Segunda Quimbamba is a Jersey City-based drum and dance ensemble that perform the traditional music of Puerto Rico. I have had the pleasure of seeing them perform several times over the past five years. The performances are creative, wild, and exuberant. I recently caught up with Nanette Hernandez and Juan Cartagena of Segunda Quimbamba as they made final preparations for their performance at the Grove Street PATH Plaza on Friday, Sept. 10. This event is part of Grove On Grove and JC Fridays.
JCFridays is happening today throughout Jersey City. Many art studios and restaurants are participating, and art exhibit openings have been scheduled to coincide with the event. For a complete list, go to http://www.jcfridays.com.
BC: Juan and Nanette, tell us a little bit about yourselves?
SQ: We are Puerto Ricans who live in Downtown, Jersey City where we participate in numerous community-based activities. Juan was born and raised in Jersey City and Nanette was born and raised in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; we have been living together in Jersey City since 1981 and have two children, Mateo and Rosa. Juan is a public interest attorney and Nanette is a marketing/pr consultant.
BC: Tell us about Segunda Quimbamba-who is in the band, how long have you been together, what type of music and dancing do you perform, and what is the origin of the name?
SQ: The original group, founded by Juan and Nanette, was called Los Pleneros de la Segunda (the Plena Players from Second Street) and began around 1989. Our children also participate in the group, Rosa both dances and drums while Mateo at times plays base for the group. We perform the drum music of Puerto Rico: Bomba and Plena – each of which is a distinct musical form with origins in West Africa. We perform the rhythms in a dance and drum ensemble and present the unique dance and drum synergies that are characteristic of this dynamic music. Our performances range the spectrum from folkloric presentations to more recent urban musical influences. Presently, we have over a dozen members nearly all of whom are second-generation Puerto Ricans, born here of parents who were born on the island. Hence our name Segunda Quimbamba (Second Quimbamba) which reflects our second-generation status, the tie to Second Street in Jersey City, and our homage to the Bomba and Plena performers who came before us. Quimbamba is a reference point in a famous poem by Luis Pales Matos describing a mythical place in Africa.
BC: Segunda Quimbamba is Jersey City’s version of the Carter Family. Mateo, your son, is also in another band. What can you tell us about it?
SQ: Mateo is a gifted musician and artist, he plays drums, guitar and bass; the group he currently performs with is called Dawn of Humans, they recently put out a record and have been touring throughout the east coast.
BC: Tell us about your upcoming performance on Friday, September 10th at Grove St. PATH Station Plaza at 6 p.m. This event is part of Groove on Grove and JC Fridays. How did the event come about, and what can the audience expect to see and hear?
SQ: Segunda Quimbamba performs regularly in local festivals and street fairs and we’ve been looking forward to participate in this venue because it provides a wonderful break from the work week for Jersey City commuters. We’re excited to present our drum rhythms on stage in both instrumental and traditional formats.
BC: Segunda Quimbamba liberates workers from the daily grind! Will commuters have an opportunity to sing and dance with you?
SQ: Absolutely, this is a great way to release the stress of our everyday lives. We often teach the chorus of the songs we are singing so they can join us and we invite them to come and dance to the drum too. Audience participation is an extension of what we do, as with many live performances, the band feeds off the energy and enthusiasm they give – this dynamic communication can alter a show into an explosive interaction – spontaneous creativity.
BC: I have had the privilege of seeing you perform numerous times. The women are beautiful, and I love the outfits-the flowing skirts, sinuous blouses, and the heeled shoes. What can you tell me about the traditional dress?
SQ: The costumes for this typical form of music and dance seen today were aesthetically developed as part of the more formal stage and film/video presentations. Visually stimulating the top skirt is used as a prop to mark and emphasize the dance movement while flirtatiously showing the underskirt (petticoat). There is a special dynamic communication involved here as the drummer closely follows the dancer’s rhythmic movements and tries to mimic the pattern with his drum beats. In the 1960’s the PR Office of Tourism and Culture pushed for this look, as the audience loved the visual effects while using it to drive tourism for Puerto Rico’s traditional folklore. One of their most popular programs designed for tourists is the Lelolei presentation seen throughout the island. While this is a very common way to present the dancers, other various garbs are used, especially by younger groups experimenting with the basic elements of this music and dance.
