Academic journal article Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

Rafael Hernandez and the Puerto Rican Legacy of the 369th Regiment's Harlem Hellfighters

Academic journal article Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

Rafael Hernandez and the Puerto Rican Legacy of the 369th Regiment's Harlem Hellfighters

Article excerpt

Over a decade ago, I became interested in the story of the Puerto Rican musicians and the World War I Harlem Hellfighters Regimental Band and their influence on jazz music, after finding scholar Ruth Glasser's extraordinary book, My Music is My Flag, in a Smithsonian Museum bookshop and then viewing the exhibit, RAICES: The Roots of Latin Music, curated by Louis Bauzo and Roberta Singer at the Museum of the City of New York. It was such an incredible story that I was surprised I hadn't heard about it elsewhere. I found that in some circles the African American component of this history was well known, but the Puerto Rican history was either ignored or disregarded, which is a shame because it adds another layer to an already fascinating tale. For instance, in Ken Burns' serial documentary, Jazz, during the episode recounting the story of the Harlem Hellfighters, never once were the roles played by the 18 Puerto Ricans mentioned. It is especially disturbing, because one of the Puerto Rican musicians was a young Rafael Hernandez, who would become Puerto Rico's--and Latin America's--greatest composer. I think this exclusion reflects a tendency to look at different issues, cultural or social, in terms of either Black or White, and musically speaking, this leaves out Latinos or relegates them to ethnic genres such as salsa and norteno. Ethnomusicologist Deborah Pacini Hernandez has commented how numerous scholars "... have begun breaking down such essentialist notions by providing more complex and nuanced views of the musical practices of Latinos, demonstrating that for decades they have engaged extensively with US mainstream popular musical styles" (Pacini Hernandez 2000, 71). So, in search of this history and to pay homage to those rarely mentioned musicians, I have delved, along with musician Bobby Sanabria, into the Hellfighter's Latino past to find ways to bring this story to light.

Rafael Hernandez--Beginnings

Rafael Hernandez was born October 24, 1891, in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, to Afro-Puerto Rican tobacco workers. His grandmother inspired him and his three siblings, Victoria, Rosa Elvira, and Jesus (Pocholo), to take an interest in music. Rafael learned the cornet, trombone, bombardino (small concert tuba known as a euphonium), guitar, violin, and piano. Jesus played clarinet, and Victoria was an accomplished violinist, cellist, and pianist. Not surprisingly, the siblings came from the town that has been called "Elpueblo donde hasta laspiedras cantan" ("The town where even the rocks sing").

Rafael's professional musical career started in 1914, when a Japanese circus, El Circo Kawamura, passed through his hometown on a tour of Latin America. The Kawamura Brothers had heard of Hernandez's musical abilities and hired him to tour the island with them. Upon arriving in San Juan, Rafael made connections and began playing in various bands including la banda municipal (the municipal band), which was directed by Manuel Tizol (the uncle of valve trombonist Juan Tizol, who would later play in Duke Ellington's band and compose jazz standards such as Caravan), as well as playing violin in the Orquesta Sinfonica. It was at this time that Rafael began writing and composing songs in earnest.

James Reese Europe

In 1917, 26-year-old Rafael met the renowned African American bandleader James Reese Europe. This meeting drastically changed Rafael's life and brought him into contact with people and events that would make musical history. James Reese Europe was a highly regarded bandleader in New York City. In 1910, he had founded the Clef Club in Harlem, which functioned as a union and booking agency for African American musicians who were ignored by the American Federation of Musicians. In 1912, Europe started an orchestra of over 100 musicians, and the following year the orchestra was the first Black group to play Carnegie Hall. Europe's prowess as a bandleader and conductor was later established with mainstream audiences, when he became the musical director for Irene and Vernon Castle, the dance partners who were responsible for igniting the tango craze in the United States prior to World War I, in what was North America's first love affair with Latin music and dance. …

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