Puerto Rico: A Year After, The Silence After The Storm

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Trombonist and composer William Cepeda (right) addressing the ensemble class of vibraphonist and composer Victor Mendoza (left), as drummer Patrick Cleland looks on, at Berklee College of Music’s Valencia Campus.

VALENCIA, Spain. Perhaps because we live in a world of increasingly shorter news cycles tailored to our increasingly shorter attention span, after a few days we move on from catastrophes such as Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico following the next bright shiny object. The people dealing with the aftermath of such disasters can’t.
Reality is funny that way.

Trombonist and composer William Cepeda, 53, one of the most influential Puerto Rican jazz musicians of his generation, is living off a suitcase these days. He spent last week in residence at the Valencia Campus of Berklee College of Music, lecturing, conducting workshops, and teaching private lessons.

Like so many others who have left the island, Cepeda, who lost his job of seven years at the University of Puerto Rico, is looking elsewhere for a fresh start. “I mean, I love Puerto Rico,” he told me in a conversation between classes. “But my partner, she’s unemployed too, and there’s no work, so we are looking for a place where we can settle for a while.”

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Meet Me At The Border, Bring Your Horn

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Arturo  O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra with guests recording at the Casa de la Cultura at Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, in May 2018. Courtesy Arturo O’Farrill.

There is a rich tradition of political and social activism in jazz, and in recent months it has taken on a distinct accent. Confronted by an administration that has attempted to sabotage the recently restored relations with Cuba; implemented brutal border enforcement tactics, and offered a callous response to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, several Latin artists have taken it upon themselves to push back, speaking out from the stage, but also through their recorded work.
None perhaps has been longer at it or has been more outspoken and ambitious in his proposals than pianist, composer, bandleader, and educator Arturo O’Farrill.

Recorded in Tijuana, San Diego, and New York City, O’Farrill’s latest work, the two-CD set Fandango at the Wall (Resilience Music) brings together musicians representing several countries and music traditions and is a moving and powerful statement on border walls — both the physical as well as the ideological.

“The irony of the situation is that the wall actually brought us together,” says O’Farrill who was actually born in Mexico of a Mexican mother, Guadalupe Valero, and a Cuban father, the Cuban arranger, composer, and bandleader Chico O’Farrill. He was five when the family relocated to New York City, where he has been living since. “So in point of fact, through his hatred and stupidity, this president is uniting the very people that he wants to divide.”
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Miguel Zenón, Puerto Rico, And What Might Be Beyond The Next Corner.


Saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón. Photo by Jimmy Katz.

On Yo Soy La Tradición (I Am The Tradition), his first full album featuring a string quartet, Puerto Rican saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón re-imagines Puerto Rican musical and cultural traditions utilizing the tools of European classical music and jazz.
It´s an intriguing proposition — just don´t expect musical postcards from home.
Zenón is a creator and an explorer, not a nostálgico. He brings to his searches an intense, serious-minded curiosity that tends to give his work a sharp, probing edge.
It´s demanding music, deliberately constructed and surprisingly emotional, but the rewards are worth the effort.

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