by Brent Baldwin
To have seen Jorge NegrA3n, founding singer for local salsa favorite Bio Ritmo, strolling through the Fan in the early '90s, decked out in a fedora and skinny leather jacket, was akin to watching John Travolta groove down the street in “Saturday Night Fever.” Not that the former Richmonder was into disco, mind you, but the man had personal style, easily noticeable through his thick Puerto Rican accent, charming demeanor and retro-before-retro-threads-were-cool look.
“He was the ultimate master of ceremonies,” says Brooklyn DJ and respected drummer Jim Thompson, who co-founded Bio Ritmo and helped book its shows. “Jorge was not a trained singer, he was singing from the heart. If anything he was more of a heartfelt person and player; he connected with the music more intuitively.”
Raised in Ponce, Puerto Rico, the son of a well-known radio deejay, NegrA3n has always gravitated toward teaching art. After earning a degree in art education from Virginia Commonwealth University, he was involved in various instrument-making workshops at the Science Museum and still works with the public today, albeit back in his native country, developing workshops for the museums and parks program at the Instituto de Cultura PuertorriqueAña of San Juan, focusing on African musical heritage.
“Once you start learning about drum patterns and going back in history you always end up in Africa,” Negron says.
“African history in Puerto Rico is an oral thing. Most of the information you have to go out and look for it yourself.”
NegrA3n brings his Master Bomba Ensemble to the Richmond Folk Festival. Heavily percussive bomba music is a community-based style of drumming, singing and dancing that goes back 400 years to the West African slave trade with the sugar plantations of colonial Puerto Rico. NegrA3n will showcase veteran players and dancers who use the traditional lineup of two or more drums made out of rum barrels, two wide sticks known as cuA and one maraca.
“The artists I'm bringing live this 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says. “These are the people I hire to do workshops.”
Traditionally bomba music served as the accompaniment for celebrations, but it also was used to express coded messages of cultural resistance to slavery. Today there are few bomba bands outside of Puerto Rico, mostly in cosmopolitan cities such as New York and Chicago, but also a couple in Texas and Ohio.
Much of the rhythmic interplay onstage is improvisational: Long-skirted bomba dancers will sometimes hide their movements or steps from the drummer to see if they are skilled enough to follow. NegrA3n will also bring two drum makers as part of a percussion workshop offered during the festival. He considers this weekend visit his gift to Richmond for being so good to him during his years living and performing here with Bio Ritmo. “It's like my second home,” he says. “I still have many great friends.”
Early Bio Ritmo was an organic, roots salsa group striving to be its own thing — whether that meant reinterpreting standards or the occasional Tom Waits cover. The band featured a rotating cast of horn players and developed a strong following by playing dance nights and various ethnic-themed festivals. Jorge's DJ father, Sergio, was proud of his son's music and often would send traditional albums for the group to study and learn. “When things started getting complicated with the band, he told me, ‘That’s good' — that means you have a future,” Jorge recalls.
NegrA3n released two singles and a full-length album with the group. But in the late '90s, sensing a shift in musical direction to more evolved arrangements and musical acrobatics, NegrA3n parted ways with Bio Ritmo. His father, who had been ill, died soon afterward and NegrA3n returned home and began building his career in education. “It was hard. … to this day Bio Ritmo is still close to my heart,” he says. “But I was just looking for something else.”
For the last five years, he's been back to Richmond at least once annually — and will sometimes jump on stage with his old group. It's evident from his voice that NegrA3n, ever the crowd-pleaser, misses performing.
“In Puerto Rico, I am not a musician, I conceptualize education,” NegrA3n says, with a gruff laugh. “But everything I do is still related to music. I can't wait for people in Richmond to see what I've been doing. It's a privilege.”
Saturday: 8:30 - 9:15 p.m. on the Altria Stage.
Sunday: 4:45-5:30 p.m. on the Ukrop's/First Market Stage.
Sunday: 12:15-1 p.m. in the Richmond Times-Dispatch Dance Pavilion.
Sunday: Official Folk Fest After Party (with Bio Ritmo and Miramar), 7 p.m. to midnight at the Capital Ale House downtown.