Yasser Tejeda’s Music Reimagines What It Means To Be Dominican

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I love that NPR refers to Dominican composer, musician and producer Yasser Tejeda’s style of guitar playing as “passionate elegance.” It’s true, and I would go further by saying it comes across similarly in most of Yasser’s productions, like in his new EP Interior, an acoustic collection of songs. Tejeda’s music evokes the sound of folkloric culture, demonstrating a sound experimentation approach tempered with a deep appreciation for Dominican and Haitian ancestry.  

Having grown up in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, he approaches music with a strong curiosity for how Afro-Dominican rhythms like sarandunga, salve and palo can blend with jazz, rock and local styles. Tejeda’s music emulsions “reimagine what it means to be Dominican.” He digs deep, beyond mainstream merengue and bachata.

Tejeda was awarded a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in 2007 and while there recorded and performed with artists like Meshell Ndegeocello, Juan Luis Guerra, Kevin Eubanks, Phillip Bailey, Myron Mckinley and others. Since then he’s become a musician’s musician and has collaborated with artists like Xenia Rubinos, Sotomayor, Eduardo Cabra (Calle 13) and Vicente Garcia. He has also toured with Prince Royce. 

Now based in New York, Tejeda formed the group Palotré with drummer Victor Otoniel Vargas, percussionist Jonathan Troncoso and bassist Kyle Miles in 2009. They are known for “merging the traditional Dominican culture with Jimi Hendrix, bebop, and the blues. It’s the music of the ‘other’ Dominican Republic that has for too long been hidden.” They debuted with the album Mezclanza, which is now considered one of the most essential albums in Dominican music history. It highlights a variety of sounds, from jazz and rock to indigenous Dominican and Caribbean rhythms. They followed that up with the album Kijombo ten years later.

Tejeda’s most recent EP Interior includes “El Sol De La Madrugada,” which was inspired first by the music of Dominican composer, guitarist and lyricist Luis Diaz, whom he describes as the Dominican Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. Diaz, who passed away in 2008, had a particular style of singing that Tejeda describes as “ese canto que es del campo,” singing from the countryside that’s hundreds of years old. Diaz learned it through the work of Dominican folkloric researcher Julio Arzeno who wrote Folklore Musical Dominicano, released in late 1920s. Arzeno was the first person to write about this music, recovering songs from the northern mountain communities of the Dominican Republic. 

“It is good to be nurtured because this is something that’s hundreds of years old and has a very strong history. A lot of people have told me that when they hear [Dominican folklore music], the melody touches their heart and that is the most important thing.

“The hook in ‘El Sol De La Madrugada’ talks about how beautiful the sun is coming over the mountains at dawn. The verses depict scenes of a new morning calling for the hope of better days with abundance and love,” says Tejeda

He goes on to explain that part of the reason for this acoustic EP was to share a contrast with the music he usually presents which is heavily loaded with instruments. Stripping that away brought him a great sense of comfort and relief and a feeling of peace deep inside, in the interior of his being. He felt this especially as he began recording during the pandemic. For Tejeda, feeling that sense of peace, being grounded and in nature, provide him with a joy and comfort that is essential to his life.

Because Tejeda shows such great pride for his Dominican culture, I ask if he feels a responsibility to share these musical roots? 

“To a large extent, yes. I don’t do it as a Dominican superhero who has a responsibility to do it. I do it because I feel it, I am passionate about it, and I have loved it from the first time I learned about it. Dominican roots unfortunately are not even exposed in our own country, so when I see it for the first time I feel something that calls me in my blood, in my heart and soul.

“I don’t want to carry a flag as an ambassador of Dominican folklore but I feel that a lot of music can be made with these [roots sounds] and a lot of music can be made to expose these rhythms. This can also help these communities and the original bearers who keep these traditions alive. For generations no matter what little they have they continue to carry these traditions. Many are from a lower class but a richer class in a cultural sense because of what they carry. 

That is part of my work and this work I am doing. I do it with much pleasure and much honor and respect for the tradition. I also want to show the world what Dominican music is other than merengue and bachata. To take that and represent those communities that keep the tradition alive.”

Interior features tracks from his previous release, Kijombo, including “Amor Arrayano” and “Nuestras Raices.” 

Yasser Tejeda & Palotre’s next performance will take place at the LatiNxt Music Festival at Navy Pier in Chicago on August 7, 2021. A new album is in the works for release later this year. 

Listen to our full conversation, in español, here

Sandra Treviño is a music journalist, DJ and radio host living in Chicago. Listen to her on the radio Friday afternoons on 91.1FM Vocalo and every second and fourth Monday at 6 PM CST on 105.5FM Lumpen Radio. she is also one half of the female selecta duo The Ponderers. #futurerootz #theponderers #djangelfuk

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