Rochester Musical Spotlight: Pedro Nunez

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  • June 10, 2016
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Rochester Musical Spotlight: Pedro Nunez

Known as one of the best “cuatro” players in the city of Rochester, Pedro Nunez’s influence reached beyond music. A father to some, to others a mentor and to all a friend, Nunez brought communities together through his humble and caring attitude.

Born in Cayey, Puerto Rico, Nunez watched his older brother, Ignacio, play the traditional 10-string Puerto Rican guitar, “el cuatro”. Without sheet music or lessons Nunez began to teach himself on a makeshift guitar made out of a sardine can. Taught solely by ear, his son Orlando says that’s how he taught others to play music, “He would tell you sit down and listen.” Nunez eventually surpassed his brother and mastered the guitar and “el cuatro”.

His hometown of Cayey, which resides in the mountainous regions of Puerto Rico, developed Pedro’s love for traditional “jíbaro” music. While this music evokes the traditional heritage from Spain and the Canary Islands, this music was a staple in the town. Towns such as Cayey and Caguas would use the music to communicate to one another and bring news to each other. Both Pedro’s parents loved “la musica jibara” and instilled its significance into Pedro at a young age.

While in Puerto Rico, Pedro played in various groups and on the radio. In 1955 Pedro moved to Rochester for work, where the Puerto Rican population was rapidly growing. Although he was young, Pedro’s love for “musica jibara” stuck with him.

Nunez’s main goal once coming to Rochester became to keep the “traditional Puerto Rican folklore music alive.” His first band ‘Jacagua’ sought to fulfill this goal, but it faced many challenges. Genres such as the Cha-Cha and Mambo were becoming popular among the American elites, and Nunez’s band was gaining popularity as well. Owners of a local dance studio, Bob and Joyce, brought ‘Jacagua’ to the county clubs to play music. This stirred controversy amongst local bands that were part of the Union and felt Jacagua was stealing their shows. These bands made it difficult and Orlando says, “sometimes Pedro and his band would have to go through the back entrance, and they made it clear you weren’t one of them.”

Jacagua thus sought to join the performers Union. They arrived at the office and asked to join, which at the time cost $50 per band member. They were told it would be $250 per person. Denied and rejected by the union the band went back to playing without being a part of the union. Once hearing of the “blatant racism” as Hector Arguinzoni, Pedro’s nephew, says, Bob went back to the office with the band and paid for every single member himself. Jacagua became the first Hispanic artists to join the performers union.

With the legitimacy of  union membership and growing popularity of Latin music the group gained popularity. Jacagua began playing weddings, private parties, and fundraisers. Nunez’s niece, Ida Perez says, “he was so talented, he could have been known internationally.” But what kept Nunez in Rochester was his family, says Orlando.

Nunez’s desire to bring the Puerto Rican community together culminated in 1963, when the Fiesta Jíbara Navideña began. Orlando, who has attended since he was a baby, says “first is was an event for the church, a get together, and then it became a party.”  Eventually the party was turned into a fundraiser for the church and attracted people from all cultures, communities, and ages.

In the 1970s the Puerto Rican Arts and Culture center received a grant from the International Endowment of the Arts to produce a traditional music album, Rochester se Puertorriqueñiza. Nunez organized and preformed on this historic album that is still a point of pride within the community. Hector says, “He was, musically, one of the pioneers” and he helped establish some of the traditions seen today in Rochester, such as the Puerto Rican Festival and “Rosarios de Cruz.”

The cover of teh historic album Rochester se Puertorriqueñiza

The cover of the historic album Rochester se Puertorriqueñiza.

At these events, Pedro was the main event, but as he got older and underwent multiple hand surgeries he slowly played less and less. He continued mentoring and teaching those younger than him to keep the music alive. Orlando says, “My father was very strict when it came to music but, it was because he saw talented people and he wanted it to be done right.” Even up until his death on May 1, 2016 Pedro was preparing to play at that years “Rosarios de Cruz.”

Nunez’s passion for music helped establish the Puerto Rican community and culture of Rochester, NY. His accomplishments in music were only a facet of his abilities and talents. Encouraged to become a politician throughout his lifetime Nunez always felt music was the best way to protest.

Orlando says, “If I could be one millionth of the man that he was, I’d be a good guy."

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