Beny Esguerra

Mixing a new tradition – by Jeannine Pitas

For musician, poet, educator and activist Ruben ‘Beny’ Esguerra, the arts are a vehicle of transformation. “The difference in the world begins with yourself,” Esguerra says. “If you can find your purpose through art, if you can empower yourself, you will soon empower others as well.”

Born in Bogotá, Colombia, Esguerra is very familiar with the liberating power of art. He and his younger brother came to Canada as political refugees with their parents, who were teaching artists and had begun receiving threats for their human rights activism. “It was totally life-changing,” Esguerra says. “Since we had to go in secret, my brother and I weren’t told why we were leaving, or that we weren’t coming back. That was one of the hardest things–we didn’t get to say goodbye to our friends.”

Upon arrival in Canada, Esguerra found himself faced with a whole new set of challenges” learning English, fitting-in at school, watching his parents struggle on welfare and working temporary jobs, and facing many forms of discrimination on a daily basis. “It made me grow up fast. I had a lot to take-in at the age of nine. But all of this led me to become politicized at a young age. I tried to turn a negative reality into a positive one.”

Influenced by his artist parents, Esguerra began playing violin and percussion at a young age, going on to attend an arts high school and study music at York University. At the age of 17, he began playing professionally with various bands in the Toronto Latin music scene, and after working as a percussionist with several well-known poets, he started creating his own spoken word pieces. This led him to participate in a CBC poetry festival and performing an original piece for the Governor General Michaëlle Jean at the 2008 Ignite the Americas conference.

In addition to making music, Esguerra has worked as an educator while pursuing graduate studies in ethnomusicology at York University. Having taught workshops at York and in Toronto public schools for about 10 years, Esguerra now devotes a substantial amount of his time to working with immigrant youth in Toronto’s Jane/Finch community where he directs the Palisades Media Arts Academy, a program that provides at-risk youth with musical training; it culminates in the production of their own musical albums.

“Unfortunately, many of these youth find the educational system hard to relate to, and gangs are an all-too-easy alternative. Through music and poetry we get them to express their ideas and learn from other writers whom they can relate to.”

In 2012, Esguerra’s many years of hard work culminated in his first album, A New Tradition, which combines spoken word and hip hop with Latin rhythms and melodies. Supported by funding from the Ontario Arts Council, Esguerra made the album independently with help from colleagues and friends, and he does all of his own marketing.

“I wanted to experiment and create something for which there was no market–something original that reflected who I am and my many influences. The tracks are percussion-based with trombones as a staple; I wanted to include the gaita (a 2,000-year-old South American instrument) along with more contemporary instruments like the turntables. I chose the styles to create something new, but still rooted in tradition, something original that builds bridges across different styles and different instruments.”

The concept of a new tradition is also reflected in the content of Esguerra’s spoken word pieces, each one focusing on a different social injustice and calling upon his listeners to raise their voices and address it. Themes include global and economic inequality, the violence exerted by some multinational corporations, police brutality and unity within cultural diversity.

“The idea of creating a ‘new tradition’ is my basic life philosophy,” Esguerra says. “It’s important to know your self, your history and ancestral past… but it’s also important to recreate and reinvent yourself with regard to identity. It is impossible to know everything about our past, as much as we’d like to. The beautiful thing about not knowing is that it offers us the opportunity to create something new”.

Beny Esguerra and New Tradition

An interactive performance project that explores the concepts of tradition and modernity through the production of a multidisciplinary performance featuring spoken word, music, songs, dance and design.

While creating bridges across musical genres, the original compositions incorporate ancient instruments such as the 2000 plus year old indigenous kuisi bunsi flute (a.k.a. Colombian gaita) with more recent instruments such as the turntables. With the use of a human beatboxer and a DJ as essential elements of the bands sonic identity the ensemble can maintain its original sound while performing with as many as thirteen musicians all the way down to three, making the show adaptable to various performance contexts.

Ancestral musical styles + urban cultural expressions = New Tradition