“Ritmo means rhythm in Spanish,” explained Michael Eyia, director of Orquesta Ritmo, on an episode of WKAR’s BackStage Pass. “The group got started as a little garage band many years ago. We wanted to have parties and keep our own thing going with Latin music. We wanted to keep our identity as musicians and other things, as far as the Spanish community was concerned.”
As the leader of the 10-piece group, which performs Friday (Aug. 18) at UrbanBeat, Eyia’s duties include guitar, percussion, lead vocals, arranging and composing. With that amount of responsibility, it’s no surprise he’s an expert on both the technical side of the music and the genre’s history.
“It comes from the combination of African rhythms and Spanish melodies,” Eyia said. “The combination of the two is what created what’s now known as salsa or Latin music.”
Digging back further, it was Eyia’s Cuban heritage that first sparked the idea for the group. He was born in Havana, where he started classical guitar lessons at age 10 under the tutelage of world-renowned Cuban guitarist and composer Leo Brouwer. After leaving Cuba due to the unstable political climate, Eyia’s family settled in Lansing, and he studied music at Michigan State University.
But he also wanted to introduce Latin music’s electrifying, danceable style to the local scene. In 1976, Orquesta Ritmo first formed as a six-piece group, plus a 24-person dance troupe, to perform as part of the United States bicentennial celebration. Backed by his band, Eyia choreographed a selection of Cuban performances, including a danzón, a guaracha, a cha-cha-cha and a conga.
Afterward, the troupe continued to gig across Michigan and Ohio, and Eyia also became a founding member of the Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan.
By the mid-1980s, Orquesta Ritmo had evolved into its current size, a 10-piece unit that knows how to get a crowd moving. Terry Newman, the group’s bassist, was also interviewed on BackStage Pass. Newman, a former student of the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York City, has taught at the Flint School of Performing Arts for 20 years. He recalled the group’s early days and how they found their sound.
“We were all jazz musicians — there was very little dancing,” he said. “But for this music, if we don’t have people up dancing, we’re doing something wrong. It just feels so good that you can’t hold still.”
Over the years, that energy and devotion have paid off. The group has opened for several national and international acts, including bands such as Los Lobos and the Bangles and musicians such as percussionist Pete Escovedo, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and salsa great Oscar D’León, to name a few. The band has also garnered other accolades, including a tribute from the Michigan Legislature for promoting Cuban culture in mid-Michigan.
Orquesta Ritmo continues to perform at casinos, festivals and corporate functions all over the state and other parts of the Midwest. This intimate UrbanBeat show will no doubt fill the room with dance-inspiring energy.
For more information and future tour dates, visit orquestaritmo.com.
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