Pagan Ramirez teaches bomba and plena, which are traditional Puerto Rican music and dance styles. Bomba is performed with drums, and is rooted in native African music. Plena, of Spanish, West African and Taino Indian descent, is played with panderos, or hand drums. “Both bomba and plena are very percussive music, so the heart of the music is the drums,” Pagan Ramirez said. “And then other instruments are put on top of it: guitar, trumpets and many others.”
The amalgamation of cultural influences in the music symbolizes his belief that Puerto Ricans are part of one unique culture. “Personally, I don’t like to talk about afro-Puerto Rican, white Puerto Ricans…for me, that’s going backwards,” Pagan Ramirez said. “For Puerto Ricans, we’re really mixed. We don’t have a separation of races as sharp as you guys have in the U.S.”
Natalia Alvarez-Figueroa is another teacher at the institute who teaches music and voice classes. Alvarez-Figueroa, a Temple University music therapy and classical voice student, teaches basic to advanced voice and piano workshops. In addition to Latino music, she and other instructors teach classical, jazz and pop. Last Saturday, she took a moment to praise the nascent institute before she began teaching her class.
“I think it’s a great opportunity because you do have other institutes that you could go to, but they are a lot more pricey,” Alvarez-Figueroa said. “And it doesn’t really give the people from the neighborhood the opportunity to really grow musically and actually be exposed to their music (…) So we’re trying to expose them to our music and keep them attached to our culture and also help them grow musically. We have the door open for everyone who just wants to learn and grow as a musician.”
The institute is noticeably more affordable than other music organizations. “The price I charge is to adapt to a lower-income community,” Pagan Ramirez said. The classes operate in trimesters, with the first trimester lasting from September to December. One trimester costs $120, and intensive individual singing workshops are $20 a person.
The institute attracts people of all ages, ranging from 12-year-olds to 50-year-olds. Juliselle Burgos, 16, is one of the younger music students, but is a bomba veteran who has been taking classes with Pagan Ramirez for five years. Burgos loves bomba because it gives her a palpable sense of cultural identity. “I like it because it’s from my country, and it tells me about my culture and what my family could have been through in the past,” Burgos said.
Eduardo Palacio, 12, is the youngest of the bomba drum group, but derives the same cultural pride from the music. “I like it because I like the rhythm of it, and because it’s from Puerto Rico, which is where I’m from,” Palacio said.
Both the instructors and the students believe that the institute is beneficial for the Fairhill and Puerto Rican community because it will instill a sense of ethnic pride and solidarity. “I think it’s good for the community because everybody can get together and play something that’s from another culture and experience something they have never heard before,” Palacio said.
Hector Vasquez, a social worker who been taking classes with Pagan Ramirez for six months agrees with Palacio. “Part of the thing about music and Latin culture is that it really brings hope to people in the community and I really wanted to be a part of that,” Vasquez said. “I also wanted to touch base on a historical part of Puerto Rican music that has been forgotten. This is like folk-Hispanic music in our culture that is kind of missing, and we’re trying to revive it. You want to become a part of it because it enriches your background and brings hope. Everybody is out to bring hope to the people and the community, and bring hope to our culture.”
The community will be able to enjoy the end result of the classes, because students and instructors will soon perform publicly. Their first performance will be on December 17th, the last day of classes. “Part of the school is not just taking the classes, but there are going to be performances from the students in special programs,” Pagan Ramirez said. “It’s going to be a center of music. It’s not just some classes then go home. It’s a lot more than that.”
He strongly agrees with his students that the institution will benefit the Fairhill and Puerto Rican community. “One of the main problems of this community is a lack of self-identity, knowing who they are and where they come from,” Pagan Ramirez said. “When you know who you are, you admire and respect yourself and you do everything better. The idea is to teach students their music and empower them. Through their music, they can celebrate and increase their self-esteem.”