CHAMBER MUSIC AMERICA (CMA), with a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, made history in January when it hosted a delegation of twenty Puerto Rican presenters, musicians, and arts administrators at its 2020 Annual National Conference: Equity, Music, and Our Future in New York City. Remarkably, the delegation was able to attend the event as earthquakes and continuing aftershocks rippled across the southwestern part of the island.
CMA serves the national music community by providing access to resources, professional development seminars, commissions, and grants for classical and jazz ensembles. Since 2017, the organization has addressed equity, diversity, and inclusion issues by adopting a Statement of Commitment, acknowledging that music professionals from Black and Latinx communities are underrepresented in its grant programs.
In 2019, CMA awarded its first grants in its forty-two-year history to three institutions in Puerto Rico: The Foundation for Puerto, Fundación Culebra, and El Museo de Arte de Ponce Rico, who presented the legendary trombonist William Cepeda’s Afro-Rican Jazz Ensemble. The drummer Henry Cole and his ensemble Villa Locura, based in Puerto Rico, were also a 2019 recipient of CMA’s prestigious New Jazz Works commissioning grant.
The Conference delegation culminated two years of advocacy initiated by Cole and myself with CMA in 2018. Soon after, our collective efforts towards resurrecting the narrative of Puerto Rican musicians as innovators and leaders whose significant contributions have transformed the language of jazz were presented at the 2019 Jazz Congress in New York City. There, I moderated the panel, “Boricua Jazz: Lost in Translation,” which featured William Cepeda, author and historian Basilio Serrano, and CMA’s Program Director for Jazz, Gargi Shindé.
Building national awareness continued at the funder level at the 2019 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference in Denver, CO. A panel discussion moderated by Shindé, “Beyond Latinx: A Case Study of Puerto Rican Artists Post-Hurricane Maria,” featured Puerto Rico’s cultural advocates, Javier Hernández Acosta (Founder, Inversión Cultural), Juan Gudiño Cabrera (Director of Arts, Flamboyan Foundation), and Grammy-nominated jazz trumpeter, bandleader and producer, Humberto Ramirez who presented an illuminating conversation about the creative ecology in Puerto Rico, the function of art presentation in service of community healing, and the artistic and economic challenges as recovery work continues across the island.
Sessions and panels at CMA’s 2020 music conference addressed, among other issues, Overcoming Structural Racism in Chamber Music Organizations; Chamber Music and Activism; Music, Language, and Revolution; including a Holding Space for People of Color forum and the Saturday plenary, The Artist’s Perspective, which featured the Puerto Rican trumpeter and vocalist, Jerry Medina, composer and conductor Tania León, and cellist-composer and Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians member, Tomeka Reid. The speakers offered their perspectives on creative practice and equity and the obstacles they encounter as artists within the larger American cultural landscape. Medina specifically emphasized the need for organizations to create opportunities for marginalized artists in their budget planning and advocated for gender equality in performance opportunities.
One of the most powerful sessions was “Artists Fueling Economic Development: A Case Study of Puerto Rico,” moderated by Shindé. Building on the 2019 GIA conversation, it covered CMA’s recent arts funding interventions in Puerto Rico through post-hurricane rebuilding efforts. Also, it addressed the unique challenges Puerto Rican artists currently face in accessing funds to support creativity, sustaining their practice, and the overall lack of acknowledgment of the contributions already made by veteran artists like Medina and Ramirez. Panelists included Maria Del Carmen Gil (Executive Director, Fundación Música y País) and cultural advocates Javier Hernández Acosta and Juan Gudiño Cabrera.
The discussion began with viewing an award-winning, multi-media feature by the Washington Post, “Sin Luz: Life Without Power,” which documents the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the most extensive and prolonged blackout in U.S. history.
Maria Del Carmen Gil spoke passionately about her foundation’s efforts and bringing the healing power of music to over 20 municipalities across the island, including 1200 students in public schools and over 700 children and adolescents in 27 state shelters. She explained how her team of music therapists implemented a disaster relief plan and
Organized music activities that allowed victims to channel their fears and anxiety. The occurrence of recent earthquakes and continuing aftershocks sent the organization, once again, on the front lines. “Music is a language without words that communicates with the spirit,” said Gil. “… activities such as singing and playing instruments promote self-healing and create a sense of hope.” Since its creation in 2013, the foundation and its programs, Music Heals, Music for All, and the Puerto Rican Youth Symphony Orchestra, have served over fifteen hundred participants in fifteen municipalities across the island.
