In ‘West Side Story Reimagined,’ a Jazzy Version of the Iconic Score Also Helps Puerto Rico

bobbysanabria

“West Side Story: A Masterwork Reimagined” album was recorded live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York City in November, 2017 with Bobby Sanabria and entire 22-piece orchestra. (Photo/ Sarah Escaraz)

From the opening whistles and finger snaps to the soaring notes of composer Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria,” “West Side Story” is one of America’s most recognized and beloved musicals. A half century later, an acclaimed Latin jazz musician “reimagined” the score, creating a mostly instrumental album that has been drawing rave reviews and raising funds for an island dear to his heart.

“Two years ago, I came up with the idea of re-arranging the music from Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece, ‘West Side Story,’ and performing it with my Multiverse Big Band, but in a way that has never been done before: a complete Latin jazz reworking of the entire score in celebration of the show’s recent 60th anniversary and Maestro Bernstein’s centennial,” said bandleader and Latin jazz percussionist Bobby Sanabria, about his two-disc compilation, “West Side Story Reimagined.

“Besides paying tribute to the composer and music, I saw this as an opportunity to give back and help my ancestral homeland Puerto Rico,” he said.

Sanabria, 61, who has garnered seven Grammy nominations, was 15 when he was first introduced to “West Side Story.” Inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the 1957 musical revolves around a forbidden romance amid the racial tension between two New York City gangs: the Jets, who are white, and the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican. The musical was written during a time in U.S. history that saw a wave of Puerto Rican migration to the mainland, the “The Great Migration” of the 1950s.

The musical was later adapted to a film of the same name in 1961, which won ten Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Music.

“On the 10th anniversary of the film, in 1971, my parents took me to see it in a Bronx theater,” Sanabria told NBC News. “I was completely flabbergasted. I had a love affair with the music and how it dealt with the themes of hate and bigotry… It was very unique how it was done, but the music blew my mind. I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”

Sanabria was born in 1957, the same year as the musical’s creation. Growing up in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, he said he could relate to the rhythms — as well as the larger themes of ethnic tensions and prejudice.

“On any given summer night, you’d hear drums in the park…Salsa was the gospel of the masses at the time,” said the jazz musician about his formative years. “My mother was from Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, and my father from Guanica, Puerto Rico, and they met in New York City – in a house party in the Bronx.,” he said.

“New York was very territorial back then. My parents experienced that, and so did my sister and I,” said Sanabria, speaking of the prejudice Puerto Rican families felt.

“They were American citizens, but they [white New Yorkers] just feared them out of ignorance. Those whites abandoned those neighborhoods. Now the sons of daughters of the whites that fled want those neighborhoods back,” said the musician, referring to the changes in recent decades that have brought many young whites to New York City neighborhoods that had been seen as primarily ethnic enclaves for decades.

ITS THEMES AND MUSIC STILL RESONATE

The themes of “West Side Story” are more timely than ever, said Sanabria. Coincidentally, Steven Spielberg is currently working on a new adaptation of the film.

“In certain parts of this country it’s very dangerous to be Latino right now,” said Sanabria. “This CD is an affirmation of all the great contributions we’ve made to art, theater music, poetry, and activism. It all started with us in New York City. It’s also an affirmation for Latino culture in general and what we’ve contributed to the United States.”

New York City now, said Sanabria, is much more ethnically diverse; neighborhoods that used to be primarily Puerto Rican now have many Mexican, Dominican, Haitian, Indian and Brazilian families compared to 1950s New York.

"West Side Story: A Masterwork Reimagined" performs at the Lincoln Center Center Out of Doors on August 10, 2018."

“West Side Story: A Masterwork Reimagined” performs at the Lincoln Center Center Out of Doors on August 10, 2018.” (Photo/ Maria Traversa)

“When my ancestors came from Puerto Rico, mambo was the biggest thing, but Bernstein didn’t know about the bomba and plena, so I incorporated that — as well as Dominican, Brazilian and funk sounds,” said Sanabria.

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

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Treasured Travel Destinations of Latino Americans

We figured Hispanic Heritage Month could inspire some of us to look to our homelands as we plan – or dream – about our next vacation. It’s easy to overlook the stunning diversity of landscapes in the Caribbean and Latin America.

NBC News Latino asked some of our friends to share their special places when they go visit their families’ native countries. We got back some beautiful pictures and unique locations.

