongo players.  There’s shakers and scrapers and timbales and congas and a cowbell.

The four horns players (two trumpets, sax and trombone) punctuate all o the right notes to get you moving along.

The first song is “La Via.”  The main driving force seems to be the keyboard, which was unexpected–it adds a kind of Latin jazz feel to the proceedings.  I love the way the keyboards shift from a Latin feel to a more groovy 70s feel before the vocals start.  There’s a cool break in the middle of the song when it stops and we get a few pounding notes before the song resumes.  Classic salsa.

“Picaresca”has fun dancey rhythm and a lengthy trumpet solo, giving it another interesting salsa/jazz feel.  The keyboard solo sounds a little cheesey here–like they need better sounds on that program, but it’s the drums “solo” in the middle that makes this song so much fun.  It’s a great instrumental.

“Perdido” goes through many different genres.  He explains that it begins like a Puerto Rican dance from the 1800s and then goes “into other stuff.”  The opening does indeed sound like an old song and after a few verses it morphs into modern salsa once again.

I really enjoyed this set a lot.  Most salsa music sounds the same to me, but I really like it when I hear it. On the downside, this is the first Tiny Desk Concert where I felt like the band wasn’t mic’d effectively.  The vocals are really quiet (almost inaudible at times), and when the trombonist does a solo it’s also a little too quiet.  But the main focus is the percussion and that’s plenty loud!

[READ: May 10, 2016] Stuffed

I have had to interlibrary loan a lot of the rest of the First Second books because my library system doesn’t have them.  Usually if a library doesn’t have an older book it’s because not many people read it any more so they got rid of it.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the book is bad, but it doesn’t  give you a ton of confidence about it.  But this book defied every expectation and wound up being outstanding!

I assumed this title would be a cautionary tale about someone eating too much.  I had no idea what I was actually in for!

As the book opens, we meet Tim. He works for a benefits department of an insurance company (it sounds awful).  He gets a call that his father is dying.  He rushes to the hospital just in time  to see his father insult him once more before breathing his last.  His father’s estate is to be split between himself and his half-brother, Ollie.  No one has seen Ollie in ages.  When they do track him down, he is now known as “Free Spirit.” (more…)

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soda_logoSOUNDTRACK: 魔法少女になり隊 [MAHOUSYOUJO-NI-NARITAI]-“Re-bi-te-to (floating magic)” (2014).

bandMahousyoujo-ni-naritai (which translates roughly as I Want to be a Magical Girl) are, no surprise, from Japan.  And, since I am talking about them, they must be pretty unconventional.  Their bio explains: “Formed in 2014 as a five-piece commercial and creative team, this genre-less band travels the world to not only to have the vocalist become a magical girl, but also to entertain audiences wherever they go.”

This song begins with some skittery dancey noises.  It quickly (12 seconds) turns into a raging rocker (with the same skittery bits).  By 37 seconds the female singers (auto tuned) begins singing a verse and by 48 seconds, the song turns into thrash metal as a guy with scary growly vocals take a verse.  By 1 minute the chorus enters with a sweetly poppy super fast vocal line by the female singer.  And by 1:15 the whole business repeats.  At around 2 minutes there a new section, a bridge, that is somewhat calmer, and the music even fades out into a kind of pop heavy metal guitar solo, before returning to the chorus.  By 2:30 the growly vocal guy sings backing vocals under the poppy chorus.  And the last 30 seconds is a high energy instrumental version of everything you just heard.

I am exhausted listening to it, and can’t even imagine what it looks like live.

The band have an EP out.  I can’t find this song anywhere online except this NPR site.  But here’s a live video of another song (which isn’t quite as insane, but is still pretty nuts).

Enjoy!

[READ: March 26, 2015] Soda Pop Comics

I deal mostly with books from Latin American countries.  Which means most of the books I see are in Spanish or Portuguese.  And while I’d love to say that I read all of the cool books that come by in those languages, I can’t read either language well enough to enjoy anything.  But once in a while I get some books from these countries in English.  Sadly most of them are about human rights or crop rotation.  But this week I received a pile of comic books from Puerto Rico that were in English!  Better yet, they were published by a small press.  And better better yet their slogan is “Comics made by girls for everyone.”

Soda Pop Comics is a small comic book publishing company created by Carla Rodríguez and Rosa Colón.  And on the inside of their first issue they say “We did not make this new ‘Comic Company’ in order to fill the void left by Veronica Mars…”  They created it “in order to motivate more girls into making and publishing their own comics.”

They have a website http://sodapopcomicspr.com, where you can get all of the comics listed below as well as some cute crafts like magnets and plushies with mustaches.

There appear to be 15 comics available at their store.  I was lucky enough to read three of them (and to get 4 of their mini-mini bundles). (more…)

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