Juan Gudiño Cabrera Hernández discussed the role of The Flamboyan Arts Fund, a partnership between the Flamboyan Foundation, Lin-Manuel Miranda, his family, and the producers of Hamilton, the musical. Also, he explained how the fund seeks to preserve, amplify and sustain the arts in Puerto Rico by supporting music, theater, visual arts, dance, literature, and youth education to ensure art and culture flourish as the “new” Puerto Rico rebuilds. The fund has raised 15 million dollars and committed $9M to support arts organizations and individual artists. Gudiño said, “After the hurricanes and now with the recent earthquakes, many artists, musicians, and arts organizations mobilized and provided healing through live performances.” He mentions that the grantees created ‘cultural brigades’ who collect, organize, distribute supplies, and provide relief through the arts, recognizing that the arts are fundamental in the healing process that begins after a catastrophe. “We provide coordination, logistical support, and direct costs associated with the brigades. In addition, our grantees, CERF+, provide emergency relief assistance of up to $3,000 to artists and artisans in Puerto Rico. They have quickly mobilized to review and distribute grants to artists affected by the earthquakes that meet their eligibility requirements,” added Gudiño.
Gargi Shindé emphasized the importance of arts funders recognizing the aesthetic diversity and robust creative practice in Puerto Rico by artists who embody a unique, multi-layered heritage. She added, “It’s a bittersweet reality for us at CMA that Puerto Rican artists, presenters, and audience communities are finally receiving funding support through our programs. It took us 40 years to get here. These multi-award-winning artists and composers are achieving artistic excellence and influencing the global sound without access to funding opportunities and in dire environmental interruptions to their lives, creative practice, and audience communities. Our commitment to the music community in Puerto Rico will ensure that these artists and presenters have visibility and are represented across the CMA’s programs, publications, and initiatives.” Each speaker approached the issues differently, but the consensus was clear: a robust arts community is crucial to healing, recovery, rebuilding, and resistance. As Puerto Rico reels from a series of natural disasters, the need has never been greater.
The conference also showcased twenty jazz and classical ensemble performances, including Grammy-nominated artists such as Emilio Solla, Prizm Quartet, and PUBLIQuartet, as well as Quinteto Latino. Puerto Rico’s legendary trombonist, William Cepeda, and the Afro-Rican Jazz Ensemble made a rare New York appearance. What distinguishes Cepeda’s innovation from most of the music coming out of Puerto Rico is how he ingeniously marries traditional Puerto Rican Bomba, Plena, La Danza, and Musica Jibara with swing, blue notes, call and response, polyrhythms, and jazz improvisation. He connects with his Taino roots through traditional instruments such as seashells and Barrilles de Bomba or traditional Bomba drums. The result was exhilarating, communal, and unlike anything experienced at a CMA showcase. “It’s the first time Chamber Music America has recognized and supported jazz in Puerto Rico,” said Cepeda in a previous interview. “We proudly present Afro-Rican Jazz to the public. We hope the public will acknowledge it and support it.”
The inaugural delegation included the following artists, arts administrators, and cultural advocates:
CLASSICAL ARTISTS: Ana Maria Hernandez, William Ortiz, Luis Rodríguez Sánchez, Daniela Santos, Gisela Rosa, and William Torres.
JAZZ ARTISTS: William Cepeda, Janice Maisonet, Jerry Medina, Kianí Medina, Amarylis Rios, Humberto Ramirez, and Charlie Sepulveda.
CULTURAL WORKERS: Juan Gudiño (Flamboyan Foundation), Javier Hernández (Inversión Cultural), Maria Del Carmen Gil (Fundación Música y País), Luz Rivera Cantwell (Fundación Culebra), Carlos Ruiz (Institute of Puerto Rican Culture), Isabel Rosa Irizarry (Independent Culture Advisor), and Hazel Colon (Independent Culture Advisor).