Music, Culture, Education — and Fun

For more than 20 years, the Latin American Ensemble has allowed students to perform, explore, and learn about Latin music and culture.

October 05, 2023

Tim Schmitt

When Professor of Music Jorge Torres was looking to introduce Grinnell’s students to Latin music back in 2001, he realized that inviting them to study and perform the music was the most meaningful way to build a connection not only with the music but with the cultures from which it had grown. He started the Latin American Ensemble with just those goals in mind.

“The objectives are not only to learn and perform the music, but to learn about the different styles of Latin American music,” explains Professor of Music Gabriel Espinoza, current director of the ensemble. The goal is also to learn how to play some of the percussion as well as sing in Spanish and Portuguese. My hope for students is that they not only learn about Latin American music, but that they truly enjoy and love performing it and learn about the culture behind each song through the process.”

Primarily comprised of college students and directed by a professor of music, the ensemble performs a variety of styles of Latin music including bolero, son, cha, tango, and Brazilian folk songs. Each semester the group focuses on a different style of Latin music, and the selected pieces are presented to the Grinnell community at the end of each term.

“Our concerts are a big Latin fiesta,” says Espinoza. “The students get to bring a different culture to the stage and share it with their fellow students in hopes they will also love and appreciate the beauty of Latin American music and the culture behind it, and even possibly expose them to music they had never heard.“

Student performances are not limited to on-campus events. In addition to the end-of-semester concerts, the ensemble has performed for a variety of local organizations: as part of “cruise night” at the retirement and nursing home community; in complement of a Brazilian art exhibit at the Grinnell College Museum of Art; for the Cinco de Mayo celebration at a local restaurant; and as part of the annual talent show organized by the College’s International Student Organization.

And the students have performed outside of the U.S. as well, “My hope from the start was to eventually be able to take the students out of the classroom and to Mexico to fully emerge in the music and culture,” says Espinoza. “We were fortunate enough to finally do this in January of 2020.”

The trip gave students multiple performance opportunities and allowed them the one-of-a-kind experience of making music with local musicians. They were able to not only share their talents but also learn from these musicians. Students also experienced the food and people of a city founded nearly five hundred years ago and visited Mayan ruins, cenotes, and beaches.

“The trip was a well-rounded cultural experience with music being at the center of it all,” says Espinoza. “Most students have expressed to me how much they enjoy learning and performing this music, but for the students who went on tour in 2020, this was a life-changing experience.

“I love how the students are very engaged with the music we make together,” he adds. “ We plan to go back to Mexico in January 2024 and have concerts in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Merida. I’m sure it will be another life-changing experience for students.”

The Latin American Ensemble is open to any Grinnell College student but does require an audition to formally join.

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