“Uplifting Spirits”: a humanitarian journey with UM-Flint jazz combo to Maria-torn Puerto Rico

“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”    –Plato

By Harold C. Ford

Note: East Village Magazine writer Harold Ford has been visiting Puerto Rico since 1995.  Hes walked the streets, eaten the food, visited the museums, studied the language, and swum in the waters that splash on its beautiful beaches.  But he reports that never did he experience the powerful emotions that visited him as he accompanied members of the University of Michigan-Flint Jazz Combo and collaborating vocalists from Ann Arbor and Detroit on its self-described humanitarian musical mission to Puerto Ricofrom May 31 to June 6.  When asked by Dr. Roxanna Duntley-Matos, president of the Organization of Latino Social Workers of Michigan, to account for this new level of connecting to the island, its people, and its culture, Ford said he believed it to be his witness to the strength of the Puerto Rican people, especially its children, buoyed by the music they make, and their heroic effort to recover from Hurricane María, the worst disaster in the islands history.  His report is based, in part, on conversations with 34 persons during the seven-day trip to the island and experiences he shared with collaborators from Michigan and Puerto Rico.  

At Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music in San Juan. Back (l-r): Roxanna Duntley-Matos; Xavier McCollom; Mikey Abbasspour; Austin Tripp; Russ Sauter. Front (l-r): Conservatory instructor Gretchen O’Mahoney; Paige Moses; Alexandra Cubero-Matos; Jordan Pavlica; Brandon Sexton. (Photo by Harold C. Ford)


Note#2:  An “Uplifting Spirits” event featuring the UM-Flint Jazz Combo will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Flint at 1 p.m. Sunday, July 22.  Located at 2474 S.Ballenger Hwy., near the corner of Miller Road and Ballenger Highway (behind the now-closed K-Mart store),  the event is free and open to the public.  Photos and videos of the Uplifting Spirits journey to Puerto Rico will be shown.  Reflections are planned from Uplifting Spirits travelers, representatives of area faith traditions, UM-Flint, and others. For further information, contact Roxanna Duntley Matos at matos@umich.edu, or the UUCF at 232-4023; or visit the UUCF website at  uucflint.wixsite.com.

How a musical mission unfolded

The genesis for a humanitarian musical mission to Puerto Rico—with UM-Flint’s Jazz Combo at its heart—was launched during Sunday service at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Flint (UUCF) on March 4 where members of the UM-Flint Jazz Combo provided the music.  That morning’s message was delivered by Duntley-Matos.

Duntley-Matos, born and raised in Puerto Rico, spoke passionately of an earlier visit to her native land in an effort to bring relief to island residents in the wake of profound devastation wrought by Hurricane María in September 2017.  With support from nearly two dozen organizations in the greater Flint area, she gathered and delivered, along with her daughter Alexandra Cubero-Matos, solar cellphone chargers, solar Christmas lights, energy inverters, and 30 ukuleles.

Ukuleles, used to promote neuro-emotional integration and community bonding, were relatively inexpensive, lightweight, and easily transportable. “It’s small enough that a (child) can learn how to play it,” said Duntley-Matos,“and it’s an adult instrument so an adult doesn’t have to be embarrassed.”

Duntley-Matos and her daughter, with the assistance of community leaders, visited island residents and sang familiar songs with them such as José Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad.  “They loved it,” she said.  “They absolutely loved it.”  That experience gave Duntley-Matos an idea for another music-based “transcultural engagement” that would connect young musicians in Flint and Puerto Rico.

IMPORTANT TO GET THE BEAT: Puerto Rican master percussionist Freddie Santiago helps UM-Flint Jazz Combo members find the beat (Photo by Harold C. Ford)

After all, proportional differences aside, Flint and Puerto Rico had much in common.  Both were majority-minority communities that were poorly served by presiding governments at the state and/or federal levels.  Both have faced economic challenges of epic proportions for decades.  Puerto Rico is an unincorporated U.S. territory, meaning it is effectively a U.S. colonial possession that lacks meaningful representation in Washington D.C; Flint’s sovereignty had been usurped by Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law until Jan. 2018.  Finding a safe source of water became a monumental challenge in both municipalities.  And a drumroll of ghastly stories had obscured the beauty that each community offers anyone willing to go beyond the headlines and take a closer look.

Shortly after the March 4 Sunday service, Duntley-Matos met with a small group of Flint UUs who bought into her idea of a music-based transcultural engagement that would send members of the UM-Flint Jazz Combo to Puerto Rico. The UUs pledged $2,500 for the project if matched by fundraising.

