The 2018–19 season of the ever popular—and always free—¡VAYA! 63 series at the David Rubenstein Atrium kicks off Friday, September 21, with Latin Grammy Award–winning trumpet player, composer, and bandleader Charlie Sepulveda and his band, The Turnaround, with an opening set by DJ Bongohead. Before the dance party starts, Atrium Director Jordana Leigh and the series co-creator Carlos Chirinos, Director of the NYU Music and Social Change Lab, sat down to talk about ¡VAYA! 63 and how it's evolved as it enters its fourth season.

Eileen Willis: Can you give us an overview of ¡VAYA! 63 and how it came about?

Jordana Leigh: ¡VAYA! 63 is a dance series that happens every month, September through May, and features both pioneers as well as emerging artists. And it's very popular. In fact, it's so popular we do two sets. The night starts at seven with a DJ who spins for 30 minutes, and then the band comes on and does its first set for about 45 minutes. Then another DJ set, then the band's second set, and the DJ closes the night. People dance the whole time.

In terms of how it came about, ¡VAYA! is one of the subseries that we present in the David Rubenstein Atrium, whose mission is to make the arts and Lincoln Center accessible to everyone. A little over four years ago, Carlos and I were talking about the population of the city being thirty percent Latino, Latina, Latinx, and how that representation was not always reflected in what was happening at Lincoln Center. So ¡VAYA! 63 is dedicated to celebrating the Latin community here and beyond. Salsa music comes out of New York, and it's important for us at Lincoln Center to embrace all of the city’s music and culture.

Carlos Chirinos: I'd never lived in the United States until 2014, when I came to work at NYU from the U.K. To me, New York was not only the birthplace, but the hub of Latin music, historically. So, it was surprising that I couldn't find a place in midtown Manhattan to see live Latin music. I heard stories about the Palladium and those venues in the 1950s that were homes for mambo, cha-cha, for boogaloo, all the Latin genres. At that point I felt like Lincoln Center was in the right place to fill that gap and bring Latin music to the community that surrounds them.

JL: I had previously been charged with doing a couple of events in Damrosch Park. We called it "Dancing in Damrosch," and it was a few different DJs and bands performing in the spring of 2015. We had some swing performances, and we had a salsa night, and that salsa night was the most attended event that we did: crazy lines around the block! So we knew there was a real desire for this music. It’s also an extension of what happens in the summer every year with Midsummer Night Swing, a celebration of dance music that has a strong component of salsa, charanga, and other Latin dances. ¡VAYA! 63 continues that relationship all year long.

I think what's been interesting about working with you, Carlos, was to have this collaboration that comes out of the idea that the arts are a place for social change. When you started telling me about the Music and Social Change Lab, which you created at NYU, it made sense for us to start this project together.

EW: Right, how does the Music and Social Change Lab fit into this?

CC: The idea of the Music and Social Change Lab collaborating with the Atrium was both to enhance the community engagement strategy of Lincoln Center and introduce students to the programming. The generation of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-old students that I work with at NYU are not all familiar with Lincoln Center. They may know about the ballet or the opera, but many are not familiar with the music offerings, so it’s an opportunity for us to bring young audiences to the Atrium and hear live Latin music. I try not to see music just as a commercial commodity, but as a tool that can activate social mobilization and community engagement, so it brings people together. Once you bring people together you can generate a dialogue. That’s what music does.

JL: And ¡VAYA! 63 is very specifically a dance event, so it's social dancing with live music and a DJ. The Atrium has also developed a deeper relationship within the Latin community.  For the past few years we’ve collaborated with the Celebrate Mexico Now festival, which presents contemporary Mexican artists. We have a strong relationship with the Colombian community, presenting artists like M.A.K.U Soundsystem, Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, and Emilsen Pacheco. Additionally, we have presented Jorge Glem a traditional Venezuelan cuatro player, the Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Ani Cordero, bachata artist Joan Soriano, among many many others. We are creating a deep connection to multiple styles of Latin music here at the Atrium.

EW: There's also a visual component, right?

CC: Yes, when we first talked about this series there was this idea of celebrating Latin visual culture as well as the music. And [Atrium Associate Producer] Viviana Benitez had a connection to Pablo Yglesias, a.k.a. DJ Bongohead, who is probably one of the most important collectors of Latin visual culture in the U.S. Pablo has collected an incredible amount of memorabilia of Latin music. He’s an amazing curator of Latin photographs, and he published one of the few books about music record sleeves in Latin music: Cocinando!: Fifty Years of Latin Album Cover Art.

