Touching Up My Roots

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It was the day before the Puerto Rican day parade and I needed a new pair of clave sticks. My old ones had seen better days when splinters hadn’t yet struck up from the middle where one wooden stick struck the other in a two bar, five note metronomic beat that kept the band on point. For years my clave’s “Pa, pa, pa, pause, Pa, pa,” had gradually worn away the center of the left stick, the wood splintered like an opened wound. This left a raw, jagged beige rough patch in contrast to the rest of its polished brown; both sticks indented to the sound of music.

My clave strikers had been with me since I'd started the band seven years before. They’d traveled to the Pyrenees Mountains in Toulouse, France, keeping time in a bullring where we performed for 20,000 people. They’d been with me when we opened for the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. And when some suited up professional a-hole tried to touch my tush at a restaurant, it was the brunt of my right clave that hit his left arm hard. It felt good to watch him rub it as he danced to our music. They’d been through a lot.

Right now my sticks looked like a pair of raggedy, badly polished chipped nails. There was a big festival in East Harlem that day that ran ten blocks downtown from 116th street. Hundreds of thousands of people were expected. We were performing that afternoon and had a photo shoot scheduled for 11 am. I got to Mi Barrio Music store on 115 and Lex at 10:30 that morning.

Vendors and corporate reps were already in the streets hawking everything from fried food to those cheap company logo-tagged freebies people seem to fight over for status. I pushed through the glass door and asked Reynaldo for a pair of claves. I didn’t want any of the plain brown Lp packaged ones he had hanging from the pegboard. From experience I knew to avoid those Latin Percussion brands; they didn’t have the right “pah.” Didn’t like the dull sound of the bigger ones he had opened on the counter either. Then I saw the pair painted with the red, white & blue of the Puerto Rican flag and I pointed.

“Let me see those.” 

Pa, pa, pa, pause. Pa, pa.

The sound was deep and resonating, wood on wood, echoing tones centuries old whose roots dug deep across the world. These sticks had a strong, whole, solid voice that could cut across a sixteen-piece orchestra. Yeah! I felt the wave of their staccato accents reverb through my hands, up my arms, gyrating around me in a circle of sound.

Reynaldo looked at my white wig bopping, my bandleader blazer draped over my black and white bustier and asked what stage we were playing. 

“106 and Third. 2 o’clock.” I answered in clave time as I continued to rap the strikers. 

We both laughed. I bought them. 

I walked back fast down to a hundred and second and Park where our rehearsal studio waited with the rest of the band, the photographer, the hostess called Rina la reina and a poet called Mariposa. The day was clear and sunny. The sun shone off the gleaming stones that make up the seventeen tunnels that run across Park from 97th Street to 125th. One of those tunnels was right in front of our studio. Resembling a Roman Aqueduct coursing up Park Avenue, they distinguish El Barrio from any other place in the City. On clear days like that day, you could spot the Irish and Polish names that had been tagged into these stones by immigrant workers building the passage for the railway at the turn of the last Century. By the 20s, pushcart vendors had gathered under its archways giving way to  La Marqueta, the tropical culinary bazaar for Latinos that thrived until the ‘70,b efore Goya Foods filled that gap in every neighborhood supermarket. 

“Let’s take the band and our instruments there,” I suggested to the photographer. Right by the graffiti, I pointed. Next to where the only little green branch sticks out of the cobblestones. That’s as close to our roots as we’re gonna get in this City, I thought, as close to the cultural corridors of Seville where Arab chants wafted out of domed limestone archways, where Jewish cantors cried out from temples as Spaniards clapped, sang and tapped staccato to cante flamencos. The Diaspora brought drums and chants of free blacks influenced by West African cantes de ida y vuelta, songs that travel full circle from Africa to Spain and back, all sung in the same melisma timbre and cadence that tugs at the hairline. All of them singing to God.

Zon del Barrio. Musicians from left to right:  David Fernandez (musical director), Oreste Abrantes, Jason Gonzalez, Tito Gonzalez, Nelson Matthew Gonzalez, Ruben Lopez, Maryann Santiago and Aurora Flores (with the claves).

My mother once told me that singing is like praying twice. Something like two times two to the second power so to speak. I remembered it well since she said this when I was picked by the nuns to sing at mass on Sundays. Mind you, it wasn’t a children’s choir. And I wasn’t even in Catholic School. But I took religious instruction every Thursday afternoon, a respite from my public school elementary education. I also attended Sunday school every week after Mass, having just completed my first communion at Holy Name Church and studying for my confirmation. I knew all the songs. And back then they were in Latin. 

But the nuns were not easy. In fact, they were kind of scary. They never seemed happy. Their piercing blue eyes and furrowed brows were always on the lookout for some infraction from us public school heathens. Right away they told me “Tell your parents to change your name. Your name’s not in the Bible. You name is pagan.” 

“My name is not Pagan or "Pah-gahn,” I retorted, mistaking her insult for an Americanized mispronunciation of a Latino surname not even my own. “It’s Flores.” 

