FEATURE (Herald Times): Ritmos Unidos mixes Latin sounds into unique music


Ritmos Unidos mixes Latin sounds into unique music

By Jaclyn Lansbery jlansbery@heraldt.com
February 24, 2013

Spiro_0224There’s little room for musical stubbornness in Aruba, where several genres of Latin music are part of the tiny island’s culture.

Local Latin band Ritmos Unidos is no different. Jamaal Baptiste, born and raised in Aruba, added to the group’s global approach to music that infuses jazz, R&B, salsa and other Latin styles.

“Now that I’ve been here for two years, I hear the stuff and I pick up on it, and I’m moving with them, and they’re grooving with me,” said Baptiste, a 24-year-old student studying jazz at IU Jacobs School of Music. “So being in the group, it’s a growing experience.”

The man responsible for forming Ritmos Unidos is Michael Spiro, a seven-time Grammy nominee, percussionist and Jacobs professor. When he was hired to work as a full-time professor in 2011, he needed to have a performing outlet, even though he still performs and lives in San Francisco six months of the year.

Forming a band can be tricky, though. It was important to have members who weren’t planning to relocate for good in the near future.

“Like anything you start, you take some time to see who is in the area, what sources there are,” said Spiro, who didn’t know anyone in Bloomington when he began teaching full-time at Jacobs. Eventually, he got in touch with Jacobs jazz professors Pat Harbison and Jeremy Allen. The three of them began looking for complementary members.

Members Mike Mixtacki and Joel Tucker played in Spiro’s Latin Jazz Collective at IU, and in fall 2011, one semester after moving to the United States, Baptiste auditioned and got into Spiro’s big band as well. That same semester, Spiro asked Baptiste if he wanted to play with Ritmos Unidos.

“Who wouldn’t want to play with faculty?” said Baptiste, who’s also a recipient of the 2012 David Baker Scholarship award. “I told everyone back home, ‘I’m joining a band with the faculty members.’”

With the exception of Mixtacki teaching percussion at Northern Illinois University, the rest of the members live and work in or close to Bloomington.

After writing enough of their own original songs, Ritmos Unidos — which, translated from Spanish, means “rhythms together” — released its first album of five tracks in January. They called the album “¡Funklorico!” The term forms the words “funk” and “folkloric.” Recording arts major Steve Veldman asked Spiro if the band wanted to record a song for his graduating senior project, and so Spiro decided that if they were going to record a song, they should record a bunch of songs. He decided it was time to make a CD.

Up until that point, the band played twice outside the state — once at Northern Illinois University and at the Jazz Education Network Conference in Atlanta, Ga., earlier this year. There was no point in consistently leaving the state for performances before the band had an album, he said.

“I also think we’re going to have a high degree of longevity because we don’t make our living playing music,” Spiro said. “And if we did, then we’d have to leave Bloomington, and you can’t make any money in Bloomington. So people would have to leave.”

Spiro said there’s no other band like Ritmos Unidos in the area. The musical style is hard to match to begin with, and Ritmos Unidos has the benefit of eight different musicians whose backgrounds range from rock to Afro-Cuban folkloric music.

“I don’t know that anybody, including myself, knew the degree to which we’d be able to (musically) move things around,” he said.

For Harbison, who started playing jazz in the Louisville, Ky., area, playing in Ritmos Unidos allowed him to go outside his comfort zone at an age when most musicians are “packing it in.”

“You know, it’s interesting because in the final analysis, when we got the band together, we got people in their twenties all the way up to their sixties, and it’s just a real diverse set of musical backgrounds and different ages,” said Harbison, who recently turned 58.

Playing with older musicians is nothing new for Baptiste, who’s taken three of Harbison’s jazz classes at Jacobs. In Aruba, he learned what is called a “performance practice” from mentors — keeping your eyes open and never doing your own thing unless you’re performing by yourself.

“At the end of the day, it’s an art, but it’s also entertainment,” he said.

The band

Michael Spiro, Mike Mixtacki, Joe Galvin, Jamaal Baptiste, Pat Harbison, Nate Johnson, Joel Tucker and Jeremy Allen.

Learn more about the band, hear their music or buy their CD or tracks online at http://ritmos-unidos.com.

Joe Galvin, left, Michael Spiro and Mike Mixtacki perform on Feb. 15, at Players Pub. Electrical issues prevented their band, Ritmos Unidos, from playing until later in the evening, so the three performers started the show with an acoustic set. Rabi Abonour | Herald-Times

Michael Spiro performs with Ritmos Unidos, a band he founded. Rabi Abonour | Herald-Times

Jeremy Allen performs with Ritmos Unidos. Rabi Abonour | Herald-Times

Copyright: HeraldTimesOnline.com 2013

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