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.
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.
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.
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