Growing Hispanic population helps grow Latin jazz in New Orleans

Published: May. 6, 2022 at 10:56 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - In a practice room at UNO’s School of Music, adjunct instructor Oscar Rossignoli melodically hits piano keys without any sheet music to read from or even notes that he memorized.

He says the improvisation is a tune that he says comes straight from his heart.

“To me at least it’s not a style of music,” Rossignoli said. “It’s more of a language. It’s a language than more of a category, like you have this style, this style and then you have jazz here.”

The pianist has been playing that way for decades now, ever since he fell in love with the instrument back at his home in Honduras.

“I would go to the piano and spend a lot of time with records and stopping and playing. And that’s how I got familiar with it,” he said. “It’s not like we could have taken jazz lessons at any school. We didn’t have those resources available.”

Rossignoli says he’s one of a growing number of musicians in the New Orleans metro area devoting their time to Latin azz, which Taslya Mejia, the international relations manager at the New Orleans Jazz Museum, defines as, “a combination of jazz, Latin America and Caribbean styles.”

However, Mejia says things get tricky when trying to trace the origin of the sound with different groups of people believing in stories passed on by word-of-mouth. But most experts agree it started with Cuban music prodigy Mario Bauzá when he brought his country’s Congo beats and rhythms to Harlem in the 1920′s.

Although, the music he played didn’t catch on as quickly as other music styles.

“He played that music, those notes to different musicians and they were like ‘No that’s not quite it.’ But he had a bigger dream and he was like ‘One day I’m going to play these beats because these are my roots. This is who we are.’”

Over time, Bauzá's work as a musician and composer grew more popular as more Latin American immigrants settled new roots in U.S. cities.

“You must understand the big immigration in the 50s and 40s for people in Cuba to the United States,” Cuban-born percussionist Alexey Martí said.

At the age of 7, Martí says he was inspired by his grandparents’ Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies and took up the congas. From there, he developed an appreciation for his country’s traditional music and found success performing with different groups. In 2008, he took a leap of faith and traveled to New Orleans to work on his craft, like many Cuban artists before him.

Martí says the music he played back at home blends in with what’s heard throughout the French Quarter, second lines and Mardi Gras parades.

“Conga is a rhythm. It’s a carnival rhythm and they create a beautiful fusion between Cuban percussionists and trumpet players,” he said. “They create one of the most beautiful combinations in jazz, in Latin jazz. The Latinos were coming to amplify every Latin American rhythm with jazz, with American music.”

Traditional New Orleans jazz also mixes easily with other Caribbean sounds like merengue from the Dominican Republic.

“You have the liberty to do improvisation on the accordion, the tamboras, the hand drums, the guiro. It’s really, really easy to do improvisation,” Dominican-born musician Fermín Ceballos said. “We have a lot of closeness to the type of jazz that we do here (in New Orleans).”

Since 2012, Fermín Ceballos has been honoring the music he grew up playing in his island nation. But he’s made it a mission to embrace other forms of music throughout Southeast Louisiana, going so far as to feature zydeco singer Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. on a song titled ZYDECO STAR.

“When we went to the studio, because (Rockin’ Dopsie Jr.) is a master on the stage, I said ‘Here’s the melody. Here’s the lyrics. Do you want to make any changes?’ and he said, ‘No, no, no. You are the engineer. I’m here to do whatever you want,’” Ceballos said. “It’s a different culture here in New Orleans but at the same time you can still hear that Caribbean sound, that Caribbean feel (in the song).”

Ceballos and other local Latin artists say the modern day fusion is an echo back to Latin jazz’s origins and it’s made easy with the city’s love of collaboration.

“It’s very like ‘Hey do you know how to play? come play with us.’ It’s that attitude. It’s not about who is the best or having competition for gigs. No, it’s about making music together,” Rossignoli said. “That made me stay in New Orleans, so far, for eight years.”

Artists credit their fusion work and the area’s growing Hispanic population for a larger demand for gigs. The 2020 Census reports there are more than 322,000 Hispanic Louisianans across the state, making up 6% of the population. That’s a jump from 2010 when Hispanics only made up around 4.2% of the state’s population.

And this year’s French Quarter Festival and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, there were a combined total of 34 Latin musicians. It’s a sign for artists that the music is finding a home in New Orleans.

“It’s growing. It’s growing in front of my own eyes. Poco a poco,” Martí said.

While the performers embrace their growing popularity, Martí says he doesn’t see enough of his own people represented at shows and concerts.

“You must understand that the political, legal status of many people make them not able to enjoy society where they live,” Martí said. “As Latin artists, you are never going to see the full of your community because you have people who have to be careful of going to places where a lot of people are.”

Nonetheless, local musicians want to push the city’s Latin jazz scene to rival that of Central American countries like Costa Rica.

“The discipline that those musicians have, it was a whole orchestra just embracing, loving, and feeling jazz. You can’t beat that feeling,” Mejia said.

She recently returned home from a trip in Costa Rica where she was able to see how the country embraces the music genre. The trip was one of many she’s been taking for the New Orleans Jazz Museum to build relationships with Latin countries and showcase their work at the museum right off the French Market.

“We’re creating different connections in Dominican Republic, in Argentina, in Puerto Rico,” she said.

But some artists want more than just an exhibit. Many advocate more school programs and workshops that can teach people how the music is played.

“The more rhythm and more music we have here is better for the city and for the young generation behind us that what to do something different,” Ceballos said.

In the meantime, musicians say that if you listen closely to their work, you can hear the historical sounds of their country and ours.

“Listen to it with intention. Listen to it and don’t do anything else. Just pay attention what is happening to the music, every element, every instrument, every sensationalism,” Rossignoli said.

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