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Saxophonist Roy McGrath Releases New Album: “Menjunje”

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Roy McGrath
Saxophonist Roy McGrath

In Puerto Rico, where I grew up, a menjunje is a homemade tonic, a healing drink given to you when you are esmongao, meaning sickly.

A menjunje is improvised on the spur of the moment, often with whatever your grandmother has in her cupboard. It’s a potent elixir containing a variety of ingredients: typically guarapo (sugar cane juice), ginger, lemon and honey, as well as less appealing additives such as garlic and cayenne pepper. Essentially, it’s a brew, a hodgepodge of things to heal you and make you feel better but that don’t necessarily entice your palate.

This project, Menjunje, is made in that spirit of improvisation and healing. It’s a mixture of compositions and arrangements, written throughout the past five years, that feature the folkloric rhythms autochthonous to my home, Puerto Rico: Bomba and Plena.

Roy McGrath: Menjunje
Roy McGrath: Menjunje

TO BE RELEASED ON MARCH 28, 2023

The idea for the project started in 2017. That fall, the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Chicago decided to pay homage to one of Puerto Rico’s most renowned Nova Trova singer-songwriters, Antonio Caban Vale, known as El Topo. In preparation for an event to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Vale’s composition “Verde Luz,” the center commissioned me to arrange and perform some of his works with my sextet. The four El Topo arrangements on this project have their origins in this concert.

For several years prior, I had led the center’s youth Afro-Caribbean Jazz Ensemble. In that role I was surrounded by a multi-generational community that had a hunger to teach, preserve, and evolve the music and culture of Puerto Rico. I met numerous illustrious Puerto Rican musicians who deepened my understanding of my island’s rhythms and culture. As we played and talked, I learned more about our traditions, including Plena and Bomba, along with Bomba’s various sub-styles like Sicá, Yubá, Cuembé, and Holandé.

One of these scholars was Michael Rodríguez Jr., percussionist and founder of El Ritmo School of Latin Percussion in Chicago. Our conversations and our time playing together in his ensemble Los Pleneros de Don Segundo were indispensable to my musical growth. Mike also shared his El Topo vinyl collection with me, so that I could choose which tracks to make arrangements from. Without his fellowship, Menjunje wouldn’t have sprouted.

My experience with the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, El Topo’s music, and Puerto Rico’s carriers of folkloric knowledge shaped half the project’s compositions. The other half were conceived under very different circumstances—in 2020, during the isolation of the pandemic.

Stuck alone in quarantine, I spent most of my time at home conceptualizing, writing and rearranging Menjunje. I knew exactly which musicians I wanted to play in Menjunje and I communicated constantly with them. Like me, they had lots of time on their hands. We bounced ideas back and forth and shared thoughts about the project and music in general.  During this time the name of the project came to be. What else would you call such an eclectic mix of originals, arrangements, and diasporic collaborations? Clearly all of this was a menjunje.

By 2021, as the world attempted to heal and restart, we began seeking spaces to play in Chicago. The Puerto Rican Arts Alliance provided us opportunities to perform and workshop this rejuvenated potion of past and present works. Eduardo Zayas and Efraín Martínez flew in from Puerto Rico to join the rest of the Chicago crew for a stint of performances. We followed those gigs into the recording studio, and there you have it. A Menjunje made with love, for you.

Content Source: Liner notes by Roy McGrath

*****

Roy McGrath – Saxophone
Constantine Alexander – Trumpet
Eduardo Zayas – Piano
Efraín Martínez – Drums
Kitt Lyles – Acoustic Bass
Victor Junito González – Conga, Punteador, Barril
Javier Quintana-Ocasio – Barril, Requinto, Bongo, Quinto, Campana
José A. Carrasquillo – Cuatro

Production credits: Recorded at RaxTrax Recording Studio on April 18-20, 2022

Tracked by Andy Shoemaker
Mixed by Andy Shoemaker and Roy McGrath
Mastered by Rick Barnes

Web Publisher. Founder, Editor & Webmaster for Latin Jazz Network, World Music Report & That Canadian Magazine. A passionate and committed communicator with a sensibility for the arts based in Toronto, Canada.

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