By Wayne Jebian
The sounds of Latin Caribbean music in Waterbury began decades ago in the 1950’s when Alberto Guadalupe, newly arrived from Puerto Rico, brought his love of his native music with him. That love has now been passed down to Alberto’s sons, Wilbert, Tito and David Guadalupe and has even inspired a third generation of family members – establishing a musical legacy the family cherishes.
Guadalupe, the family’s musical patriarch, an accomplished vocalist and percussionist fondly recalls the impromptu jam sessions with friends and neighbors – Alexander Lopez, Felix Rodriguez and Charlie Olivero that eventually led to performing at local venues such as Waterbury’s Puerto Rican Social Club and in church halls.
Later, his sons would form Orquesta Optima, which played frequently at Fatima Hall on Baldwin Street, as well as at weddings, parties and locations around Connecticut. “We were inspired by our parents’ generation, and we followed in his footsteps, becoming percussionists and vocalists ourselves,” said Wilbert. “As we evolved, my brother and I ended up with a band from Hartford called Unidad,” adding “In the past five years, my brother and I were freelancing and we were often recommended by musicians to back up artists from New York and Puerto Rico. One of the biggest names was Domingo Quiñones. There was also Pedro Arroyo from Puerto Rico, and from New York, there was Kevin Ceballo.”
“Often times, we aren’t even amplified – no electric bass, no electric piano, just drumming,” said Wilbert. The Guadalupe brothers, on conga drums, bongos and timbales, form the core of ensembles and are often joined by the sons of the same friends their father played with, musicians such as Hector Lopez, Bobby Rodriguez and others. “We’re really tight knit,” he says. “As soon as people heard we were getting together, they would show up out of the woodwork with their instruments and were welcomed with open arms.”
This past spring, Wilbert’s brother, Tito, released a high-energy CD called Mi Receta Musical, featuring nine original songs. In addition to its percussive core, there is also a big band quality brought by a pair of trumpets, rounding out a 12-piece ensemble.
“I have performed covers with many artists around Connecticut, and have spent so much time doing Aguinaldos – Christmas music – while thinking that before I die I need to record my own music,” explains Tito. Mi Receta Musical was recorded both in Puerto Rico and at Gazunel Studio on Long Island.
The third generation of Guadalupes – Wilbert’s niece, Melissa Vargas Howles eventually joined the family business. She recently recorded vocals for the debut CD of the Hartford salsa/jazz band Espada. In addition, Melissa, Wilbert and Tito have teamed up as background vocalists for a performance by popular New York singer Michael Stuart.
Looking back, in addition to his father, Wilbert also credits another early Waterbury musician for cultivating the love of music among young Latinos in Waterbury. He says Joe Rodriguez was also key influence in the lives of the budding Latino musicians in Waterbury. “He brought all this young talent together,” Wilbert recalls, recounting how Rodriguez organized an ensemble called La Juventud, which at its height had 22 kids practicing at his home and at a local school.
There is no doubt, the Guadalupe family has left a lasting musical mark on Waterbury. Through the decades, they have served as a nucleus for a larger, extended family and the local music scene. For many years during the summer, the Guadalupe brothers took the lead in gathering for percussion jam sessions on Sundays in Lakewood Park in Waterbury. Local musicians from Waterbury’s Latino community would join them, such as Davis Calderon, Carlos Santiago, and others.
As the years passed, the demands of family and work made it more difficult to come out every week, Wilbert Guadalupe decided to formalize these gatherings into an annual Labor Day picnic at different sites around the city. This year, the annual jam was held in the Waterbury Firefighters Union Hall, a logical spot because Wilbert, the oldest of the Guadalupe brothers, is himself a firefighter.
People interested in Caribbean and South American music can attend a performance/presentation at the Silas Bronson Library on Wednesday, Oct. 11 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. entitled SURCARI, Music with a Latin Beat. More information is available at the library website.