Four Berklee on the Road Alumni Share Their Journeys from Puerto Rico to Boston

Kimberly Ashton
June 16, 2017
Eguie Castrillo, assistant professor of percussion, leads a student ensemble at the Berklee on the Road program in Puerto Rico.

For 22 years, the Berklee on the Road (BOR) program has attracted some of Puerto Rico's best musicians and provided a roadmap, as well as scholarships, to those who wish to attend Berklee College of Music someday. This year, the college presented the opportunity to earn a college credit as well. 

The Puerto Rico program is the first to allow students to earn a college credit for $200, which is $1,310 below the normal cost. This October, Berklee will also offer a for-credit option to those attending BOR in Bogotá, Colombia.

The six-day program in Carolina, just outside San Juan, includes classes that focus on theory, ear training, improvisation, ensemble performance, and instrumental instruction. Those not interested in the for-credit option can get the same taste of Berklee for $65. Both the for-credit and noncredit program are made possible by the support of Mendez & Company and the program sponsors.

And all who attend get to immerse themselves in a week of nothing but music, capped off by the Puerto Rico Heineken JazzFest. Many who have participated in the Puerto Rico program chose to continue their experinces in Boston. Let's take a look at four people who did just that.  

Carlos Gabriel Cabrera
Instrument: Cuatro
Hometown: Canovanas, Puerto Rico

A five-year veteran of BOR in Puerto Rico, as well as a Guitar Sessions and Five-Week Summer Performance Program alumnus, Carlos Gabriel Cabrera will start Berklee College of Music this fall on a full-tuition scholarship.

Carlos Gabriel Cabreras

Cabrera, a cuatro player who was mentored by one of the instrument’s greats, Edwin Colón Zayas, started playing the instrument when he was 7 years old. Three years later, he was recording his first CD under Zayas’s guidance. But it wasn’t until Cabrera was 12 and first attended BOR that he feels his path in life changed.

“That first year got my attention because I saw the best juvenile musicians, and so that motivated me to keep going, and to come the next year and see what new people might show up,” Cabrera, now 17, says.

Before BOR, he had played mostly traditional Puerto Rican music—still his favorite—but it was at the Berklee program that he first played jazz and dove deeper into theory and harmony.

The confidence and knowledge he gained through the Berklee program, his father says, helped him with another major endeavor in Puerto Rico. A few years ago, a host of a weekly national talk show spotted Cabrera playing at different venues and soon afterward got him a regular spot on the show.

In two months he’ll start the next episode in his musical development when he arrives in Boston for college. In some ways, it will be a familiar scene. After all, many of the friends he made over the years at BOR and at Five-Week are at Berklee, too.

Zayra Pola B.M. '13
Instruments: Timbales, congas, bongos, vocals
Hometown: Bayamón, Puerto Rico

Percussionist and vocalist Zayra Pola has heard her whole life that drums are for boys. Even her grandmother told her so. But Pola, who eventually earned a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music after being spotted at BOR, wants to show the world that an instrument doesn’t have gender.

In 2008, on a summer break from the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico, Pola attended her first BOR program on the advice of a friend. There she met Eguie Castrillo, an associate professor in Berklee’s Percussion Department, and made such an impression on him that when he spotted her from the stage the following year he screamed, “Pola, c’mon!” and urged her onto the stage with Berklee faculty for a number. Pola did a solo on timbales and the crowd went nuts, she remembers.

Afterward, Latoya Gordon, Berklee’s assistant chair of admissions, came up to her and encouraged her to apply to the college, Pola says. But lacking the money to attend, she didn’t fill out an application. When Gordon found out, Pola says she called her and told her to go to the admission auditions that Berklee would hold in Puerto Rico that fall. A few months later she got word that she had been awarded a prestigious Presidential Scholarship.

“It’s thanks to those workshops that changed basically my whole life,” she says. In 2013, Pola graduated with a percussion performance major. Tired of being sidelined by male bandmates, she’s started her own all-female band, 3nity, in part to “give jobs to female musicians who have been going through the same thing.” On June 16, they opened for the legendary salsa group El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico at Campagnone Common in Lowell, Massachusetts. Soon afterward, Pola will start a new day job as a data curator at Spotify.

Rubén Amador B.M. '01
Instrument: Drums, percussion
Hometown: San Juan, Puerto Rico

Rubén Amador remembers the first year that BOR came to Puerto Rico, in 1995. “Everybody went there; the top cats from jazz in Puerto Rico went there” to get a sampling of the school, he says. Amador, not yet a jazz cat, was a 17-year-old drummer who had recently been to Boston to audition for a Berklee scholarship.

Though he wouldn’t be headed back to the college for a few more years, and after a couple more BORs, Amador eventually graduated with a jazz composition major and started his own music school, Conservatorio de Artes del Caribe, that later became part of the Berklee International Network.

Today he helps facilitate the Berklee program in Puerto Rico and every year offers three BOR students full scholarships to his school. He says he notices that students return from the week in Carolina more musically mature. For them, he says, “it’s a wonderful experience because you get to meet a lot of people who are on the same channel as you are in terms of being interested in music and thinking all the time about music, talking about music, breathing music.”

Lolivone De La Rosa
Instrument: Guitar
Hometown: San Juan, Puerto Rico

After her first time attending BOR in 2010, when she was 16 years old, Lolivone De La Rosa had a new goal: Get better at guitar by the next summer.

“The program kept me hungry to study jazz, to learn standards, to go and jam. I knew that every year I had to get better because I wanted a scholarship,” says De La Rosa, who attended the program every year for six years and earned $25,000 in scholarships from Berklee as well as a scholarship from Mendez & Company. 

Some of those summer sessions were during a break from the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, where she was studying for an environmental engineering degree, which she completed in October 2016, two months before heading to Berklee College of Music to start her studies in performance and contemporary writing and production.

Spending so many years going to BOR, first as a student and now as a program assistant, helped prepare De La Rosa for full Berklee immersion. “The cool thing about coming each year was to see how professors have this style of teaching, which helped me a lot when I got to Berklee … it was easier to understand the technical terms." Even now, she says, she still studies program material she got back in 2010.