Mexico

It’s hard to pick where to travel to in Mexico, because it has so much diverse beauty in its more than 30 states. Cancún, and Tulum, which both reside on the Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo, continue to be winning beach destinations year after year. The capital, Mexico City, is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, with 16 boroughs and more than 300 neighborhoods. In addition to being a lead city in the arts, it is also home of the Aztec archaeological ruins of Teotihuacan.

Jaime Davila’s family is originally from General Terán in Nuevo León. Also known as the“Breakaway Backpacker,” Davila is currently on his second trip around the world and just happened to be in Mexico. He said this has been his favorite gem so far:

Image: Guanajuato, Mexico.
(Photo/JAIME DAVILA) Guanajuato, Mexico.

“Get lost in one of the many callejones, “alleys,” that make up this colonial city set on hills,” said Davila. “As you wander its cobblestone streets, you’re met with an array of color. You can’t help but smile with joy and wonder how it’s kept its charm for so long. Even though it is filled with many attractions, the best thing to do, when visiting, is to just get lost and soak it all in.”

Chile

With its amazing stargazing at the Atacama Desert, its ancient moai statues on Easter Island, and beautiful ski slopes during (our) summer, Chile placed second on Yahoo Travel’s “World’s Top 10 Countries” this year.

Andrea Farah, who is from the capital, Santiago, visited this luscious place in southern Chile in 2011 and has loved it ever since:

Image: Termas Geometricas.
(Photo/ANDREA C. FARAH) Termas Geometricas, Chile.

Termas Geometricas has been one of the most breathtaking sites I have been to – there is so much peace and beauty there,” said Farah. “I literally felt full of energy visiting the Termas. I would definitely recommend anyone visiting Chile to go to there. There are hot springs in the middle of the forest! It can’t get any better than that,” she shared.

Loreto Riveros Fraser, also from Santiago, loves visiting the city of Valparaíso about an hour away from her hometown.

Image: A trolleybus and the Turri Clock Tower behind it in the Financial District of Valparaiso, Chile. (Photo/LORETO RIVEROS FRASER) A trolleybus and the Turri Clock Tower behind it in the Financial District of Valparaiso, Chile.

“I took this photo in February while I was visiting my family after two years,” said Riveros Fraser. “It is special, because it is a family tradition to go and ride the trolleybus, and I haven’t done that in a long time,” she shared.

Bolivia

Bolivia, like Peru, was part of the Inca Empire before Spanish colonization. The land-locked country has many beautiful spots to visit such as Lake Titicaca and Madidi National Park.

Ingrid Matias, whose family originates from Bolivia, recommended this unique location:

Image: Salar de Uyuni, salt water flats in southwest Bolivia.
(Photo/INGRID MATIAS) Salar de Uyuni, salt water flats in southwest Bolivia.

“If you’ve ever wanted to walk on the clouds, Uyuni is the place to visit,” she said, adding that everyone who visits el Salar must join a tour group. “The whole tour lasts three days.”

Image: Hotel-Museo del Sal in Salar de Uyuni.
(Photo/INGRID MATIAS) Hotel-Museo del Sal in Salar de Uyuni.

“We didn’t stay in Hotel-Museo del Sal, because it’s a museum now, but we did stay at a salt hotel in a nearby town,” she told us. “The bed frames were made of salt. The walls were made of salt.”

Puerto Rico

The island of Puerto Rico is just a gem in itself. Walking through colonial San Juan, and climbing to El Morro brings you back to the 16th century. You can also take a ferry to visit some of the world’s most beautiful beaches off the islands of Culebra and Vieques.

Jessica Caban, who is from the northwestern city of Aguadilla, said she has been to the El Yunque Rainforest twice already and can’t get enough:

Image: El Yunque National Forest in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.
(Photo/JESSICA CABAN) El Yunque National Forest in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.

“There is a small rock ledge that you could stand on – on your way up to the highest peak – where you can see a large part of the forest and feel the clouds on your skin,” said Caban about El Yunque, a rainforest that is part of the U.S. National Park Service (Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth). “It’s actually a very breathtaking view, but quite scary, – the ledge is small, and there are no guard rails so you can fall off!” she said.

Caban also loved hearing the coquis (small tree frogs native only to Puerto Rico), butterflies and parrots, as well as the waterfalls and rivers one can bathe in.

