What started as a conversation between two musicians has spurred an ongoing musical exchange between the United States and Uruguay.
Andy Stermer, a jazz musician from the small town of Montevideo, MN was informally involved with Partners of the Americas (Partners) from a young age. His hometown has a sister-city relationship with Montevideo, Uruguay that the Partners chapters established in both cities have helped maintain for 50 years. His uncle, Patrick Moore, is a Minnesota Chapter board member, and Stermer’s family hosted visitors from Uruguay throughout his childhood.
One of those visitors was the first to introduce him, as a young musician, to Candombe. African slaves brought the music and dance style to Uruguay over 200 years ago, and it is centered around the overlapping rhythms of three different drums. Candombe is recognized by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage of humanity.
Stermer fell in love with Uruguayan music. As he got older, he wanted to travel to his sister city and study it, but he did not know how. He knew that Partners disseminates Education and Culture travel grants, but no one from his chapter had received a travel grant to study music abroad before.
Stermer enrolled at Minnesota State University Moorhead (MSUM) in 2009, studying music performance and jazz and studio music. The summer before he graduated from MSUMH he played in a band on a cruise ship. It was there that, by chance, he was placed alongside Uruguayan pianist Manuel Contrera. The two bonded over their sister-city hometowns, and Contrera encouraged Stermer to visit Uruguay.
“He said, ‘you should come and I can connect you with all the people in the Uruguayan music scene,’” Stermer said.
Contrera helped Stermer put together an itinerary and Stermer presented the idea to the Minnesota Partners Chapter for an Education and Culture travel grant. In January of 2014, he left for a three-month stay in Uruguay.
It was his first time traveling internationally and alone. His fascination both with music and the relationship between his hometown and Uruguay’s capital shaped his experience.
“Ever since I went to Uruguay…[Candombe] took over a lot of things about my musical life,” Stermer said. “It became the sort of pervasive influence.”
Stermer worked with several musicians while abroad, including Uruguayan percussionist Alvaro Salas. The summer after Stermer returned home, Salas visited Montevideo, MN through a Partners travel grant. He introduced the town to Candombe through workshops and performances. Montevideo, MN has maintained a weekly drumming group ever since.
In 2014, Stermer proceeded to the University of Miami (UMiami) studio jazz writing master program. In 2015, an advisor encouraged him to apply for the Presser Graduate Music Award, an award given to “truly exceptional graduate music students who have the potential to make a distinguished contribution to the field of music.”
Though previous winners used the $10,000 award for expenses such as personal travel for auditions, Stermer saw the open-ended guidelines as a different type of opportunity. “My immediate idea was I would pay for some musicians to come here,” Stermer recalled.
Stermer submitted his unorthodox application and won. Upon receiving the award, he invited three Uruguayan musicians - Salas, Contrera, and guitarist Juan Pablo Chapital - to spend 10 days at his university.
They collaborated with the concert jazz band on a project that incorporated the Candombe style, and performed it as a concert called Hurácondombe. Montevideo, MN’s local public television station broadcasted a live-stream of the concert, and the Minnesota Partners chapter hosted a viewing party. Stermer emphasized that this concert never would have happened without Partners’ initial investment in his music career at the international scale.
The Uruguayan musicians were very impressed by the university’s music program and the students’ proficiency in sight reading, a skill many Uruguayan musicians go without. In return, the collaboration exposed the American musicians to new rhythms and syncopations. “I think that the most wonderful surprise was hearing from the [UMiami] musicians that this project was a great learning experience for them as well,” Contrera said.
Stermer hopes to one day take the musicians from Miami to perform the concert in Uruguay.