by Audrey Ladele
*Please note that the 2020 Festival on the Hill has been postponed indefinitely.*
The faculty and staff in the UNC Music Department have an unparalleled passion for music and its capabilities as an art form. They deeply value and believe in the culture that music embodies, and work hard through events such as the Festival on the Hill to immerse their students in the music of various cultures. Every two years, select faculty organize the Festival on the Hill on a given theme with musical performances and scholarly discussion. Past festivals have included “Music, Science, and Nature,” “Music at Black Mountain,” and “A Century of Movement.”
For this year’s festival, set for April 20th to the 24th, Stephen Anderson, Juan Álamo, and David Garcia have teamed up to create and organize a program with the theme “Puerto Rico in the 21st-Century: Music, Healing, and Change” in collaboration with the Institute for the Study of the Americas and the UNC Latina/o Studies program.
Together, they are preparing for the North American premiere of Anderson’s Concerto for Puerto Rico, to be performed by the UNC Symphony Orchestra with Álamo as the featured soloist on their April 22nd concert in Memorial Hall at 7:30 pm. The festival will also feature Frances Negrón-Muntaner’s keynote address on April 22 at 5:00 pm in Hill Hall 103. In addition to these events, they are organizing various other music performances and scholarly discussions, working to bring unique perspectives on music, as well as valuable personal connections to the music and history of Puerto Rico.
David Garcia, who is leading the organization of the scholarly portion of the Festival on the Hill, teaches ethnomusicology courses and directs UNC’s Latin music ensemble, Charanga Carolina.
“Music, for me, is not only something to create, but it is also a very interesting avenue or window into all sorts of topics from history, to society, to culture, to politics, to gender, to race, to a lot of different things,” he remarked. “Music, in general, becomes a document of a multitude of human experiences that we then can learn about.”
Garcia helped line up the keynote speaker for the festival, Frances Negrón-Muntaner, who teaches in the English and Comparative Literature Department at Columbia University. Negrón-Muntaner is also the co-founder of Valor y cambio, a story-telling, community-building, and solidarity economy project. The project uses ATMs to revalue Puerto Rican culture by allowing people to share their personal experiences and values. As stated on the project’s website, “the Valor y Cambio currency shifts the power back to the people, investigating what societies value, what is seen as worthy, at a local and global scale.”
“The reason why we identified her as a good keynote speaker is because of her work in Puerto Rico,” Garcia said. “It’s a scholarship that is rooted in community activism. What her work tries to accomplish is to shed light on how certain communities on the island and in the diaspora amongst Puerto Ricans have been marginalized economically as well as culturally with respect to the global trends economically.”
Stephen Anderson, who composed Concerto for Puerto Rico, teaches classical composition, various jazz courses, and jazz piano lessons at UNC. While his profound zeal for Latin jazz seems like something he was born with, Anderson’s first serious encounters with Latin jazz occurred during his undergraduate career when he joined a Colombian salsa band on a whim. This experience sent him on a deep dive into Latin jazz, as he spent time learning different regional rhythms through travel and fellow Latino musicians who were willing to teach him.
Anderson remarked on the Latin musicians that have aided his musical education saying that, “they’ve been totally cool about letting me, a gringo be in the band and they don’t expect me to be them, which I like. They want me to be myself. I’m just always really grateful to participate as an American in the music of other cultures.”
Anderson’s friendship with percussionist Juan Álamo furthered his interest in Latin jazz, as Álamo brought him to his home in Puerto Rico which inspired Concerto for Puerto Rico, and was written specifically for Álamo.
In Anderson’s concerto, the sounds and emotions that he experienced on that trip to Puerto Rico with Álamo can be heard. The perfect intonation of the singing frogs (cuquís) that come out at dusk, the joy of liberation he heard in popular songs from the 1920s, and the pain of the environmental destruction caused by American bomb testing.
“I was just was so impacted by the beauty of the culture, the beauty of the island, my friendship with Juan,” Anderson shared. “There’s a rich history there, a challenging history with wars and people who’ve dominated them, and still our relationship with them today is so complicated.”
Juan Álamo teaches percussion, global rhythms, jazz history, and music of the Americas in addition to directing UNC’s percussion ensemble. Remembering his past experiences in music, he commented, “When I started teaching, I realized that music is a very important tool to help people.”
Like Garcia and Anderson, Álamo feels that the festival is a way to bring Puerto Rican culture to the Carolina community in a meaningful way.
“Because [music is] a universal language and more than one culture, more than one race understands that language,” Álamo stated. “We can transcend any ethnic or cultural barriers to get a message across, so it has that power.”
He added, “when Hurricane Maria happened a lot of American citizens didn’t even know that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens, so I think this is an opportunity to create a much deeper and better awareness of what Puerto Rico is, what is our relationship other than [a vacation spot where] you can go with a U.S. passport.”
As for what Anderson’s piece conveys about Puerto Rico, Álamo sees value in being able to share this work with a wider audience, many of whom may be less familiar with Puerto Rican music, to gain the most possible outreach within the community.
Together Garcia, Anderson, Álamo have taken great care to curate an illuminating program for the Festival on the Hill to share the rich culture and multitude of struggles that Puerto Ricans have faced.
“It’s a festival that attempts to present Puerto Rico, its history and culture, its music, in ways that contend with what we get through the media. We’ve received this perception of Puerto Rico as a place that’s in perpetual chaos,” Garcia shared. “We are trying to bring the value of the Puerto Rican experience to the fore as a way to contend with these other images that tend to get circulated everywhere.”