How blessed must I be to have such an incredible life.
Busy times consume most of us with dentist appointments, commuting to and from work, running random errands around town....
Its easy to fill ones life with the mundane; taking great care to complete long lists of seemingly necessary duties... using the time as if it were endless.
Quite often, in the middle of life, one has to live.
Due to an airline credit that was about to expire, a trip to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic was carved out of said busy life.
What materialized, was no less than an amazing folkloric adventure.
In search of Bomba and Plena, Old San Juan was our first stop, but we had the great fortune to have friends in high places with places in high condos... in Ocean Park on the beach...
This is how the 10% live... as in, these condos were only 10% full... where were the vacationers at such a beautiful time of year.. we wondered.. it was quite quiet.
After recovering from the shock of how nice the view was from the condo, we headed out on the town.
After many years touring nearly 40 countries, the key is, as with everything in life... to meet the right people in town.. to find an experience few tourists can find. Want Art, find the best artist in town, knock on his door, get the real deal.
Arriving in San Juan, I felt re-united with the large and sprawling Puerto Rican city... who's confused roads and haphazard freeway system efficiently hides the easy going and pleasant nature of the locals.
I find people in San Juan to be kind, friendly, helpful, artistic, educated and generally content.
The ubiquitous art in the city is truly inspiring, with sculpture and visual art as pervasive as the music.
The Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, Plena, Bomba, Rumba and Son is coursing through the city like the life blood of Africa and Spain ..expressed with pride by today's Puertoriquienos. Ask any taxi for any of the above, and you will have it on the radio in seconds.. lol
The recent history of the protectorate is so clearly communicated by its art and music... somehow in a very different and powerful way, in relation to other countries around the world. Having recent freedom to enjoy the relationship, it has blossomed. When Spain and Africa get together, the game is on for my percussion loving ear.. and my ear was loving this city.
As it turned out, we were walking down a district of condos near the beach, on the way to buy some food at the market, when we hear a room full of students hammering out the basic parts of a Plena rhythm.
The sound carried for a couple blocks, must have had 15-20 students up in this second story apartment in the middle of down town San Juan.
I figured the maestro teaching was a bit busy at the moment, so I planned on returning to introduce myself, and see what info I might glean about the local music scene.
Several days later, to find a large construction accident had blocked off his street.. a worker was killed when a huge balcony collapsed into the street.. an awful scene for sure.
I returned the next day to see if the street was open, and if I could find the teacher of the class I had heard, only to find his place empty and no-one around.. I waited, talked to a few people around the building, and found out his name - Ernesto Matos.
I returned the next day at dinner time, seemingly a good time to catch anyone at home in PR..
I found his place, his light was on, but no answer on the bell downstairs. I waited for quite some time, was just about to start yelling from the street to see if the cat would come to the window, when another tenant to the building came up, and let me in. I asked for Ernesto.. he figured I knew him I guess...
I knocked on the first door on the second floor... a woman answered, dressed in an apron, and obviously in the middle of preparing dinner.
I apologized for interrupting, excused my timing, and asked if this house included a percussionist and may I talk to him.. in as many words.
She so kindly smiled, and asked Tito Matos to come to the door.
Well, I've stopped questioning why I seem to meet the right people at the right time, but this was ridiculously lucky. I mean, what is the chance Id be walking by on the one day he has his once a week class, on the same street in the city where we were staying.. a city of 400,000 people.
Tito Matos, of Viento de Agua, is one of the senior Pleneros in Puerto Rico. He is about as best cat I could have found in PR... his Plena and Bomba CD, Materia Prima, was cut by Smithsonian Folkways for bleeping sake..
So, Tito, just about the nicest cat you will ever meet, says.. hey, you from the bay? know John Santos? We worked together.. hell yea.. my peeps.. As it turns out, we have some 50 fb friends in common etc.. its a very small world, no doubt.
So, Tito invites us out to see his big band play in the university district Rio Piedras, and I knew we were in for a treat.
First we wanted to hit the Newyorkan cafe in Old San Juan to see some Bomba, as friday nights are a regular hit with the locals.. similar to the la pena rumba hit back home.. more of an informal, whoever shows up plays.. for free, etc.
It was great to see almost an identical scene to what our Bomberos/as have going here. I really wish I could have stayed to talk to some of the cats about the local scene.. but we had to head out to find Rio Piedras and this other hit Tito had in mind for us.
The nightlife just gets started around 10, so we taxi'ed out near the University to find the large club were were looking for.
We find the club, and Titos band had two hundred people screaming their heads off with excitement.. His band totally rocked the house!
This Viento de Agua recording, Fruto Madura is one of the funnest dance projects I've ever heard, to be honest about it. It had me up and working out by the second track.. lol
His mix of Plena, Bomba, Timba, Hiphop, Big band and a touch of Funk and Soul.. it's totally slamming.. just give it a listen and you tell me.
The gig, although tight, was seriously loud, and after enduring the totally packed club for as long as my ears could hang.. we made our way down the street to check out a small bar packed with students listening to this awesome local band, playing what sounded like Cuban Son with a Quarto replacing the Tres.
This bar was one of the coolest and funkiest place I have ever seen.. it was set in a district that was full of graffiti.. tags on the walls of building all, seemingly on every building. This usually indicates less than safest of situations to hang out and drink.
But this place was packed with people and no sign of a dangerous vibe, and the well automatically armed police showed up shortly after we arrived, standing guard on the street corner most of the night.
It was odd to see such a packed place on the weekends, in what seemed to be the hood mid week... it was also funny to see so much great painted art around, totally untouched and respected... like this one across the street from the pub. The pub moved into this super old colonial house that had fallen into disrepair, furniture replaced with a bar and a pool table.. windows and doors taken out, opened up to the street as an open air bar with such an amazing look and feel to it. the Aqua paint was coming off the walls in such a beautiful way revealing an older, brick red coat of paint...
the old black and white Spanish tile under foot. .. the arched doorways, colonial pillared architecture .. packed with beautiful young Puerto Rican students drinking light beer like water, dancing, laughing, playing pool... The sounds of the congas filling the neighborhood, perfume in the temperate evening. It was truly a classic moment, in my mind. One I will never forget.
Thanks Tito, for the recommendation and the hospitality, very nice of you.
It was seemingly not so easy to find live music on the weeknights in San Juan, but I'm sure its just a matter of knowing where shakedown street is, on any given day. ..So many musicians, there has to be a hit every night, I'd imagine.
This trip included the Dominican Republic for further folkloric exploration, we only had a week in PR and wanted to hit Ponce, El Yunque, the beaches, caves, ceremonial sites, museums.. (pic of a very early Clave in old san juan) its a cool place with tons to see. So we actually had only a weekend to make sure we found the live folkloric hits. All in all, it couldn't have worked out better. What grand fun.
Check out the next post about the Dominican Republic leg of the tour.. you wont believe what happened next..