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Qué Pasa? What’s Happening in Puerto Rico



William Cepeda at San Juan Sound in Puerto Rico

When I visited Puerto Rico in 2019, the island was reeling from back-to-back hurricanes and earthquakes. Also, the island was in shock, and the music scene was in shambles. Then COVID struck! 

On my most recent trip to Puerto Rico (April, May 2022) I had no idea what to expect, but I’m happy to report that economically and musically, things are looking up.

San Juan Sound

The day after I arrived, I learned that trombonist, bandleader William Cepeda and his Afro-Rican Quintet were performing at San Juan Sound, which describes itself as,”a space free from prejudice where artists can create, grow and join together to discover new and different sounds.” Intrigued, I donned my investigative reporter’s hat and dug into its  history.

William Cepeda and his Afro-Rican Quintet performing at San Juan Sound in Puerto Rico [photo by Tomas Peña]

The Back Story

About five years ago Matteo Burr visited Puerto Rico looking for a reset, but all he found was, what he describes as, “bad radio.” “I was blown away by how bad the radio was,” says Burr, drummer and founding member of Grace Potter and The Nocturnals. Before long, he was making plans to set up San Juan Sound, a multipurpose radio-driven studio.

Shortly after that, he found a space on the second floor of a building in Old San Juan formerly occupied by WKAQ-AM – Puerto Rico’s first radio station and the fifth in the world. After searching the Clasificados, Burr located a Neve V Series console and an MCI JH-24 tape machine that “needed work.” “I decided to be the crazy gringo and take a chance,” says Burr.

As the equipment came together and the space neared completion, Hurricane Irma hit, followed by Hurricane Maria. Burr describes the experience as “the worst natural disaster” he’d ever seen. Nevertheless, he sprung into action, filed his nonprofit paperwork and flew to Nashville to collect 50 guitars from Gibson and put them in the hands of Puerto Rican artists who lost their instruments during the storm.

After the storm, Burr took inspiration from some of his favorite studios in the States for San Juan Sound’s design. “Live tracking is a lost art form,” says Burr, “so I built a huge live room with natural light. It’s like a big living room and bands can bring in an audience if they wish.”

When I visited San Juan Sound, William Cepeda, known for fusing the island’s traditional rhythms (Bomba, Plena, Danza, etc.) with North American jazz and World music drew a diverse crowd.

William Cepeda’s musical shells – San Juan Sound, Puerto Rico [photo by Tomas Peña]

Aside from his impressive music credentials, Cepeda is an engaging and astute educator whose credo is, “If we don’t play our rhythms, they will cease to exist.” The set, which ran the gamut, lasted two joyous hours, and those of us lucky enough to be there realized we had witnessed something special. Thankfully, the event was recorded for posterity.

As I write this, San Juan Sound has expanded its efforts to assist artists and bring them together. Through the movement, Gift of Sound, it hosts monthly workshops, lectures, and live performances featuring acclaimed local and visiting artists. Also, it offers free music lessons, recording sessions, a range of educational events, and distributes instruments to those in need.

I urge readers to visit San Juan Sound’s website and donate (any amount) to this worthy cause.

San Juan Sound in Puerto Rico

Happening in Puerto Rico Now (May 2022)

Trumpeter, composer Pete Rodriguez (son of the late, great Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez) is performing at Charlie Sepúlveda’s C-Note in Luquillo Beach, and trumpeter, composer, band leader, Humberto Ramírez appears at the Sheraton Hotel Resort and Casino in Condado on Sunday, May 1 from 5-7 PM and drummer, Henry Cole and Villa Locura will appear at the Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré on May 13th.

Featured photo of William Cepeda performing at San Juan Sound, Puerto Rico by Thomas Peña

A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject.

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New Releases

Bobby Sanabria MULTIVERSE Big Band to release new recording: “Vox Humana”



Drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger, bandleader, educator, Bobby Sanabria
Drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger, bandleader, educator, Bobby Sanabria

Celebrating 25 years! The multi-Grammy nominated Bobby Sanabria MULTIVERSE Big Band is set to release their new recording: “Vox Humana” featuring vocalists Janis Siegel, Antoinette Montague, Jennifer Jade Ledesna.