The $2,500 was soon matched—twice.  UU fundraising efforts—aided by Angel García, pastor of Grace Bible Church in Grand Blanc, the Greater Flint Hispanic Technology and Community Center’s Ralph Arellano, and others—netted another $2,500.  An additional $2,500 was pledged by UM-Flint Chancellor Susan Borrego with key support from Brian DiBlassio, a UM-Flint music professor whose students comprised the university’s jazz combo.

Plans for journey gelled quickly

In less than two months, sufficient money was raised, travel arrangements finalized, and the travel roster completed.  Six UM-Flint student musicians flew out of Detroit Metro Airport May 31 bound for Puerto Rico.  They included:

  • Mikey Abbasspour, 24, guitarist, senior;
  • Russ Sauter, 26, percussionist, senior;
  • Jordan Pavlica, 22, trombonist, senior;
  • Austin Tripp, 20, saxophonist, junior;
  • Xavier McCollom, 20, percussionist, junior;
  • Brandon Sexton, 19, trumpeter, sophomore.

Cubero-Matos joined the entourage as a vocalist as did Paige Moses, a Detroit-area singer-songwriter.  Duntley-Matos and this writer, each with decades of international travel experience, helped lead the excursion.  San Juan, the capital city, and Cidra, a municipality of some 40,000 inhabitants in the central region of the island, were the destinations.

Musical inspirations

At the heart of the mission to Puerto Rico was music.   It facilitated communication and forged friendships across political, cultural, and demographic barriers.  The musical journey of each Flint musician that led to the present is abundant with similarities and contrasts.

MUSIC INSPIRATION: UM-F student percussionist Russ Sauter in San Juan (Photo by Harold C. Ford)

Most credit parents and or middle/high school music classes with cultivating early experiences. “My love of music came definitely from my parents first,” Sauter said. Tripp’s mother told him, “You know, if you play a saxophone you’ll get all the ladies.”  Abbasspour was provided drums, piano, and guitar starting at age ten.

Early inspirational artists ranged from Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin (Abbasspour) to Motown artists, heavy metal, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles (Pavlica).  Early on, Pavlica hated the Beatles.  “I thought they were the most overrated boy band on the planet,” he recalled. Serious study of their music at UM-Flint changed his mind.

Eventually, everyone in the group found their way to jazz.  For Abbasspour, jazz guitarists Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery were instrumental.  Listening to the big band music of Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, and Louis Armstrong led Pavlica to John Coltrane’s “Love Supreme”.  “It changed my life,” he told EVM.    “From then on, jazz was the best thing ever.”  Tripp’s “ah-ha” jazz moment was the vinyl version of “Blue Bossa” as performed by saxophonist Joe Henderson and trumpeter Kenny Dorham. “I will remember that as my (jazz) starting point for my whole life,” Tripp said.

Band members credited the work of UM-Flint’s music department, specifically Brian DiBlassio and Pat Prouty, for expanding and accelerating their music appreciation and skills.  “In my opinion,”Sauter said, “the faculty at the U of M-Flint can stand up to a lot of faculty at other colleges that are considered better or more prestigious.”

MUSIC INSPIRATION UM-Flint student trombonist Jordan Pavlica in Puerto Rico (Photo by Harold C. Ford)

Thus, armed with instruments and music sheets, six young musicians from Flint, accompanied by Latin jazz and soul/funk vocalists, landed in Puerto Rico to try to make a difference.  Initially, many doubted their ability to do so.  They were about to embark on a musical journey on an island that had just suffered its greatest natural disaster.

Puerto Rico’s darkest hour

For nearly all Puerto Ricans there are now two epochs of their island’s history: Before María and After María.

Huracán (Hurricane) María exacted a toll on the island’s biosphere unlike anything in the island’s collective memory or recorded history.  Entire forests were mortally slammed to the ground, bent and twisted into unnatural contortions, or completely stripped of their vegetation by violent winds that ranged from 150 to 190 mph.

“What was eye opening for me was the level of remnants that are still visible from María,” Tripp said. “Even when we were flying in you could still see the tarps on many houses.”

Rainfall amounts that reached 50 inches in some places permanently scarred the island’s topography as it washed away hillsides and highways, rerouted rivers, and temporarily turned communities inhabited by humans into virtual lakes.

The human toll wreaked by María is inestimable. Indeed, there are measurements emerging from the island’s worst natural disaster but they are often premature and/or unreliable.  The official government estimate of deaths caused by the storm, for example, remains at 64.  However, a Harvard study recently reported in the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that more than 4,600 deaths are attributable to Maria.  Many Puerto Ricans judge even that number to be far too low.

MUSIC INSPIRATIONS:   UM-F student guitarist Mikey Abbasspour in Cidra, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Harold C. Ford)

Though there is yet no reliable research, many on the island—health professionals, school officials, and other public servants—strongly sense an increased rate of deaths by suicide.

