Musician and filmmaker Jacqui Otaño was drawn to Puerto Rico to learn more about herself and to explore its musical traditions.
The New York native and former Triad resident moved to Puerto Rico in November 2019 and remains there today.
“I had a burning passion and instinct to get more deeply in touch with my Puerto Rican heritage, the Spanish language, and the native rhythms of Puerto Rico,” she says. “I felt a calling to be part of the culture and learn more about the customs from the island.”
From her arrival, she completely embraced the island’s lifestyle and seized every opportunity to submerse herself among its community of musicians. She immediately felt a sense of belonging in her mother’s homeland. She especially wanted to delve into boleros, which are romantic songs or dances.
“I never felt more at home with a city lifestyle and cultural atmosphere. I also had a specific vision to collaborate with a bolero quartet as part of my recording project. I wanted my songs to have a genuine jibaro (native) influence, and I felt conviction about hiring actual Puerto Rican musicians who were experts in the field of bolero music,” she says. “Once there, I learned about even more genres of music, namely bomba and plena, which quickly became pieces of my sangre (blood) that I wanted to implement into my songwriting.”
Just as she was starting to gain momentum, her dreams were halted - as many were - by the global Coronavirus pandemic. Her plans to play, collaborate and record with some of the island’s best musicians are on hold. So the theme of Snapdragon Journal’s upcoming issue, Empty|Enough, really resonates with her.
“I feel like it completely sums up the many ups and downs of this pandemic. There are days when I feel absolutely empty, and I think if I see one more virtual music collaboration on Facebook, I’m gonna lose my mind and slink under the sheets and never listen to a lick of music again.
Empty. Those are the moments when I know I have absolutely nothing to give, and I am so utterly empty.
And then there are days of calmness where I feel that my art -- the way it is, in its organic honest form -- is completely enough. That it doesn’t in any way need to be abundant or prolific to be impressive.
It is enough to simply make the art, and possibly sometimes not even share it. Because the purpose of music is not to just create a product that will be on display. For me, the purpose is to be a vehicle - a conduit of my own experience and the stories of the life I see around me. By the point I become a historian, and that’s worth something. The only expectation I should have of that work is that it is simply honest, tells a story, and has a least a couple dashes of beauty sprinkled in. For me, that is more than enough, and will forever keep me from feeling empty.”
Jacqui took some time recently to tell us about her musical journey and artistic
endeavors and how they challenge and fulfill her.
First, tell us a little about how you got interested in music:
Growing up, I was surrounded by music. My uncles played instruments and sang songs when they visited for the holidays, and my older brothers were involved in band. My parents were big supporters of the arts, and knew the importance of music education, so they made a point of exposing us to the symphony, Broadway, Opera, and the abundant community music programming that New York City had to offer.
Why do you love it?
It moves me in a way that nothing else can. The combination of story/lyric, chord progression, melody and different tones of instruments just latches onto my heart in a way that is indescribable. Knowing how much human emotion and work go into creating a piece of music is also something that I still can barely fathom. I can’t think of any art form besides music that can so powerfully conjure feelings of nostalgia, deep love, and dreams for the future. It paints a landscape of our lives, documents history, and makes us tap into the most honest, deeply feeling parts of our souls.
Tell us about your musical journey. How did it start and where are you now?
I was the baby of the family, which meant I got dragged around to a lot of my older brothers’ soccer games, activities, and mostly - band concerts. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the powerful sound of the high school marching band. Our school system had an incredible music program and the performance level was extremely high for the age group. I fell in love with the music of the marching band -- repertoire like “Victory at Sea,” “Turandot,” “Samson et Dalila,” and “Scheherazade.” I begged my parents for trumpet lessons.
In fourth grade I practiced the trumpet like hell, and in fifth grade I switched to French horn in the concert band at school. I played all through grammar school and high school. A lot of the instrumentalists were also in choir, and I was encouraged to join the choir in middle school. I completely fell in love with the way that text could weave its way into a musical arrangement. I jumped head first into my choir studies, auditioning for every choir I possibly could, and studying privately with two different instructors.
I will never get tired of the sound of a collective group of voices joining together, their heartbeats aligning and diction lined up perfectly to translate a story. There is a swell that happens -a push and pull that requires intentional communication between each singer - that I find to be an incredibly passionate and unique way to connect to another human. It was during this time in choir that I discovered my love of harmony and jazz, which are very important sounds that are implemented in all of my original music.