Recorded Live at Dizzy’s Club Cola in NYC
Release Date: Spring 2023
Record Label: Jazzheads

New York – January 18th – On the heels of their Grammy nominated and 2019 Jazz Journalists Association Album of the Year Award winning critically acclaimed masterwork, West Side Story Reimagined, and in celebration of their 25th anniversary – drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger, bandleader, educator, Bobby Sanabria and his Multiverse Big Band return with their most ambitious work to date, VOX HUMANA.

Bobby states, “Over the course of our many Grammy nominated albums we’ve occasionally featured tracks with vocals. But I’ve always envisioned doing an entire vocal album framed by the Multiverse Big Band. Now with three of today’s greatest contemporary singing talents – multi-Grammy award winner Janis Siegel from the Manhattan Transfer, blues and jazz Queen Antoinette Montague, and the multilingual powerhouse, Jennifer Jade Ledesna, today that vision has finally become a reality.

The individually distinct voices that Janis, Antoinette, and Jennifer possess make them each unique. But the X factor they all have is they are all masterful improvisors in the best sense of the jazz tradition. Added to the mix is our great conguero, Oreste Abrantes, who also sings lead on two tracks. Having that multi- dimensional vocal talent framed by the power, nuance, and tonal variety that only a big band can provide, combined with the repertoire I’ve chosen to showcase them and the band and the incredible variety of Afro- Latin, straight ahead swing, funk, R&B, and rock rhythmic vocabulary that we are masters of and readily have at our disposal in the Multiverse, I believe VOX HUMANA will prove to be our greatest achievement. 

Bobby Sanabria MULTIVERSE Big Band: "Vox Humana"
Bobby Sanabria MULTIVERSE Big Band: “Vox Humana”

That repertoire has a personal meaning to me as I see VOX HUMANA as a biographical work. I’m a product of my environment. I’m a Nuyorican, a person of Puerto Rican descent growing up in New York City. In my case the South Bronx during a time period when pop, jazz, R&B, rock, funk, and Latin music of all kinds all co-existed as equals. It was the last era when the big bands of masters like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Don Ellis, and more were in the public eye, and they became my heroes. Vocalists who could deliver a message with subtlety, nuance, and when needed, power, were called upon to deliver poetry crafted by genius song writers. You’ll hear all that and more through the soaring vocals and improv talents of Janis, Antoinette, and Jennifer, along with Oreste, as well as the incredible jazz-oriented arrangements and exciting Pan Afro-Latin rhythms played by a big band that literally takes no prisoners when it hits the stage.”

The repertoire Bobby speaks of includes 1 original and 12 unique re-workings of pop hits like Spooky, Christine Aguilera’s Genie In a Bottle, and Steely Dan’s Do It Again; NEA Jazz Master Eddie Palmieri’s, Mi Congo and Puerto Rico along with the island’s greatest composer, Rafael Hernandez’s, Capullito De Aleli; the classic Joe Cuba R&B bolero, To Be With You; Brazilian standards Partido Alto and Amazonas; and from the world of Broadway theater, I Love You Porgy, and the iconic jump blues, Let The Good Times Roll. The CD also includes an original message bearing piece, Who Taught You That, as well as what may possibly be the most exciting interpretation of the Ellington associated classic, Caravan, and that has ever been recorded. 

Adding to the excitement of the performance, VOX HUMANA was recorded in front of a live audience. Bobby states, “As with our previous work, we recorded VOX HUMANA live at NYC’s Dizzy’s Club Coca – Cola. My musicians represent NYC’s finest. That means they’re the greatest in the world. The added level of excitement created by the audience inspired us in the MULTIVERSE Big Band to a heightened new level of performance virtuosity that listeners will hear explode out of the speakers just as the audience at Dizzy’s experienced in person.”

The history of the Bobby Sanabria MULTIVERSE Big Band is indeed one based on his rich multi-cultural heritage as a Nuyorican growing up in New York City’s South Bronx. His concept of having a big band that has no genre boundaries with limitless possibilities was forged 25 years ago back in 1998. It has yielded a series of groundbreaking, critically acclaimed albums that have all been Grammy-nominated with the band thrilling audiences worldwide at venues like the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, The Ravinia Festival, Verona Jazz Festival in Europe, and more.

Content Source: Two for the Show Media

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