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Island Sounds

Kadencia’s new album is dedicated to promoting Afro-Puerto Rican musical expressions and traditions.


Kadencia’s new CD, “En Otro Barrio,” opens with full-bore vocals and a percussive kick and then never lets up. Wave after wave of bright, tight horns and complex percussion patterns provide an appealing danceable surface.

For Spanish speakers, Maurice Sanabria-Ortiz’s lyrics dive into a deeper narrative drawing on the history of his native Puerto Rico. Where the band’s 2009 debut recording, “La Voz Del Barrio [The Voice of the Barrio]” was recorded on the island U.S. territory, this follow-up, whose title translates as “In Another Neighborhood,” reflects a proud, slightly bittersweet perspective on the Puerto Rican diaspora.

Musically, they are the bomba/plena cousins of Richmond salsa institution Bio Ritmo, with whom they share two members. Since their featured performance at the virtual 2020 Richmond Folk Festival, and more recently opening for Bio Ritmo’s 30th Anniversary blowout at Hardywood, Kadencia has been ready for its post-COVID rebirth.

The original Kadencia, co-founded by Sanabria-Ortiz and percussionist Roberto Candallario, enjoyed moderate success on the island, with TV appearances and radio airplay. But the continuing disaster of the Puerto Rican economy forced a change.

“I was already living [in Richmond],” says the singer’s son and namesake, Maurice “Tito” Sanabria. “My father lost his job and the opportunity came to work up here.” Kadencia continued playing in Puerto Rico for about another year before fizzling out. In 2012, that seemed like the end. “We were just busy with life, with working and kids,” Tito Sanabria says.

In 2018, several things changed. The kids were older and more independent. Knee issues forced the once intensely athletic Tito Sanabria to find a new hobby. He focused on the quinto, the smallest and highest-pitched conga drum that is often the lead improvisational voice in Latin music. “I picked up a plano hand drum and started learning how to play it the way it is supposed to be played. It took me a couple of months, practicing every day, to start feeling comfortable with it.”

He got good enough so that when his father first heard him playing, he thought it was a recording. That was the start of the reborn Kadencia.

“I thought it would be great if we could get together two or three guys and kind of jam.” His father, with the help of longtime Latin musician Santos Ramirez (East of Hollywood, Latin Jazz Messengers), put together an entire band.

Family is at the center of the new group, with Sanabria’s father and son complemented by the Roman brothers, Will and Marc (both members of Bio Ritmo and together Kadencia’s musical directors). The four appear on the new CD cover with the Richmond skyline making the “other neighborhood” explicit. Other familiar members include onetime Bio Ritmo pianist Charlie Kilpatrick and onetime local player/international Latin percussion star Hector “Coco” Barez.

The album’s ten songs are primarily bomba and plena, styles with deep Puerto Rican roots, with a bit of primarily Afro-Cuban salsa on top. “Bomba goes back to the 17th century, to very specific patterns played on barrels (bombas) by African slaves working on sugar plantations,” Tito says. “Plena is a lot younger than bomba, from the early 20th century. It has one rhythm that emerges from the interlocking pulse of three hand drums played together. Each drum has its own rhythm. And then you build the arrangement for this song around those basic patterns.”

The opener, “Oye,” is a bridge to Kadencia’s first incarnation. The only song not written by Sanabria-Ortiz, it was never recorded. Tito says it was a hit on the streets of Puerto Rico. In Spanish, “oye” means “listen” and fills the same function as “hey” does in English. It is an invitation to a thematic journey, illuminated by music and shadowed by the exploitation that underlies Caribbean history.

Given a touch of cinematic sweep with a lush string section, “No Me Quite El Tambor” is a plea from an enslaved person to their oppressor to keep a drum that is the sole connection to their African homeland. “Cucuta El Quintero” is the story of a talented young drummer escaping the difficulty of life in a sequence of percussion duels. Somewhere in the middle of the song, it ceases being about the titular “Cucuta” – a common last name on the island- and starts being about Tito and his furiously complex quinto solos. “El Aroma De Café” is a tribute to the coffee-growing region where Sanabria-Ortiz was born.

The middle section of the album is darker. The next song reflects on the heartlessness of the island-dominating sugar industry, discarding an aged longtime worker like “Bagazo,” slang for the used-up husks in sugar cane production. “Guarema” is the name of a mass cemetery on land owned by the Sanabria family. The lyrics are an ironic reflection on the intermixing of poor and rich during an early 20th century pandemic. “La Revolución Taína” reaches back to an early 16th century event where a chief of the Indigenous Tainos proved the conquistadors were mortal by downing one and then watching him for three days to make sure he stayed dead.

The album ends in nostalgia and hope, though. “Vendaval” evokes the southwest winds that make the palms dance on the tropical beaches. “Puerto Rico Te Extraño [I Miss You]” and “Diaspora Puertoriquena” celebrate deep connections to the island among the many, many who have been forced to leave by disasters both natural and the result of human greed and inflexibility.

“The central theme of this album is that even though we're not on the island, we still keep our traditions alive, anywhere we go.” Tito says. “And we're really proud of that.”

The songs on the first “Kadencia” album have spoken introductions in Spanish, setting up the context of the songs. The more the listener knows about the rhythms, lyrics, and history, the deeper the understanding. But translation and analysis, however enriching, are unnecessary when the music speaks for itself.

The full Kadencia band has no performances scheduled until January 2023, but the core quartet is starting a regular gig every other Tuesday at the new Casta’s Rum Bar, 700 E. Main Street.