Friday, March 20, 2015

Only in Chicago

Only in Chicago. As a declaration, I realize that's likely not true. I know there are other cities around the globe where immigrants and the descendents of immigrants make up the bulk of the population. And while it is often said that Chicago is the most segregated city in the United States, I find that in the circles in which I move, that is not quite the case.

One of those weekends is coming up that remind me that I indeed live in a startlingly diverse city, even if the communities in which any given population resides tend to lean one way or the other. In a way, that's good. My life is enriched by the fact that I can spend time in neighborhoods that are heavily Mexican, African-American, Indian, Puerto Rican or Polish, knowing that they will be filled with businesses that cater to local residents and bring delight to me. Or, I can go to Albany Park, where the Middle Eastern, Central American and Korean storefronts are lined up one after another.

Ethnic enclaves are a treasure. It is only when economics and politics force people into one setting and discourage movement to another that it becomes problematic. That sort of thing brews distrust and fear and has a way of insuring that undeserved communities remain that way. But I digress. Sometimes I sit down to write one thing, and another emerges. I'll get back on point now.

I'll be running around a lot this weekend in a way that makes me glad I live in Chicago.

Tonight, a band I first heard at a street festival in my neighborhood less than two years ago celebrates the release of their first single and full length CD with a show at Martyrs' in the North Center neighborhood. Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orchestra started out as a electric cumbia band, modelling their sound and attitude around chicha, a variant of the Colombian music once it reached Peru in the 1970s and adapted by an indigenous urbanized population. That sound is still at the heart of the band, but it has taken a trip around the rest of Latin America as well, not surprising when you consider that its members hail from Texas (yes, I'm calling Texas Latin America - more on that later), Mexico, Panama and Puerto Rico. Each of them is something of a folkloric specialist in their respective traditions, but together they are a hard charging rock band with a fat, danceable groove. In something of an odd twist, they have invited a popular mambo orchestra to open for them. If I have the story right, the uncle of Dos Santos' Puerto Rican conga player is a trombone player in the mambo group. All in the family. It will be a long night. I'll wear comfortable shoes.

Tomorrow night, though, is when I'll really get a workout.

First I'll be running out to the Hermosa neighborhood where the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center (I've written about SRBCC before - you can check that here.) is presenting a big band tribute to perhaps the greatest of all Puerto Rican songwriters, Rafael Hernández, who passed away in 1965.  Humboldt Park born Puerto Rican bandleader Edwin Sánchez has put together a 14 piece orchestra of crack Chicago musicians to handle these classic songs. That's only half of it. The center is bringing in the son of Rafael Hernández, Alejandro "Chali" Hernández, to sing his father's songs. In the process, two, perhaps even three generations of Puerto Ricans, island and mainland born, will come together for one historic event. Tradition and cultural identity handed down, from generation to generation.

That, however, is not the last historic musical event of the night, nor is it the only one with strong cultural significance. I'll end my night in Lincoln Square at the Old Town School of Folk Music where two of Chicago's prominent ethnic communities, the Irish and the Mexicans, come together for something of a musical history lesson. The Mexican folkloric group Sones de México and the Irish Music School of Chicago will tell the story of the St. Patrick's Battalion (Los San Patricios). The battalion was a group of largely Irish immigrants who, stung by discrimination, found themselves sympathizing and then siding with Mexico during what we call the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Mexicans view it differently and call it the unjust invasion of Mexico by North America. It was a land grab, plain and simple, and Mexico lost. As a result, most of California, all of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and much of Texas became the United States, and Mexico became much smaller.

There I go digressing again.

Anyway, the St. Patrick's Battalion fought bravely but lost, and many of them were hanged as deserters.  The concert, then, will combine Mexican son and Irish jigs to tell their story. There will be songs both lively and lamenting. There will be dancing from both a Mexican dance company and Irish dancers. It's all not as incongruent as it sounds. Both traditions utilize 6/8 time, fiddles, harps, accordions and toe tapping. Both are handed down generation to generation, lest they be lost. And both are, at heart, ballad forms that tell stories. This will be quite a story. Chances are if you grew up in the U.S. you know nothing about this, but in Mexico Los San Patricios are heroes.

I'm not saying Chicago is the only place this can happen. But we uniquely situated in the middle of the country, and wave after wave of immigrants (including my grandparents) have been arriving and building lives here since before the city was incorporated.

