Learning different beats in life

Annual Latin band workshop expands musical horizons for novices, professionals

July 09, 2006|By DAVID P. GREISMAN | DAVID P. GREISMAN,SUN REPORTER

The accordion set a fast tempo. The guitars and percussion joined in, while a saxophone and a violin got the groove going and the chorus dancing.

The singers, following the accordionist's vocal lead, harmonized as they stepped rhythmically from side to side and tried to remain in sync with each other.

Under the stage name of the Common Ground Rockin' Jalapeno Band, the nearly 20 amateur singers and musicians joined experienced professionals for the weeklong Latino Band Workshop, one of many classes offered last week during Common Ground on the Hill at McDaniel College in Westminster.

Guided by skilled saxophonist and accordionist JosM-i B. "Dr. Loco" Cuellar and his fellow instructors, the participants played Latino music and learned the heritage of each song's genre.

"We broaden their horizons," said Cuellar, 65, of San Francisco, a retired multicultural anthropologist and professor. "Most of them don't have the opportunity to play this kind of music. The challenge to them is that they have to learn something completely different."

Before last year, when she became a conga drummer in Cuellar's workshop, Hannah Ingber had typically played only in ensembles, orchestras and jazz bands.

"You can be what you want here, and nobody's afraid to express themselves," said Ingber, 15, of New York City. "It's really fun to do something different."

Due to the variation each year in the attendees' experience, abilities, instruments and whether they have brought them, every workshop is unique, Cuellar said.

"I figure out something," he said. "Our goal by Friday is to have enough tunes to play a really nice set Saturday at the festival."

On Thursday, the band practiced two songs -- "Bachata Sentimental" and "Chuco Suave" -- for the Friday concert, when they joined the other musical workshops for a performance at McDaniel's Western Maryland College Alumni Hall Theatre.

Some of the musicians and featured professionals, including Cuellar, were scheduled to play yesterday at the Roots Music & Arts Festival at the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster.

"It's an incredible opportunity to perform in a really nice context with professionals," Cuellar said. "For some of them, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Experienced musicians Steve Bloom, Sule Greg Wilson, Tomas Montoya, Harry Orlove and Ralph Gordon joined Cuellar to instruct and mentor the participants in the Latino Band Workshop.

For the past few years, Cuellar's workshop has coordinated with the Latin Dance class, which is taught by his wife, Staci Powers Cuellar.

Last week, Beatriz Perez attended Staci Powers Cuellar's class and then went to the Latino Band Workshop, where she sang in the chorus and applied some of the dance steps she had just learned.

Perez, 27, of Lancaster, Pa., said she likes watching the dancing and singing but prefers doing it.

"I was kind of curious to hear more about my traditions," said Perez, who is of Puerto Rican descent. "Usually, you hear the music, but you're just listening."

Jeremy Bauer-Wolf, 14, of Westminster, who has attended Common Ground on the Hill for 11 years, saw the workshop listed last year and decided to sign up. Bauer-Wolf's father had listened to Cuellar's music.

"I thought it would be a good chance to experience it for myself," he said. "I did it last year, and I loved it."

Cuellar estimated that half of his workshop attendees are similar to Bauer-Wolf -- students returning from previous years -- encouraging the instructor to make each summer's session different and letting him monitor how his charges have improved.

"We vary [the workshop] every year so they get exposed to as much a variety of Latino music as possible," he said. "The growth I see, both from Monday to Friday and from year to year ... is really exciting."

Cuellar, who also attends classes, said that he, too, thrives in the atmosphere of the annual two-week event, finding inspiration in the talent and teaching styles of his peers.

"When God places you among the stars, you gotta shine," he said.

david.greisman@baltsun.com

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