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Teaching Artist Leah Reddy spoke with creators Rosalba Rolón and Desmar Guevara about their work on Harlem Hellfighters on a Latin Beat.  

Leah Reddy: What is your artistic origin story?

Rosalba Rolon: I was very lucky that on my father's side of the family, they were very artistically inclined. I received support since I was a child to study, first of all, dance, and then music. Theatre came later. It was part of the school curriculum in Puerto Rico. There was a very strong arts education program for years in the entire public school system. Arts were very much a part of the child's education–not necessarily thinking of it as a professional track, but just part of who we were. As time went by, I began to refine my desire to do theatre. 

But for some reason I also was a bit of a dilettante and began to inquire about other areas. So when I got to the university, rather than go into the theatre program or apply for the theatre program, I applied to the social sciences program and took a detour. And while I was getting both my BA and the masters in social sciences, I kept taking classes and dancing and performing. Until it got to a point where I made a decision. Once I was all grown up and a young adult, I said, "I think that I found it." I moved to New York in 1973 and I connected with the Puerto Rican community and artists and got immersed into it. And there was just no turning back. I thought, "Whatever happens, I meant to do this." And that was it.

Desmar Guevara: When I was about five, six years old, I was interested in playing music, so I started playing Puerto Rican percussion with my family and friends. And then one of my neighbors, Hiram Valdez—his kids used to do sports and he was always involved with us, with the community—he took me to take a test at a school called Escuela Libre de Musica– “free music school.” It's sort of like LaGuardia High School. That school started in seventh grade, but they had a program where you could be in elementary school and take music classes. I used to go to the elementary school in the morning and then to the music school in the afternoon. 

In my family we have musicians, but not trained musicians. Somebody that knew how to play the guitar, the other guy used to sing, or my aunt used to sing. But music was a huge part of it. I had an uncle who became a lawyer. He was able to travel and see music and see arts. So back then, remember there was no YouTube. He was my YouTube. Every trip that he did, he brought records and then showed me the music. He had a collection of thousands of albums that he collected throughout his life.  

So yes, I have important persons, people that probably without knowing who I was going to be today, guided me.  

LR: How did Harlem Hellfighters on a Latin Beat begin? What was the moment of genesis of this work?  

RR: It is like most things, an accident. We're never prepared. At least in my case, I never totally say, "This is exactly what I'm going to be doing." It just finds me. Things find me in so many ways. I was reading a story about something else. Actually, I was reading about Cleopatra and Egypt. I know. No connection. I don't know why I was reading that. And I remember that I needed a break. I said, "I need to get my brain some rest." And I had this information that had been passed on to me by a friend about this book about Puerto Rican music, and I had it just right there next to me and I just began to flip pages. There was maybe a paragraph with two lines that said something like, "This was much like what happened with the Puerto Ricans in the Harlem Hellfighters band." And then the article continued. I had no idea what that meant. I said, "What is that? First of all, what is Harlem Hellfighters?" I had no idea what, what, what, what. And then I began to inquire further into the source. And then I couldn't stop.  

Rafael Hernández was the most prominent Puerto Rican composer of the 20th century. This was a man of immense influence. And you mean to tell me that he came to the United States for the first time as a Harlem Hellfighter? No idea. That's what I love–when things catch me off guard. And so I began to look into it. Then I said, "Desmar, I have this idea." And every time I say that he runs. He's like, "Uh-oh, I'm in trouble." We collectively, all of us, fell in love with the story, but realized that we needed to do much more, to find out more. That's when the process began. 

DG: When Rosalba approached me with that, I knew who the Harlem Hellfighters were because I studied jazz history. But I never knew about the Puerto Rican part. When we found out all the details—that 1917 was the year that the Puerto Ricans were made citizens, so they can be sent to the first World War. My grandfather, my father's father, went to that war. To me, that was one of the sparks that got me started on it. And also years before, four or five years before we were doing [a musical called] Red Rose, which is about the life of Jesús Colón, who was one of Rafael Hernández’s best friends. So more or less we knew about Rafael Hernández from that play when he was in New York City. But I didn't know how he ended up in New York City. 

That part was very important because I never met Rafael Hernández, but he's a very important person in my life. His music travels through generations.  

And I hope that people see it and get inspired to do more work and keep investigating, especially schools. Because it's a part of our history. We tell stories that are about to die so we rescue them.  

LR: Can you walk us through your process? How did you research?   

