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Festival Betances returns to the South End to celebrate a panorama of Puerto Rican music and culture

The Boston Globe 7/14/2022 Noah Schaffer
A couple dances at Festival Betances, which is returning to the South End this year after a two-year absence due to COVID. © Elizabeth Friar A couple dances at Festival Betances, which is returning to the South End this year after a two-year absence due to COVID.

If anyone needs proof of the vitality and range of Puerto Rican music, it’s evident in the lineup of Saturday’s Festival Betances in the South End. Youthful masters like fourth-generation music maker Sharina Sanabria y su Conjunto Guajiba showcase the traditional side of the island’s sounds, while headliners Enyel C and Gyanma are a pair of budding reggaetón artists who made their mark during lockdown with bedroom trap tracks that were posted to Soundcloud.

“We’ve had a rough two years with the pandemic and people not being able to enjoy these concerts, so we thought why don’t we take everything that has happened in the last decade — and during the last two years — and incorporate it on one stage,” says JuanCarlos González, the arts programming director of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, the nonprofit that produces the festival.

Past editions of the festival featured older salsa artists, but this year’s salsero is another second-generation artist, Frankie Ruiz Jr., who keeps alive the romantic sounds his superstar father pioneered before his 1998 passing.

“We used to focus on people that had been in the industry for a long time,” says González. “This year what we wanted to do was give a platform for up-and-coming as well as local artists, so we can help push this new generation and allow them to grow and reach an audience.”

Being young doesn’t mean being inexperienced, as the career of Juan R. Nieves shows. One of the most exciting cuatro players of his generation, Nieves, at 27, has already brought the sound of the 10-string instrument to 15 countries and released three albums of mostly original material. In Nieves’s hands, the cuatro is a showcase not just for fast picking but also memorable melodies. He’ll be bringing a 10-piece band to the Festival Betances stage for a set he says will include the traditional Puerto Rican rhythms of bomba and plena as well as excursions into Cuban son and merengue.

The son of a sugarcane worker, Nieves was raised in Humacao on Puerto Rico’s east coast. His mother’s family had a long tradition of putting on parrandas, the house-to-house strolling musical parties found during the Christmas season. At one point aeronautical engineering almost became his focus, “but music called for me.”

While the cuatro is Puerto Rico’s national instrument, Nieves says that since coming to Boston in 2019 to study at Berklee College of Music he’s found locals who are unfamiliar with the instrument. Meanwhile, Bostonians of Puerto Rican descent are often surprised and delighted to see someone playing it.

At the festival Nieves plans on debuting a new song he wrote with Juan Esteban “Juancito” Rodríguez. “It’s called ‘Raíces’ and it’s about how even if you weren’t born in Puerto Rico, even if you’ve never even visited the island, you can still be proud to be Puerto Rican.”

Nieves will also be at the Lowell Folk Festival July 30-31 demonstrating the cuatros made by Northampton luthier William Cumpiano, who specializes in reviving Puerto Rican stringed instruments. Its part of a busy weekend that will also find Nieves backing Kharim Santos during the Puerto Rican Festival & Parade in Franklin Park.

The Puerto Rican Festival is one of the highlights of the region’s summer Latin music and cultural calendar, which also includes Worcester’s Latin American Festival (Aug. 20), headlined this year by veteran salsero Willie Gonzalez. Other long-running events are coming back from COVID shutdowns more slowly. The full Semana Cultural y Festival Dominicano de Boston is being postponed to 2023 while organizers continue to raise money, but the traditional Parade Dominican Boston will still take place on Aug. 14, starting in Jamaica Plain.

While it once was a multi-day event, this year’s Festival Betances will take place just on Saturday, beginning at noon with a parade. González says many audience members would come for just one day anyway, so it made sense to go with the single-day format, which greatly reduces production expenses. The IBA, in conjunction with the Berklee College of Music, also produces the Tito Puente Latin Music Series, free concerts in Boston parks at which the audience’s dancing can be as impressive as the music on the stage. The series concludes Aug. 12 with a Boston Common concert by a band led by timbales virtuoso Eguie Castillo.

All of this summertime programming from the IBA comes as it waits for its year-round home to be rebuilt. The Villa Victoria Center for the Arts on West Newton Street was demolished in late 2020 after being declared structurally unsound. The organization is planning on constructing a multi-purpose building that would include event and exhibition space. “The goal is to break ground in 2023, depending on how far things are moving along with fund-raising,” says González.

When the new facility opens, it will have no problem finding talent. Nieves says when he came to Berklee he was just the fifth cuatro player ever to come to the school — but that since then, three more have enrolled.

FESTIVAL BETANCES

At Plaza Betances, 100 W. Dedham St. July 16, noon to 7 p.m. Free. ibaboston.org/events/festival-betances

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