Priscilla Rivera from Luquillo loves this hidden treasure of Puerto Rico that she recently visited:

Image: Rio Camuy Caves in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
(Photo/PRISCILLA RIVERA) Rio Camuy Caves in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

“You basically have to go through someone’s backyard to get to this particular cave and waterfall system,” said Rivera. “On the way there, you walk along a very steep mountain, almost on your tippy toes, and then once you reach the cave, you have to jump in ice-cold water to get inside of it.”

The tour of the cave itself is about two hours long, she said, and it requires maximum physical fitness – as well as not being afraid of cave spiders and bats.

“I thought I wouldn’t make it through all of the different entrances of the cave because of claustrophobia, but the equipment they give you and a well-trained tour guide helped a lot,” said Rivera. “Once you get out of the cave, you go through this tunnel waterfall system on your back – body rafting.”

Peru

Recently named the leading cultural and culinary destination by the World Travel Awards, Peru is the home of the majestic 15th-century Inca site, Machu Picchu, the mysterious Nazca Lines, located in the Nazca Desert in southern Peru, and some of the world’s most genetically diverse crops.

Jonathan Siu, originally from Lima, Peru, shared some of his favorite, less known locations in his native country:

Image: Paracas, a desert reserve located near Las Islas Ballestas.
(Photo/JONATHAN SIU) Paracas, a desert reserve located near Las Islas Ballestas.

“The first thing that comes to my mind is the peacefulness of the area,” said Siu. “AlthoughParacas is becoming a resort-esque city, it still conveys a local, almost familiar ambience. I took this picture on my way to the Ballestas Islands.”

Image: Village of Huacachina, five hours south of Lima.
(Photo/JONATHAN SIU) Village of Huacachina, five hours south of Lima.

Huacachina is a small village that surrounds a natural oasis in the desert of Ica,” he said. “We got there after taking a buggy ride and sand boarding throughout the desert dunes. It is truly a magical place. On this particular day, the weather was not on our side, hence the contrast between the dark skies and the whiteness of the sand.”

Dominican Republic

From its 16th century castles and monasteries to its tropical green hills and turquoise beaches, the Dominican Republic is a favorite destination for many. Catherine Cuello, co-founder of the Greenhopping app, says these two places from her native Dominican Republic make her feel at peace, calm, and serene.

Image: Puerto Bahia in Samana, Dominican Republic.
(COURTESY CATHERINE CUELLO) Puerto Bahia in Samana, Dominican Republic.

“It’s my place to unwind and re-power to be able to handle New York City,” says Cuello. “It’s my safe haven and my piece of bliss.”

Image: A view of the beach in Barahona, Dominican Republic.
(COURTESY CATHERINE CUELLO) A view of the beach in Barahona, Dominican Republic.

Brazil

There doesn’t seem to be a single person who doesn’t have Brazil on their “bucket list” of places to visit, and it’s with good reason.

Rio de Janeiro is home to the iconic Ipanema Beach, the largest art statue in the world –Christ the Redeemer– and of course Rio’s annual Carnival held during the Friday to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

Denise Oliveira, from Rio de Janeiro, shared with us her family’s favorite location:

Image: Marau Peninsula, town of Barra Grande, state of Bahia in Brazil.
(Photo/NESTOR MACIEL) Marau Peninsula, town of Barra Grande, state of Bahia in Brazil.

“Barra Grande Beach in Bahia has become my family’s favorite vacation destination in Brazil,” said Oliveira, “…it has the most beautiful scenery in the country, and the food is amazing.”

 Originally published on NBCNews.com.

 

Amidst drugs and violence, art turns lives around in PR housing project

Anoushka Medina and Xavier Morales, protagonists in “For Love in the Caserío.” (Courtesy Cine-Coop)

Anoushka Medina and Xavier Morales, protagonists in “For Love in the Caserío.” (Courtesy Cine-Coop)

Antonio Morales was born in the second largest housing projects in the U.S. – the Residencial Luis Llorens Torres in San Juan, Puerto Rico – also known as el Caserío. His dad was a drug lord in their intimate, yet violent world consisting of 140 buildings and about 2,600 units, and his mom was one of its drug addicts.

As a boy, Morales would find guns in the closet and drugs under the mattresses, but at 15, he found the arts. Morales had passed a competitive audition to attend the Jose Julian Acosta Theatre Arts Middle and High School in Old San Juan, and that was his one-way ticket out of his violent past.

