Situating Puerto Rican music in the Valley

Submitted by Thomas R. Sibley on Saturday, 11/14/2009, at 6:48 PM

Everyone seems to know everyone else in the Puerto Rican musical community here in the
Pioneer Valley. Or at least it seems that way so far from everyone we’ve talked to. Our internet
research and search for potential interviewees yielded a lovely number of leads, but there was
no indication of the web of friendships—personal and professional—we’d find connecting all of
them.
        The Santiago family, headed by Ismael, and William Cumpiano, a master luthier, were
our first two contacts. It turned out that they not only knew each other but were good friends!
The restaurant displays a blueprint of a cuatro drafted by Cumpiano, and Ismael told us that
William common fixes the band’s instruments. While interviewing him at his workshop,
Cumpiano told us that he loves the food and the music down at the restaurant in Westfield and
that he goes periodically. He, in turn, led us to Victor Rios, a close friend and Puerto Rican
musician on the other side of the river in Holyoke. Victor, of course, also knows the Santiagos
and introduced us to another Puerto Rican restaurant owner in Holyoke. In mid-October, the
Santiago’s held a street festival where they invited Criollo Clasico, an Amherst-based Puerto
Rican group, to perform. With each new contact the web of connections links back to itself and
also grows outwards to more leads than we have time to follow up. William Cumpiano, it
seems, is in the center of much of it because he is one of the only luthiers in the greater Boston
area who can work on Caribbean instruments and speak Spanish with his customers. Like
many of Finnegan’s observations within musical scenes, the musicians playing Puerto Rican
music all seem to know of, if not know personally, one another.
        As a newcomer or anyone unfamiliar with the Pioneer Valley (this includes many of the
five-college students), it might seem odd that so many musicians playing Puerto Rican folk
music could survive. But the large Puerto Rican populations from Hartford to Holyoke support
many local musicians playing traditional Puerto Rican melodies. Victor Rios made his living for
years playing Puerto Rican music as a full-time musician in the Valley. But it’s not just the local
Puerto Rican communities which support the music. People of all backgrounds are exposed to
and enjoy it. Criollo Clasico plays at the popular Veracruzana restaurant in Northampton. If
you sit at the Santiago Family Restaurant on a Friday night, you’ll see people of all backgrounds
enjoying the traditional food and music. The street festival thrown by the Santiagos to celebrate
a decade in business was attended and enjoyed by more than just the Puerto Rican community.
For the short time we were in the Fernandez Family Restaurant, it served members of many
cultural contingents in the Holyoke community. Perhaps it is the hand-in-hand relationship of
music and food in Puerto Rican culture that draws in the larger community.