With Cuban music claiming much of the attention in Southern California throughout the month, the focus shifted to Puerto Rico over the weekend at the John Anson Ford Theatre's second annual Dia de San Juan Music and Dance Festival.
And although both islands claim a similar heritage of African, Spanish and indigenous influences, the music had a distinctly Puerto Rican character. There was plenty of salsa, of course, accompanied by some extraordinary dancing, most notably by concert promoter Albert Torres and partner Laura Canellias. But there also were healthy servings of traditional styles in the bomba (the Puerto Rican equivalent of Cuban rhumba) and the Spanish-associated plena.. Above all, there was a feeling of celebration, a sense of joy in a performance that constantly urged the packed house to share the musical experience.
The concert--a busy, talent-packed production by dancer/entrepreneur Torres--had several peaks. The first was the appearance of Modesto Cepeda & La Familia Cepeda, a 14-piece ensemble of drummers, dancers and vocal chorus with lead singing by Cepeda, a veteran musician and one of the principal advocates of the bomba and plena as Puerto Rico's most authentic form of music and dance. And the ensemble's performance, with its rhythmic call-and-response patterns among the singers and its elegant, story-telling dance numbers, was enormously convincing, both as folklore and as sheer, body-moving, foot-tapping music.
The evening's second highlight was a climactic set of music by the superb, 19-piece Albert Torres Tribute Orchestra, led by Johnny Polanco and Freddie Crespo. Moving rhythmically through tributes to Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, El Gran Combo and others, the ensemble managed to convert the stage and the aisles of the Ford into a nonstop, audience-participatory dance spectacular.