Where Words Fail Music Speaks

For most of his life, Juan Álamo has used music to connect to and communicate with others. As a skilled marimba player, he uses his talent and passion to teach the next generation of musicians to do the same.

February 15th, 2022

Juan Álamo cannot remember a time when music wasn’t an integral part of his life, but one moment unquestionably stands out. It was 1984 and a 5-year-old Álamo was among the audience at a summer festival in his father’s hometown of Aibonito, Puerto Rico. The renowned salsa orchestra El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico was performing. Near the end of their set, most of the musicians left the stage to make way for a feature from their percussionist, Edgardo Morales. By the middle of the 10-minute solo, Álamo, along with the rest of the audience, was spellbound. He remembers that even the dancers stopped just to watch the drummer work.

“It is just one of those things that hits you, touches you, and you don’t realize the impact that’s going to have on your life,” Álamo says. “I felt something special because of his ability, obviously, but also what I noticed is the impression he was leaving on everybody. I mean, everybody.”

Today, Álamo is an associate professor of music and director of both the percussion ensemble and global rhythms ensemble at UNC-Chapel Hill. For 27 years, he has played the marimba and has written several books on the instrument, from guides on technique to transcriptions of songs.

Despite a lifetime of performances in front of thousands of people, he considers himself an introvert. For him, music has always been a bridge to communicate.

“The most beautiful and powerful thing about music is that it has this effect on people that helps you to connect,” Álamo says. “Regardless of where you come from, regardless of the barriers of language, race, cultures or anything, music is that one common denominator, that universal language that we can understand and exchange and connect with each other.

This sentiment was on display at a recent rehearsal for one of the percussion ensembles Álamo directs. Several of the students were timidly tapping out their parts, visibly showing frustration at each wrong note. Álamo turned to address the whole ensemble.

“Don’t worry about the notes. The notes are on the page,” he told them. “I know you’ll eventually get that. We need to focus on the feeling. That is the key.”

Playing by ear

As a child growing up in Cidras, Puerto Rico, Álamo remembers listening to music as part of his family’s daily routine. Neither parent was a professional musician, but Álamo’s father was an avid record collector. He remembers looking forward to Saturdays because he knew his father would bring home a new album.

“I still get chills. Just that experience of having a new record and listening to it and absorbing all that information.”

From these albums, Álamo taught himself the fundamentals of rhythm. Every day, instead of going outside to play sports after school, he would retire to his room and listen to those records over and over, memorizing every detail, eventually recording himself playing on his mother’s pots and pans along with the songs.

“I remember my mom, after a couple of hours, knocking on the door, like, ‘Hey, I think that’s enough. Could you just take a break?’” Álamo says. “It was just something that I felt. I really wanted to take that information and learn it to the utmost detail. So, I would spend hours in that room trying to imitate everything, you know — the rhythms, the sound, everything.”

Eventually, when Álamo was 11, his mother found out that a local public school was offering guitar lessons. She signed him up, and within two or three weeks he found himself receiving his first formal music lessons from José Alfredo Pérez. Álamo is grateful for the opportunity Pérez gave him.

“Success is not the product of just one single person,” Álamo says. “I’ve been blessed with beautiful people in my life, starting with my family, but also with great teachers, friends, students, and colleagues.”

Soon after, he was playing guitar with the after-school ensemble, Tuna Estudiantil De Cidra. La Tuna is a traditional Spanish ensemble that dates to the 13th century. It’s usually comprised of strings, vocal performance, and percussion.

Over time, Pérez noticed that Álamo was consistently distracted during practice, looking toward the back row of the orchestra. One day, he took him aside.

Hey, I noticed that you always look at the back. Do you look at the back because you like the girl playing percussion, or what? Pérez asked.

Well, I like the girl, but even more, I really like playing percussion.

Pérez didn’t know that Álamo had been playing along with his father’s albums after school for years. He offered Álamo an audition for percussion and quickly realized he was playing the wrong instrument.

Forget about the guitar, Pérez told Álamo. Timbales is the instrument you should be playing.