Nearly 3.5 million Puerto Ricans—American citizens—populated the island prior to Maria.  Tens of thousands have abandoned the island, many likely to never return.

Blackout in Puerto Rico, an investigative report by National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Systems’s (PBS) Frontline program at the beginning of May 2018, estimated that $90 billion is needed for the recovery effort.  To date, $30 billion has been appropriated.

Virtually every electrical customer in Puerto Rico lost power. As of May 2018, some seven months after María, Puerto Ricans had lost 3.4 billion hours of electrical power according to a report by The Rhodium Group.  That makes it the worst power outage in U.S. history, the second worst in the history of the planet, exceeded only by that caused by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

Puerto Rico was still struggling from the damage caused by Hurricane Irma two weeks prior to the arrival of María.  Some 80,000 remained without power even as María approached.  The power for nearly 1.4 million customers was lost as María battered the island for five days from Sept.20 to Sept. 24, 2017.

Even before the double-blast of Irma and María, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) struggled with increasing debt that reached $9 billion, causing PREPA to file for bankruptcy.  The company had lost 30 percent of its employees.  An aging infrastructure already challenged the power company’s ability to provide power to Puerto Ricans before the hurricanes. The median age of PREPA’S power plants was 44 years.  Local newspapers reported poor maintenance, outdated controls, and frequent power outages.

The NPR-PBS report found that 100,000 were still without power some seven months after Irma and María.  Thousands of customers are still without power ten months after the storms.

Water everywhere, unfit for human consumption

The island’s water system was also troubled long before the hurricanes.  70 percent of the island had water that did not meet the standards of the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Safe water that was a challenge for Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million inhabitants prior to Irma and María, often became a life-or-death matter after the arrival of those back-to-back storms. Multiply Flint’s struggle to secure safe water during its lead-poisoned water crisis by 35 and you likely still fall short of the challenge that continues to confront Puerto Rico.

The ability to draw water from systems powered by electricity became impossible. Cases of bottled water by the millions were transported to the island. Citizens walked to nearby rivers to bathe, wash their clothes, and secure drinking water of questionable quality.  When possible, they drew water from cisterns and captured it in rain barrels when it fell from the sky.

A mountain of debt undermines recovery

Looming in the background of Puerto Rico’s humanitarian and infrastructure crisis is a mountain of debt.  CNN Money reported that Puerto Rico was battling an enormous financial crisis prior to the storms with a debt load totaling $73 billion.  In May, this debt forced the island to file for the biggest U.S. municipal bankruptcy in history. By contrast, Detroit’s debt amount when that city declared bankruptcy was $18 billion. 

The mindset of the current administration in Washington D.C. to these crises may have been reflected in two responses by the president.

  • On Sept.25, 2017, only hours after María left the island, the presumed leader tweeted a simplistic response to a very complex socio-economic-political dilemma: Puerto Rico owes “billions of dollars” to “Wall street and the banks, which, sadly, must be dealt with.”
  • In an Oct.2017 visit to the island he tossed rolls of paper towels into a crowd of Puerto Ricans as if trying to score baskets at a carnival’s free throw attraction. It’s an image that burns angrily in the collective conscious of most Puerto Ricans.

CONSERVATORY: Musical magic at Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music rehearsal room: (l-r) Vocalist Alexandra Cubero-Matos; bassist Reinaldo Robles; guitarist Mikey Abbasspour (Photo by Harold C. Ford)

In April 2018, Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, said he would not implement pension cuts and labor reforms sought by the territory’s oversight board. “We will not propose any bill that reduces vacation and/or sick leave,” Rosselló said in a written statement, adding that it was “wrong and immoral to reduce the benefits’ of public pensioners.”

The Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico was created under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act of 2016.  The board consists of seven members appointed by the U.S. president and one ex-officio member designated by the governor of Puerto Rico.

Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, sees these financial machinations as a matter of life and death for her island.  In an endorsement for a new book by Naomi Klein, The Battle for Paradise, Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists, Cruz writes:

“We are in a fight for our lives.  Hurricanes Irma and María unmasked the colonialism we face in Puerto Rico and the inequality it fosters, creating a fierce humanitarian crisis.  Now we must find a path forward to equality and sustainability, a path driven by communities, not investors…only the efforts of our community activists can answer the paramount question: What type of society do we want to become and who is Puerto Rico for?”

Stories of the storm:  personal testimonies

Samuel Rodríguez, 66, bakery shop owner:

In 1988, Rodriguez left the corporate world to open up a small bakery in Cidra, the town of his birth, which had no bake shops at the time.  He is now the owner of La Parroquiana Panadería Y Repostería in his hometown. The interview with EVMbegan with laughter, but ended in tears as the subject turned to María.

