A Hellfighter, a Jibarito, and a Duke
A Concert Tribute to Rafael Hernández
Story and photos by Robin Elisabeth Kilmer
The Duke of Puerto Rico is coming.
While Rafael Hernández was often referred to as “El Jibarito Bohemio,” Bobby Sanabria prefers to call the master composer by another name – “The Duke” – in reference to the artist’s epic range.
Hernández, one of the most important composers of Puerto Rican popular music during the 20th century, composed thousands of pieces, and his style ranged from “popular to symphonic,” said Sanabria, much like Duke Ellington.
To kick off Puerto Rican Heritage Month this November, the Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture will present the multi-Grammy nominated Sanabria Multiverse Big Band on Fri., Nov. 1st at 7:30 p.m. performing a tribute to Hernández.
Sanabria’s 19–piece Multiverse Big Band will be joined by ten members of the Bronx Arts Ensemble string section and three guest vocalists performing arrangements of Hernández’s music.
The performance will open with the 319th U.S. Army “Statue of Liberty” Band honoring Hernández’s service during World War I as a member of the legendary U.S. Army 369th “Harlem Hellfighters” Band and performing re-creations of repertoire of the esteemed ensemble.
Hernández’s music career was launched during World War I when he and 19 other Puerto Rican soldiers were invited to join the 369th Army “Harlem Hellfighters” Band as a trombonist. There were, including the Puerto Rican contingent, over 60 musicians in the band. The Harlem Hellfighters’ legendary director, James Reese Europe, recruited Puerto Rican soldiers to the band.
During the first World War, the band had the distinction of being the first musical group to expose European audiences to early jazz and ragtime.
“It was hailed as the best thing since sliced bread,” said Sanabria, of the band.
After World War I, Hernández left the Hellfighters to work in Cuba and Mexico.
Hernández went on to pen some of the best known songs throughout Latin America, including “Preciosa,” “El Cumbanchero,” and “Lamento Borincano.”
“El Cumbanchero” continues to be played by marching bands throughout the country.
But Hernández has not received, or maintained, the same recognition as Duke Ellington, which Sanabria hopes to start remedying with the Hostos tribute concert.
“His music among current Puerto Ricans is forgotten. That’s why it’s important to have this concert, so people remember his majesty and his work,” said Sanabria. “There’s a lot of ageism in pop culture and he’s fallen by the wayside.”
“His pieces are incredible vehicles for jazz composition,” he added, “and we’ve totally modernized them, people will be astonished by what they hear.”
The concert will also feature the 319th U.S. Army Band, led by Chief Warrant Officer Luis Javier Santiago Sierra, who is also the Director of Admissions at Berklee School of Music, from which Sanabria graduated from in 1979.
Elena Martínez, who is organizing the event with Sanabria, recruited the 319th U.S. Army Band, which will perform re-creations of the “Harlem Hellfighters” repertoire.
Hernández’s 369th Army Band was decommissioned, but the 319th, based out of Queens, is a logical heir, say Martínez and Sanabria, since Officer Sierra is Puerto Rican.
Moreover, the concert’s co-organizers are indignant at the fact that Hernández was never recognized in Ken Burns’ Jazz series on PBS. While there was a segment dedicated to James Reese Europe, Hernández and the other Puerto Ricans in the band got no recognition.
“There was not one mention that one third of the band was from Puerto Rico, and that would have added another layer of how interesting in the history is,” said Martínez. “It’s an important history that unfortunately was left out of the documentary,” said Sanabria.
The two say it is fitting that a Hernández revival take place in the Bronx. His sister, Victoria Hernández, started a music store in the Bronx, called Casa Amadeo, which is landmarked and still standing today.
“Rafael’s legacy remains with us today, and the connection is still there,” said Martínez.
For more information, please call 718.518.445 or visit www.hostos.cuny.edu/culturearts.