Puerto Rican Root Music
I was raised in the Lower East Side (LES), New York City. For the past 16th years I have seen and lived in this neighborhood like no other. Lower East Side is best known for its different immigrant neighborhood. I call it the Hub, the hub for immigrants; this is where American dreams start! I have seen all different kind of people, food, music and culture evaporating out of these same streets every other day. My family first moved in to a building in the corner of Orchard and Rivington Street in 1992. The street were full of all different kinds of peoples, Italians, Poles, Ukrainians, Irish, Jews, Bengali, Indian, Chinese, Latinos. Never once did I feel like I was living in the country full of white American, at least that’s what I thought, when I was in the plane for the first time to New York.
Few years down the line my family moved few blocks down the east to Avenue B and 7th Street. Beside the fact I have moved out recently from the area I call home, I still have relatives and family that live and own businesses in the area. From Avenue A to East River, all the blocks were once mostly dominant by Puerto Ricans. Although I know the area pretty well, what’s really fascinating is that I often discover mysteries hidden right in these same streets I spend my days hanging out or playing ball. Just like the other day I meet up with my professor and classmates to explore the Tato Torres & Yerbabuena: Puerto Rican roots music group played in famous Nuyorican Poets Cafe located in 3rd Street between Avenue B and C. I have walked down this block for ten times minimum every day for the days I lived there, never even once have I realized such a place existed.
Nuyorican Poets Cafe began as a living room salon in the East Village apartment of writer and poet, Miguel Algarin, a retired English Professor of, Rutgers University, Although it was founded in 1973, it wasn’t until 1980 that the Cafe purchased an “in- ram” building at 236 East 3rd Street to expand its activities and program because of overflow of audiences. Nuyorican Poets Cafe is a non-profit organization; the Cafe has emerged as one of the country’s most highly respected arts organizations and has become an acclaimed place for innovative poetry, music, hip hop, video, visual arts, comedy and theatre for Puerto Ricans.
I always had the attraction for different cultures and music, I like to explore, I like to know what’s going on in other cultures and my love for discoveries often led me to many exciting places through out this city. Just as it has landed me to this Puerto Rican music and cultural class that I am writing this report for. When I first heard about the Nuyorican Poets Cafe from my professor, I was wondering if it was a new place in the block or what does it look like from the outside? I know every single business and building of that block, how come I never heard of Nuyorican Poets Cafe? When I found my way to the place around 9pm in that evening, I have realized that I didn’t know about the place because it didn’t have a big sign hanging outside the building, branding itself like other businesses and organizations. The entrance to the building reminded me of one of those many abandoned buildings in that area in 90’s. “Nuyorican Poets Cafe” was spray painted around the entrance of the building, easily can be mistaken for regular graffiti in any other walls in that area. Thus later when I went inside the Cafe with my professor and Yerbabuena started playing I realized why Nuyorican Poets Cafe didn’t needed a name hanging outside branding them selves.
While I was waiting in the line within few minutes the places was crowded by all sort of peoples, young and old, expanding the line to fifty feet minimum. Like, I was waiting to enter one of the trendiest night clubs in New York City. I was sucked, regardless of my professor’s warning to get their early. He was obviously aware of the fact how crowded the Cafe really gets. I was in a panic mode to get inside and already explore the place. While entering into the place I experienced an old looking bar in my left that had the fewest drinks in shelf that I have ever seen – A technical sound equipment room to my right and further down inside a small stage and old wooden chairs and few tables here and there in the floor. Although, the painting that was hung up high on the brick walls, they seemed very interesting to me. Within few minutes the place got really crowded and Yerbabuena started to setup the stage to perform.
In Spanish ‘Yerba’ means ‘grass or weed’ while ‘Buena’ means ‘good’, when you put the word together ” Yerbabuena” means ‘good herb,’ which in Spanish is used to describe several varieties of mint. According to their website they are now trying to use the name ‘Tato Torres & Yerbabuena’ to distinguish them self from other Yerba Buena (a popular Spanish pop group). By looking at their recent and past performances, one can easily predict that the Tato Torres & Yerbabuena is a very frequent group to perform in Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Perhaps Nuyorican Poets CafÃ© and Tato Torres & Yerbabuena have something in common: the connection back to the root of Puerto Rican culture and music.
Tato Torres the leader of the Yerbabuena likes to call them selves, “New York City’s Hottest Boricua Roots Music Crew.” Few classmates, professor and I packed ourselves into the thick crowd that covered every inch of the space in the small Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Minutes later the show started and I felt like I was transported to a party shack on the edge of the beach somewhere on the beautiful coast of an island I’ve frequently dreamed about. Yerbabuena’s got a warm welcome, and although I haven’t heard anything yet, I had a good feeling about the show and this crew of humble artists. Tato began by few jokes here and their, in combinations of English and Spanish to fire up the crowed. The groups started playing slow with Tato as a lead singer and slowly everything came into picture. There is no better way to hear about the music than to experience it for you self. The sound of Yerbabuena made me shake my hips while my heart beat to the heavy drums kept jumping up and down.
While I don’t understand Spanish and am not familiar with their dances, many times I felt like I should have learned it before. Although the fear of the embarrassment kept me standing up in my toes I have moved my body with every beat of their music. What I have realized is that music is universal and even not understanding the words did not keep me away from enjoying the show to the fullest. Just to observe the moment, experience the connections of music to its people and being there made me happy. Their sound was tremendous, their style unmatched, I was so happy to see them perform, and being supported by a dancing crowd that sang along. What a moment! The moment of truth, which relies on the fact that you don’t need a big fancy sign hanging in the door neither do you need the advertisement to crowd out the place. The music, the root of culture will automatically find it self and connect.
The concept of Yerbabuena developed during the summer of 1999 at the heart of the South Bronx. According to the Yerbabuena crew, “It developed out of the need for cultural expression, redefinition and re-appropriation of the Puerto Rican musical heritage by a new generation of Boricuas.” Yerbabuena play mix genre of bomba, plena and musica jibara. Yerbabuena believes for a long time, Puerto Rican musical traditions have been constricted by commercial culture and generally limited, and Yerbabuena is an important part of the struggle to develop and promote identity through living Puerto Rican musical traditions. Yerbabuena plays in style of modern music, which reaches back to the roots of Puerto Rican tradition which has come to be called “roots music.” Tato and his crew will keep you jumping in your toes even if you are not a Puerto Rican. At the end of the night you’ll be uplifted, tired but happy. You will have no choice but to leave the audience and join in the chorus or dance for the drums. An experience not to be missed, please check out their website for upcoming shows through out the city, I will definitely check out the next show in Spanish Harlem with my Latin crew.