RR: I began to read as much as I could. I wanted to get as much public domain material as I could. I found some of the information through the Library of Congress and then through the Center for Puerto Rican Studies here in New York. They directed me to Brown University, where they had the local records. I contacted the family of Rafael Hernández, and I went to visit his widow. They invited me to a family affair, which I thought was very special. And I almost fainted when I saw his older son coming in – I thought he was him. I said, "Oh my goodness. Has he come back from the grave?" 

So it was a beautiful afternoon. The role of [Hernández]’s sister, Victoria, she really was the sister-mother to him. His widow tells me, "Whenever Victoria came, everyone would get in shape because she was no joke." I also talked to them about that. I talked to them about his personality. The same with the granddaughter of Rafael Duchesne. I took one of the lines [in the show], "You live in the clouds. You're always dreaming, Duchesne," from his granddaughter. She said the entire family would always tell him he was always in the clouds. He was always dreaming. So I said, "Can I use that? Can I use that?" She said, "Of course." And we invited her as well to one of the performances. The actor who played Duchesne gave her a beautiful bouquet of flowers. 

It's just about discovery. Now, some of it is what's written and some of it is oral history. So obviously, I was really interested in knowing people who knew some of these musicians. But frankly, most of the material about the Hellfighters themselves have to be done through archival research. My main source for some of the dramatic through-line came from the memoirs written by Noble Sissle, who was James Reese Europe's good friend. That memoir gave me the source of the through line and two of the largest songs for James Reese Europe. My expertise is in adaptations, but I always believe that an adaptation has to contribute something new. So I wanted to turn some of the material into James Reese Europe's dream of organizing a Negro Symphony Orchestra, and his realization that the more he thought about it and realized what the challenges were, that that might never happen. And it didn't.  

DG: Well, my process was to do a lot of research on the music from the era. To me, it's easier to take a small piece band and orchestrate it with a symphony orchestra, because you have all these instruments that you can pick from. But when you have the big piece band and bring it to a small ensemble— I wanted to honor the big sound [with our small band].  

[The music] has the Dixieland flavor. Now what I want to do with the pieces in Harlem Hellfighters is to have the Dixieland, and add in some Latin rhythms. I'm going to start experimenting with that now. When we played a few months ago, that's what I was missing at that moment. That’s my own critique–that I need more, a little bit more Latin music. To have the balance of 17 Puerto Ricans with the other 17 African Americans in the music. 

In those days, the band used to be big because they didn't have speakers, sound systems. They needed to sound big. They needed to fill the room. So that's why in their head, they are thinking, “Okay, we need five trumpets, we need five trombones. We need to sound big." How I'm going to sound big with a small band? That's the process. And I don't know if I will meet that challenge, but I'm on that path.  

LR: Harlem Hellfighters on a Latin Beat was first produced in 2010. Tell us about the original production.  

RR: We were blessed with being able to work with one of Puerto Rico's most prominent singers, Danny Rivera. He is a known, big, big name. When there was no Ricky Martin, there was Danny Rivera. And so the fact that we had him involved with that amazing voice of his was just incredible. 

On the other hand, we were also discovering the piece. I think that we got it to a point of maturity, and we were comfortable. I was looking at the script the other day and I'm thinking, "Did I write this?" I said, "Oh my God." Desmar is right in that the afterthought right now is that we didn't probe enough on the emergence of Latin jazz, which now we have the opportunity to explore. And the character of Noble Sissle, which I had to sacrifice because I needed to concentrate on a certain arc that I needed at the moment. And now I'm ready to just let go of that and expand it. 

LR: What advice do you have for emerging artists–maybe for students, maybe for folks who are coming to artistic practice later in life, maybe folks who are specifically interested in adaptation of historical materials?

RR: I think history offers us many, many ways to approach the retelling of the stories, from very traditional or conventional to the more Avant Garde. There's no limit to the things we can do when we approach historical materials. It doesn't have to be a recount of the story. It could be just used as a trampoline, so to speak. I say look for those things that no one else is looking for. Look for those bits of history that people sort of discard. I find that to be so exciting, those little droplets of history that are maybe a sentence or two in a book and gets you into a whole different new world.  

DG: Learn the business aspect of your craft. It's very important. It will save [you] a lot of headaches. Never let any one, no director, no promoter, no partner, no lover, put your talent down. That’s one of the things that I've been saying lately, because I'm 52, so I went through a lot. The disappointments that I had in my career could have been avoided if I would have learned the business aspect of music. And it might sound like a cliche, but never give up. Can't give up. You fall down, you clean yourself, and you keep climbing.

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