Throughout college, I had a few bands, including a super cool punk band called The Trade Parade where I was the drummer. And throughout the years had a few different ensembles playing my originals. I took a break from music altogether for about seven years, and in 2018 felt like I really needed to get back to it. So I auditioned for a scholarship to attend the New York Voices Vocal Jazz Camp, and was awarded tuition to attend. It changed so much because it broke me out of my locked up feelings about music, and I was able to get back to my roots and fall in love with the music that had changed me in high school. I took classes that reignited my spark and built relationships with mentors who have been actively encouraging me to continue my musical endeavors. After that, I started playing jazz gigs for about a year, and I started to write music again. It was amazing to see myself flourish as a writer, but now as an older adult. Now I am focusing on writing, and have a full record worth of songs that I’m preparing, arranging, and hopefully recording.
What has it been like to be in Puerto Rico during a pandemic and so far from your mainland US family?
I am very lucky to have family and friends on the island who have supported me during the pandemic. They checked on me, brought me groceries, and always kept communication lively. My family and friends in the States were also amazing at keeping in touch with me via Zoom and virtual games. It was definitely extremely difficult to be alone and feel so disconnected from family and loved ones during the lockdown in March/April/May.
In Puerto Rico, it was very strict, and I didn’t have a lot of access to outdoor spaces living in a high rise, and I felt anxious going to the grocery store knowing the National Guard was outside the building keeping an eye on things. It was hard to hear how silent the neighborhood had gotten in an area where there is usually lively music and drums that you can hear in the street until late.
But there were also parts about that that were beautiful. Whenever I snuck out for a glimpse of the closed beaches, it was an amazing sight to see them so empty. And the mornings, which would normally be flooded with sounds of delivery trucks and traffic were so quiet that you could hear lapping dove wings echoing between the building alley ways. So while, on many days, I felt very isolated and lonely, I tried my best to appreciate that I was experiencing something very unique.
What were some of your dreams that didn’t get realized since you’ve been there?
I did not get to record my project. I didn’t have an opportunity to meet with musicians in person to work on my music, as I was still very much in the planning phase of deciding on instrumentation and starting to gather plans for fundraising. I feel I missed out on countless hours of lessons, bomba jams, and witnessing music in the streets. Many missed hours of practicing Spanish in social situations. That was all an essential part of the education that I was curating for myself. The culture and the people are my teachers. With culture and public life being closed, my school is closed, and I am unable to continue my curious work as a tactile student.
What has been able to happen while you’re there?
I have met AMAZING people who I know are here for me, and are ready and willing to jump on my project when the time is right. Early in my days on the island, I went to a jazz festival at the music conservatory, and after attending a faculty panel discussion, I went up to the stage and introduced myself to one of the professors.
I was so hungry for the music that I just walked right up to her and introduced myself and asked for her help. Her name is Brenda Hopkins, and now we are great friends. She has introduced me to countless musicians, and has been an incredible propellant of my work and my craft. She is going to help me record my project by connecting me with recording engineers in San Juan. She even booked me my first Puerto Rico gig before the pandemic hit, and I was able to play a real show.
I have also made connections with bolero musicians who play a beautiful bohemian concert every other week. Same story - I saw them playing at a cafe and I just walked up to them and shook their hands. I told them what I was trying to do and they were so interested and encouraging. Now, I feel like we are family. We used to meet at a cafe and drink wine and talk about life and bolero music. I know those days will come again.
Tell us about your filmmaking and how that fits into your life.
As my main job, I am a video producer. In Puerto Rico, I was also able to get a video job with the National Parks Department. I was hired to create three videos for the San Juan National Historic Site of the 16th century citadel El Morro. This was an incredible opportunity, and it meant a lot to me to become part of the team that is continuing the work of preserving artifacts that are part of Puerto Rico’s history. Soon we will be producing more!
How do these endeavors fulfill you and how do they complement each other?
I absolutely love making videos because it’s another form of storytelling, and that’s really who I am at the core. Over the years, I have found ways to align my video work with music, and I seek out work with musicians that I love. It has afforded me an opportunity to witness some really exquisite music-making, and even to see the recording process from the inside.
Last year, I was hired by the New York Voices to produce an EPK for their new album. I had to get some footage of them in the studio, and I’ll never forget being locked inside a tiny New York studio sound booth, hearing them all sing together for their new album. It was such a freaking crazy experience that I doubt many people (if any) have ever had the privilege to encounter.
It was an incredible emotional experience for me, but also showed me the nuts and bolts of how the true pros approach the recording process. I asked questions and observed and it was the best scenario I could find myself in to learn about tracking an album. Since I produced their promos, I was hired by more and more musicians to do the same work. This has afforded me an incredible opportunity to meet the best players out there, and to have a great rolodex full of people I can call to work on my project.
Do you see art - your artistic expression - as a way of healing? And if so - how?
I definitely see music overall as a mode of healing, but not the actual act of making it per se. I enjoy writing, and it feels cathartic to express myself...it’s a release to write down the words. but when I really feel the balm and the healing is when I can connect with other people through that music and find some common ground in our experiences. I also get a great deal of healing simply from being a listener, and sometimes I even prefer that more to being the maker.