Baker Samuel Rodriguez (Photo by Harold C. Ford)

Rodriquez, who nearly died at birth, was one of 16 children born into a family that farmed the land on which his bakery is now located.  After completing six grades at the local elementary school, he transferred to Escuela Jesús T. Piñero—the same school at which which the UM-Flint Jazz Combo had participated in a musical/cultural exchange only two days earlier.

It wasn’t easy for Rodríquez to become a small business owner.  In the beginning, he utilized the vacation time provided by his previous employer to get the business started.  Beyond the challenges of bureaucratic paperwork, he labored to find the necessary machinery and build an inventory of merchandise.  He’s survived several armed robberies, six in the first year, including one during which a gun was trained on him and members of his family while on bended knees.

In recent years, his bakery’s profits have been pinched by the opening of two other bakeries and a supermarket in Cidra. Puerto Rico has endured no fewer than 26 hurricanes since Rodriquez opened his business—notably Hugo in 1989, $1 billion in total losses, and George in 1998, $2 billion.  But nothing could have prepared Rodriguez and his fellow islanders for the nightmare of $90 billion María.

The experience of those previous hurricanes, which caused the bakery to close due to lack of power and water, resulted in the acquisition of a gas-powered generator and digging of a well from which to draw water.  After 34 hours of beatdown by the Category 5 María and her winds that reached 150to 190 mph, Rodriguez and his family struggled to reopen his business to serve the needs of desperate people in his community.  “It was not a moment to think about money,” Rodriquez said.

At this moment in the interview with EVM, Rodríguez, who commanded a store that served as a beacon of strength and light for his community, became choked with emotion and temporarily halted the interview. Duntley-Matos, who served as translator for this interview, clutched his hand in an effort to offer comfort and support.

“Eight months later one is still traumatized by this,” he continued.  “Our wound is still bleeding.  It’s really unbearable.  This became about thinking of the others and how to survive ourselves. We had the opportunity through this business to feed the people.”

María Díaz, 66, American Airlines flight attendant:

At San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín Airport on the day of departure from Puerto Rico, a casual conversation about a new tropical storm forming in the Pacific led to a brief, but intense, discussion about Díaz’s experience during María.  No matter one’s status—young or old, affluent or economically challenged, urban or rural, immigrant or native—Puerto Ricans were willing to tell their stories of the storm. And no story told lacked intensity or passion.

Díaz, an American Airlines (AA) flight attendant for 30 years, rode out the storm but left her home in Parque Escorial near the airport, when the airline offered to fly them to the U.S. mainland on the sixth day after the storm struck.  AA sent two of its largest jets, 777-9s, to retrieve its employees.

Díaz landed in Miami and then Dallas.  She purchased two generators that she promptly sent via AA to relatives that remained on the island.  Possession of gasoline-powered generators did not ensure their use as functioning gas dispensaries were scarce and most customers were required to wait in line for hours.

Díaz eventually returned to her home which had escaped major damage from the winds that buffeted Parque Escorial. However, she was without electricity and a reliable water supply for three months.

William Rivera, 30, bartender:

Riviera, the father of a newborn daughter only a few months old, left his home in Bayamon, a suburb of San Juan, and traveled to his parents’ home on the eastern end of the island to huddle behind its stronger, reinforced walls as María approached.

“People are tired and we have our life,” Rivera said.  “But we don’t have the hands to work.”  He started up a fledgling nonprofit organization that he calls Juntos Somos Más Fuertes (Together We Are Stronger) “to teach to the community about self-help.”

“If we bring knowledge we can help them to learn what to do,” Rivera said in anticipation of the next hurricane.  Those who wish to support Rivera’s organization can purchase teeshirts and other products on Facebook or at the online website.

Gretchen OMahoney, professor of music:

Gretchen O’Mahoney, music professor at Conservatory of Music, member of Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra (Photo by Harold C. Ford)

Gretchen O’Mahoney’s story is not unlike that of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million inhabitants, or the residents of Flint since 2015.  For five months following María, she and her family were without a reliable source of safe water.  She bought cases of water for cooking, drinking, and bathing.

O’Mahoney teaches music at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music which was without power or water for three months.  The Conservatory remained closed during that period of time.

Asked to describe the response of the U.S. government to the tragic conditions wrought by María, she succinctly replied, “Not good.”  She noted that the Federal Management Emergency Agency(FEMA)requested that those needing assistance in the wake of María fill out the appropriate forms online.  The challenge, she explained, was that electronic communication was nonexistent for long periods of time—no internet, no wifi, no phone service.

That same Harvard interdisciplinary study reported by the New England Journal of Medicine that reported nearly 5,000 Puerto Rican deaths caused by María, found that, “On average households went 84 days without electricity, 68 days without water, and 41 days without cellular telephone coverage…”

Like many other Puerto Ricans, O’Mahoney is convinced that the suicide rate increased after María.  It’s arguable that not even the Harvard study accurately reflects the post-María suicide rate as the data was collected via “household surveys” and some respondents may have been unwilling to report such deaths.

