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Reprinted from - Hamilton Wenham Chronicle
Thursday, July 14, 2005

A little rhythm, if you please
By Bill Woolley /
Thursday, July 14, 2005

The mention of towns like Hamilton and Wenham typically prompts a few thoughts in many people's minds. The communities have a reputation for fine horses, proud mansions and quiet roadways that wind through bucolic settings. To motorists heading north along Route 1A, the town line from Angel in 2006 Beverly into Wenham is the well-delineated point of passage from city to country.

Racially diverse they're not, but Sunday afternoon's performance by "Grupo Fantasia," as part of the Concerts in Patton Park series, will give attendees a taste of Latin music and culture that is bound to add a little spice to their lives.

"It's off the charts for Grupo Fantasia to go there. It's over the top," said Karen Wagner, who manages some of the group's events and whose husband, Angel, is the band leader. "So many fans from Hamilton and Wenham have been supporting the band for years by going to other cities to see them. Now we're coming to their town and I can't wait."

While Grupo Fantasia, which specializes in the Latin sound, will make its public Hamilton premiere Sunday, July 17, 5 p.m., at the bandstand in the park, it performed in an even more seemingly unusual local venue last Saturday. Dressed in full Cuban finery that would make a rainbow blush, Grupo Fantasia played for a private party at the otherwise reserved Myopia Hunt Club.

Just a couple of weeks earlier, a few members of Grupo Fantasia performed at an end-of-school celebration for fifth-graders at Cutler Elementary School in Hamilton. The students, apparently, got into the spirit of the music.

"Mothers of the students came up to us and said they'd never seen their children dancing and participating like that," said Karen Wagner, whose sister-in-law, Lane Sabatini, who has a child at the school, made the arrangements for the musicians. "They were looking for some entertainment and something different. [Grupo Fantasia] came to mind and I said 'yes' immediately."

Sunday's anticipated concert in Patton Park may evoke awkward images of a handful of band members rattling out raucous rhythms while guests sit motionless on lawn chairs. Sure, maybe a few children will start jumping around a little, but "No," insists Wagner. "You won't see that with us. You will see dancing, you will see clapping, you will see participation. That's what it's all about. Many times, people bring their own instruments and get up to play with the band.

"We want to bring that excitement everywhere, not just in cities where there is a large Latin population like Lynn, Lowell and Peabody, but to places like Hamilton and Wenham, too."

Heating things up

The Latin culture gap in Hamilton and Wenham can be largely explained by statistics, and it's not limited to those two towns alone. New England, in general, is one of the regions in the U.S. least populated by those who claim Hispanic or Latino heritage, although the numbers are rising steadily.

Hamilton and Wenham, in a very small way, actually seem to be bucking the trend, according to the U.S. Census.

While the former tallied slightly more than 1 percent Hispanic or Latino heritage in 1990, it dipped below 1 percent over the ensuing 10 years. During the same time, Wenham slipped at about the same rate. Using the raw numbers in Census 2000 alone, only 108 among the towns' combined population of 12,755 cited Hispanic or Latino heritage.

Sitting on the edge of the statistics, however, is Karen (nee Sabatini) Wagner. The native (and now resident) of North Beverly is a permanent substitute teacher at Miles River Middle School in Hamilton. Her neighborhood is, of course, no more long on Latin than Hamilton or Wenham, but 14 years ago she married Angel Wagner, a native of the Dominican Republic.

Angel Wagner (his father was a German who, like many, sought refuge in the D.R. during World War II) had visited America in 1985 when he performed with one of the top Latin bands of the day, "Aramis Camilo," for a Latin festival in Miami, Fla. He returned a year later for a similar event at Madison Square Garden in New York City and never returned to his home.

A year after the couple married, they formed Grupo Fantasia by bringing together what Karen Wagner calls "the best Latin musicians around here."

Angel Wagner has performed for President William Clinton, and was joined by the band for "Tall Ships Boston 2000" and the 2003 inauguration gala of Gov. Mitt Romney.

Grupo Fantasia has won many honors in Latin music categories, and was a nominee for the Best World Class Act at the 2003 Boston Music Awards. Angel Wagner has been featured in TV programs including "Pachanga Latina" for WUNI-TV 27, "Mosaic" for WLVI-TV 56, and some PBS programs.

All about the rhythm

As the band has evolved, it has also taken on an educational mission. In conjunction with the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the New England Foundation for the Arts, Angel Wagner presents Latin music workshops at schools and colleges around New England.

With many of those schools as thin as Hamilton and Wenham on Hispanic population, it might be considered somewhat courageous to venture on campus with hopes of finding a responsive audience.

"We don't find it brave to perform in places like that. We find it necessary," said Karen Wagner. "It's necessary because so much of the popular music we listen to these days has Latin origins. It all comes from Africa."

African slaves, Karen Wagner explained, came to the islands of the Caribbean with instruments from their homeland, but plantation owners destroyed them. Slaves then began making music with whatever items they could scavenge at the farms on which they worked.

Maracas were fashioned from dried cowhide and gourds filled with seeds and nuts and beans. Wooden blocks became drums. Canisters with ball bearings inside made a different sound.

Even some Latin dance steps are rooted in the African heritage. The merengue, according to Karen Wagner, combines a small shuffling step that originated when slaves were shackled in ball and chain, and a looser waltz rhythm for the top of the body was learned from watching their owners who came from Europe.

And just in case it's still difficult to imagine Hamilton and Wenham residents doing anything more than tapping their feet on the soft lawn at Patton Park Sunday afternoon while Grupo Fantasia plays, the band now uses dancers to help create some sizzle.

"It's about the rhythm in each one of us," said Karen Wagner, "the rhythm we're all born with."

Tradition, with a twist

The Concerts in Patton Park Committee was formed in 2002 "to revive a musical tradition in Patton Park and foster and promote a sense of community for residents of Hamilton and Wenham."

A focal point of the park is the traditional New England bandstand, built and dedicated in 1993 as part of Hamilton's bicentennial celebration. That year, the bandstand played host to several concerts, but in subsequent years only occasional musical events were scheduled at that location.

The volunteer committee, which this year includes Beth Myers, Jeanne Maurand, Anne Walsh, Jamie Gaull, Emily Hayden, Dorrie Kimkaran and Deb Morrison, arranges concerts in a variety of diverse musical styles, attempting to appeal to a wide audience.

Performers include from musicians from Hamilton and Wenham ("Snowdonia" and "Plan B") to performers with a regional following ("Grupo Fantasia" and "'60s Invasion"), as well as those of national renown (Bill Staines and Allen Estes Band).

The committee welcomes suggestions for future bands to book. To do that, or to find out how to contribute to the concert series, direct e-mail to For information on the Concerts at Patton Park, visit

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