Carrboro Commons

Ridin’ the J Bus: J.R. and his saxophone

Posted on April 14th, 2011 in Features,J Bus,Music,Uncategorized by jock

Michael Bloom
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer

Back during the Jazz Age in New York City, you took the A Train to get to Harlem. But to get most everywhere in Carrboro, you take the J Bus. In the spirit of Charles Kuralt’s dictum that everyone has a story, Commons reporter Michael Bloom jumped on the J Bus and selected a rider to interview at random.

Jesse “J.R.” Rainey would love to go back to the summer when he was 12 years old.

It was the first time he was introduced to the saxophone, while sitting in church.

Jesse "J.R." Rainey has been playing saxophone for eight years. He's also a jazz enthusiast. He plays a sonata-style Lagara sax (Staff photo by Michael Bloom).

“I told myself then and there that this is what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.

Now 19, the Chapel Hill resident is an eight-year veteran of the instrument and considers himself a student of jazz — his favorite musical genre.

He brings his saxophone almost everywhere he goes, especially on the J Bus, traveling to and from University Commons, where he lives. Currently unemployed, Rainey frequently plays on Franklin Street in front of the Varsity Theater with other aspiring musicians.

“Saxophone was all I was ever really good at,” he said. “It allows me to escape. I see myself playing it my whole life. And I want to make it big.”

Rainey said he has grown a lot as a player since he picked up his first sax in 2003. He has seen his craft transform from being an amateur to a respected musician.

“When I started I was just awful,” he said. “I didn’t know which end to play out of. I stepped to the sax because in school I wasn’t really too popular, so I didn’t have a lot going for me. That’s when I said I really want to be serious about saxophone.”

Rainey was a member of the Southeast Falcon Marching Band in high school at Southeast Guilford High in Greensboro as a saxophonist. He plays a sonata-style Lagara saxophone and said his dream would be to play a Selmer Super Action 80 saxophone, which costs around $3,000.

He has played at Zydeco Downtown Restaurant and Jazz Lounge in Raleigh, along with various church bands and nightclubs in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. He started performing at 14 and said he’s moved past his nerves and has dreams of playing in front of a large audience.

“I would love to have a sellout concert at He’s Not Here on Franklin Street,” he said. “I don’t think I’d be nervous. I would be more ready than I’ve ever been.”

Rainey’s favorite living jazz musician is James Carter, saying he admires his old-time, traditional style. He also likes New York rappers Jay-Z and Max B, trying to incorporate hip-hop into his repertoire.

But his all-time favorite musician is John Coltrane.

“He started jazz,” Rainey said. “He was one of the first cats doing his thing, and I really respect him for that.”

Rainey was born in Greensboro, but lived in Brooklyn for seven years. He’s since moved to Chapel Hill and  lives with his grandparents.

He said he loves the peacefulness of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. He loves how music savvy Carrboro is, saying it helped him get acclimated to a new community.

He said he looks for jobs on Franklin Street frequently, but hasn’t gotten lucky yet. He wants to save up to go to UNC-Chapel Hill, but said being a “big-time” musician overseas is his ultimate goal.

Until his next move, it’s Franklin Street’s stage where he will showcase his craft.

“I’ve made a lot of sacrifices for this,” Rainey said. “Growing up I didn’t really have much of a social life, so playing saxophone took up most of my time.

“But I think it’s paying off.”

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Carrboro fiesta combines music, cultural awareness

By Alex Linder

Carrboro Commons Staff Writer

Carrboro was host to the sounds of shaking beads, strumming guitars and Spanish sing-along. These are the sounds of the fiesta, and they are becoming more and more common.

“I definitely think that traditional Mexican music has a role to play in the future,” said Juan Díes, 48, producer and member of the Sones de México Ensemble, a Chicago-based traditional Mexican musical group that visited Carrboro. “It’s going to have a larger and larger role considering how the Mexican and Latino populations have been growing.”

The Sones de México Ensemble plays Mexican music of different styles including songs more than 300 years old based on Aztec myths. (Staff photo by Alex Linder)

Sones de México specializes in various styles of son, Mexican folk music, and spent April 7th-9th working with local schoolchildren in Orange, Durham and Chatham counties. They performed their show, titled Fiesta Mexicana, at the Carrboro ArtsCenter.

Thanks to a downtown scattered with advertisements written in both Spanish and English alongside taco trucks, Hispanics have become a larger and more visible part of the Carrboro community. This is reflected in the numbers.

According to the 2010 Census, there are 2,706 people of Hispanic or Latino origin living in Carrboro. This makes up 13.8 percent of the population, the highest percentage in Orange County.

