CAC develops new program in Puerto Rican Music
The island of Puerto Rico is well known for its tropical beaches, its lush green rainforest, historical old San Juan with its cobblestone streets and a rich and varied gastronomy. All of those attributes make this island a favorite destination for thousands of tourists that visit us each year to relax, sunbathe, explore and party! But besides all of that, the one thing that represents Puerto Rico more than anything is its music. A rich and vast tradition of popular, folkloric, and even classical music has developed a great number of artists that had become our cultural ambassadors worldwide. Names like Ricky Martin, Tito Puente, Marc Anthony, and JLo are known around the globe. Others are less known, but of great importance like jazz legend Juan Tizol (composer of Caravan and Perdido) or the first official pianist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Jesús María Sanromá (being the soloist for the first recording of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue). All of them Puerto Ricans…
The wealth of Puerto Rican music also attracts its fair share of visitors. Musicians, fans, dancers, and enthusiasts come to enjoy the rich and diverse music life of the island. From the nightlife in the metro area filled with live music, to the weekly festivals in public plazas around the island, to the great concert venues like the “Coliseo” where mainstream artists and pop idols perform, to the yearly international events like the Heineken Jazzfest, “Día Nacional de la Salsa” and the classical music “Festival Casals”, the options are endless. Also, cultural historians, scholars, and researchers come to witness first hand the folkloric musical tradition that is still very much alive in the jíbaro music troubadour contests; where the singers have to improvise the lyrics of the complex ten verse stanza called “Décima” following very strict rules, in the bomba dance; with drummers that have to play following each and every movement of the dancer right there in real time, or in the plena jam in the streets singing about the latest incidents of the community in a type of “musical newspaper”. They also come just to be here, in the place that originated it all. They come to see the “barrio” of Hector Lavoe, to visit the “Villa Palmeras” of Cortijo and Ismael, to experience the bomba batey in Loiza. They come to be immersed in our musical culture; not just to watch it, but to be part of it.
In that spirit, the Conservatorio de Artes del Caribe (CAC) has developed an educational program called “The Music of Puerto Rico” focused on studying the diverse musical styles that emerged from this island. A prototype version of this week long program was done this January from the 7th to the 13th in its Old San Juan campus. Seven students from Puerto Rico and Perú became the first group of students to benefit from this innovative program and received a historical, theoretical and practical overview of the local musical tradition. “The program is designed to demonstrate the wide range of music that we have in the country and how the students can use it to create new music with roots in tradition” explained CAC director Ruben J. Amador. The program has an interdisciplinary approach and was organized by topics like: music and culture, ethnicity and power struggles within the creative process, clave and rhythmic concepts, Harmonic implications of bomba songs, orchestration and innovation of folkloric styles among others. The students also had the opportunity to play in ensembles where they would first learn the traditional way of playing a style and then experiment trying to present the traditional concepts in a contemporary way. Amador, who designed and was in charge of the program states: “It’s very important to understand the roots of the music, the culture that forge it in order to understand why it sounds the way it does, but it is also very important to apply those traditional concepts to create new music. That’s the main focus of this program”.
Being a prototype program Amador decidedly kept it small this year, but the idea is to make it a truly international experience. To test the waters, last fall he visited Berklee, Boston and BIN school EMMAT in Colombia to give a masterclass on the subject while promoting the program. The students’ response was outstanding! Many were interested, but for logistic reasons this first group was to be kept small. Nevertheless, 2 students from Peru that had won scholarships during the CLAEM to attend CAC had the opportunity to participate this year. “It was a great experience to come in contact with this music first hand. Being here and be able to hear and see musicians performing live right in front of you gives you a depth of knowledge impossible to get any other way.”
For next year Amador hopes to establish the program so people from different countries can come to Puerto Rico and participate in this educational experience. “This program proves there’s a great interest in our music and that students around the world are eager to learn to play this music. After all, it’s pretty good music…”