There has never been a better time to be Puerto Rican, says musician Tato Torres. "All of a sudden, anything from Puerto Rico is of interest. Everything Puerto Rican is cool right now."
Torres, leader of the band Yerbabuena, cites the popularity of multimedia star Jennifer Lopez, actor-director Rosie Perez, singer Ricky Martin, boxer Felix "Tito" Trinidad, and Jimmy Smits, the Puerto Rican actor whose character was elected President on the NBC drama "West Wing."
Torres also cites the popularity of the Spanish-language dance music called reggaeton, which originated in Panama but which Puerto Ricans have taken and spread around the world. "We have gone from only being looked at from the external perspective to having some choice of how our image is viewed."
Torres, who plays the Puerto Rican guitar known as cuatro, and his band Yerbabuena, a New York-based group that plays traditional Puerto Rican bomba and plena music with a modern twist, perform Saturday, June 3, at Princeton Recreation Department’s Community Park North Petteranello Gardens Ampitheater.
The show, which also includes performances by Bryan Vargas and Ya Esta, is being presented by Blue Curtain, a Princeton non-profit organization devoted to performing artists. The organization was founded by lawyer Stephen Allen and music producer Curtis Webster, both of Princeton. Allen says he expects music fans to really enjoy the series of free shows that Blue Curtain will produce at Petteranello Gardens this year – two in June and two in September.
"Our mission is to encourage culturally diverse and original performing artists in a totally noncommercial setting," says Allen. "We just want people to go out and have a good time and be inspired by the good music coming out of the park. The ampitheater is a very lovely spot for shows. You really do not know you are in Princeton when you are watching a concert there. It’s pastoral and there’s a pond on the premises."
Allen is a lawyer who practices in Princeton. He estimates that half of his work is music-related. It is a very interesting niche for Allen, a pianist who plays in the band started by poet Paul Muldoon, Rackett.
For two years after he graduated from Berklee College of Music in 1977 Allen lived in Jamaica. "After seeing Bob Marley in Boston, I started dreaming about playing music on a tropical island. Some guy came along and said he was opening up a restaurant and bar in Jamaica. When I was there, I heard more reggae in a couple of years than you could hope to hear in a lifetime,"
Allen lived in Negril, which is a hotbed for Jamican musical culture. It was there, ironically, that he decided to study law. So he returned to the United States and entered the New England Law School. Upon returning to Princeton, he served on the Princeton Arts Council board.
Torres, 34, was born on the tropical island of Puerto Rico in the mountain town of Guayanilla, the son of musicians and the eldest of six children. When he was 13, in 1984, he moved to New York. It was his Puerto Rican culture that kept him going, Torres said.
`It was really awkward – being Puerto Rican was all I had," he says. "But it was not cool to be Puerto Rican in New York City in 1984. I didn’t wear the right clothes, and I didn’t fit in with the right people."
He soon, however, discovered a series of community centers, Rincon Criollo and La Casita de Chema in Manhattan and the Bronx, which helped keep Puerto Rican traditions alive. "Members of the community have a space to congregate there," he says. "They were facilities for cultural transmission. Nowadays, families don’t even do the things at home that they used to do together. TV, video games, the Internet, all that does is serve to separate the family.
"Places like Rincon Criollo and Casita de Chema filled in many gaps for me. I learned so much about my culture. I got to hang out with older people and people my age, and got together to play and learn about my music and culture."
Many of the Puerto Rican exiles Torres met were Afro-Puerto Ricans, a group that Torres didn’t see much of when he lived on the island. But it was these older men and women who turned Torres on to bomba, plena, and ways of speaking that were indigenous to the island.
"I was aware that racial tension exists (in Puerto Rico), but people tend not to talk about it. It is masked in the culture," he says. But older musicians such as Ismael Rivera touched on the subject, and reggaeton artist Tego Calderon, who was the genre’s first superstar, attacked the subject head-on. "He really scratched that wound, made it bleed, and that’s really good."
Torres began working with a group of musicians at Rincon Criollo that played sporadically. The more they played, however, the more the band became known. Yerbabuena’s name came about because the group also rehearsed at a New York community garden, playing near the part of the garden where people grew spearmint – yerbabuena.
"People would come up to me and ask how much Yerbabuena would charge for a half hour or an hour," says Torres. "That is how it got started."
The band played the types of music that Puerto Ricans have been listening to, and dancing to, for more than a century. But Torres goes out of his way to say that the group is not "folkloric." It does not dress in what Puerto Ricans and others see as "traditional" clothing. "Our roots are very important. They are a permanent connection to our elders and ancestors. But culture always changes and evolves."
The bomba and plena Torres and his group play is indeed different than some of the more traditional groups. On two of the tunes the band plays on its Web page, yerbabuena.biz, it is obvious that the influence of hip-hop and American R&B has infiltrated the music. On the other hand, the jibaro music of the rural mountain regions of Puerto Rico also has an influence.
Some of the older pleneros who listen to Yerbabuena often suggest that the band do an acoustic version of reggaeton. The language spoken in the genre is closer to what the majority of Puerto Ricans speak, says Torres. "Our vernacular is not really like the Spanish or Europe or South America. It’s in many ways not like Spanish at all. It is a creole, with lots of indigenous vocabulary, some English and a significant amount of Africa."
The Puerto Rican culture, then, is a creole culture, a mixture. Torres often laughs when his ethnic group is lumped in the same category as those that are culturally different, such as Mexico and South American cultures such as Bolivia and Ecuador. "I have never seen a Latino. I do not know what one looks like or sounds like. If you have ever seen one, please let me know."
Latin Music and Dance, Saturday, June 3, 7 p.m., Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheater, Community Park North, junction of Route 206 and Mountain Avenue. Presented by Blue Curtain. Yerbabuena, a group of musicians, dancers, and singers from the New York City area, present a contemporary Puerto Rican musical experience. Bryan Vargas and Ya Esta presents "Afro Latino Soul" music. Picnics invited. Snacks available. Free. 609-924-7500, www.bluecurtain.org, www.yerbabuena.biz.
Also, Chris Harford and the Band of Changes, Saturday, June 10, 7 p.m. Princeton native Chris Harford’s band includes Dean Ween, Dave Dreiwitz, and Claude Coleman. Michael Gregory, a singer and guitarist, presents original rock, soul, and jazz music. Steve Northeast, an Australian singer songwriter, presents rock, pop, and soul.