BC: For me, one of the great things about your performances is the interaction between the dancer and drummer. It’s playful, sexy, and celebratory. So, has Segunda Quimbamba inspired any love connections?
SQ: Funny you should ask. Last year we had a couple taking our drum and dance workshops and for the student recital we decided to have them perform a dance together (choreographed by SQ’s Tania Rodriguez, the couple are her friends). Little did anyone know that on the evening of the show, he informed Juan and I, that he had rehearsed the piece with dance moves to present an engagement ring to his girlfriend. We were in awe, it was beautiful, in the middle of the show, of the dance number, they became engaged (she was in shock!) with the audience looking on and applauding like crazy. So I guess it can happen.
BC: What can you tell me about the instruments you use?
SQ: Bomba is performed with barrel drums called “bombas,” a “maraca” and a pair of sticks called “cuas.” It has over three-hundred years of history in Puerto Rico. Plena is performed with hand-held frame drums called “panderos,” a “guiro” and occasionally conga drums. It has over 100 years of history on the island and reflects the working class idioms of people along the coast of Puerto Rico.
BC: Where have you performed? What are your favorite and least favorite venues? Do you have any upcoming shows?
SQ: New Jersey mostly, but also in New York, Pennsylvania, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Indiana. We love venues that keep us physically close to the audience since our music is interactive and thrives on audience participation. In addition to Sept. 10th at Grove Street our biggest show will be in the Bronx on Oct. 6, 2010 at the Hostos Center for the Arts during the biennial BomPlenazo festival – the largest Bomba and Plena music festival in the country.
BC: What is an ideal audience for one of your performances, and which city and venue is the best place to perform?
SQ: Our ideal audience will have a love for live performances. It would be composed of families, from grandparents to young children, diversity of ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds with the common thread of sharing in the joy of live musical and dance performance and the understanding of the importance and need to preserve cultural and heritage traditions.
It’s difficult to pick one city or venue; we have enjoyed performing at the largest Bomba & Plena festival in the country, Bomplenazo in The Bronx. The Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick was exhilarating – both the stage layout and audience were amazing. Symphony Space in NYC was another great theater venue.
BC: Who writes your songs and choreographs your dances? What are the main themes or topics for your work? Do you think these topics will change over time?
SQ: Juan will write some of our songs but most of them come from centuries of historical development of song and rhythms that have been in Puerto Rican communities for a long time. The themes are work, identity, pride and protest on the one hand, and street life, gossip & chatter, and recent events on the other. There is a large element of history and yesteryear in our songs – but also a rich tradition of looking back to find lessons in our past to resolve the challenges of the present. Choreography is led by Nanette and others in the group but dancing in bomba, especially, is not choreographed. On the contrary, it is always spontaneous and improvised creating a challenge between the lead dancer and lead drummer.
BC: How has your music evolved since you first began playing music together?
SQ: Our confidence has clearly grown and our commitment and joy in performing the music is evident now more than ever.
BC: What’s your ultimate direction for your band? Are you seeking fame and fortune?
SQ: Neither fame nor fortune; just joy, respect and acknowledgment that what we present resonates among our audience regardless of race, ethnicity, age or gender.
BC: Anyone can participate in a Segunda Quimbamba performance-even an Irish-Catholic former hardcore kid from the suburbs like me?
SQ: Yes, anyone can participate. Our classes attract a diverse group of students. The main goal is the desire to learn and embrace a cultural tradition different from your own and hopefully it will resonate with the history and heritage of your ancestors. The commitment to learn and share in something new through the universal language of music and dance is all that is needed. Always high energy and fun you can get the benefit of exercise, laughter and unity with Bomba & Plena.