¡Todos somos inmigrantes!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A time, a scene, an identity

Sometimes, things converge on me in a small frame of time that make light bulbs switch on, illuminating the continuity of culture through time. In this case, it was a combination of becoming aware of an emerging scene in Cali, Colombia and my finally getting around to downloading a collection of songs from 1960s New York. Let me explain.

I had something in my 'save for later' bin for years. It's a collection called Nu Yorica Roots: The Rise of Latin Music in New York City in the 1960s. It just sort of sat there tempting me, but never quite enough, as I already had a handful of the songs elsewhere in my library.  Money's always tight, right? I finally broke down about a month ago, and boy am I glad I did.

Taken together, the songs form an amazing document of a critical time in the history of Latin music. It was a scene caught between the fading popularity of the mambo and the coalescence of a thing that would come to be called salsa. Young New York born musicians who would later become salsa and Latin jazz legends, like Eddie Palmieri and Ray Baretto, were overlapping with those who arrived from the islands: Arsenio Rodriguez, Machito, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Rodriguez and others. The hip sound of the time was Latin Boogaloo, so the younger generation, kids who had grown up in the barrio absorbing the music of white rockers and black R&B bands along with the stuff their elders played, were finding their way through all of it.

The collection almost sounds schizophrenic at first. There are very rock-like distorted electric guitars on Eddie Palmieri's My Spiritual Indian and soulful English vocals and funky vamping on Ray Baretto's Together, where his plea for racial harmony is embodied in his very identity: "I know a beautiful truth.. I'm black and I'm white and I'm red.. the blood of mankind flows in me." There are oddities like future Fania All-Stars leader and arranger Larry Harlow's Horsin' Up, which is practically a note for note Latinized version of Archie Bell & the Drells Tighten Up, apparently meant to cash in a dance craze called The Horse. The hits are there too: Joe Cuba's El Pito and Tito Puente's Oye Como Va, plus some invigorating Latin jazz from Sabu Martinez and a Beatles cover by Harvey Averne, another future Fania arranger/producer.

By 1972 it was being codified and labeled into salsa, initially just a marketing umbrella but soon a cultural touchstone and phenomenon. In the 60s, though, it was people with Caribbean roots trying to find their voice in a new, urbanized environment and in the process creating a scene.

A few days after I downloaded Nu Yorica, I read an item on about a another scene in Cali, Colombia called Salsa Choke. Odd, I thought, until I realized I was reading it in English, and that it's pronounced cho-kay. It's grown out of a style of line dancing known as choque, and if you watched the World Cup last summer, you saw it being danced by the Colombian national team after they scored a goal. Forty-plus years after they started calling Afro-Latin popular music salsa, the term is being revived by the youth of Cali to describe their new style of dance music (right now it mostly seems to be a DJ and singer kind of thing) that pulls from various Afro-Pacific traditions plus a fair amount of dancehall, reggaeton, cumbia and salsa, all of it filtered through a internationalist hip-hop lens. Accompanying the article was a download link for a free compilation, Latino Resiste Presents Salsa Choke. As I write this the link is still live, so you might want to jump on it.

I cannot get this compilation out of my iPod heavy rotation. It's that addictive. As far as I can tell, the percussion is live, but most of the instruments sound sampled from other sources. But, oh, what sources they are! One of my favorite tracks, Wiki Wiki, samples heavily from Missy Elliot's Get Ur Freak On, which if I'm not mistaken benefited itself from Timbaland's inventive sampling of Middle Eastern sounds. Imagine the guitar line from Dr. Dre's Next Episode, but with the straightforward snap of the snare drum replaced with the sinuous push-pull of güiro, cowbell and conga and accompanied by rapid-fire Jamaican-style toasting, and you start to get the idea. Such is the way the musical world turns in the 21st Century.

Every track is suffused with the humidity of a packed Cali dance floor, and in the process of this all night party, the youth of Cali are staking out their own scene and identity that has ties to the past and the rest of the world but one that is, for now, theirs alone. These kids are very respectful of their musical heritage, but aren't afraid to mix it up and make it their own.

Latino New York City of the 1960s and the Cali of today couldn't be more different, yet the music emerging from both is inexorably tied together. Both draw from the African Diaspora, not only Caribbean sources but African-American as well.

The two compilations sound great back to back. Next I'm going to try them on shuffle.