Alice Santana gestured toward the vast open space stretching before her, a chilly underground area supported by towering cement pillars. It’s tough to imagine the basement of the Esperanza Center as home to any type of artistic play or creation, but, thanks to a number of large grants, the space will soon redefine the concept of the underground music scene.
The project is part of the expansion of the Artists and Musicians of Latin America program currently operating out of the Esperanza Center.
“We’re getting a whole new wing built. It’s going to get 10 new classrooms, recording studios, soundproofing, new offices and the ability to have big band rehearsals,” Santana, the school director of AMLA, said.
AMLA is an after-school performing arts program that offers private instrument lessons, music theory classes and exposure to talented community artists. A staff of 14 instructors oversees the education of 140 students. Familiar names among the staff include vocal teacher Anthony Colon, a well-known salsa singer from the 1980s, and Pedro Gely, a producer and writer for the Puerto Rican band Menudo.
Recent grants to the Esperanza Center will cover some of the costs of the renovations. The new music space will also serve as the arts center for Esperanza’s middle school.
“Esperanza was looking for a way to expand into the arts and culture of Philadelphia and it’s something that AMLA has always thrived at,” Santana said.
The ensemble program is a notable fixture in the school today. The youth and Latin jazz ensemble received a $35,000 grant from the Knight Foundation this past year for their flash jazz performances throughout the city.
Ensemble groups are open to students 12 to 18 years old.
Rhonda Taggart’s 17-year-old son is part of the group as a drummer.
“The instructors for the ensemble have given him a lot of guidance as far as how to orchestrate and lead your band. It’s actually strengthened his knowledge in that,” Taggart said.
The instructors motivate the students and get them to think about music more in-depth. Angel Sanchez, a music and engineering teacher at AMLA focuses on specifics in music.
“My goal is to bring the music technicality back to the kids in this neighborhood,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez especially works on the particulars with the vocalists he teaches.
“All they do is listen to the radio and think that’s all that singing is. So I trying to get them deeper into what singing music actually is,” Sanchez said.
Santana sees the program expanding to reach out to younger children.
“I want us to continue to grow and have more class offerings. I would like to go into the toddler sector and get kids at a younger age to expose them to the culture,” Santana said.