According to the Town of Carrboro website, this marks a significant increase from only a few decades ago. In 2000, the Hispanic or Latino population was 2,062. In 1990, it was only 199. That is a 1,260 percent increase over 20 years.

Díes said that the rapid growth of Hispanic populations, like in Carrboro, has created some problems. He said that many Latino children grow up ignorant of their cultural history.

“Some kids of Mexican ancestry aren’t taught about where they came from,” he said. “I think that’s where Fiesta Mexicana fills a huge gap, in teaching them about their culture and their traditions.”

The performance by Sones de México combined traditional Mexican music with dance and history creating the jubilant atmosphere of a fiesta. Songs varied from those inspired by Aztec myths to the rock and roll song “La Bamba,” as well as its inspiration. Songs were bookended by historical and cultural lessons about traditional instruments, words and gods.

The performers encouraged the audience to participate, even getting kids onstage to learn Mexican dances.

“I was really amazed by how educational it was,” said Gabrielle Ruth, 37, of Carrboro, who brought her two children to see the group. “My kids were very into it, one even won’t stop repeating the words that he learned.”

With the help of band member Lorena Iñiguez, kids from the audience are invited onstage to learn a traditional Mexican dance. (Staff photo by Alex Linder)

The music featured in Fiesta Mexicana comes from regions across Mexico. To play all these different styles, the six members of the group play 70 different acoustic instruments.

These include traditional instruments like guitars, fiddles and drums, but also include less typical instruments made from armadillo shells, donkey skulls and conch shells.

“Whenever I think of Mexican music, I typically think of mariachi with maracas,” said Amy Hogan, 35, a librarian from Carrboro who brought her daughter Ann. “This band went way beyond that with a bunch of instruments I’ve never even seen. It was nice to learn about them.”

Díes said that Sones de México is very dedicated to teaching. During their visit, they held workshops at local schools and played for more than 500 kids at the ArtsCenter.

Victor Pichardo, 44, the director of the ensemble, said that he came up with the idea of Fiesta Mexicana not only to teach Latino children about their Mexican heritage, but to teach those around as well.

“I think it’s good for children who are growing up beside Mexican kids and want to learn about it,” he said. “Kids are becoming more and more exposed to different cultures, and it’s not as foreign as it used to be.”

The songs and lessons of Fiesta Mexicana are taken from a double album released last April called Fiesta Mexicana: Mexican Songs and Stories for Niños and Niñas and their Papás and Mamás. The album includes two discs, one in English and the other in Spanish.

The Sones de México Ensemble began touring Chicago schools in 1994 and since has toured throughout the country. They were nominated for a Grammy in 2007 with their album “Esta Tierra Es Tuya” (This Land is Your Land). The album includes covers of not only the Woody Guthrie classic, but also Led Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks” and J.S. Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 2 & 3.”

“A couple of years ago we did some songs to integrate in with American culture,” Pichardo said. “Pretty soon American culture is going to have mix with us.”

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‘Plutopia’ spices up Carrboro

Posted on April 14th, 2011 in Features,Food,Music by jock

By Trevor Kapp

Carrboro Commons Staff Writer

Pluto Richards stands next to his sauce at Weaver Street Market, where he worked for two years after moving to Carrboro from New York City. (Staff photo by Trevor Kapp)

As a child growing up in the parish of Saint Andrew in eastern Jamaica, Pluto Richards did not take Tylenol when he had a headache or a cold. Instead, he would wait as his parents went to some nearby bushes to find the right combination of herbs and spices for a healing tea.

“You get better,” Richards said. “I grew up like that—seeing how my parents utilized herbs.”

When he was 15, Richards left Saint Andrew, Jamaica, for New York City to pursue better educational opportunities.  He remained there for 10 years, working in graphic design at a printing shop.  On a visit to Carrboro with a friend in 1994, he fell in love with the town and decided it would be his next home.

When he made the move a few months later, though, Richards—who declined to give his age—realized he had a major adjustment to make.

“Living in New York,” he said, “you could get almost any kind of food you wanted. But here, you couldn’t.”  Confronted with this difference in culture, Richards drew upon his childhood.

“I started experimenting with a combination of herbs and spices, what my mom used to use and all that. From there, I…developed this spiced rub that I have now.”

Richards, who worked at Weaver Street Market following his move, said his popular jerk seasoning took him two years to master, but when he presented it to a group of friends one evening, they were immediately hooked.

“The first bite my friend took, he said, ‘You got to market this!’ And he kept eating—until about the sixth bite, he said, ‘You can call this ‘Caribbean Bliss,’” Richards recalled.

“And there it was born.”

