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Latin American Ensemble prepares for concert, trip to Mexico

The Latin American Ensemble rehearses every Tuesday night under the direction of professor Gabriel Espinosa. Photo by Alexandra Fontana.
The Latin American Ensemble rehearses every Tuesday night under the direction of professor Gabriel Espinosa. Photo by Alexandra Fontana.

Grinnell College’s Latin American ensemble, directed by professor Gabriel Espinosa, seeks to study and perform Latin American music to share with the Grinnell community. Espinosa, who has directed the ensemble for 15 years, was delighted to accept a position that allows him to connect to his roots and share his passion for Latin music with students.

“Since I was a little kid, my mother taught two of my brothers and I how to do this, and I had no plan B in my life. I had to do this, and I was lucky enough to, to come to this country and study here, get an education and get three different degrees,” said Espinosa.

In addition to his work with the Latin American ensemble, Espinosa teaches jazz piano, vocal jazz and sporadically helps in other ways in the music department at the College.

This year, Espinosa notes that the close-knit ensemble has fantastic balance and is comprised of a full horn section, drums, piano, bass guitar, guitar and a handful of vocal jazz singers. Griffin Mareske ’20, who has played alto saxophone for the ensemble the past four years, has been able to watch the group grow since he was a first-year, in both technique and size.

The ensemble has helped Mareske appreciate the Latin style and how the instrumentation differs from other genres. “It’s new stuff. I like it a lot. And it has kind of got me listening to new things and exploring a side of music that I wouldn’t have otherwise done,” he said.

Every semester, the ensemble prepares a set of about 16 to 18 songs to perform at their concert, a majority of which are sung entirely in Spanish or Portuguese, though many of the vocalists are not fluent in these languages. “They like the challenge, and they learn it phonetically,” said Espinosa. “I work with them, and they do a fantastic job, so it sounds authentic.”

For vocal jazz singer Samantha Morrison ’23, singing Latin music attracted her to the ensemble. “I’m not taking Spanish here, but it’s something that’s important to me, and I love Spanish, Spanish music and Spanish culture,” said Morrison.

The ensemble meets every Tuesday night and practices for two hours. “For the rehearsal, we don’t really have a structure, which is a really Latin structure. It’s hectic, but it has energy! It’s not perfect, but it has a really nice vibe, it has passion,” said Espinosa.

“The energy is amazing,” said Morrison. “Professor Espinosa is amazing because in rehearsal, he’ll just sit down at any one of the instruments and start playing it. Even if he’s not playing an instrument, he just walks around and [can] point out something [tiny] that is wrong because he just knows what’s going on.”

One thing that his students seem to agree upon is their professor’s musical prowess. “He’s a really good musician, and he has a good ear for what things should sound like, so when he does have suggestions, I take [them] to heart,” said Mareske.

The event that Espinosa and the ensemble are most looking forward to this year is their upcoming tour that will take place in January over winter break. Funded by the music department and the Institute for Global Engagement, the ensemble will spend a week in Espinosa’s hometown of Merida, Mexico.

“We have four performances, from a beautiful theater to a high school to a beautiful jazz club to a club full of locals. And the group is also going to be able to learn about the culture. We’re going during the anniversary of the foundation of the city, so the whole vibe of the city is gonna be like a party, and the weather there’s gonna be like 80 degrees!” said Espinosa.

Espinosa worked hard to prepare his students for performing in front of a Latino crowd, who will understand the nuances of the music much more clearly than the average American would. “It’s going to be something fantastic for the audience in Merida to see this [diverse] group of Grinnell students,” said Espinosa. “The reaction of the audience there is always really powerful. They really show you their support and acceptance.”

“[My favorite part about this job is that] we do my origin music. I’m from a Latin country and [the ensemble] play[s] Latin music. Some of the songs I remember from when I was 10 years old, 15 years old, because some of them are really old like me. This is what I do to bring that music alive into this school.”

The Latin American ensemble’s next concert will be held on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019 at 7:30 p.m. in Sebring-Lewis Hall. No tickets required. 

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