When reminded of the arrival of the Atlantic hurricane season on the very day she spoke to EVMon June 1, O’Mahoney responded, “I’m anxious.”

Andres Almodóvar, 18, student bassist:

The UM-Flint musical group needed a bassist for their concert performance at Escuela Libre de Música de San Juan (Free Music School of San Juan).  They found him in the personage of Almodóvar, a student at both Escuela Libre and the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music.  The talented Almodóvar also performs with the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra.

Almodóvar lives at home with his mother, father, and sister.  Their home survived María, but the family lost its source of water for nearly three months and its source of electricity for nearly seven months.

Conservatory students Jose Pérez, 25; Gina Flaz, 18; Némisis Mangua, 18:

Perez, Flaz, and Mangua are all students at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music and members of its Preparatory Advanced String Orchestra. María caused them to miss school for three months.

“It was like we were stuck in time,” Mangua said.  “We didn’t have communication to our family…I started crying when I get a signal from the phone, and I was talking with my brother…I was happy that he was alive.”

All agreed that damage done to the roads of Puerto Rico, including potholes and non-functioning traffic signals, has made for more accidents. “I’m trying to learn to drive,”Mangua said, “and it’s even harder with the holes in the streets.”

“For a moment I thought Puerto Rico didn’t have a future,” Pérez said,“but it’s been slowly growing again and progressing.”

“I don’t think we should be ungrateful,” Mangua said of the support provided by the U.S. government, “but I think we could do better.”

Martínez-Santiago family:

Miguel Martínez and son Andres Martínez, a student at Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music (Photo by Harold C. Ford)

Miguel Martínez and Yajaira Santiago are residents of Loíza and send their childrenValeria Martínez, 16, and Andres Martínez, 14, to the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music in San Juan, a half-hour drive away.

“Loíza had a very lot of destruction,” Santiago said.  “It was devastating. We were five months without electricity and we were without water two months.  I cried a lot.  It was very difficult for me.”

Even during the worst of times, Martínez and Santiago made an effort to usher their children to music practice as they understood its importance in their youngsters’ lives. “In this situation (Hurricane María) they’ve been communicating through music,” said the elder Martinez.  “That hasn’t stopped.  Music was to them like their refuge.”

Santiago reflected upon the image of young musicians from Puerto Rico and Michigan making music together on the same stage:  “They were different ages, different status, and they all communicate in one same voice—music.  Us Puerto Ricans, we love music.  It is something we treasure.”

“Music is the universal language,” said the elder Martinez.  “It’s the language of God.”

Estefanía Pérez Vázquez:

Vázquez is a 7th-8th grade English teacher at Escuela Jesús T. Piñero in Cidra.  Vázquez reported that the school lost power for more than a month.  Teachers reported to the school during that time to help clean up the damage in preparation for the return of students.  The school year was extended as a result.

Vázquez said that many of her students lost their homes and possessions entirely and were starting over.  “As teachers we try to comfort them as much as possible, try to lift their spirits,” she said, “but it’s difficult when you don’t have anything.”

Similar to Flint during the lead crisis, the supply of safe, reliable water was a challenge.  Despite the donations of water by FEMA, Vázquez said “some of them had to take water from the rain in order to wash their clothes, do house chores, cleaning.”

Like so many in Puerto Rico, dismay about the response of the U.S. government to their worst disaster is thinly veiled, lying just beneath the surface, escaping in cautious comments.   “We thought that we could count on the U.S. because we had been a colony for so many years,” Vázquez said. “The U.S., I looked so much to them, but the response it wasn’t fast enough for us. It was very disappointing.”

The disappointment of Vázquez is undergirded by the fact that her grandparents served in the U.S. military. Throughout the last century, Puerto Ricans have loyally served in the nation’s armed forces. In July 1917, some 236,000 Puerto Ricans registered for the draft for World War I; nearly 20,000 served. About 60,000 served in World War II; 61,00 in the Korean Conflict; 48,000 in Vietnam.

Valerie Caraballo Quiles, 15; Elaine Ruiz Santiago, 15; high school students:

Quiles and Santiago are cousins.  They both attend Escuela Jesús T. Piñero in Cidra.  Their homes were without power for six months following Hurricanes Irma and María.  They had no internet, television, or cellphone capabilities during that time.

Their homes are adjacent to one another.  The roof of Valerie’s home was torn off by María and blown into the home of Elaine.  At times they found themselves short of food and had to fetch water in gallon jugs from their grandmother who lived nearby. Elaine’s bedroom was destroyed and she lost her pet cat.

