Arts outreach is a two-way street for David García, an ethnomusicology professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and founder of the performing ensemble Charanga Carolina. Whether he's inviting local musicians to play with his students, inviting Durham high schoolers to sit in with his UNC group, or creating academic conferences that integrate musicians and scholars, García has a special gift for blurring the line between classroom and concert hall, facilitating the exchange of knowledge in ways not often seen. His concerted efforts to tear down the ivory tower walls not only let academic knowledge out, but also pull community knowledge in.
While "publish or perish" might be the mantra of most young academics, García has found time to combine his academic responsibilities with playing music in creative ways since he joined the UNC faculty as a postdoc in 2002. (García was hired in a tenure-track position in 2004.) Not only did he fulfill the traditional requirements of junior faculty—teaching and publishing the first major work on Arsenio Rodríguez, a singular innovator in Cuban music—but he founded a "charanga," a Cuban orchestra combining strings and woodwinds with Afro-Cuban percussion. The birth of Charanga Carolina—something brand new to our area and practically unique at colleges in the U.S.—quietly revolutionized music education at UNC, when García invited local Latin musicians to help students learn the ropes.
So, why a charanga at UNC?
"The simple answer is I just love the music," García says. "I really wasn't thinking about career advancement, I was just thinking how fun it would be to put together a charanga," he says.
The cultural context goes much deeper than that, though, García hastens to add. He explains why anyone should care that UNC has a Cuban string band this way:
"For people who've never heard charanga music, even Latin Americans, the one thing they always tell me is they had no idea that Cuban music ever uses violins, and that it sounded pretty classical. It shows them that music from Cuba and throughout Latin America is much more diverse and rich than they realize.
"It also opens a whole area of history that goes to the heart of Cuban culture. That is its connection to Africa, to Europe or Spain, and its own unique history in the Caribbean. In order to explain why we have violins and congas in Cuban music, you have to talk about the history of slavery and Spanish colonialism. It's a musical microcosm of Caribbean history. Caribbean history is heard through charanga music. It makes those contrasts even more palpable than in other forms of Cuban music like son," García says.
The Charanga has introduced many of García's students with no previous background in Latin music to their first taste of danzón, mambo and cha cha cha, and a good number of them have gone on to make Latin music a part of their performance careers. Impacting our local community, a number of Charanga alums now perform in Orquesta GarDel and gig regularly with other area salsa bands. Many have gone on to conservatories and graduate programs around the country, taking their UNC Latin music training with them.
Sarah Snyder, the first trumpeter with Charanga Carolina, is one of these. Influenced by her experience into taking up ethnomusicology, she is now earning her Ph.D. at Columbia University.
"The Charanga was really groundbreaking. David found a way to bring the at times insular music department in collaboration with the Latino/a community in a wonderful way," Snyder says.
What made the Charanga click was the same approach García brings to all his projects: "Interact with real musicians. You can't replace that," García says.
García brought working musicians from the community into the classroom, conference room and rehearsal hall interact with students. Local guests have included Mamadou Diabate, Paolo Lopes, Bradley Simmons, Pako Santiago, Beverly Botsford and Nelson Delgado, along with visiting luminaries such as flautist Nestor Torres and tresero Benjamin Lapidus. Not only was it a pedagogical masterstroke, at the same time, it quietly revolutionized knowledge and power relationships in academe, known for its rigorous gatekeeping. For local musicians, it represented opportunities to earn recognition, be heard by new audiences, learn new skills and play in new settings.
Community collaboration is the hallmark of most of García's teaching efforts, from bringing in musicians and dancers in the local Latin American communities, to having high school students from Durham Academy play with the Charanga. At the same time, García uses his institutional weight to draw attention to Cuban and Latin American cultures and the local communities that represent them. Teresa and Gonzalo Fernàndez, dancers who often perform with the Charanga, demonstrate danzón as it was danced in its heydey in pre-revolutionary Cuba.
"I feel honored, proud and very grateful that somebody like David, who holds a position that important culturally in UNC, is taking our music to this height," says Teresa Fernández. "The thing that really fills my heart with joy is to see the young American musicians participating with such joy that language and cultural differences disappear," she says.
The Festival on the Hill is an annual event in the music department, but 2008's celebration of Latin American music, which García was instrumental in organizing, drew participants who'd never been to the annual event before. People like Altha Cravey, not a musicologist but a geographer by training, who studies demographic changes in our area.
"It was a really fun mix of academics and performance," says Cravey of the conference. One memory she has is of the Mexican music panel, when local musician Alejandro Huerta (of Rey Norteño) and scholar Cathy Ragland (of Empire State College in New York) gave an impromptu dance demonstration together, stomping their heels in a lively zapateado. It was a vivid image of the kind of interaction García's imaginative approach makes possible.
The Festival included a Charanga performance, when students from Durham Academy sat in. García started doing outreach concerts at the school three years ago and recently began ushering the next generation of young musicians into his Charanga program.
"We want to keep doing that," says García of the Durham Academy collaboration.
Accolades in the wider community validate García's experiment as an outstanding contribution to the local arts scene both in kind and quality.
Jim Spier, a former promoter with Salsa Carolina who brought New York charangas to perform here in the 1990s, says Charanga Carolina is the real thing.
"I am struck by the profundity of what David García has done. He has molded mostly non-Latin student musicians into a cohesive Cuban music ensemble. They swing 'hot and sweet,' as they say in New York," says Spier.
"I get chills just listening to them. They are truly part of something historic. I never would have dreamed that such a professional group would have materialized in my very backyard," Spier adds.
García's efforts to integrate academic learning with the broader cultural fabric are a welcome development, says Lou Pérez Jr., García's colleague in the history department and director of the UNC Institute for the Study of the Americas.
"The Charanga Carolina has a discernible authenticity. David is a genius the way he can get some of these kids to play the way they play. He's fashioned a wonderful ensemble," says Pérez, who should know—his father, the late Lou Pérez Sr., led a famous New York charanga in the 1960s.
"You can't say enough about what an amazing presence David is," Cravey adds. "He's so important, and will continue to be so important, because he's shown the kind of connections that can be made."
"Music is a special kind of dialogue; it really does open up many ways of connecting with other people," García says. "The Charanga has been a lot of hard work, but I'm glad I did it. To get all the feedback, from the university and others, makes it all complete. It's a no-brainer."