When professor Juan Álamo went to Mexico for the first time, he looked out at the audience as he performed in his last recital. As he played a Puerto Rican tune — something he tried to do whenever he visited a new country as a way to share a piece from his homeland — he noticed a Puerto Rican flag flying in the crowd.
“You can probably imagine the emotions that I felt at the time,” Álamo said. “I’m in this remote town in Mexico, and the last thing I would ever imagine is that there'd be someone from Puerto Rico there.”
For Álamo, this is only one example of the important relationship between his Latin heritage and his music, two passions he studies as a composer, performer and a recently appointed distinguished term associate professor in Latin American studies.
Distinguished professorships — like the William Wilson Brown Jr. professorship in Latin American studies that Álamo was appointed to — are considered one of the highest levels of recognition for faculty in both teaching and research, Department of Music Chairperson David Garcia said.
Garcia and Álamo share research interests in Latin American music and culture, teach some of the same courses, such as Introduction to Latin American Music, and direct UNC’s Cuban music ensemble, Charanga Carolina, together.
Álamo will serve in the distinguished professorship for the next three years. It is administered through UNC’s Institute for the Study of the Americas.
“He’s just a really wonderful person," Garcia said. "He’s humble but also intelligent and extremely talented as an artist. He carries a lot of knowledge with him and is always willing and happy to share that knowledge, not only with his students of course, but also with his colleagues.”
Junior Vanessa Chazal, a public policy and peace, war and defense major with a minor in music, first met Álamo the summer before her first year at UNC, when she reached out to him as a fellow percussionist.
“My first impressions of him were someone who cared that you played music well, but more importantly, he cared that you cared about playing music,” Chazal said.
Now, six semesters later, Chazal still takes lessons with Álamo.
“He always encourages me and my classmates to take time to understand the music and see if it sits with us and understanding the music on a deeper level, more than just right notes and wrong rhythms," she said. "It’s more than that to him.”
Reflecting on her time as a musician, Chazal said she is certain that working with Álamo is going to be her greatest takeaway from her Chapel Hill experience.
“He’s someone who doesn’t just want you to be a great performer,” she said. “He wants you to be a great person.”
Although teaching undergraduate students and researching Latin American music is a large part of his career, Álamo’s history with music extends far beyond the classroom.
“Puerto Rico, like many Latin American countries, has a rich musical tradition," Álamo said. "There’s music in every house all the time, 24/7, so in my house there was always music, either live music or music from the radio. I’ve been exposed to music since I was a little kid, particularly Latin music, which happens to have a lot of percussion.”
Álamo said he began to experiment with rhythm by using his mother’s cans and different things she used to cook with when he was young.
“As time went on, my father and mother noticed that I have a serious inclination towards music, and so they started to buy me instruments,” he said.
Álamo primarily plays the marimba, an instrument that has African origins and grew in popularity in Guatemala and other parts of Central America and is closely connected to his Latin roots.
In his new role as a distinguished term associate professor, Álamo plans to approach the marimba from a more global perspective.
“I am combining my classical musical training with my Latin background and also with my jazz background, because those are the musical genres I am deeply involved with both as a musical performer and also as an educator,” Álamo said.
He is in the process of writing music that will combine his background and his training to showcase the marimba in a jazz setting — a combination that is not very common among musicians and composers.
Today, his love for music continues in his work as an artist, an educator and a researcher.
“This is my vocation," Álamo said. "I don’t do this for the money. I don’t do this for any other reason other than the love for music. I love what I do. If I were to be born a hundred times again, I would be a musician.”
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