Fairhill: Puerto Rican Institute of Music Brings Cultural Pride to Community

Alberto Pagan Ramirez played bomba drums with his students. Students of all ages attend the music classes.

 https://vimeo.com/30003951]

The melodic sounds of festive singing accompanying thumping rhythms of barriles drums poured out onto North Fifth Street late Sunday night.  The sounds were emanating from the Instituto Puertorriqueno de Musica, or the Puerto Rican Institute of Music, a brand new organization that opened on Sept. 17.  The institute was founded by Alberto Pagan Ramirez, a musician and teacher who has been teaching Puerto Rican music classes for 10 years. In September, he moved his classes from a friend’s basement to the institute, which is located in an old row home on 2661 N. Fifth St.
Alberto Pagan Ramirez (third from right) played bomba drums with his students. Students of all ages attend the music classes.

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.”

Bomba is accompanied by an unconventional dance style: the lead drummers’ rhythms have to follow the movements of the dancers, which is the opposite of traditional dance performances. In addition to teaching how to play  music, Pagan Ramirez delves deeper into the origins of the musical styles. “I teach the history of that music, not just the music,” Pagan Ramirez said. “The history and the present, and the present reality of this music today.”
Pagan Ramirez hails from Ponce, Puerto Rico, where he studied classical and band music with a concentration in percussion.  He moved to Trenton, N.J. in 1997 and relocated to Philadelphia two years later to become involved in Philadelphia’s vibrant Latino communities.  He became involved in Fairhill’s Puerto Rican community by volunteering at Taller Puertorriqueno, and was later named to the board of directors.  In the early 2000s, he began teaching plena and bomba in various churches and after-school programs. In 2003 he formed  the drum ensemble Tambueno, and in 2008 he created Bomple, a traveling bomba and plena group.
He opened the institute to primarily teach the two musical styles as well as other Puerto Rican musical styles, which speak to Puerto Rico’s diverse cultural identity. “There’s a sign of African influence in Puerto Rican culture,” Pagan Ramirez said. “Every time you think about Puerto Ricans, you have to think that we are a mix of races, and we have three races: West Africans, Spaniards and Taino Indians. You see that in our music, in our food, in everything.”

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 warmed up to teach her voice class by singing scales. Alvarez-Figueroa is a classically trained opera singer.

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.

Natalia Alvarez-Figueroa taught students in her voice class proper breathing techniques. Alvarez-Figueroa also teaches individual piano lessons.

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.”

29 Comments

  1. Great video! Very informative and the editing was superb. Only issue I had was the names of the interviewees went away before I could even finish reading them.

  2. Congratulations on creating an environment and atmosphere that is conducive to the safe learning of our communities cultural history. It is critical for self esteem and self awareness to be connected culturally and musically to our ancestors. The benefits go beyond the learning of singing, dancing, and drumming. The benefits are a strong sense of self and a strong sense of community. We are here to collaborate with you whenever you need us. Nelson Baez – Director of Cimarrones Bomba & Plena Ensemble

  3. The Puerto Rican Music Institute fills a cultural gap in the large hispanic community of Philadelphia. In bomba and plena I can hear a lot of sounds present in other Caribbean rhythms from countries like Colombia and Mexico, demonstrating really how united latinos are not only among races but across boarders. Alberto and his band are one of the most energetic bands in Philadelphia. A must-see

  4. Felicitaciones por el trabajo en beneficio de la cultura puertorriqueña. Siempre hay que sentir orgullo por nuestras raices.

  5. Congratulations my brother. You really are brave. I am proud you keep the puertorican music no matter how far you are. Go always ahead.

  6. Great!!Resaltar la esencia de la cultura puertorriqueña enmarcada en su “folklore” para que las generaciones de ahora aprendan sus costumbres y tradiciones.

  7. Me encanto el reportaje y q bueno q se esta reconociendo la labor suya en pro de el beneficio de la cultura puertorrique~a para mantener vivas nuestras raices.

  8. Thanks for a marvelous posting! I really enjoyed
    reading it, you may be a great author. I will be
    sure to bookmark your blog and will often come back very
    soon. I want to encourage that you continue your great writing,
    have a nice holiday weekend!

  9. Que bonito es ver a una persona como Alberto dedicar su tiempo para enseñar nuestra cultura en musica.

  10. My daughter I have taken lessons with Mr. Pagan and we have learned a lot from him. He emphasizes the importance of the history of the music as well as the history of the people. Great video!

  11. Mr. Pagan and his newly created organization, Puerto Rican Institute of Music, has brought not only to the Puerto Rican community but to the Hispanic population and others of Philadelphia and Vicinity, an exceptional and open space to learn the powerful and heterogeneous music or Puerto Rico. Mr Pagan has a vast knowledge of Puerto Rico history, culture and customs, thus bringing an added value to the students’ learning experience. I wish the best to this unique and valuable venture and I have no doubt of the quality of the services and products.

    Alfredo Perez

  12. Felicidades Alberto! Sabes que nos sentimos muy orgullosos de ti, y de tu grupo Bomple, y de tus estudiantes. Somos testigos de los esfuerzos que haces para mantener nuestra cultura viva en la comunidad Puertorriquena/Latina de Filadelfia.

    El reportaje es excelente!

    Pa’lante!

  13. Amazing! Such an awesome and amazing thing you’re doing to keep our culture alive! Proud of my hubby, Hector, he learned a lot and misses the classes!

  14. Muy linda la información. Hay mucha gente Puertorriqueña talentosa, es lamentable que no hayan más personas envueltas en tocar música tradicional Boricua en todos los lugares del mundo (donde quiera que estén, hay que mantener nuestra raza presente y echarla adelante). Hay que estar unidos, porque en la unión está la fuerza. En la misma isla ya se han olvidado mucho las tradiciones, nuestras raíces, nuestros héroes y la razón por la cuál debemos siempre dar honor a nuestros antepasados. Los Puertorriqueños somos los seres más afortunados de esta tierra. Hemos tenido influencias de tantas y tantas culturas, han habido inmigrantes de todos los países del mundo en la isla. Más sin embargo, los Puertorriqueños han tomado sus riquezas por sentado, han abandonado su hogar, su raza, sus creencias, sus logros; para vivir en gringolandia y parecernos más a ellos. Hay que tomar en cuenta que han habido razones válidas para abandonar nuestra isla superdotada. Pero no hay excusa para dejar nuestra cultura en el olvido.

  15. My son is a student at the institute and i can said that he not only had learn traditional music from Puerto. Rico but also the history of it origin and his behavior and grades at school is noticeable change for good after he started with his dance and drumming

  16. It is wonderful to now have a reasonably priced, culturally enriched learning environment within walking distance. The Puerto Rican community has been afforded the opportunity to reap the benefits of music education and positive cultural awareness through IPM. Thanks Mr. Pagan!

  17. Love to see people excited about spreading cultural education and see people interested in learning about their roots. Congrats to Alberto for keeping the torch alive with our forkloric Puerto Rican music. Keep up the good work mi Hermano!!.

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