So maybe the nun felt guilty, I don’t know — but when the church soprano moved from the neighborhood, she told the organist that one of her students was a soprano and knew all the songs by heart. He didn’t mind that I was only eight years old. 

The following Sunday my Mom had me up in that steeple at six in the morning. The nuns dressed me in a black, buttoned down robe followed by a white, flowing long lacy tunic pulled over the frock topped by a little satin white hat that looked just like a “yamaka.” I remembered seeing a yamaka on the head of Eliazar, the little boy my age who visited my housing project apartment in Harlem with his Sephardic parents the year before. They were friends of my father, spoke Spanish, and were from Argentina. I pulled his Shirley Temple ear locks and he let me wear his little skullcap.

Doña Cruzita, Aurora's mom.

I adjusted my monochromatic outfit, putting a bobby pin in my beanie. The nuns gave me my music book and led me to the rest of the choir already standing around talking and doing little vocal exercises. Everyone was very friendly, smiling, happy that I was there. I felt special, different from all the other kids. 

The organist gave the cues. We sang in a five-part harmony that, as clichéd as it sounds, really did feel celestial. Singing the songs seemed like the most natural thing in the world. But instead of being down in the pews with the rest of my classmates, I was up here with all the adults, with the professional musicians. 

Then, from that balcony high above, we saw the priest come out in all his robes, as puffs of incense rose around him like he was riding on clouds to the altar. He welcomed the congregation, turned his back, and began mass. 

Dominus secular seculorum.” 

Et cum spiritu tuo.” Came the reply. 

The wooden church arches above me now were so close I could almost have touched them if I got on a chair. The stained glass windows made glowing shadows on our faces. The pumping from the organ pipes was super amplified up there. 

Then it happened. As I got to the top of “Agnus Dei” I felt a vibration ripple through my body like a tuning fork, holding me in its grip as I sang and held the high note. It vibrated through and around me, ricocheting from the wooden arches. A beam of stained glass sunshine from the windows washed over me filling my body, warming my throat, swirling through my stomach like butterflies, lifting me to my toes as the sound waves came back around through my skull and out from my lips in a swirling circle that had all the little hairs on my throbbing body standing on end. A magical pull cast me upward through the music. I felt like an angel. 

We repeated this scene every Sunday for about a year until my mother got too busy with my other siblings to take me to church so early. I went on to study music, was part of a classical orchestra in school and recorded my first album as first bassist for the Manhattan Borough Wide Orchestra at Town Hall before my father yanked me out of music school after I joined a Latin jazz band. His eldest daughter was not going to be lost in the underground world of music, he determined. I was to be a professional, not a musician. That’s what I became, a professional music journalist, composer, and producer—a professional communicator. Fifty years had passed since that first moment when music took hold of my soul and here I stood, after so much time, leading a Latin music dance band and performing around the world. 

“Smile for the camera” the photographer directed. The emcee, the rest of the band and I all stood under that East Harlem tunnel now. Looking for the best pose for the camera, putting on lipstick, marking our places. I held my new claves as I stood under the stone archway. I felt the weight of the wood in my hands, the left one painted brightly with the flag colors of my parents country of birth, the Island they were made to leave as Citizens of the U.S the same democratic leader that turned Puerto Ricans into civilians and the Island into its own 21st Century colony. Red, white and blue. I looked up at the wall of stones around me and saw the Polish "Arab" looking surname, Abad scrawled into the masonry above. 

It’s a funny thing about roots. They’re never one straight tube directly down into the ground. Roots are more of a knot of fibers, veins, and stems all entwined within each other, drinking from the spillover of other soils that overflow their own, burying themselves deep into the earth and rising just above its terra firma.

Playing at the corner of 106 and Third.

We left the block to hit the stage. We sang my song “Mi Bandera,” an ida y vuelta plena as someone handed us a big flag to fly. I started to improvise: “Yo Soy Boricua.” 

Pa’ que tu lo sepas,” thousands responded. I could feel the sonic waves roll from the crowd and crash the stage only to recede and crash again. Suddenly, someone yelled, “Aurora, your mother’s here.” They pointed to a tiny gray haired lady being led to a chair, front and center to the stage. When she sat down, she just looked up, smiled, and stared, tears glistening from her eyes. She began to sing with everyone else. 

Mi bandera me lleva, mi bandera me trae, mi bandera me lleva a la tierra del Le, Lo, Lei.” 

My flag takes me round trip, without a passport or customs hitch, to Uncle Sam’s outpost, Puerto Rico. My flag takes me to the land where everyone sings le, lo, lei, the refrain of the Island’s country people, the people of the earth, the people who sing: “A le, lo lei, A le lo lei” a call to Allah, to Jehovah, to God and to the Universe that spins and moves to an untapped energy of space and time. 

Pa, pa, pa, pause, Pa, pa. 

Singing is prayer to the second power.

© Aurora Flores. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 23 October 2015.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.