Quiles and Santiago confessed their families harbor some anger about the perceived slow recovery efforts of the Puerto Rican and U.S. governments following Irma and María.  And the images of a U.S. president throwing rolls of paper towels into a Puerto Rican crowd upset many.  “I’m not a dog, an animal,” Santiago said.  “You don’t have to throw it at me.”

Quiles said returning to school rooms without air conditioning was challenging, particularly after physical education class.  But the music they found at their school helped them to recover from the hurricanes.  Quiles plays bass and trombone; Santiago plays alto saxophone.  “Music is the joy of my life,” Quiles said.

Felixardier Martínez Collazo, 17, high school student:

High School student Felix Collazo (Photo by Harold C. Ford)

Collazois also enrolled at Escuela Jesus T. Piñero.  He is a vocalist in the Tuna Estudiantil de Cidra.  A tuna is a group of performers in traditional dress who play instruments and sing serenades that originated in Spain and Portugal.

The damage to Collazo’s house was so severe that he moved in with a grandparent for six months.  They were without water for five months and, at times, collected rainwater for their needs.

Prior to assuming lead vocals on a tune from “Coco,” an animated Pixar film that featured Latin music and characters, Collazo grabbed the mic and, bursting with patriotic pride, exclaimed: “The flag of Puerto Rico represents us.  We already know who we are.  We’re Puerto Ricans. That’s who we are.”

Natalie Sierra, 21, waitperson:

Sierra is a waitperson at Cafe Berlin in Old San Juan, a section of Puerto Rico’s capital city that is a popular tourist destination brimming with history.  She resides in the San Juan suburban community of Bayamon.

Sierra was without power for eight months.  She resorted to hauling dirty, brown water from a nearby river to bathe in after treating it with bleach.

Musical events

Escuela Libre de Música de San Juan:

Happy, uniformed, bright-faced children were everywhere as the visitors from Flint entered the campus of Escuela Libre de Música Ernesto Ramos Antonini in San Juan.  According to the website Niche, Escuela Libre (Free School) is a public school enrolling 579 students in grades 7-12 with a student-teacher ratio of eightto one; on recent tests, 77percentof the students tested proficient in reading; 90percentqualify for free and reduced lunches.  The curriculum of the school, founded in 1946, emphasizes music.

ESCUELA LIBRE: Escuela Libre percussionists at end-of-school-year concert. (Photo by Harold C. Ford)

Escuela Libre students were occupied with the second day of musical concerts—the final musical performances of the regular school year that were preceded by days of standardized testing.  The nearly three-hour musical program was divided into 13 separate performances, each featuring a particular instrumental or vocal group, or both.

The powerful finale filled the stage with more than a hundred instrumentalists and vocalists complemented by three dancers in traditional dress. They performed “Oubao Moín,”  a song by Puerto Rican singer/songwriter Roy Brown based on a poem from Juan Antonio Corretjer, a pro-independence political activist. The song’s name means “Island of Blood,”  a name given Puerto Rico by the indigenous Taínos.

The finale was, by any measure, in any tongue, a moving performance brimming with the kind of  pride and joy that music can inspire.  At its conclusion, audience members, some moved to tears, rose in unison to deliver a heartfelt standing ovation.  It was musical majesty made possible by the rich musical tradition of Puerto Rico, talented Puerto Rican schoolchildren, and their instructors.

(Multiple versions of the passionate “Obao Moín”, deserving of a listen, are easily found online such as this one performed by Lucecita Benítez performed live at Carnegie Hall:

ESCUELA PINERO: UM-F student Jordan Pavlica sits in with student musicians at Escuela Jesús T. Piñero in Cidra (Photo by Harold C. Ford)

Anita Rosario, an Escuela Libre staffer and director of of the rousing “Obao Moín” finale, was unable to continue an interview when overcome with emotion. She had been asked by this EVM reporter to reflect upon the importance of music, and her role, in helping Puerto Rico to recover from its worst natural disaster.  As she wiped tears from reddened eyes, a nearby parent joined Rosario in similar emotional release.

“If we can connect youth across geographical areas,” according to Duntley-Matos, “to learn with each other…and to support each other through very rough times, it can become something very powerful and beautiful.”

Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music:

The Flint group toured the impressive Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music.  The Conservatory was established in 1957 at the same time as the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra (PRSO).  It was more narrowly envisioned as a school to prepare music teachers for the public education system and musicians for the PRSO.  Since then, it has expanded to provide advanced musical studies and degrees in composition, education, classical guitar, symphony instruments, jazz, Caribbean music, voice, and piano.