“I knew I didn’t want to end up like my father,” says Morales. “I found my passion in the arts, and I was convinced that the arts was going to be the most effective tool to get kids off the streets. Once the federal agents arrested my dad, I started Viviendo el Arte – in the housing project…I started to teach theater to other kids in the neighborhood as a way to help them.”

While studying theater at the University of Puerto Rico, Morales says he got the urge to write a play for the kids in el caserío to act out. It was inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet’s” family feud. He wrote his own theatrical love story set in the housing project.

Instead of the Montagues and Capulets, the friction was between feuding gangs – Los Caliente and Trebol. In the play Cristal and Angelo meet and fall in love, but their families belong to the feuding gangs. The successful play, “For Love in the Caserío” then became a feature film, and it has had so much success in 16 movie theaters on the island it just started a three-day tour in New York this week through November 14.

“I found so many similarities to our reality,” says Morales about when he first read “Romeo and Juliet” in high school “I found it so amazing that I could include all our social problems in Shakespeare’s plot line…I used all my reality and joined it with a prohibited love story, and it was a success.”

But the success he is most proud is how his art has helped change many lives in a housing project known primarily for its drugs and violence.

“First it transformed the kids, and then it went on to transform the parents, and then the community,” says Morales. “Before I knew it, everyone wanted to come see the play. They knew it was about their lives. They felt I was exposing them, but I also offered different tools to better themselves.”

Since Antonio first wrote the play 12 years ago, it has been presented more than 500 times all over the island, and it has flourished with the involvement of members of el caserío  – from lighting to set design.

“For Love in the Caserío” writer and producer Antonio Morales. (Courtesy Cine-Coop)

“For Love in the Caserío” writer and producer Antonio Morales. (Courtesy Cine-Coop)

He explains that after each show he and the director, Luis Enrique Rodriguez, talk to the audience.

“People in the audience sometimes would confess the bad things they were doing, and with tears in their eyes, say they wanted to be rescued,” says Morales.

Now 31, Morales remembers back when he was 15, and the kids he recruited for his project were around 12.

“I had to be the most outstanding student, because I had the responsibility with other kids in the community,” he says. “I had to understand everything so I could have the answers.”

 He happily mentions that many are still active and teaching the next generation involved with Viviendo el Arte, or have careers in the arts themselves. Now in their late 20’s and early 30’s, they are also the actors he used in “For Love in the Caserío.”

“I was very convinced that it had to be done with our kids,” says Morales.  His 25-year-old brother Xavier, who started acting in the play at age eight, plays the lead in the movie. “They lived it, it’s their reality.”

When officials at the San Juan office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) saw the play, they got involved, and continue to meet regularly to provide support to the project. The New York Times reports that, so far, housing officials in Puerto Rico have given $2.8 million for a tour of the play and the production of the film.

After HUD Secretary Maurice Jones saw the play, he received a letter from Morales, which was posted in the HUD web site.

“In the late 1990′s, we learned an increase in prison sentencing and armed police officer presence made little difference in controlling drug crime in Puerto Rico,” wrote Morales. “Moreover, we learned punishment does not drive behavior. However, what has been proven successful and what drives public housing youth to modify behavior has been peer modeling. This is why I created the theater group which includes a group of talented individuals from the largest public housing project in Puerto Rico, Llorens Torres, to star in my play, ‘Por Amor en el Caserío.’”

Morales tells NBC Latino, “Now we’re in New York, and we want to continue to work hard and spread our message. What are the chances to succeed when nobody cares?”

Today, Morales lives with his brother Xavier in an apartment in Guaynabo, near San Juan and works full time in film production and with his theater group, San Juan Drama Company, which is volunteer run and involves more than 100 youth.

Xavier Morales says he had two older brothers to look up to, one was a drug dealer like his dad – both of whom ended up in federal prison – and his brother Antonio.

“Antonio inspires me,” Xavier told an audience after the film screening in John Jay College on Monday. “He changed my life.”

 The film’s producers say crime has significantly decreased in the housing project and the drug gangs support Morales’ work after seeing the positive effect it’s had on the youth.

“We want people to see our work because of the social transformation effect it causes,” says Morales. “It’s not just a movie.”

“The audience comes out different than when they entered – that’s how you know your art is working.”


Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Rita Moreno reveals all in her new memoir

Rita Moreno (Courtesy Rita Moreno Archives)

Rita Moreno (Courtesy Rita Moreno Archives)

Rita Moreno, at 81, says she might return to taking flamenco classes now that she has finished writing her book, “Rita Moreno: A Memoir,” which hit shelves this week.

The first Latina to win an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Anita, the tough girlfriend to the Sharks’ gang leader in “West Side Story”), was also one of the few artists to also win an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony Award. The Puerto Rican-born actress has been breaking down barriers in Hollywood for more than 50 years, and last year, she concluded a sold-out run of her one-woman show, “Life Without Makeup,” in Berkeley, Calif. In her book, she talks about all of it, including her love life in between.

“I got inspired by doing a play about my life in Berkeley where I live,” says Moreno about what made her write her memoir now. “It had so much success with audiences, I figured a book would be better, because I could include a lot more material — that’s how it started.”

She says her love for performing and dancing began at a very young age.

“I started dancing for grandpa in Puerto Rico when I was 3 or 5,” says Moreno. “He’d put on some music — I’m sure it was salsa, and I’d shake my little booty and everyone thought it was adorable. I loved the attention. It’s also another way of being appreciated…through an audience.”

The very graceful actress with a feminine voice and manner, was also born very headstrong. She says she felt an incessant pull to audition for her first play at just 13 and asked her mom to take her.

“It was very interesting, because I had never been in a theater,” says Moreno, who had at the time been taking dance lessons. “Doing a play was exotic. It was a wonderful experience, but the play [“Skydrift”] closed the very next day. That gave me the taste of how cruel show business could be…”

She says the business changed a lot since she started her acting career. Moreno says it’s still not really great for Latinos in film yet, but at least the door is ajar.

“It really was impossible,” she remembers. “There were no Latinos anywhere, and if there were, they would play Indians. [Today,] Jennifer Lopez is able to talk like herself. When I did films, I always had to do an accent.”

But the memory that will always bring a smile to her face, she says, is getting an Oscar.

“It was my very first award and still the greatest of all,” she says. “I was really in disbelief. I couldn’t believe I beat Judy Garland. I didn’t have a speech ready. It never occurred to me…I was so unprepared.”

She says she played back the video of that moment in time, many times, to her two grandsons who are now 14 and 12. She can still recite it by memory.

“‘I don’t believe it…pause…Good Lord, I don’t believe it…pause…I leave you with that,’ That was it!” laughs Moreno. “That sure was poetic, huh? It certainly shows I was very surprised.”

Besides her award-winning career, what it was like moving to New York City, and leaving her brother in Puerto Rico at age 5, Moreno also writes openly about a short fling with singer Elvis Presley and her tumultuous 8-year love affair with actor Marlon Brando — which at one point dragged her low enough to almost commit suicide. Since then, she’s learned a lot about herself, and love.

“Love is a great deal about respecting the person you’re with,” says Moreno, who later had a happy 45-year marriage with Leonard Gordon. “That’s what makes a lasting relationship. Romantic love is all based on fantasy. The people who dream of the handsome prince are in for a big surprise.”

Instead of fantasizing, she says she’s learned it’s more practical to follow your instinct and ask yourself, “Is this the person I want to spend the rest of my life with?”

She says that was one of the biggest questions she’s ever asked herself, but she ultimately chose her husband because she felt he offered her “enormous protection.”

“I had too many frauders in my life,” says Moreno. “Also, he a sense of humor — he really made me laugh — that has always been very important. We met through a mutual friend who just felt we were meant for each other.”

She concurs their gut was right. They had a daughter and spent many happy years together until his death in 2010.

Just last night, she says excitedly that Justice Sonia Sotomayor came to her book party at the house of the producer of HBO’s controversial series, “Oz,” from which she won an ALMA Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series in 1998, 1999 and 2002.

“I loved it,” says Moreno about Sotomayor’s book, which she narrated for audio tape. “It’s a wonderful book and she’s a remarkable woman.”

On March 7, there will be a special screening of “West Side Story,” and a book signing of “Rita Moreno: A Memoir,” at New York’s Cinema Arts Centre.

“It’s the whole business of presenting my life to an audience,” she says. “I hope people will be moved by it…cry at the sad stuff…laugh at the funny stuff…”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com