Love at first sight

By 1994, based on a recommendation from Pérez, Álamo was accepted to a school that specialized in music. There, he had access to a private tutor, and two days a week, he would study under José Torres, percussionist of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra. During his first lesson with Torres, Álamo experienced the most formative discovery of his musical career.

Up to that point, most of Álamo’s knowledge of percussion was limited to Latin instruments primarily centered around creating rhythm. Torres told him that if he wanted to seriously study percussion, he had to learn how to play orchestral percussion, namely the marimba and xylophone.

“He took me to the room and showed me this instrument, and he played a couple of notes,” Álamo says. “And as they say, it was love at first sight. That’s the instrument that really hooked me up. The marimba became kind of my identity. That’s the instrument that I identify the most with.”

While he had been exploring rhythms since playing along with his father’s records as a kid, Álamo discovered that the marimba offered a balance between rhythm and melody — which opened a new avenue to express himself. He saw its potential as limitless.

“The one thing that I love about music is being able to connect to people,” Álamo says. “This instrument is kind of the perfect instrument for me to do that because I could play something rhythmic that if you are a rhythmic person, you can identify with, and if you are one of those people that likes to hear beautiful melodies, then I can communicate with you either way.”

Álamo discovered a love of teaching almost by accident when he was studying percussion in 1998 under José Alicea at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music. One day, a friend asked Álamo if he’d be interested in participating in an after-school music program for children from underprivileged communities. The goal was to use music to take kids off the streets. Most were living in difficult circumstances and the program gave them a place where they felt like they belonged. It created discipline and commitment.

“You could take a kid that has all kinds of attention problems or conduct problems and give them a sense of purpose, a sense of, I am someone. I have something to offer. Music had that power of transforming their life.”

Connection and culture

In 2012, Álamo was invited to UNC as part of the VITAE program to interview and audition as an assistant professor in music. VITAE stands for Valuing Inclusion to Attain Excellence and is designed to bring diversity to UNC’s faculty.

Álamo brought the early lessons he learned as a teacher in Puerto Rico with him to Carolina, where he teaches percussion and two academic classes: Intro to Jazz and Music of the Americas. He is also the director of the UNC percussion ensemble and the UNC global rhythms ensemble, a hand drumming ensemble that explores different drumming cultures from around the world.

“The beautiful thing about teaching is that you are always learning,” Álamo says. “Even though I’m teaching, I’m also receiving because every student is different. Because we all come from different backgrounds, we connect to music in a different way.”

Álamo’s instinct to use music to bridge cultures dovetailed well with UNC’s commitment to collaboration. In 2022, he was appointed to the William Wilson Brown Jr. professorship in Latin American studies through UNC’s Institute for the Study of the Americas.

“I treasure the opportunities that my roles as a teacher, colleague, and performer affords me to collaborate with and learn from colleagues and students across campus, as well as contribute to the growth — both culturally and academically — and betterment of our community,” Álamo says.

In that spirit, Álamo partnered with acclaimed percussionist Arthur Lipner on a book about jazz vibraphone. He also published “Four Mallet Music for the Modern Marimba Player,” which is part of the curriculum for universities across the nation and in Europe and Central and South America.

“It is very exciting as well as rewarding to know that my book is contributing to the formation and development of future generations of marimba players around the world,” Álamo says.

Álamo’s work as a composer, like his work on stage, is rooted in the connection between music and feeling. Most of his compositions comes from two sources: improvisation and inspiration. While improvising, once he finds an idea, he experiments with different note combinations, rhythmic patterns, harmonic accompaniments, sonic shapes, and textures. Or he’ll get inspired by experiences or events. He wrote a piece called “Solace” after the tragic shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015.

“Writing music is a journey into the unknown,” he says. “If you’re a writer, you will use poetry. If you are a painter, you paint. To me, music is a platform that I use to share my thinking, my ideas, who I am, what I see, what I understand, what I’m learning, what I’m still trying to figure out.”

Juan Álamo is an associate professor who oversees wind, brass, and percussion performances in the Department of Music within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences. He holds the William Wilson Brown Jr. professorship in Latin American studies within the UNC Institute for the Study of the Americas.