The door to the classroom opens: musical instruments look as if they have been the victims of a massacre. The music teacher José Aponte, alongside a saxophonist and a clarinet player, enter the classroom and immediately tears come to their eyes as they discover that the music education program of their hometown Aibonito is worse than they could have imagined.
In the classroom at the Rafael Pont Flores School, flutes, piccolos and trumpets appeared with amputated keys. On one side of the classroom, inside cylindrical containers, trombones laid without wands. Clarinets without fipple, cracked opened drums, and satchels with what used to be musical instruments are scattered throughout the floor, piled one on top of the other and covered in dust.
The musical cemetery revived the memories of better times, from 1970 to the year 2000, when a great music education program nourished the generations of musicians that gave fame to Aibonito.
Aponte, the band director, recognized a saxophone amongst the decay. He remembered the years from 1987 to 1993 when he was a student in the band and played the instrument that now appeared withered between his hands.
“I was deeply hurt seeing how they let something so valuable go to waste,” lamented Aponte. “I felt sorry when I learned how the Department of Education gave up such valuable resources for the youth. This dumpster of instruments was far worse than what I had imagined.”
Just next to the classroom, the teacher Aponte and the students discovered that the Department of Education had also forgotten about the great amphitheater of the music band. It was built at an approximate cost of 1 million dollars, thanks to the creation of an alliance between the school, the community and student families along with the help of legislative and municipal funds. The building that could host more than 250 musicians and has five rooms for individual practice and two for group rehearsal, was devastated by desolation and delinquency.
Criminals had broken in trough the windows and transformed it into an illegal drug use center. Aponte and the students found documents and music manuals burned on the floor. The broken chairs seemed to fit in with a rug covered with filth, paint, glass and pieces of shattered soffits. The teacher held up a calendar from the floor: the history of the music band was stuck in the year 2008 when the datebook gave evidence of days full of rehearsals and presentations.
Yet, the group was broken.
Insufficient music education
The status of Aibonito’s band is just the tip of the iceberg in a severe educational problem. The Department of Education maintains music education in a state of abandonment in the whole country. Puerto Rico, paradoxically, holds music as one of its principal products of export and also as one of its points of reference on how the world envisions the island.
The director of the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras elementary school music band corroborated the problems of music education as part of his doctoral thesis. Ricardo Lopez-León interviewed 228 elementary school teachers who rendered an interpretation of a music education system in ruins.
The studies revealed that 80% of students between kinder and third grade, and 77% of students between fourth and six grades, do not receive formal music education during the school year. But the students are not the only ones that require attention. The music teachers work demoralized as 67% of them lack a home room and have to move around the school from classroom to classroom to be able to teach.
The specialized music textbooks seem to be a rare museum specimen. Due to the lack of budget, 69% of people interviewed said they had to prepare their own materials for teaching. “Music education in public elementary schools in Puerto Rico may be catalogued as insufficient,” argued Lopez-León in the March issue of the International Journal of Music Education, a reference in the pedagogy domain.
The economic crisis and the restructuring problems of the government sink even further the music education offer of Puerto Rico. On June 13, 2014 the secretary of Education, Rafael Román, signed a letter that cuts in half the requirement of the credit in the elective of Fine Arts.
With the increment of the time period of the classes considered to be academic such as Spanish, English, Mathematics and Science from 50 to 60 minutes, the order results in less time for subjects such as music and theater that complement the intellectual formation of the students.
If the school lacks a teacher that specializes in music, the teachers of the academic classes will give the subject in an “integrated” manner. This “integrated” method is a euphemism for saying that, in the practice, they will not teach music, but include musical elements in their teaching. For example, a mathematics exercise is to learn the timetables while rapping.
Ungovernability in the Department of Education
Another school within the urban area of Aibonito, the Federico Degetau School, was not in need of a letter for it to be deprived of its music. The school principal, Carmen Alicea, opens the padlock of one of the classroom and the afternoon light enters through the side windows, illuminating the empty chairs. The students have a music room but in two years they have not used it for their elective credit in music. The teacher, José Aponte, has been suspended.
The teacher established a complaint against principal Alicea on March 2012. A month later, the former secretary of Education, Edward Moreno, sent Aponte a letter alleging that he thought he was suffering from bad health, submitting him to psychiatric evaluations.
