On Sunday afternoon, the lights went down, and the crowd fell silent at The Freight and Salvage in Downtown Berkeley. The night’s emcee, flooded by a spotlight and surrounded by instruments, stepped onto the stage to thank the audience for coming out.
On Sept. 20, Puerto Rico — which had already faced disaster from Hurricane Irma — was ravaged by Hurricane Maria. In response to the disaster that left millions in dire need of assistance, local musicians from the Bay Area gathered at 2020 Addison St. to raise awareness and funds toward disaster relief for Puerto Rico.
The night began with bomba — a style of music that is practically synonymous with Puerto Rican history. A group of women and children gathered at the corner of the stage, while several men sat behind seated drums. The Spanish lyrics of their ballads for Puerto Rico filled the room as they opened the show.
In the group’s next piece, a woman edged her way to the side of the stage, slowly moving the edges of her floor-length skirt as her feet softly padded to the rhythm of the drums. As she moved into the audience, the ruffled ends of her skirt lifted higher and higher into the air. In the tradition of bomba, she kept strong eye contact with the drummer, leading the rhythm of the song with each flourish of the ruffles that lined her skirt.
The night’s performances wasn’t just music from Puerto Rican tradition — the show featured many artists who are part of the Puerto Rican diaspora within United States. One of the performers was Oakland rapper Rico Pabón. The audience waited a few minutes for him to come out onto the stage. When he finally emerged, he wiped away tears — three weeks after the hurricane, he had finally heard that his father in Puerto Rico was OK.
He, like most all of the artists who performed, talked about the devastation in Puerto Rico — and the various needs of the U.S. territory at this time. Nevertheless, before Pabón began his set, he said, “There is so much pain, yet so much hope,” commenting on how moved he was by the efforts made by the Berkeley community to help the country his family originated from.
In his rap, “So Called War,” he spits out rhymes faster and faster as he unravels the issues and hypocrisy of the U.S. government and its role in the letting corporations run its society. The audience’s jaws had hit the ground by the time he finished his set.
Following Pabón was an all-women jazz trio. Led by the bassist, they opened with some bluesier numbers, including a powerful rendition of the hit “Call It Stormy Monday.” After the T-Bone Walker cvover, the band introduced its next piece, “Quarrel,” a song off of Moses Sumney’s newest album. Although Sumney’s Aromanticism was named one of Pitchfork’s best new albums — and though he was one of the younger musicians to be honored in the night’s show — the band took the time to give the artist a little intro.
As the women got into their set, they brought the kind of life to the song that can only be heard in a live performance. The pulsation of the drummer’s hand to the shivering of the cymbals, the piano player dipping into the keys with each twinkle and the bassist tangled around the neck of her instrument transformed the song into an extension of the women on the stage.
This happened with every performer that was on the stage that night. As they weaved around their instruments, moving through each note that pulsed into the theater, they and their passion for their culture and art filled the room with hope for those who have been affected by the hurricane in Puerto Rico.
What was so powerful about this concert was that it wasn’t just a fundraiser — it was a celebration of Puerto Rican heritage. It was a performance that showed how, even in its darkest hours, Puerto Rico’s beauty is still vibrant in its people’s resilience and passion.
Contact Annalise Kamegawa at [email protected].