Music, Music, Music! (And Music!)

March 8, 2014

Well, it's feast or famine on this ride.  I guess I shouldn't be surprised; it has been a rollercoaster all along.  Right now, I'm feasting.  So much has happened this week.  In addition to having my brother Rick and his (our) good friend Bruce here, I made some great connections and walked through new doors of musical opportunity.

Note that all of the following takes place in less than 72 hours.

On Wednesday, I met a bartender, Luis, at El Convento, the biggest and perhaps best-known hotel in the west end of OSJ (and barely a block from my apartment).  He also studied music at the Conservatory in Miramar and knows Luis Marin (my piano teacher) well.  He plays clarinet and saxophone.  When he learned that I play piano and am serious about my study, he said I could go over and play the grand piano there in the open-air bar.  (Yes, there's a grand piano in an open-air bar.  Do the math.  Out of tune much?)

I played a couple tunes and ended with an instrumental version of Viejo San Juan which got the whole place singing.  They love that song.  After that he invited me to come back the next day and play a set with him there in the lounge.  On Thursday I did, and we had a great time.  He brought a couple charts and we played a bunch of standards.  I kept my focus on relaxing the time and did pretty well.  We settled into some really nice cha-cha's.  I noticed by the end of my solos though, that I had sped it up.  It's a process...

Wednesday night I went with Bruce to the Nuyorican cafe where they do salsa dance lessons and then the band plays.  Bruce and I learned some steps (it's getting better!).  As the band was setting up I recognized the piano player from some YouTube videos at the Nuyorican.  I introduced myself and told her about what I'm doing.  She invited me to sit in with the band.  Goodness gracious.  I played with the most aggressive salsa cats I've ever heard.  The energy was driving so hard.  It was phenomenal.  An amazing experience. It wasn't my best work, but I hung in there.  It was a reminder that the impact on my playing will be slow in coming and will take months and years to really sink in.  But it was also an affirmation that I can walk into a salsa club in Puerto Rico and hang with some of the best players anywhere.  I didn't play at their level, but I played the gig.

On Thursday I had my Spanish lesson with Marcos.  I feel the most confident when I'm conversing with him.  It's no mystery; he knows exactly what I know and knows how to speak clearly and slowly.  It's reassuring because I really am very capable, it's just that understanding natural rapid-fire Puerto Rican Spanish is tough.  It just is.  All I can do is immerse and, with effort and no pride, tell them I don't understand and ask them to repeat it more slowly.  It's hard to do when it's so easy to pretend to understand.  :-)

I raced home to grab a quick bite and then did the Convento set at 5:00.  Then did a little shopping and got some real food before heading to the Plena band rehearsal.  I think I mentioned before that my pandero teacher plays congas in a Plena band.  Last Saturday after pandero class, he said something to me about my accordion and his band and a whole bunch of other stuff that I didn't understand and was too chicken to ask about.  So I just showed up to their band rehearsal Thursday night and, fortunately, I was right.  Abby had asked me to bring my accordion and they just stuck me right in the band.  They had a couple charts for more of the arranged stuff, but the rest were really accessible progressions and I could follow along by ear.  It was a lot of fun and they want me back.  I play accordion in a Plena band.

On Friday, after visiting San Cristobal fort with Bruce - Rick had to go back on Wednesday, by the way - Liza came up to the practice space and gave me a lesson.  It really was more of a two-hour conversation on a piano about all kinds of styles and origins and people.  She's great.  She's a short Italian lady from Chicago with dreadlocks.  I'm guessing she's in her mid-late 20's.  She's been here for five years and also studied with Luis.  What an amazing resource she is and will be.  We're meeting tomorrow to listen to salsa arrangements with the charts in front of us.  She has a chart on Las Caras Lindas!  She's even going to make copies. Unbelievable.

Today I went to my pandero lesson and got some good video of Abby playing bongos and congas.  He played the basic bongo pattern used in salsa.  I'm slowly putting together the big collection of what I need to run start the band and program next fall.  After class I went downstairs to the little shop and borrowed a cuatro off the wall.  During Thursday night's rehearsal I was able to capture a little 8-measure cuatro phrase on video.  I figured I would sit down with a cuatro in the shop and see what my learning curve was like and if this might really be something I could do.

Yep!  The cuatro really is just a guitar.  Like really.  For some reason I had it way out in it's own category like a violin or something, but it has steel strings, it's tuned in fourths, it has frets and you play it with a pick.  I basically nailed the cuatro phrase in about 20 minutes - not up to speed, but I got it down.  The cuatro and the Cuban tres are the roots of piano montunos.  The piano imitates these instruments in a salsa/Latin/Caribbean setting. 

The cuatro is an important instrument, and I'm an instrument addict, so I talked with the owner of the shop - who turned out to be the cuatro player I recorded and whose piece I had just ripped off!  He heard me play and could tell that I'm serious, so he sold me one of their used cuatros from a camp they did last summer.  It's banged up, but it plays mostly in tune and I got a great deal.  He even dug out an old banged up paperboard case and gave it to me.  I justified the purchase because neither Luis nor Liza would take any money for my piano lessons.

While I was practicing the cuatro piece in the shop a woman sat down and asked me who I was and we got into a great conversation about music.  She's a little older with kids grown and starting to check things off her bucket list, including learning to play an instrument.  I started to share what had happened to me over the last few days and I began to break down.  I was so overcome as I held a cuatro, coming from a pandero class where I also learned to play bongos, sharing stories about playing piano in El Convento and the Nuyorican.  The awareness of how fortunate I am had to be expressed in tears.  She saw how moved I was and shared some deep experiences of her own about how loss always drives her to start a project, and now it's music.

We cried together.  Two complete strangers connected through these vibrations in the air that somehow resonate inside psyches and souls and create community, even for those who don't share the same spoken language.  We talked about how music is in every culture, every person.  Puerto Rico is enduring tough times economically and an obvious tourist can get the cold shoulder from people who are just trying to get through the day.  But I've found that if I extend myself just a little and show how committed I am to Spanish and learning their music, they open right up and are warm and sharing and very supportive.  They seem to live for humor and celebration and dance.  And they're good at it.  It's becoming very real to me now, well past the halfway point, that I am really going to miss this place, and these people.


Nick March 10, 2014 @10:47 pm
Awesome, dude!
Judy Sanders March 10, 2014 @07:52 am
Oh, Juanny! It is all so HUGE! Yes, in one week…in 72 hours even…! I'm teary here too. This is all happening because you are who you are. The world…and everyone you are in contact with…are fortunate you are here on this planet, at this time. You give trust, risk, optimism, love, and talent. You give, give, give. Congratulations on your cuatro. I recognize where you are…the floor, table, and white knee. Just by being you you are blessing others. I'm proud and mostly I am grateful and mostly mostly I am glad you are my son. Love, Mommers

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