COMBO-PREP PERFORMANCE: Walter Alberghini, violin and Mikey Abbasspour, guitar, make beautiful music across cultures (Photo by Harold C. Ford)

The spontaneity, intergenerational nature, and cross-cultural magic of music was demonstrated during the tour when UM-Flint student and guitarist Abbasspour, 24, joined bassist Reinaldo Robles, 41, for an impromptu mini-concert in the close confines of a Conservatory rehearsal room.  They were soon joined by other members of the Flint contingent—Cubero-Matos, 20, and Sauter, who used the rehearsal room door frame as his instrument. Smiles abounded and spirits uplifted.

Plaza de Salinas:

Salinas, founded in 1841, is a town of some 30,000 persons located in the south of Puerto Rico.  It is well known to Puerto Ricans for its beaches and fishing.  It is the hometown of Miss Universe 2006, Zuleyka Rivera, and former boxing champion Angel Espada.

In June, the town hosts the annual Pescao Festival at its central plaza and this is where the Flint contingent found itself on the second night of its journey.  Like most festivals in Puerto Rico, the focus is on friendship, food, and music. An eight-piece musical ensemble included two vocalists, a keyboardist, two guitarists, and three percussionists.

Percussion is much more important in Latin music than in other musical genres, according to UM-Flint percussionist Sauter.  “It’s more repetitive, and maybe needs to be, because it’s more complex,” he said.

Hundreds of festival goers swayed to the musical rhythms of salsa and plena often powered by distinct Afro-Puerto Rican beats.

A powerful newly-composed song near the end of the performance referenced María with the words “después de la tormenta”, or “after the storm.”  Additional lyrics spoke to the post-María tasks of repairing the roads, removing trash, and securing clean water.

Performance by UM-F Jazz Combo and Preparatory Advanced Orchestra:

COMBO-PREP PERFORMANCE: Conservatory of Music’s Preparatory Advanced Orchestra (left) and UM-Flint Jazz Combo (right) at conclusion of their joint concert at Escuela Libre in San Juan (Photo by Harold C. Ford)

A joint performance of the UM-Flint Jazz Combo and the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music’s Preparatory Advanced Orchestra was live-streamed via Facebook on the third day of the Uplifting Spirits sojourn.  The concert opened with performances by Flint’s Abbasspour, the son of a Polish mother and Iranian father, and island resident Walter Alberghini, born of Italian and Puerto Rican parents.

Abbasspour and Alberghini made beautiful music with the guitar and violin, respectively.  This duo offered evidence that, though English may be the international business language understood by many, music is the international language understood by all.

Then the black-clad UM-Flint Jazz Combo took the stage.  They were joined by accomplished bassist Andrés Almodóvar, a student at both Escuela Libre and the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music and a member of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra.  Vocalists Moses and Cubero-Matos offered up, respectively, beautiful renditions of Puerto Rican, Latin, and American standards.

The Flint musicians were followed onto the stage by members of the Preparatory Advanced Orchestra.  They were joined by their instructor and violinist, Velázquez.  O’Mahoney served as conductor.  The husband-wife team of Velázquez and O’Mahoney both teach music at the Conservatory.

A highlight of the orchestra’s performance was a rendition of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusic”.  The delicious irony of mainlanders from Michigan performing Latin jazz standards while Puerto Rican youth interpreted the work of an Austrian composer was hard to miss.

The joint concert abundantly underscored the opening words of Abbasspour.  He had introduced the concert by noting that, despite negative public perceptions, there is much beauty to be found in both Flint and Puerto Rico.

So, by the third day of this musical journey, the Flint musicians who had doubted the wisdom of raising $7,500 for a musical tour began to change their minds.  They started to realize that making beautiful music across cultural boundaries might do more than they realized to help heal the hidden wounds of a savage storm.

Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra:

The visitors from Michigan were provided courtesy tickets to attend a shortened 75-minute performance of Richard Wagner’s 15-hour epicDer Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) which featured the stirring Die Walkure (The Valkyrie) as performed by the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra.  The orchestra is celebrating its 60th year during the 2018-2019 concert season.

At least four members performing with the symphony on that evening were now familiar to members of the Flint entourage: violinists Alberghini, Velázquez, and O’Mahoney; and bassistAlmodóvar.  Flint trombonist Pavlica noted, with a touch of irony, that he now knew four musicians in the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra.  “I don’t know a single person in the Flint Symphony Orchestra,” he added.

Medical clinic waiting area:

MED CLINIC: UM-F Jazz Combo performs at COSSMA, Inc medical clinic waiting area in Cidra, Puerto Rico (Photo by Harold C. Ford)

Students performed in the waiting area of the largest medical clinic in Cidra, one of seven facilities operated by COSSMA, Inc., a nonprofit organization that has provided health services to the Central and Eastern areas of Puerto Rico for 31 years.  They were joined by Alberghini.

