Story by Katherine Chavez
*Photos by Katherine Chavez
I appreciate eye contact. It’s the easiest way to acknowledge someone from afar, someone who was maybe already looking at you. But when it comes to concerts, eye contact becomes significant on another level. Among the many fans looking at the performer, the performer chooses to look at you. For a second, you are on an equal platform, the two of you involved in an intimate interaction. I experienced this twice during Brown University’s Latin Jazz and Pop Festival, and it is those two moments that I remember most vividly.
The first was on Friday, Oct. 2 at The Spot Underground. I had watched an opening set by the enchanting Ed Calle, and his saxophone (which is essentially just another part of his body). The second group to perform was SonLokos, a Miami-based Cuban dance music group that includes percussionists Raymer Olalde and Philbert Armenteros.
My job at the festival was to take photos for the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS), the host of the event. I was running back and forth around the venue, looking for angles at which the blaring red light wouldn’t completely obscure the performers’ faces.
I found a spot right off of stage right, not far from Olalde, who is a very expressive performer. He opened his mouth constantly and smiled as his arms moved from drum to drum so fast his hands were almost invisible. . I had a great shot of him, on his right side, when he happened to look over at me.
Sometimes performers become uncomfortable when they realize someone is photographing them. Olalde had the opposite reaction. He smiled enormously, and turned his body to face me almost completely, furrowing his eyebrows and opening his mouth for the most enthusiastic grin that I have ever seen.
The following night I had a similar experience with Jesus Andujar and Grupo Sazon. Jesus Andujar is another percussionist, and he was sitting on a different stage from the night. We were at Aurora, a venue in which I was able to get slightly closer to the performers. I stood only around 3 feet from Andujar’s left.
When Andujar noticed I was taking pictures of him, a smile broke out on his face. For the rest of his performance, he would smile automatically when he caught a glance at my camera lens. After the show, I ran into him in the audience and thanked him for his performance. A few minutes after we parted, he returned with his business card, hoping that I would send him some of the pictures.
These are rare and valuable moments to me, and they highlighted how much these musicians appreciate that attention. These performers live for audience energy and reactions. It’s not about them, the ones on stage. It’s about making the other people in the room want to move and laugh and smile and feel every emotion that the music can stir in them.
This mindset is admirable and characteristic of much Latin music, but it also highlights something else: how under-appreciated this music truly is. The festival’s performers do not depend on their stardom or their fanbase. They depend on the audience wherever they are in the moment, and it makes them work harder to make people happy.
Non-Spanish speakers like myself often think that we won’t be able to relate to music in a language we cannot understand, but we have to remember that the vocals of a performance are another instrument, another piece of the puzzle that creates a diversity of sound in music. Even if we don’t know what the vocalist is saying, we can still feel the emotion that embodies the song, for it is present in the music itself and on the performers’ faces.
Latin Jazz and Pop musicians like the ones that performed at this festival, as well as the music they produce, are widely unknown in the United States, as is apparent by the fact that many of these musicians are nominated for Latin Grammys but not Grammys (the only exception being PALO!, an Afro-Cuban Funk band based in Miami, and they have just received their first Grammy nomination in over 10 years of performing together). These musicians are focused on the audience partially because they do not have the fanbase in this country to center the performance around themselves.
However, this quality of appealing to the audience is also a sign of a great performer. At every concert of the Latin Jazz and Pop Festival, the audience was the most enthusiastic I have ever seen at a concert. During Andujar’s performance, the audience formed a conga line. In another moment they used someone’s belt to start a game of limbo. Strangers started to dance together in pairs, helping each other to get a feel for the movement of the music.
The vibe was especially influenced by the 32 students visiting Brown from Latin America as a part of the Botin Foundation’s program. They attended various events throughout their week on campus, including a number of the concerts. At Andujar’s performance in particular, there were probably more Botin Scholars than Brown students.
