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 various 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 and make you feel better.
This project, Menjunje, is made in the 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.
The idea for the project started in 2017. That fall, the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Chicago paid 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 originate from 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 hungry for teaching, preserving, and evolving 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 time playing together in his “Los Pleneros de Don Segundo” ensemble 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 which musicians I wanted to play in Menjunje and constantly communicated 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.
VIEW ROY MCGRATHS MENJUNJE SEPTET LIVE AT FSC HERE
Release Date: March 17, 2023
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
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
Menunje Liner Notes – Roy McGrath