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One-On-One with Afro-Rican Jazz Creator William Cepeda

William Cepeda

Our April article for Being Latino features a Q&A with Afro-Rican Jazz Creator William Cepeda. This article was originally published on the Being Latino site

Since 1992, William Cepeda has been bringing Afro-Rican Jazz to the world. The music he shares with us is a combination of world music, progressive jazz, and traditional Afro-Puerto Rican roots and folk music and dance.

A Grammy-nominated artist and composer, and the protégé of John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespsie, William continuously advocates for research and documentation of Puerto Rico’s musical, dance, and cultural history. This dedication has won him numerous awards, grants, and recognition around the world, but is also a part of his family history. The Cepeda family was recently featured on an episode of CNN’s Inside Africa about Bomba dance.

Born and raised in Loiza, known as the heart of little Africa in Puerto Rico, he was always surrounded by music and dance. His love of music led him to seek formal education at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, the Conservatory of Music in Puerto Rico, and the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. He holds two Bachelor of Arts degrees (one in jazz composition and arranging and one in music education) and a master’s degree in jazz performance.

In 1997, William created his own record label, Casabe Records.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing him about his interest in music, why he decided to create his own label, and his latest project La Música de Puerto Rico: Raíces y Evolucíon (Races and Evolution).

William Cepeda

Photo by Ali Yasin Beceren

When did you first become interested in music?
When I was a child in my hometown. In the community, people are always playing in the street, and you had to know how to dance.  [The music was] A way to communicate through the generations. Sitting down and playing was a part of the culture. Later on in school I took classes.

Coming from a family steeped in such musical tradition, what did you learn from members of your family about Afro-Puerto Rican culture and music?
How to play and dance. I learned songs passed down from generation to generation. First thing I learned was the Bomba, that’s what was played in my hometown.

What was it like growing up in Loiza, PR?
Loiza is the capital of tradition for Puerto Rican music. Bomba is a style that is played. In other places it’s not found as much.

How would you describe the African contribution to Puerto Rican music?
The African contribution are the instruments, dance and chanting to the rhythm. Dance is more African. The drum comes from Africa.

Cepeda plays trombone. Why select this instrument?
I enjoy (playing) trombone and conch shells the most; that is what people know me for. But I enjoy playing different stuff – the trombone, conch shell, percussion, piano.

You are credited with creating Afro-Rican jazz. How is it different to other styles of jazz?
I created Afro-rican jazz because no one has created it before. I developed a different taste, different fusions. I wanted to develop something that showed where I come from. Every country – such as Cuba and Brazil – was creating their own version of jazz and I saw that Puerto Rico needed to do the same because it wasn’t being done and we needed our own version.

The rhythms, melody and forms are different to Cuban jazz. There is a different style of music from each culture. It has its own language, a language you can see in the dancing, in the rhythms. If you know music, you know the difference.

What was it like working with Dizzy Gillespie?
Working with Dizzy was a good experience, and I learned a lot. I was very young, around 19 or 20, and I developed a lot over the five or six years I played with him. He gave me an idea of what was happening with music, and helped me to get a vision of what I could do with my music.

Why did you decide to create your own label?
Because there weren’t any labels trying to document Puerto Rican music. A lot of artists and groups have nowhere to go or can document their work because they are traditional. I created the label to document our culture and contribute to our sense of identity. Currently, twelve or thirteen signed to the label – Ya ya people…Queen of the bomba (passed away)…many people from different parts of the island.

La Música de Puerto Rico is your latest project. Tell us more about the project. Why did you want to work on it?
An encyclopedia I have worked on for years, about the four types of Puerto Rican music – música jíbara, la bomba, la danza y la plena. It includes four books, and DVDs with panels, someone explaining the basic steps, collaborations with other musicians, writers, editors, graphic designers and painters.

I want to teach our people about the music they don’t know about. How to play the different styles, how to improvise, different dance, where the instruments came from and developed to what they are now, form rhythms – everything you need to know about Puerto Rican music.

Nothing like this has been done, so I’m really proud. Now, more people are taking PR serious. I think more and more people will start studying it, so we can have new generations appreciate cultural traditions.

William Cepeda’s GRUPO AFRO BORICUA All Stars:

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