JL: He's been included in museum exhibitions.

CC: Exactly. So, for every event he's selected a series of photographs and drawings and paintings that are projected on this amazing, gigantic screen at the Atrium, so that has been a platform to showcase that visual culture. And our idea of having DJs play vinyl is a way to create an event that will always sound and feel vintage. I think it's important to say that a large proportion of the people that come to these events are Latinos from, I would say, the retired community. 

JL: We'll have people who come to me saying, "I danced at that band's concert in 1973," and then I'll meet people who were born in 1973, and then I'll meet college kids who'll be like, "My mom was born in 1973." It's really a multigenerational series. And we program it so that it’s both the folks who created the music as well as the next generation, who are continuing that culture. On that dance floor you see people of all different ages and backgrounds dancing together, and it's beautiful.

CC: Many people keep their heads up, looking at the pictures while they dance. Not many people have access to these record sleeves anymore. Pablo can digitize obscure record sleeves as well as the more popular ones. And when you see them on the large screen, it’s like looking at a work of art. Very interesting for those who grew up with the vinyl, because they haven't seen them in years. And then, of course, you have the hipsters, the nineteen-year-olds who have started collecting vinyl.

¡VAYA! 63: Celebrating the Latin Community
Photo by Kevin Yatarola
Dancers at the ¡VAYA! 63 Mambo Legends Orchestra Show

EW: Every ¡VAYA! 63 show is special, but are there evenings that have been particularly magical?

CC: There have been many for me: The chance to book a band like Orquesta Broadway, or Típica 73, even Marc Ribot, these quintessential New York–sound bands. And booking or helping conceptualize nights for Arturo Ortiz, Jose Fajardo y sus Estrellas, Eddie Palmieri—

JL: I feel like Eddie Palmieri was a magical moment.

CC: He was the first artist we tried to book years ago.

JL: We must give the Eddie Palmieri credit also to Viviana Benitez. She's the one who pursued it and made that night possible. Carlos, what about the event we did with Rubén Blades?

CC: One of our biggest Latin music artists of all time. When we started the series, I got the idea to invite Rubén to have a conversation about his life and his career, and after a year and a half of chasing it, it happened in January 2017. That was a very successful event in terms of the legacy of ¡VAYA! 63 because, well—he’s a 17-time Grammy Award-winning artist, composer, actor, activist, former minister of tourism in Panama, former candidate for president of Panama. It was a big deal, and that was reflected in the number of people that came to the venue—it was packed—but also the number of people who watched it live. Over 77,000 people have watched it via Facebook Live.

EW: ¡VAYA! 63 is kicking off its fourth season. How has it changed since you launched it?

JL: I think the biggest change is that we've been conscious of making sure that we have more representation of women in our curation and booking of artists. For this season we’ll have nine shows. We've booked six of the shows already, and so far half are led by women.

CC: This is a difficult job to do. Lack of diversity in Latin music is a result of the historical structures in which music has evolved in our community. So it's been hard to find women-led Latin bands. We had Aurora Flores with her band, Fulaso with her salsa orchestra, but these are usually orchestras and bands that only have a female singer, a front person. We did a Celia Cruz tribute a few years ago. This season we have Miss YaYa from the Dominican Republic, who plays a blend of salsa and Caribbean music. We'll also have Andre Veloz, who performs bachata and merengue. And then we have an evening with Karen Joseph, who was a longtime member of the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra as a flutist. She's an amazing performer and now she fronts her own orchestra.

We are also trying to expand the spectrum of Latin music to include more merengue and bachata, which are very popular genres in New York City. So last year we had one event with Típico Urbano, which performs merengue típico from the Dominican Republic, a very traditional form of merengue that was out of fashion since the '80s when the pop-merengue big-hitters came out, like Juan Luis Guerra. Now merengue típico is having a revival.

EW: This season kicks off next week (September 21). What are you looking forward to in the 2018–2019 lineup? 

CC: Things to look forward to are the opening night with Charlie Sepulveda & The Turnaround, Andre Veloz in November, and Miss YaYa on December 20 to close the year and have a nice Christmas party.

JL: It's such a great series. I'm looking forward to seeing people dance all night. It's just a blast.

Eileen Willis is Editorial Director at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.