Los Vicios de Papá. Photo Parker Asmann
It starts with a beat, often slow at first but then eventually reaching a crescendo that bursts into the air hanging over the audience. Tempos rise and fall, building an excitement among those looking on. Often times words and languages don’t matter as the careful play of instruments paints a vibrant picture that somehow everyone can connect with. It has the power to unite communities amidst a political climate that wants to differentiate them. It’s the language that everyone knows and understand regardless of race, ethnicity or gender: it’s music.
Chicago is home to many places that foster multiculturalism and inclusion, but none better than the Old Town School of Folk Music. Since December of 1957, the school has remained committed to “teaching and celebrating music and cultural expressions rooted in the traditions of diverse American and global communities.” This sentiment rings loud from two programs that the school has continued promoting over the years with the guidance of community projects director, Mateo Mulcahy. World Music Wednesdays and the Global Dance Party program on Friday nights are just two of the ways that the school is combating the negative rhetoric in today’s society that has pitted so many communities against each other.
At the tail end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 I was lucky enough to see two quite memorable performances. To close out the 2015 Global Dance Party calendar, Pilsen’s own Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta eased onlookers into the new year with their soothing rhythms and cumbia infused beats. In contrast, Los Vicios De Papá kicked off the 2016 World Music Wednesday calendar with a powerful performance that had the energy of a politically charged rally with people longing for change. Looking back it’s clear to me now how music has an unprecedented power to unite different communities and cultures under a common interest.
If you know anything about Dos Santos, it’s that their music demands people to move their feet and immerse themselves into something that might not necessarily be within their comfort zone. Thirty minutes prior to the performance, a welcoming dance lesson was provided to invite even the most timid world music lovers to fully participate. As I found myself waiting along the outskirts of the dance floor, people young and old, from all different parts of the world and cultural backgrounds suddenly filled the void that surrounded me. In an instant it was as if the American Dream was being played out in front of me.
It was a melting pot of cultures and experience levels, but everyone held onto who they were as they tiptoed into a world of cumbia and Latin American fusion, a world I myself was still learning about through events like this. For those few hours everything I had been told to believe was left at the door. All the propaganda shoved in my face from different political campaigns had lost any ability to influence my thoughts. That fear that so many people have tapped into to garner support and votes had all but disappeared. Instead, a compassion and understanding that I know resides in everyone was touched, allowing those around me to engage with different cultures, rather than being paralyzed by the fear of the differences between them. All this, just because a handful of people decided to enjoy some music on a Wednesday night.
Whereas Dos Santos provided an easiness to the air inside the room, Los Vicios de Papa demanded an elevated sense of energy that forced an awareness among the audience. Clearly defined in their biography, their blend of cumbia, ska and reggae had a purpose. Their lyrics stemmed from their struggling and undocumented youth experiences. Within those experiences they found one another, each representing a different walk of life. Each band member encouraged one another and pushed for someone else to take the lead on stage, conveying a sense of loyalty to everyone’s well being. And this point was illuminated just before the second act was to commence.
“A few years ago I taught in Chicago Public Schools and worked with majority Latin@ students,” the trumpetist explained with an uneasiness in his voice. “Today one of my former students, someone who was always excited to come to school and learn, explained to me how she was scared to go to school now.” As the weight of the situation pressed down on his shoulders like a parent uncertain of their child’s well being, he stopped to collect himself.
“She told me that she was now scared to go to the place she used to love to go to learn and grow for fear of deportation. The fact that she was born here and that the United States was all she knew just wasn’t good enough anymore.” Frozen to attention, the information consumed the audience. Whatever preconceived notions they had on immigration and politics, culture and tradition, right and wrong, were now blurred into one coherent thought: Every child deserves stability and safety, the piece of mind that their parents will be waiting for them when they wake up and when the fall asleep at night. Yet again, in one short week, the gift of unity and compassion transcended time and place as music joined different communities together by their humility.
While the weight of the 2016 presidential election will only increase as the months inch closer to November, and with the critical rhetoric that candidates throw at each other destined to intensify, I’m proposing a new requirement. Just once, even if this only applies to the city of Chicago, community members should make a point to see a World Music Wednesday performance or attend a Global Dance Party event to clear the cloudiness that the country’s political climate has created. If we all can be touched by the fact that the music has brought us together, maybe we too can align our opinions on immigration, education, economic opportunity and health care to ensure that all members of the U.S. population are heard, represented and cared for.
Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta. Photo: Parker Asmann
Parker Asmann is a 2015 graduate of DePaul University with degrees in Journalism and Spanish, along with a minor in Latin American and Latino Studies. He is currently residing in Chicago while focusing on issues of social justice and human rights. He is a member of El BeiSMans Editorial Board.