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Latin percussion class a lesson in rhythm and culture

May 12, 2010 By Kiera Wiatrak

Manuel Vellon doesn’t know sign language, but he teaches his students to talk with their hands.

Vellon teaches a percussion class at Centro Hispano through the University of Wisconsin–Madison Division of Continuing Studies. “Latin: percussion en español,” is one of four Spanish music classes offered through DCS. The other three are piano, voice and guitar.

Vellon, who is also a percussionist in the local Latin music group, Grupo Candela, tells his students to “habla, habla,” to “talk, talk.” He explains it’s what Latino percussionists say when a fellow musician has a solo.

“Music is the best way to relieve stress and enjoy,” Vellon says. “It’s universal, everyone understands it. Especially percussion. There are no words, but from the beginning, that was a way of communication.”

The Spanish music classes, which ended in early May, were originally funded by a Diversity Program Development Initiative grant, and continue to be supported by grants from the Anonymous Fund.

They’re offered at a reduced fee level and are open to any adults in the community. However, they’re designed for native Spanish speakers who want to learn music.

The DCS partners with Centro Hispano, a center serving Madison’s Latino population, which holds the classes in their facilities.

When Chelcy Bowles, DCS director of continuing education in music, decided to try to attract Madison’s large Spanish-speaking community to DCS courses by holding music classes in Spanish, she knew that Centro Hispano would be the best place for the collaboration.

“Every time I’ve been down to Centro Hispano, there’s been music there,” she says.

Centro Hispano deputy director Kent Craig is also thrilled with the partnership.

“It was something we’d been wanting to be able to do,” he says. “I’m a musician and have always been interested in having more music.”

On the second week of class, Vellon sat in front of his students with a few of his friends from Grupo Candela and other local Latin music bands with a pair of bongos between his legs.

“In all of our classes, we try to get instructors who are not only really fine teachers and performers, but who kind of have a name in the community,” Bowles says. “We feel that’s an attraction. If people experience the talent of these people, they’d be more likely to take their classes.”

In fact, DCS and Centro Hispano draw most of their Spanish music instructors from Grupo Candela and other Spanish music groups in the area.

Vellon thinks doubling as a working musician enhances the experience for his students.

“I’m not just there to lead a class, but to be part of it,” he says.

Vellon was born to a poor family of nine children in Puerto Rico. Though always fascinated by the salsa percussionists playing on the streets in the barrio, Vellon didn’t have the resources to buy his own instruments as a child. So he got creative, and made drums with cans and other items around the house.

He didn’t pick up the bongos again until he was in his 40s. Soon after he rekindled his musical fervor, he founded Grupo Candela with a Roberto Rengel and Pavel Polanco. It was one of his fellow musicians in the group that connected him with Centro Hispano to start teaching the percussion class.

“It’s another way to conserve my roots,” Vellon says of teaching. “Where I come from, music is part of it, and as you know, music brings back memories.”

Vellon starts the class demonstrating different salsa styles, including bolero, merengue, bomba and guaguancó.

Then the instruments are passed around. The eight or so registered students can choose from congas, bongos, timbales, cowbells, scrapers, claves, gourds and more. They can play their instrument for the entire class period, or switch with their classmates when they’re ready.  Salsa percussionists usually specialize in one instrument over another, but they tend to have a basic knowledge of all salsa percussion instruments, Vellon says.

The rest of the class feels like a mix between a jam session and a lesson. Vellon demonstrates different techniques, like how slapping the drum with an open hand makes a different sound than with a closed hand.

He also gives tips from his performing experience. He suggests putting coconut lotion on your hands before and after a gig to keep your hands from hurting after playing for a long period of time.

But mostly, Vellon just plays with his students and encourages them to both follow and add to the rhythm of the group. The class definitely appreciates his interactive teaching style.

“You get to learn the art of it instead of just the rudiments,” says percussion student and 1982 UW–Madison alum Tom Conrad. “It’s like learning a folk art from people who really grew up with it.”

Spanish music classes will be offered Fall 2010 and Spring 2011. Call (608) 263-6670 or e-mail for more information.