With a Latin Beat

The chances of hearing strains of Latino music throughout the Pioneer Valley are no longer confined to chance encounters at red lights, the big public parties at the Springfield and Holyoke annual Puerto Rican parades or even flag raisings honoring a growing number of Latino communities at city halls up and down I-91.

A case in point is the nine-member Puerto Rican band Canela (http://www.myspace.com/canelagroup) from Westfield, a favorite in the region in both the Latino and Anglo worlds.

Canela has played at the Iron Horse in Northampton, the American Legion in Hadley and private functions from here to Canada, and represents, along with a couple of other local groups, successful homegrown talent and crossovers into the English-speaking communities with roots in a loyal Latino base.

Headed by Ismael Santiago, Canela plays a range of genres that include Afro-Cuban rhythms, salsa and boleros. Music lovers familiar with El Gran Combo, Benny More and Willie Colon and other giants of the salsa find in Canela driving echoes of the songs they grew up listening to on LPs, but without the gooey syrup of nostalgia. Canela rocks in its own right.

Santiago and three of his six children are the core of the band. He plays the cuatro, a traditional 10-string Puerto Rican guitar, and sings with his daughter Beatriz. Sons Ismael Jr. and Marcos are the chorus and other local musicians serve as pianist and percussionists.

Together they form one of the premiere Latino bands in the Valley. Santiago is renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of Latino musical genres as much as for his mastery of the cuatro and an indelible Puerto Rican jibaro, or campesino, voice that recalls the island’s dizzying central mountains.

Those attributes are an imprint of his other business as well. Santiago and his wife Carmen run Santiago’s Restaurant in downtown Westfield. It is a small place but looms large as an institution in Puerto Rican circles. It is a place where the island is no longer 1,500 miles away. The Creole comfort food favorites include breaded pork chops, rice and beans, roasted chicken and fried plantains and, in addition to the standard tropical fruit juices, malta, a popular molasses-flavored soft drink from the island.

Coconuts strung together hang from the beams next to a string of parrots and other Puerto Rican-style decorations. Santiago shares his love of music by always having something, usually salsa, playing in the background. The restaurant walls pay homage to classic salsa icons such as Hector Lavoe, Bobby Cruz, Tito Puente and Ismael Miranda, and picture postcard posters of the island seem almost like window views. Every inch has something to study: coffee packages, guitar string boxes, instruments and paintings that include a portrait of the struggle of residents of Vieques, P.R., to force the U.S. military to stop using their island for target practice. The constant whir of a fan could be mistaken for a warm Caribbean breeze.

The Santiagos rehearse here every Wednesday after closing, and most Fridays, starting at 6:30 p.m., everyone is welcome to join them in jam sessions. Sometimes people make an unscheduled stop to celebrate a birthday or to spark a lively bohemian evening.

Santiago’s influences include classic singers from Cuba, circa 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. He considers them masters of their genres. “They are what I call complete musicians,” he says. “They studied music for five, six years and came out of that education with a real command of the music.”

He marvels at the growing influence of Latino music in English-speaking venues and is happy that what was once a limited audience today finally transcends race and language.

One of the pioneers in crossing over in the region is Jose Gonzolez of Amherst, who with his sons Ren? and Ahmed form Criollo Clasico, a Latin jazz ensemble (http://www.criolloclasico.com). They have recorded several albums and have played with such venerated performers as percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo, and Nueva Trova, or New Song (of politically progressive music), singer-songwriters Antonio Caban Vale, Lucecita and Roy Brown.

La Perfecta Orchestra of Holyoke, is another popular band in the region that plays salsa and merengue. Latino sounds in public places are not limited to concerts, however.

Joseph Krupczynski grew up in Brooklyn with a Puerto Rican mother, Rose Acevedo, who instilled in him a love of music and dance. When she died unexpectedly eight years ago, Krupczynski honored her on his birthday with a small party at the Iron Horse, where he had brought along a handful of CDs with the music his mother loved to dance to. He and his friends danced the night away and started something.

Eight years later, Latin Night at the Iron Horse (http://www.iheg.com/iron_horse_main.asp) is a popular Tuesday date for Latin and North Americans. Krupczynski, an associate professor in the architecture and design program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, is part of a four-person rotation that keeps the small concert hall thumping every week all year round. “I was surprised as much as anyone that people would come out on a Tuesday night,” he says.

The clubbers are a diverse mix, with the ballroom hardcore set showing up at 10 p.m. and the kitchen help at the Northampton’s posh restaurants coming in after 11 p.m. Aficionados, amateurs and homesick revelers are all drawn in to dance together to the beat of salsa, merengue, bachata, cumbia, reggaeton.

The Latino music scene is one of the few in the region that successfully brings together people from different cultures. The changing demographics surely influence this new trend.

Santiago’s children are representative of the new wave of Latinos nationwide. They were born and raised in the United States, and are not only bilingual but also bicultural.

The second generation Santiagos know the songs and traditions of American and Puerto Ricans and inhabit these worlds with ease, moving in and out of Spanish and English and mixing them together like rice and beans.

With Canela, they sing “Smooth,” Carlos Santana’s Grammy-winning homage to a hot Latina Mona Lisa; “Lagrima Negras,” a torch song they first sizzle with fast-paced Cuban guaracha, then slow down to a bolero before stepping it up with salsa. They take “Light My Fire” by The Doors, go on a ride with Jose Feliciano’s unplugged version for a while and then blow out the candles with a rhumba at the end, transforming the song from a beguiling request to a fiery appeal. “We’ll give it a Canela touch,” says Ismael Jr., nicknamed Gego.

Latinos love it. So do the English-speaking crowds.

The Santiago heads of households are from Corozal, P.R., a small town deep in the mountains of the island and rich with plantain trees. It was there that young Santiago learned his vocation. His father Juan raised him on music. As a boy, Santiago and his brother Jaime and father were known as the Ruisenor Trio, and played jibaro music at the homes of powerful politicians. His daughter Beatriz owns a voice that finds its way into every crevice, and reverbs. From the stage she looks into the audience and sees North Americans capture the difficult fluidity of salsa steps and says with admiration, “They are phenomenal.”

The blending of worlds is not new to Canela, which means cinnamon. Carmen Alexa, another Santiago daughter, sums up the family’s credo, which, happily, has spilled into the English-speaking communities: “Food brings us together. Music brings us together.””

This column appeared originally appeared in The Valley Advocate on Sept. 25, 2008