Smiles radiated from patients and employees alike.  Gifts were provided the visitors by Isolina Miranda, executive director of COSSMA, Inc., who joined them later for a concert at Parroquia Nuestra Señora de Fátima (Our Lady of Fatima Parish).

Master percussion class:

Freddie Santiago Campos, a music professor and native of Ponce, Puerto Rico, studied at the Escuela Libre De Música in Ponce and at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music in San Juan.  He was a member of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra and has been a guest musician of the Casals Festival Orchestra and the Dominican Republic’s Symphony Orchestra among others. He has traveled the world performing with many well-known international artists.  In Germany, where he spent 11 years, he founded two schools of percussion.

He is also the friend of García, pastor of the Grace Bible Church in Grand Blanc.  García, who helped organize the Uplifting Spirits initiative, made arrangements for the UM-Flint musicians to participate in the master percussion class with Campos.  The nearly four-hour session took place at the Nuestra Señora de Fátima Church in Cidra.

Campos brought an impressive array of percussion instruments to use in his instruction.  He demonstrated the ability to play four percussion instruments simultaneously, one with each appendage.  He started playing at the age of six.  “My first school was my family,” he told the group.

Parroquia Nuestra Senora de Fatima (Our Lady of Fatima Parish):

The final performance in Puerto Rico by the musicians from Michigan occurred at Parroquia Nuestra Señora de Fátima (Our Lady of Fatima Parish) in Cidra.  Some 50 members of the community were entertained, including Carlos Javier, the parish priest who treated the guests to dinner before their departure.

Escuela Jesús T. Piñero, Cidra, Puerto Rico:

Escuela Jesús T. Piñero is a secondary school in Cidra that specializes in music and bilingualism.  It enrolls nearly 500 students in grades six through ten.   According to the Puerto Rico Department of Education, Piñero students recently scored 76percentproficient in reading and 49percentproficient in math—numbers that might be the envy of many schools on the mainland.

Upon arrival and following introductions, the Flint entourage was entertained with musical selections that included European, American, and Latin standards representing many musical traditions. Four different ensembles performed during the visit and included: the intermediate music class led by Elizabeth Cintron Perez; the advanced music class led by José Rafael Aponte; the school’s Latin jazz combo; and a tuna estudiantil directed by Luís Rivera.  Tuna students play instruments and sing serenades that originated in Europe’s Iberian Peninsula.

On occasion, the young musicians from Michigan were asked to sit in with the Puerto Rican youngsters as when Jordan Pavlica assumed the duties of first trombonist in the advanced music class.  The visit concluded after the visitors from UM-Flint performed a 40-minute set for Piñero students and staff in the school library.

SENORA FATIMA: UM-F student musicians accept appreciation of Cidra residents at conclusion of their final performance in Puerto Rico (Photo by Harold C. Ford)

On the surface, the students on this campus didn’t seem so different from those on the mainland.  At times they were attentive, at other times distracted.  An errant conversation was shushed by an observant member of the staff.  Some students would occasionally sneak peaks at their now-operable cell phones. An unwrapped candy would stealthily find its way to a welcoming consumer.

Through the veneer of normalcy prevailed in this student population, the profound experience of Hurricane María lay just below the surface.  Most of these students, according to one staff member, had lost the entirety of their homes and possessions.  Nearly all were without reliable sources of clean water and power for months.  The daily comforts of communication, cooked food, refrigeration, air conditioning, and medical care were scarce or altogether absent.

Everywhere on the school’s campus were mementos of María, those iconic objects that are oh so familiar to Flintstones: plastic water bottles.  You see, like those in Flint, most Puerto Ricans still don’t trust the quality of their drinking water.

But on this day, the challenges of life were set aside and the smiles abounded as students from two American subcultures separated by 2,000 miles, a body of water, and sometimes language, found commonality in the international language that everyone understands—music.

Final thoughts:

So a band of Good Samaritans from Flint, Ann Arbor, and Detroit with many who doubted their ability to make a difference with their music, instead more fully discovered the healing power of their special talents.

“The whole point of this trip is trying to make a connection between two places that have suffered great tragedy,” said percussionist Sauter.  “Tragedy brings people together.  I really do believe that, ultimately, people will, people can overcome this.”

In the process they discovered the strength of the Puerto Rican people buoyed by the music they love and play.  “People seem strong here,” observed trombonist Pavlica.  “There’s something more special about music here and more connecting of people. Here it’s a part of your life and a very powerful thing.”

‘I know how the hell these kids have such rhythmic vitality all the time,” stated guitarist Abbasspour, “because they’re rooted in it. They take the music home and it’s a part of them.”

Harold C. Ford (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson)

EVM staff writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at hcford1185@gmail.com.





Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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