Luis Benetti, conguero on a mission

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A report by Stephen Centanni for the Lagniappe Weekly.

Band: USA Steel Band and World Music Ensemble Spring Concert featuring Luis Benetti
Date: Friday, April 28, 7:30 p.m.
Venue: Laidlaw Performing Arts Center, 5751 USA South Drive, www.southalabama.edu
Tickets: $8 general/$5 USA students and staff; available at the door

Since ancient times, a number of musical storytellers have traversed the globe and used their mix of music and story to entertain others. These musical folklorists act as artistic ambassadors of their native cultures. Puerto Rican percussionist Luis Benetti travels the world, keeping this ancient tradition alive while educating others on the inseparable nature of Afro-Caribbean sounds and stories.

This seasoned “conguero” — one who plays congas — will be using a residency at the University of South Alabama to entertain and educate students and the broader community. His residency begins with a percussion clinic on April 26 and concludes on April 28 with a collaboration with the USA Steel Band and World Music Ensemble.

While Benetti encourages everyone to attend, he especially hopes to expose local middle and high school students from Mobile to Pensacola to the symbiotic nature of both Latin and Afro-Caribbean music and folklore.

“For me, it’s kind of sad,” Benetti explained. “Sometimes, they [middle and high school students] have to wait till college to get that exposure [to world music]. I think we need to educate the young guys. That’s one of the reasons why I’m trying to promote this event everywhere.”

Benetti’s love for Latin and Afro-Caribbean percussion began in his childhood. However, music was not his first passion. At first, he was focused on sports. His life revolved around basketball, baseball and track and field. But his regular visits to the neighborhood basketball court helped bring music into his life.

Benetti said a number of professional musicians lived in his neighborhood and provided a daily soundtrack. Eventually, the beats and rhythms bored their way into Benetti’s soul.

“I used to sit there and look at these guys with the drums and their sounds,” Benetti said. “I was like, ‘Wow!’ I would come home and play on the doors and tables. I drove my mother crazy. It was a way to emulate those guys, because I didn’t have the instruments.”

Benetti’s mother finally realized her son’s love of music and bought him some instruments from the Dominican Republic. Later, when Benetti found himself in California, a friend asked if he would like to come to a band rehearsal to sit in on the congas. With no formal musical training, Benetti was apprehensive but willing to give it a try. Afterward, he was confident he would be cut from the lineup, but was mistaken.

“They said, ‘Look, man, come back to rehearsal next week. We’re playing next week at a club,’” Benetti said. “I remember my heart was floating for a second. I didn’t think it could be possible. So I went to rehearsal the next week.”

Benetti says his passion for Latin and Afro-Caribbean music has created a responsibility to keep the musical style alive through performance and education. He described the Latin and Afro-Caribbean combination of music and folklore as an art form — part of Puerto Rico’s “idiosyncrasy as a Caribbean culture” — which pulls from Spanish, African and Indian influences.

Benetti said the convergence of music and folklore is an essential facet of Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican culture. The merengue he compared to the Dominican national anthem. Cubans cherish the rumba. Puerto Rico is known for both salsa and bomba.

The conguero said he is one of many people who have ventured into the modern world and acted as artistic “ambassadors and purveyors” to individuals unfamiliar with Latin and Afro-Caribbean musical styles. Benetti said some of these newcomers to the music and folklore are Latinos themselves, the demographic with which Benetti yearns to connect.

“I like to go into areas where, even though there may be Latinos, [some] may not have a strong connection with their cultural backgrounds,” Benetti explained. “Some of them have not been exploring other avenues within the musical spectrum.”

Benetti’s university residencies have allowed him to have a number of memorable experiences, particularly in 2009 at the University of Alabama. When he arrived, Benetti found the collegiate ensemble lacked singers. His impromptu recruitment process began with an “excellent trombone player” from Puerto Rico. After Benetti explained his dilemma, this player volunteered his vocals. Benetti then recruited a university instructor. Next, he picked a number of students from the university choir. Ultimately, Benetti was working with a group primarily composed of vocalists unfamiliar with Latin and Afro-Caribbean sounds.

“When they first came to the rehearsal, they were lost,” Benetti said. “When we got to the show, I had those guys singing and dancing on stage. I remember them telling me that it was the greatest experience that they had ever had.”

Benetti’s clinic will be a mix of conga and bongo techniques as well as folkloric traditions. Friday night’s performance promises to be just as colorful and eclectic. Benetti will take the stage with the USA Steel Band and World Music Ensemble as well as members of the USA Jazz Ensemble. The audience will experience a rumba complete with cajones. The collaborative performance will also feature a rumba Colombia.

Benetti said the evening will be filled with a number of fusion movements. This collection of musicians will perform an Afro-Puerto Rican bomba and an Afro-Puerto Rican plena fused with jazz and folklore.

“When you think about Latin jazz and being able to use folkloric traditions, it makes it more interesting and challenging at the same time,” Benetti said. “People who like jazz and know some Latin jazz artists, when they come to see this, they don’t know that you can actually make that fusion between Latin jazz and folkloric tradition.”

Benetti said those in attendance at the clinic or the performance will ultimately discover Latin and Afro-Caribbean sounds have influenced “the musical landscape of the United States.” He cited the salsa and Latin jazz craze in New York City in the ‘70s as one of the most prolific pieces of evidence for this concept.

Benetti also noted its acceptance outside the Caribbean has also led to the evolution of Latin and Afro-Caribbean music, recognizing many Europeans and North Americans have helped grow this musical style. For him, the cultivation of Latin and Afro-Caribbean music is a way for Latinos in other nations to not only maintain but also celebrate their music-centric cultural identity, and he wants the rest of the world to celebrate with them.

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