Salsa takes Philly's center stage
“This is what it is all about and I get a kick out of that. When your mission is to get the music out to the people, you try to find every kind of possible way that you can,” said musician, producer, activist and DJ Jesse Bermudez.
The Afro-Latino has spent the last 40 years of his career supporting Latino artists, promoting Latin music education and fighting to position salsa on the center stage in Philadelphia.
This week for the first time, the city will mark “Jesse Bermudez Day” on Wednesday, July 8 as part of the “Siempre Salsa Philly Week,” thanks to a resolution introduced by Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez and adopted by City Council last June.
Stating that “for decades, Philly salsa artists have provided the soundtrack for daily life in the barrio, while also garnering respect on a national and international industry basis,” the proclamation aims to promote the “universal appeal of salsa music and dance to introduce non-Latinos to the cultural and artistic values of the community.”
“I am actually humbled and blessed, really blessed, for something like this to happen to me,” Bermudez said. “I would say is about time, my plight has been over 40 years and I haven’t been alone either. There’s a lot of folks who have been in their own way putting the music out there and hoping that one day the city of Philadelphia would recognize our music and make it part of the fabric of the Philadelphia music scene. ”
Bermudez’s involvement with music began at a young age, but in a different musical genre. While serving in the U.S. Navy in the 1960s he started his own Doo-Wop band, “The Vesselaires.”
“I think that Latin music was in me all along, because my father played guitar and so did my mother. In my family, they were all Latinos,” Bermudez said. “The only thing was that when I step out the door I was in this other world. I happened to be raised in an African-American community so, when I stepped out there, I got involved with what was taking place and at that time, in the middle-late 60s, it was about Doo-Wop.”
He said that as a kid he was upset for a while because he really wanted to learn how to play piano in a traditional Latin American style, but at that time there wasn’t anybody that could teach him to play.
After finishing his military service he returned to Philadelphia, continued to be in the R&B scene and soon after became a D.J. “But in the meantime I was always saying. ‘well I am involved in this music and I do this but...what are my people doing? What is my culture doing? What is going on with the musicians in my community?’” Bermudez said.
He then transitioned into a Latino DJ ,looking to expose non-Latino audiences to Latino music, and that was followed by 30 years of support for Latino musicians in the region.
“If you look at the history it is kind of interesting because there was a lot of music that was influenced by the Latino sound. It was kind of, a bit, suppressed there,” Bermudez said. “At one period of time there was this whole scenario where the conversation was ‘this music can’t survive, it can’t make it because of the lyrics. We don’t understand what they are saying.’”
According to Bermudez, back in the day in order to listen to salsa you had to go to El Barrio. It would take a while for Latin music to heard in other neighborhoods of the city.
In 1982, he organized a strike of nearly 125 Latino musicians in North Philadelphia, demanding better work conditions, and managed to improve their wages. As a result of this mobilization, that same year he founded “Artístas y Músicos Latino Americanos” (AMLA), a non-profit focused on promoting and developing an understanding of Latin American music and culture. In 1986 the project turned into the first school of Latin music in Philadelphia known as the Escuela de Artes Escénicas AMLA.
The idea of the AMLA school was to create a community school for those kids who have talent but haven’t had the opportunities to develop their skills.
“Even though it was a community school, my job was to get the best teachers that I could. When you can nourish young people, that is about the highest thing that you can do,” Bermudez said.
He believes now salsa music is much more accepted and “believe it or not you know the music is around the entire world, where ever you go in the world there is salsa,” he added.
“Our music is great, let’s face it. The reality is that any time that you can play our music — no matter who your are — either you tap your fingers or tap your feet or something,” Bermudez said. “Our music is not about division. Our music is about bringing people together and in that process people begin to know us and understand us and realize who we really are as a people.”
Currently Bermudez oversees an internet radio station in collaboration with Ray Collazo (rayjess.com), programming and playing music that you don’t hear on the regular commercial stations.
“We are doing all kinds of things that involve all the different Latin music sounds, from crossover to Brazilian. About 89 countries are listening to our program. We have a good following, so we are excited about that, and we are just going to keep moving until we take the music to where we fill that is at its highest level.”
“Siempre Salsa Philly” will be presenting a series of events throughout the week of July 6-12 intended to make salsa music more accessible to people of all cultures.
On Monday, City Hall will host a reception to kick off “Siempre Salsa Philly Week,” with remarks from Bermudez, Rob Bernberg (the owner of Latin Beat Magazine/LatinBeatMagazine.com), and Carlos Santos (from Orquesta del Barrio), and will followed by a press conference celebrating the events to be held during the week.