According to Carlos Beltrán, director of the legal division of the Department of Education, the company that examined the teacher, Inspira, has not given him the results because the government agency has not paid them for the alleged services. Beltrán claims that he maintains conversations with the company to inspect that the job done was inside the parameters of what was established in the contract and that based on that he would make a final decision about the case.
In the midst of the foreclosure of many public schools due to lack of funds, Aponte is still receiving his teachers’ salary without giving any classes. Two years after his suspension, the Department of Education has not explained to him the reason for the suspension.
The cultural treasure of the people
When mentioning the word music in Aibonito there are those that immediately think about the school’s music band. How can they not? Upon the students first day of elementary school a recorder was put in their hands and the teachers talked to them about music theory. Also, they encouraged them by saying that they should prepare to study some day with José “Pucho” Rivera.
Pucho directed students at the secondary and high school level that had taken their music studies electives. In afterschool hours they rehearsed in a band that was considered to be one of the best in the island.
The music band was the principal cultural institution of Aibonito. They played in almost every local community, presented a special concert in the springtime and there was no high school graduation without their music. Also, each year on Mother’s day the students would get on a tuck and tour the town with a special concert.
Debbie Ortiz, a former student of Pucho, remembers those years as she receives clients that buy offers in her travel agency or send money by MoneyGram. Regardless of the fact that she followed a career as an accountant and travel agent, those years of music education formed her.
In the surrounding areas of the public square of Aibonito, in the streets next to her workplace, the people watched Ortiz as she marched with the band and played the saxophone.
“We played in every festival. There were songs where the musicians put down the instruments and started to dance. I dare to say that we were the best music band in Puerto Rico,” said Ortiz.
However, her nostalgia was not only for playing the saxophone again, she wanted to play in stage with her band mates.
Pucho retired on 2005 and the cultural institution of Aibonito lost its track. The Department of Education, lacking an efficient music education program, didn’t continue the music band.
The teacher José Aponte was a former student of Pucho and knew the group as any good commander knows his squad. He was not a virtuoso in any instrument, but could make music with anything that fell into his hands.
He studied music education in the University of Puerto Rico and in 2005 achieved the recognition of excellence in teaching amid one hundred teachers chosen around the country by the Department of Education. One year later he traveled to Orlando, Florida, with a group of students from elementary school for a music band competition. They returned to Aibonito with the first prize.
When he was transferred to the Rafael Pons Flores School in Aibonito in 2007, he took it upon himself to revive the band. More than 150 musicians, flag-bearers, cheerleaders and dancers continued the tradition. They became such a force that the group Calle 13 invited them to record the marching band sounds of his album Los de atrás vienen conmigo.
However, in 2009, the Law 7 implemented by the former governor of Puerto Rico Luis Fortuño gave the order that teachers that had been transferred had to return to their original position. Aponte returned to Federico Degetau School and could not continue to direct the Rafael Pons Flores School band.
And that was how the music institution of Aibonito plunged into the ground once again.
The quest to fill the void
The virtuoso saxophone player, Miguel Zenón, one of the best jazz players of his generation, lived in flesh and blood the deficiencies of a music education system going astray.
When he studied in the Escuela Libre de Música Ernesto Ramos Antonini in Hato Rey, in the years 1998 through 1994, the institution specialized in the study of music faced problems with the infrastructure and was temporarily closed.
“It was so worn down that we could not use it. I saw how the fungus ate away at the walls, the seats were broken and no one bothered to fix them,” recalled Zenón. “They disbanded us.”
Zenón and his classmates had to take classes in nearby schools to be able to graduate. After studying in Berkley College of Music in Boston, he started playing the saxophone for many hours. Composing new music, he also gave music lessons and lived a life of music and for music.
It was 2007 and he was in his New York City apartment when he took the remote control of the TV and was browsing through the channels when he saw the pictures. The band members of one of his favorite rock bands, Sigur Rós, appeared in schools, beaches and fields during a musical pilgrimage honoring their fans and their homeland of Iceland.
And what if he could do the same in Puerto Rico? What if he could take his art to rural places that are not exposed to big cultural events and let alone jazz music?
A year later, in 2008, he received a phone call from a representative of the McArthur Foundation. “Do you know about the McArthur grant?” “Yes,” said Zenón, without taking notice. “Are you sitting down?”
“Do I need to sit down?”
“Maybe you should because you won it.”
