Echoing through the hallways of the Jack H. Miller Center for the Musical Arts this week are the sounds of Latino students performing Latino works: the sonorous tones of singing in Spanish punctuated by instruction and conversation in both English and Spanish — and plenty of laughter.
Fourteen Latino students from West Michigan high schools are participating in ¡Canto! A Latinx Vocal Intensive. Under the direction of Eric Reyes, assistant professor of music instruction and director of choral activities at Hope College, these students are learning a selection of choral music from throughout Latin America, including ensemble and solo pieces from Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Peru, and other countries.
“This music is underrepresented in general. Regardless of who it is sung by, it’s not sung very often or often enough,” said Eric Reyes. “So one level of the program’s impact is just the fact that the music is being sung.”
Reyes said that one reason the music isn’t performed very often is because of the unique challenges of how much text is in the music, of the Spanish language, and of the complexity of the rhythms. By teaching Latino students, though, much of the complexity simply disappears.
“It’s been unique for me as a conductor to see what comes naturally to them, the things I don’t have to thoroughly teach,” Reyes said. “The Spanish language itself is familiar because of the various forms in which they’ve grown up — whether they speak fluently or partially, they naturally understand the text and understand a lot of the connections between how the spoken text matches up rhythmically.”
“The cool aspect of doing this here is that it’s being sung by people who are from this culture. It’s kind of a rediscovering of our roots and origins,” Reyes said.
“I’ve been in choir for a while, and we usually focus on music in Latin or music that doesn’t have to do with the Spanish heritage side of things,” said Felix Cruz, a senior from Holland Public High School. “It’s a whole new world when we dive into stuff like this.”
In addition to musical training, ¡Canto! students are participating in a wide range of seminars, including history guest artist interviews by Latino artists, exploration of Latin rhythms, and a panel discussion lead by Latin leaders in the Holland community. In a history seminar, they talked about the histories of the countries the music comes from and how they’re seeking to rediscover who they are as a people before colonialism.
“In some ways, there is that opportunity for us here to rediscover who we are as Latinos and embrace both the fullness of complexity of our history,” Reyes said. “There’s that mixture — that mestizo, we call it — of cultural identity, where, okay I’m American, but maybe I’m also Colombian or also Mexican, and we get to tap into that musically and get to celebrate it and not have to hide it. It gets to be in the forefront, and that’s an empowering thing.”
Many of the students had never seen the pairing of classical music and Hispanic culture before now.
“I grew up listening to more modern music, and I’m also into classical orchestral music,” said Eileen Perez, a sophomore at Fennville High School. “Just knowing that there’s classical music in my Hispanic culture is very eye-opening.”
The two-week intensive will culminate in a free concert on Friday, July 1, at 6:30 p.m. The performance is preceded by a salsa dance presentation and class for the entire community.
“Even here in Holland, Michigan, where it’s something like 35 percent Latino, we’re able to raise our voices and celebrate that Holland is this diverse place. Amidst the strong Dutch roots, there are also a lot of other cultures here that coexist and support each other and celebrate the things we have in common.”
Talan Marquez, a sophomore at Fennville High School and one of the students in ¡Canto!, spoke highly of the program instructors and the other students.
“I’ve gotten to meet some new people, unique individuals — I haven’t really met people like the ones in this group before,” Marquez said. “The teachers are really nice and they’ve already helped me out a lot with my vocals.”
In addition to working under the direction of Reyes, students also receive private vocal instruction from Dr. Sarah VandenBrink, assistant professor of music instruction at Hope. Christina Krause, an accompanist in Hope’s music department, is the program’s collaborative keyboardist.
“I really appreciate the work that they’re doing here and the time they’re putting in,” Cruz said.
¡Canto! is a collaborative effort of Hope College and Latin Americans United for Progress (LAUP). It is funded through an award from the “There’s No Place Like Home” initiative, which was established in February 2020 through a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Here’s a recording of one of the ¡Canto! ensemble pieces, “La Llorona,” popular text, with music by José Barros, arranged by Alberto Carbonell (Colombia), performed by the Houston Chamber Choir: