Rebeca Mauleón, a Grammy-winning pianist, composer, bandleader, educator and author, accompanied by her all-star Afro Kuban Quartet, culminated her weeklong residency on Saturday, Oct. 3, with a performance in a packed Jewett Auditorium. As Mauleón entered the stage, the audience erupted, cheering with expectation. It was clear that over the course of her residency, the talented musician had made a lasting impression on Wellesley College students, faculty and community members.
In the span of five days, Mauleón shared with the Wellesley College community her extensive knowledge of and contagious enthusiasm for Afro-Cuban music and dance. In the mornings and afternoons she visited music classes, and during the evenings she spent hours playing with and teaching the members of BlueJazz and Yanvalou. In addition, she offered a public workshop on Cuban rhythm, a Latin Jazz jam and dance session featuring the Metamovements Dance Company, and a Midday Muse concert entitled “The Afro-Cuban Roots of Jazz” featuring percussionist Mikael Ringquist.
The show began Saturday night with the energetic Puerto Rican piece “Capullito de Aleli,” written by Rafael Hernández and arranged by Emiliano Salvador. This opener showcased the jaw-dropping talent of Mauleón and her band. The Afro Kuban Quartet is comprised of Justo Almarios on saxophone and flute, Carlitos Puerto on bass, Jimmy Branly on drums and Mauleón herself on piano. Each member brings a different approach to Afro-Cuban and pan-Caribbean music to the group, and their distinct styles are evident in their memorable fashion and musical choices.
After an uproar of cheering and clapping, Mauleón led her band in her own arrangement of the Cuban standard “El Manisero,” written by Moisés Simons. The Quartet pulled out all the stops in this number, featuring explosive solos and complex polyrhythms that ebbed and flowed through the thick musical texture.
Third on the program was one of Mauleón’s original compositions called “No Borders,” which she described as a hope for “a peaceful world.” Justo Almarios let it rip on this song, proving the relevance of his nickname “the Latin Coltrane.”
Next, the Quartet played another Mauleón original composition, “Songomania,” which was written for an instructional video on Cuban music. The catchy melody, relatively straightforward beat and whistling tune in the flute inspired the whole audience to clap and stamp their feet. Jimmy Branly wowed during his effortless drum solo, in which he appeared to be completely carried away by his instrument.
Warning the audience to use caution when clapping to the more complicated next song, Mauleón joked that “syncopation is [her] life.” Written by Ernesto Lecuona and arranged by Paquito D’Rivera, “La Comparsa” is named after the groups of singers and dancers that celebrate together at the Carnival of Santiago de Cuba every year. Over the sexy swaying melody and rhythmic syncopation, the Quartet grinned and danced with each other.
Sixth on the program was a composition by Benny Golson, the acclaimed saxophonist and composer who performed at Wellesley last year. The piece, “Killer Joe,” arranged by Ray Barretto, featured a gripping musical duel of sorts between Mauleón and Del Puerto. The pianist and bassist traded solos, humorously quoting “La Cucaracha,” giggling at each other’s inventions and showing off their musical chops.
The second-to-last piece was also written by Salvador, whom Mauleón describes as a master at incorporating contemporary harmony into standard Cuban piano music. “Quinta Avenida” paints a vivid picture of the famous Fifth Avenue in Havana, Cuba. Mauleón dedicated this song to the Cubans in the audience.
Mauleón ended her exquisitely energetic and elegant set with “Gandinga, Mondongo y Sandunga” by Frank Emilio Flynn, a renowned Cuban pianist. The Quartet’s entire program featured music that unfolded like a conversation. Weaving in and out of a rich Afro-Cuban musical texture, each musician asserted his or her dynamic personal and musical identity.
A leading figure in Afro-Cuban Jazz, and one of only a few women bandleaders in Latin music, Mauleón brings a unique perspective to the music. While visiting Professor Elizabeth Craft’s American Popular Music class last Thursday, she both criticized the strict gender roles in Latin music and also highlighted the cultural importance of genres such as Rumba to Cuba’s African heritage.
Mauleón seemed to fit effortlessly into the community of strong women at Wellesley. When asked about her impressions of the college at the concert reception on Saturday night, she immediately expressed her love for Wellesley, describing the community as “welcoming,” “inclusive” and feeling like she was “with family.” Mauleónhighlighted her joy in “rekindling the roots” of her music “with folk tradition,” referring to the work she had done during her residency with Yanvalou, Wellesley’s Afro-Haitian drumming and dance group.
Luckily for us, Mauleón is as smitten with Wellesley as Wellesley is with her. As her van pulled away late Saturday night, she yelled, “See you next year!”
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