Zenón was shocked by the surprise. From that moment on he had half a million dollars in his pocket, half a million, to do anything that he pleased. So he decided to use some of the money to start his own musical pilgrimage. And Caravana Cultural was born.
In his own way, he would fill some of the emptiness in the music education of Puerto Rico. “There is nothing like art to make oneself a better human being. You can change the life of so many people,” said Zenón.
The saxophone player was going to invite music students from different parts of the island to appear on stage and play with professional musicians. Before each presentation there would be a music education discussion panel open for the public where elements of jazz, improvisation and the history of the composers of each musical piece would be discussed. It would be a concert and also an educational event.
Caravana Cultural started in 2011 in the town of Barranquitas and quickly made news. The cinematographer Gabriel Coss thought that it had substance for a good documentary.
When Coss won the DocTV Latin American contest to document Caravana Cultural, alongside Zenón, he started to stir something in the Department of Education that had not been stirred.
José Aponte spent his days cleaning his parents’ house and watching National Geographic and History Channel. He had waited 20 months for news about his work situation when on February 2014 he received a call from Miguel Zenón.
Do you see the possibility of doing the concert with you? Asked the saxophone player while talking in Skype from Frankfurt, Germany, where he was recording an album.
The teacher responded from his home in Aibonito and while the camera was recording, displayed a smile mixed up with disbelief.
Aibonito had been dismissed when the documentary production team was looking for a town to host the Zenón concert. How was it possible for Caravana Cultural that required students prepared to play alongside the virtuoso, to be celebrated in a town where the music education was consigned in oblivion and the teacher was suspended? Then the production team changed their minds: Aibonito was the perfect place.
José Aponte told Miguel Zenón and warned him that the band’s music room was a pigsty.
“That makes me want to cry.”
But he reassured the musician that he could prepare a group of students.
“Also, it would be interesting to explore the possibility of incorporating, I don’t know, maybe some of the members of the marching band or something, for one of the themes at least, I think it would be beautiful,” added the saxophone player.
“That disappeared! It disappeared, ehh… and I’m going to be Houdini!”, reassured Aponte, “I will make them appear!”
He felt happiness and fear. He still wondered if they were playing with his feelings. He threw a pencil at a table as if he was throwing a dart at a blank target and gazed triumphantly at the camera.
Aponte started calling students from his former classes. Amongst the talented, hard working and interested, he chose five to be the main characters of the documentary: Leonardo Pedrogo (alto and baritone saxophone); Jean Michael Giménez (tenor and soprano saxophone); Kaleb Ortiz (alto saxophone); Deborah Rivera (clarinet); and Arnaldo Colón (trombone).
He spoke to former members of the broken band and told them that he needed to reactivate it.
“It was like in the movies where old superheroes are retired and fat without their powers, each one living on their own, and then they are called upon an important mission,” said Coss. “Wherever the teacher went, musicians followed as if he was the flute player of Hamelin,”
A local pizza place loaned them a van, then the students put up speakers on the hood and passed through the streets of Aibonito playing the song “Oh when the Saints” by Louis Armstrong, who the concert was being dedicated to. The Aibonito Committee for the Rescue of Cultural Patrimony, created after the arrival of the production team for the documentary, asked for help in reactivating the band and cleaning the amphitheater. Thirty people responded to the first cleaning event.
“The cameras made possible the opening of the amphitheater for the concert,” said Aponte. Then, the school administration and the Municipal council worried about public opinion and mobilized employees to help with the cleaning. What the Department of Education was not able to do in years was achieved by the arrival of Caravana Cultural in a single week.
Rojo Chiringa, the production team for the documentary, got involved in the cleaning duties and repaired the ceiling soffits. The Aibonito Committee for the Rescue of Cultural Patrimony mobilized a company to repair the shattered glass on the bands building.
There was a mixture of illusion and skepticism. The expectations of the young saxophone player Leonardo Padrogo were not reassuring. “For me this is just a little while. I don’t know what will happen when the concert is over. The position for band director is still empty. I believe Aibonito’s music is dead.”
However, the day before the concert, the halls of the building where filled with music and you could hear the joy from better days. Clarinetists, flautists, saxophonists, trumpeters, trombonists and percussionists occupied the rooms for individual and group study rehearsing their songs. You could once again hear the old melodies.
