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How a St. Paul childhood learning Puerto Rican music led to a commission from the Cedar

27February 2021

Tearra Oso was just 7 years old when she first discovered Bomba.

“My cousin was going to a Bomba dance class and I didn’t want to be at home alone,” Oso said. “I wanted to go with her.”

What was initially a childhood diversion quickly became an obsession for Oso, who grew up in St. Paul’s west side. She ended up extensively studying Bomba, a traditional dance and musical style of Puerto Rico with a heavy African influence.

“I was able to find a teacher that taught the drumming, dancing and singing,” Oso said. “She would bring amazing people from Chicago and Puerto Rico to downtown St. Paul. It was really amazing somebody wanted to teach this in St. Paul.”

Oso, who now lives in Minneapolis, used Bomba as the basis for “Griot Del Rio,” a musical piece that will premiere on the second night of the 10th annual Cedar Commissions, which runs March 5 through 7 and features work from six local composers and musicians. Each year, the Cedar Cultural Center grants six artists $4,500 to create a new piece of music. While the performances are typically staged live in front of an audience at the Cedar, this year, they’re going online, with two artists each night.

Tickets are pay-what-you-can with a suggested donation of $10. The performances are prerecorded, but tickets include the ability to watch and chat with other audience members as well as the artists themselves. Patrons also have the option of participating in an online afterparty which includes a Q&A session. The performances will be available to stream on demand for 48 hours. For details, see thecedar.org.

Minneapolis artist Tearra Oso used the traditional Puerto Rican dance and musical style Bomba as the basis for “Griot Del Rio,” a new work she’ll debut March 6 during the Cedar Cultural Center’s Cedar Commissions series. (Courtesy of Peter Jamus)

For years, Oso has played traditional Bomba with various groups. And while she had previously performed on the Cedar’s stage, she hadn’t heard about Cedar Commissions until last year.

“It was exciting because they wanted new work,” she said. “I’ve done this music before, but I’ve never done this music how I wanted to do it until now. This pushed me to create something new, my ancestors’ rhythms mixed with modern hip-hop, R&B and pop.”

She learned she had won the grant in August, when she had a full-time job and a 19-month-old at home.

“I was kind of doing what I could quietly when my son was sleeping in the same room,” Oso said. “My job ended in December, which I knew was coming, and I really focused on it big time after that.”

After recording a demo, Oso found musicians to fill out the band. They rehearsed in isolation, took COVID-19 tests and joined together to record “Griot Del Rio,” which translates to “storyteller of the river.”

“What you’re going to see is me and six other musicians on stage. It feels very much like you are at the theater watching the show,” she said.

The piece features 10 songs over about a half hour. Oso is also incorporating some home videos to the presentation, which she said offers more of a range of emotions rather than a traditional storyline. In creating the work, she drew upon her knowledge as a health and wellness facilitator.

“It’s about really being able to understand your breath and how that can calm our nervous systems. We’re going to be talking about some intense things that might bring up some intense emotions. But I incorporated some healing practices into the show because I want people to feel safe and relaxed.”

“Griot Del Rio” opens with Oso leading the audience through a humming exercise. “It’s something I use in my everyday life. Last night, my son was having a meltdown. I began humming one of the songs and he stopped crying right away. It was helping to heal my son and helping to heal me.”

Drums are central to Bomba and, as such, central to “Griot Del Rio.”

“People can hear the drum and feel sad or overwhelmed. But they’re powerful rhythms that can calm the body and ground everybody together. At one point in the show, I sing a song about putting all your hurt and pain into the drums. I’m going to talk about things that have happened, activism, having to be an activist. It’s about the whole arc of emotions, from sadness and anger to hope and strength.”

After the premiere, Oso said she plans to record studio versions of the songs along with a few new numbers and to shoot some music videos. She said she’s looking forward to performing the music live for in-person audiences once it’s safe. “Really, this music is supposed to be played in a community. It’s less of a performance, more of an interactive jam session.”

Oso also said she’ll always remain thankful for those first Bomba classes she took as a kid.

“It’s so cool when I realize the impact that had on my life,” she said. “Theater and dance gets you to move in front of people, explore your emotions and talk to people you wouldn’t otherwise talk to. A lot of people are not used to public speaking or having any attention on them in public. I think people can be a little more brave and open with each other through dance. I know it helped me get out of my shell.”

Cedar Commissions online performances

  • When: March 5-7
  • Tickets: Pay-what-you-can with a suggested donation of $10. The performances are prerecorded, but tickets include the ability to watch and chat with other audience members as well as the artists themselves. Patrons also have the option of participating in an online afterparty which includes a Q&A session. The performances will be available to stream on demand for 48 hours.
  • Info: thecedar.org

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