Fifteen years later, Richards’ Caribbean Bliss is sold all across North Carolina—including at Weaver Street Market—and even in parts of Europe.

“It’s off the chain, man. It’s really good,” said Jeffrey Lindsey, 46, a drummer from Chapel Hill who said that he has been adding Richards’ products to his meals for several years.

He added, “I’ve been cooking since I was 5, and now I add the spice to my cooking. My girlfriend loves me for it.”

Richards declined to divulge the content of the rub, but said it relied heavily on red pepper.

While the sale of Richards’ sauces and dry rubs has exceeded his expectations and is his main source of income, his advertising budget is limited.  For this reason, Richards said, he must be extremely selective about how and where he presents his brand. He makes regular in-store appearances to promote his sauce and takes out the occasional advertisement in select magazines.

“Your product can be the best product in the world, but if you don’t market it right, it’s not selling anywhere,” he said.

In addition to producing seasoning, Richards is a guitarist and lead singer for Plutopia, the same local group that now features Lindsey.

“Meeting Pluto was a delight,” Lindsey said. “He will give you the shirt off his back. He’s outspoken, he’s giving—every time I go over to his house, he’s cooking for people.”

Richards said that despite his increasing fame, North Carolina is, and likely forever will be, his home. Though he acknowledged he has musical ambitions, he said he also realizes that the sauce has been his calling card and has made meals more enjoyable for thousands of North Carolinians over the years.

“I get emails from people all the time saying they love the sauce,” he said. “When somebody writes me emails, it’s really rewarding. I think those are the things that keep me going.”

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Steel drummer Mickey Mills feels at home in Carrboro

Posted on March 24th, 2011 in Music by jock

Steel drummer and keyboardist Mickey Mills, who grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, learned to play the keyboard during his late teens in New York City. Photo by Trevor Kapp

By Trevor Kapp
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer

Mickey Mills has performed in front of 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He has worked onstage with artists like Mick Jagger, Jimmy Buffett and Kenny Chesney.  He has played in California, at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte and at The Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

Yet none of these concert venues is the 54-year-old steel drummer and keyboardist’s favorite.

“I always feel good in Carrboro—that’s where Cat’s Cradle is,” Mills said. “Madison Square Garden can hold more people, but the thing is, in Carrboro, it’s more like a family-oriented type, and that’s what I like. I don’t need things to be mega, mega, mega all the time. I like to be able to feel and communicate with other people.”

Mills grew up the youngest of 11 children in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, “a very diverse, rather upbeat city,” as he described it, in the western part of the country.

He first heard the steel drums when he was 8, sparking an interest in music. He moved to New York City at 19 mainly to fulfill his childhood desire of working at a Wall Street bank, but he continued to play steel drums in his spare time.  He also began to practice the keyboard.

During his five years in New York, Mills joined a band comprised mostly of Caribbean musicians, and went on several trips to perform, most notably, he said, to North Carolina in 1981.

“It didn’t have all this fancy stuff all over,” Mills said of the area. “There was trees, and it was like Caribbean style.”

While Mills enjoyed his time in New York and made several friends with whom he keeps in regular contact, he said he ultimately decided to move to free himself from the distractions of a big city and to pursue a dream that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

“When I came down here,” Mills said, “I devoted myself to art and music programs in the schools. I would go to the schools and teach kids how to play steel drums.”  This was a welcome change from his life in New York where his music came second to his work on Wall Street.

After moving to North Carolina, Mills started an educational music program called Steel-A-Rama, which instructs hundreds of high school students along the East Coast.

Mills has traveled all over the country, but calls Carrboro "home." Photo by Trevor Kapp

He continued to put together his own albums, and worked closely with Willie Hill, a recording studio operator in Durham.

“When we’d work on an album, we would come in and I’d put the tape on and I’d turn the lights off and Mickey would let it flow,” Hill, 58, recalled. “He didn’t always write out lyrics; he just went with what he thought at the time.”

Since moving to North Carolina in 1981, Mills has recorded six albums.

He continues to perform regularly across the country and has recently worked with Chesney and Buffett at various VIP parties.

Though Mills has gained fame while working alongside these entertainers, he remains “very, very real,” Hill said, and a small-town guy at heart.

By night, Mills said he sleeps in Mebane, but he spends the majority of his time in Carrboro, and refers to the town as his “home.”

“I always feel good in Chapel Hill and Carrboro,” he said. “I know all the back streets.”

Mills isn’t entirely sure what his future holds. For now, he said he will keep performing and coaching students to play the steel drums.

Asked whether he had plans to move away from North Carolina, Mills said, “It’s hard to predict…but right now, I know this is where I’m at, and this is where I want to be.”

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