Some former band members had not rehearsed together in years. It would be difficult for their fingers to respond in such a short notice and for a concert of this stature. The task was even greater for the five chosen ones. They would play jazz, a genre they have never interpreted before. Also, they had to play a solo next to a virtuoso like Zenón, pianist Sullivan Fortner, drummer Jason Marsalis and the bassist Roland Guerin, all of who came from New Orleans.
So then, José Aponte had 43 musicians from different generations rehearsing together for the first time, a day before the concert. Amongst them was the accountant Debbie Ortiz who for 25 years longed to play with the band once again.
“This encounter awakens the soul of any musician,” said Ortiz. And she took out the Yamaha alto saxophone that her father had given her two decades earlier. She washed it with vinegar and pepper, and then polished it with a dishcloth, making it lustrous again.
The band was there
On the day of the concert, March 9, 2014, former band members displayed their medallions, old uniforms, hats, boots, photographs and music scores as proof that some time ago their history was important.
Zenón started the show speaking about the musician whom the show would be dedicated to. The master Louis Armstrong, who created a unique style of interpreting jazz and glorified the genre, was born in 1901 in New Orleans, home of the marching bands. This was the main reason why Zenón wanted to reactivate the band.
With the help of a sound reproducing device, Zenón played representative songs of Armstrong for the audience. The event was a unique educational experience; teaching about particularities in a genre that is usually not included in the music education curriculums or in the principal cultural programs.
Zenón explained historic facts about jazz, the essence of improvisation and soloists, and also talked about how Armstrong had been the person that had planted the seed in what the students would interpret that afternoon.
“This music experience is going to shape what they can be in the future,” said Zenón to the public, referring to the students, and also warned that we should be vigilant with the music education of the island. “We are losing support for the arts in Puerto Rico.”
They played the classics “Cornet Chop Suey,” “Irish Black Bottom,” “Big Butter and Egg Man”, “West End Blues” and “Struttin With Some Barbecue.” Zenón gave the hint and cleared the floor allowing the five students to engage in music controversy and the musical guests to alternate in solos.
Then Aponte gave out four signals with the whistle and the percussionists moved behind the invited jazz players and started marking the rhythm. The director turned to face the audience and opened his arms. From the back side of the amphitheater the other musicians of the band entered in single file and started to play the classic “Oh when the saints.”
Five years after the band broke up Aibonito was able to hear once again the music coming together with the marching sounds, the percussion of the shoes and for one moment the town was able to recover the music that it had lost. Aponte finished directing and cried. He hugged his parents. Some spectators gathered around the director to congratulate him.
It was Monday and the teacher who just the night before took the task of returning the music to Aibonito was now using his teaching hours for doing volunteer work. He sat in a classroom of another school in Aibonito playing notes in a flute and transcribing them in a computer in front of him. He was writing a musical arrangement of the song “Boricua en la Luna” to be interpreted by music students directed by a fellow teacher.
Aponte drove his car to the town of Barranquitas to attend a part time job, from 4 to 6 in the afternoon, at the Intermediate Urban Community School. At that time the place was practically empty. The voice of a young woman who was singing a tune by Rihanna resonated throughout the whole venue.
When entering the classroom there were a group of students without instruments sitting in two rectangular tables. In the middle, Aponte was not using his hands as if directing a band but he sat in front of a laptop and hit play to different songs so that the students would take the microphone and sing them in karaoke style.
“I want to sing,” said one girl in a school uniform that ran in front of the classroom and took the microphone.
“Come one, sing.”
A private company that offers services to public schools that want to integrate music for bettering reading skills hired Aponte. The students read the lyrics of the songs projected in the wall while singing.
The girl asked for the song “La diabla”, a bachata from the singer Romeo Santos while the other students sang along.
The teacher was not very amused that other people saw him in that current status. The system had forgotten about him as if he was one of the saxophones gathering dust in the instrument cemetery.
However, something in Aibonito changed. Even though he did not have his former job as a teacher, he managed to gather the students in the amphitheater after the concert so they could keep rehearsing and organized for them a percussion and band instruments workshop.
Leonardo Pedrogo acquired the permit to meet up in the amphitheater with his own jazz quartet, which he created after getting inspired by Caravana Cultural. He rehearsed so that the group would be ready for the moment they would play their first concert. He was invited to play in the premiere of the documentary that told the story of the town that dreamed about music.