Music celebrates culture at New London festivals
New London — Amid a sea of Whaler pride shirts, the New London High School colors of green and gold, firetrucks and military uniforms, the We Are New London parade on State Street comes alive each fall with an array of music that ranges from traditional Indigenous drumming to hip-hop, from Latin music to patriotic tunes.
The sounds represent the broad spectrum of a culturally, ethnically and racially diverse city.
City Council President and parade Chairman Efrain Dominguez, who is of Puerto Rican descent and a New London native, said it’s been amazing for him to be in a position where he can help highlight the city’s many cultures.
“We needed something that was going to bring everyone together to celebrate,” he said of the parade that began in 2016. “It’s to celebrate the richness of culture, the diversity, and the people of this city.”
Music is central to celebrations of cultural, ethnic, racial, religious and gender identity. In New London, that means integrating music of all types into the many summer street festivals that include Sailfest in July and Eat in the Street on the first Thursday of each month through the summer.
Culturally diverse music also can be heard throughout the city’s many music venues, emanating from the windows of houses of worship and enlivening downtown at events ranging from the St. Patrick’s Day parade to the Basque Festival, Caribbean Festival and Ocean Beach Park’s New London Pride, all in August.
“New London is unique in the sense that we’re 400 years old and we’re a seaport city,” Mayor Michael Passero said. “So we've always had a rich mix of different ethnic cultures.”
It's one of the more diverse communities in the state. According to the most recent census data, Latinos make up a big part of the city's population, with 33% of people having roots in Latin America. The Latino community also is diverse within itself, with members who identify as Puerto Rican, Mexican, Dominican, Guatemalan, Peruvian and other nationalities. The city is also 15% Black. There are communities of Haitians and West Indians. Other residents are of Asian descent, such as Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, waves of Jewish immigrants came to New London as well as people from Greece, Poland, Italy, Ireland, the Azores and many other countries. New London had a robust trade with the West Indies as far back as the early colonial period and was a major whaling port in the 19th century, a business that brought people from all over the globe to its shores.
Barbara Neff, who runs the event planning company Neff Productions, which is responsible for planning some of the city’s biggest events such as Sailfest and the Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival in September, said culture is a vital part of the events she plans to help ensure that everyone feels welcome.
“What we try to do with our music is to bring people in from our community,” Neff said.
Even when events aren’t particularly focused on culture, she said she makes sure to incorporate performers who reflect the identity of the city. For example, Sailfest might have musical acts ranging from hip-hop and Latin to gospel.
“With Sailfest, we have multi-stages with different kinds of music,” Neff said. “We tried to put all different ranges so we reach all different demographics.”
One band that is no stranger to performing at these citywide events is Latin Essence Jazz Group. The sextet marries jazz and Latin standards and creates a new experience for listeners, said Ben Velazquez, the band's bassist.
Miguel Rios, a percussionist in the band, said he was motivated to start the band more than 10 years ago because of the lack of Latin bands in the New London area.
“One thing I could never find was a band that would play salsa or Latin jazz or any type of Latin band whatsoever," he said. “They just weren’t out there.”
Velazquez said he hopes the large Latino population of New London now feels represented by his band’s music.
“I think it’s important that the Latin population in our area have something to identify with,” he said.
Velazquez also said he hopes everyone, no matter their culture or identity, can get something from the music.
“I love the aspect of being able to educate people,” he said. “All some people know of Latin music is what they hear on the radio or what they see on TV and they don’t really know the tradition or the culture.”
Chris Leigh, the band’s guitarist, said he, too, had a learning curve when he started playing with Latin Essence. He previously played in blues bands.
“Working with the band has allowed me to look at Latin music on a whole other level,” he said. “If you’re not still learning, you’re not doing the right thing.”
'An amazing tradition'
Hailing back to an earlier era when many Irish and Scottish immigrants came to the city, the New London Firefighters Pipes and Drums band is made up of New London firefighters and their families. Jonathan Paige, the pipe major of the group, said the band is in especially high demand around St. Patrick’s Day — it plays more than 25 shows in March.
Paige said he helped start the band 20 years ago, since there was a lack of traditional Irish and Scottish music in New London. The tradition of firefighters playing bagpipes is longstanding and serves as an homage to the Scottish and Irish immigrants from over 150 years ago. Police work and firefighting were often some of the only good jobs open to these immigrants because others thought they were too dangerous.
Paige said it was rewarding being able to honor the Scottish and Irish immigrants who protected communities so many years ago. The band also plays for firefighter retirement and promotional ceremonies, funerals and memorial services.
“I think it's an amazing tradition, I feel great every time I play,” Paige said. “I feel it's important to memorialize firefighters who are killed in the line of duty and support their families.”
Under the direction of instructors Gail B. MacDonald, a University of Connecticut professor in residence and former Day reporter, and Carlos Virgen, The Day's assistant managing editor for audience development, UConn journalism students worked all semester crafting stories in text, audio and photographs that strive to tell parts of the overarching tale of music in New London. They spoke to musicians, businesspeople, city and regional officials, educators and others to inform their work. These stories will be published in The Day and on theday.com.