BC: How can fans-to-be gain access to your music? Do you have a website with sample songs or a demo CD?
SQ: Our current site is myspace.com/segundaquimbamba and we’re also on Facebook. Our CD “Aquí También” (Here as well), is on cdbaby.com and on ITunes. We are also in the process of getting our website up and running this fall.
BC: Let’s discuss Jersey City a bit. You were born and raised in Jersey City. How has the neighborhood changed since you were a kid? How has the art scene changed?
SQ: There is a lot that is very good about the changes in the city with genuine people coming to our city looking for meaningful community life and struggling for the same things we all do. At the same time some changes are grating and manipulated in a way to create artificial barriers – the unstated but obvious boundary that separates life east of Marin to that west of it, for example. Along with the language that commercializes our lives. When I grew up we called it the river, now it’s the waterfront. Music and art can bridge these communities. To that end, the art scene is a welcome addition to the city and the challenge that remains is ensuring that indigenous Jersey City musical and artistic expressions are not ignored, but incorporated in this new scene.
BC: These issues were also raised in Barbara Bickart’s film. Segunda Quimbamba played a pivotal role in the project. How did your participation in the film come about, and did your participation reveal any new insights about Jersey City?
SQ: We were approached by the video artist Barbara Bickert upon the referral from the Jersey City Museum’s Sandy Martiny, at the time the curator of education. We were motivated by our mutual commitment to address and reveal an understanding of the issues of gentrification and their affect on the local residents who have lived here all their lives, often the most underserved group. We collaborated with the chorus of Bethesda Baptist Church leading to the creation of new songs and an experimental approach and presentation of Bomba & Plena with Gospel traditions – it was amazing for all of us involved – the audiences love it. Juan and I were honored to work with them, all of us willing to take the risk with this production, as we pushed our creative boundaries.
BC: In Conveyer, the designer Josef Reyes notes: “A life is a narrative and a place is a meeting point of several narratives. Consider a place to be not so much a physical environment to but a crossing point of disparate stories.” What are a few of the buried stories in downtown Jersey City, and what do they reveal about the character of our city?
SQ: Jersey City is the quintessential working class town that typifies the Northeast where industrial backyard communities supported the shining, upper class inner city. As Jersey City creates its own shining inner city it cannot forget the gritty and real working class that created it. That is where I would look first. Small businesses (auto repair shops, bodegas), bars (Rolon’s Bar and Guillo’s Bar) churches, street fairs and basketball parks and soft ball leagues, all have their own stories of a disparate past to tell.
BC: What is your favorite restaurant? Who has the best jukebox, and where can you find a decent cup of coffee?
SQ: Can’t pick just one: Sava, Skinner’s Loft, Hard Grove to name a few, Taqueria for takeout. Best juke box is Latin Lounge and Rolon’s Bar. Best coffee is La Conguita and Madame Claude’s. And the best bartender is Steve at Saigon Café.
BC: What should residents new to Jersey City know about their new home, and why?
SQ: Go west. West of Marin to know Downtown. Then go to the local bars and parks of the rest of the city to see and learn about our wonderfully diverse community. Ride a bus. Attend a street fair. Check out the art, the music. Do it all.
BC: Yes, go west. Get in the wagon train, and push through to McGinley Square, West Side and Mallory Avenue.
Segunda Quimbamba Folkloric Cente, a nonprofit center based in downtown Jersey City, currently is preparing for its fourth year of teaching dance and drum, Bomba and Plena. Registration and workshops begin on Sunday afternoons, Sept. 12, through early December.
Call the Center for more information at (201) 420-6332 or e-mail Nanette Hernandez at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit myspace.com/segundaquimbamba.
For the educational initiative, the group has received support from private donors, Jersey City Museum, the Hudson County Office of Cultural and Heritage Affairs, and New Jersey State Museum. SQFC is committed to providing complete access to all interested persons for all programming, both educational and performance based.
Oroginal post may be found here.