These performers aren’t without extensive experience in the music business either. PALO!, who performed after Andujar and Grupo Sazon, was formed over a decade ago by Steve Roitstein, and now includes him, Leslie Cartaya, Raymer Olalde, Philbert Armenteros, and Ed Calle. On the very first day of the festival, PALO! worked in the recording studio at Granoff Performing Arts Center to create a new song, which they put together and recorded in one day. They then performed it at the festival on Sunday, three days later. Their on-stage communication is practically telepathy, and by way of facial expressions and impulsive decisions, they create an undertone of unpredictability.
And then, of course, there’s vocalist and percussionist Pedrito Martinez, who performed on the first night of the festival with his mentor Roman Diaz as well as Olalde and Armenteros, followed by Providence local Czesare Santana. The Pedrito Martinez Group, had performed at the New Yorker Festival just before coming to Brown.
Furthermore, there are even Latin Jazz and Pop performers blurring the genre boundary. On October 7, the last day of the festival , things went alternative. Singer Gina Chavez and her partner Jodi Granado arrived on campus, first for a talk about their non-profit Ninas Arriba, which provides scholarships to young women in El Salvador, and then for a performance at the Spot Underground. Gina started off alone on stage with her guitar, and was eventually joined by two other musicians who together form the Gina Chavez Trio. One of these musicians, the trumpet player and second vocalist, had met Gina only a week before, and was promptly asked to go on tour with her. Together, the trio had only had about two rehearsals before the show, but no one in the audience could tell. I was also given the opportunity to interview her before the concert.
The show was part of her Tiny Desk Tour, named for her recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert following the release of her album Up.Rooted. After a bilingual show, both in the songs and in Gina’s dialogue with the audience, the trio took a 3 am flight back to their home-state of Texas, and then began a road trip to Arizona, Los Angeles, and eventually Berkeley, all in a matter of four days.
Despite the off-the-charts talent of these three groups and their many years perfecting the art of performing, they have all only recently started garnering serious attention from the media. But this festival may eventually be an important factor in spreading this music further across the nation. A PBS documentary crew, led by director Joe Cardona, was filming every performance of the festival for a film that will be called Ivy League Rumba.
Interestingly, the lack of attention that this strand of Latin music gets from the general public also leads to a very special bond between people within this community. They band together because their fan bases are made up of people with the same music preferences, and they also simply relate to each other on a musical (and sometimes spiritual) level. “Part of what made this festival special was that a lot of our old friends were part of the festival,” said Roitstein.
All the members of PALO! and the Pedrito Martinez Group performed for a second time at the Day of Orula Celebration on Sunday, Oct. 4, which took place in the Martinos Auditorium of the Granoff Performing Arts Center. An Orula is an Orisha (a kind of spirit) of the Yoruba religion, which a number of the performers practice. In fact, Pedrito Martinez, Roman Diaz, and Philbert Armenteros are all Babalawo’s, the equivalent of priests within the religion.
Granoff made me nervous. The Martinos Auditorium provides audience seating, while the venues of the previous shows were standing room only. The performances throughout this festival were very clearly meant to encourage the audience to dance, yet this new venue limited their ability to do so.
But the performers weren’t phased. “People warm up to the music and so the surroundings end up sort of just fading into blurriness and what stays in the front of your mind is the music and the warmth and the connection between the people and the music and that, I think, usually transcends the surroundings,” said Roitstein.
This event culminated when Descemer Bueno, a notable Latin singer who has, like PALO!, previously been to Providence through CLACS, came out to sing with Ed Calle and the Brown Jazz Band. With his performance, he brought not only his music but also movement: a woman danced Flamenco for a part of his performance. By the end of this celebration, all of the performers were out on stage together, providing a clear example of the familial bond between them.
Being able to connect with individual performers and witness the deep connections they have developed amongst themselves was a transformative and enriching experience, which encouraged me to help spread this music beyond the venues in which it was performed. I would agree with Roitstein who told me, “I don’t think I would be exaggerating by saying it was one of the highlights of my life.”