‘Beyond el barrio’

For decades, Temple students, professors and alumni have been shaping the global salsa music community and allowing the genre to expand into the mainstream.

Jesse Bermudez, founder of Artístas y Músicos Latino Americanos, stands outside the organization’s old building on 5th Street. | Margo Reed TTN

Temple serves as a heart—pumping rhythmic beats of Latin music resounding far beyond the Steinway pianos in the Boyer College of Music and Dance.

Over the past six decades, the university has influenced the salsa scene not only in Philadelphia, but across the Western Hemisphere.

“There is this importance of a relationship between Temple and the Latino community that has existed for many, many years,” said Jesse Bermudez, a Grammy-nominated Latin music producer and recent recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture.

That relationship began in the late ‘60s, when Latin musician Ralphy Hernandez created the first full Latin band in Philadelphia. He sought musicians from Temple to provide brass instruments.

A little more than ten years later, the two entities crossed paths again.

In 1982, Bermudez congregated in a North Philadelphia church with 13 Latin band leaders and Temple musician Jose Lenny Prieto to establish the Asociación de Músicos Latino Americanos, a nonprofit that promotes improved working conditions for Latin musicians in the local community.

“When Jose knew AMLA was being formed, he joined hands with me and helped me to make it a reality,” Bermudez said. “And that began to create a relationship with musicians here at Temple and our organization.”

Rob Bernberg (left), and Jesse Bermudez visit Centro Musical, a music store at Lehigh Ave. near 5th. | Margo Reed TTN

Prieto later partnered with Bermudez to create the first school of Latin music in Philadelphia through AMLA in 1986.

Moving into the ‘80s and ‘90s, students and graduates of Temple, including renowned musicians Isidro Infante and Pablo Batista, filtered into the school, passing their Boyer studies upon pupils through instrumental lessons and studio recordings.

“The teachers from Temple were getting Ph.D.s and Master’s, so you know what they were passing onto these young community kids, and as a result, not only did they get a great musical education, but their grades got better,” Bermudez said.

Alumni soon became AMLA students as well—even graduates of the Beasley School of Law.

“I did some traveling and I came to realize that some of the wonderful things you find in Latin America existed right here in our North Philadelphia community,” said Rob Bernberg, a 1974 School of Law alumnus. “AMLA was a stepping stone, a foundation, to everything I’ve done with the music.”

Despite being non-Latino with no prior experience of salsa, the cultural awareness and appreciation Bernberg found through lessons at AMLA led him to become an owner of Latin Beat Magazine in 1994, formerly the most popular tropical music magazine in the world.

Bernberg said he may have been first introduced to AMLA listening to David Ortiz’s Latin jazz programming on WRTI, a radio station that broadcasts from Main Campus.

In addition to inspiring the Philadelphia club scenes with Latin music for more than 30 years, Ortiz’s program reaches audiences from Canada to Argentina through the Internet.

“The difference that Temple and WRTI has made is the strength of its signal, allowing a further reach,” Ortiz said. “I’m being heard in Argentina and think, ‘Wow, you’re at the bottom of the Earth.’”

From across continents to campus, Maria del Pico Taylor, professor of keyboard studies and founder of Latin Fiesta. Inc., weaves the technicality of salsa music into her classical piano courses at Boyer.

“More and more I try to introduce Spanish and Latin music in a more classical way,” said del Pico Taylor. “Doing different things like that, they learn more because they are excited about doing salsa.”

The majority of her students are Asian-American, coinciding with an overarching pursuit of the Temple and AMLA community for salsa music to go “beyond el barrio,” Ortiz said.

“Expanding the awareness of this music … I never think of it as my mission, everyone involved in this music industry … it’s their mission as a whole,” Ortiz added.

“The universal appeal of salsa relates to non-Latinos,” Bernberg said. “In terms to our relationship with Temple and the history that goes with it, our dream is to introduce everyone on campus to this wonderful music.”

Grace Maiorano can be reached at grace.maiorano@temple.edu.

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