Master Cuban percussionist "Changuito" and Cuban jazz vocalist and musician Roberto Carcasses
Interview: From Cuba With Rhythm: A Talk With...José Luis Quintana "Changuito" & Bobby Carcasses
by Bobby Sanabria
Since 1962, when the U.S. imposed a de facto embargo on trade with Cuba, encounters between musicians from the birthplace of "salsa" and U.S. based musicians have been limited. Politics have always gotten in the way of cultural exchange but somehow Cuba's musical presence has been kept alive, in large part, by New York City's Puerto Rican community. Another factor is the growing interest in Europe, Canada, Japan and Central/South America where Cuban artists are free to travel and perform daily and have inspired many to study the music.
For us in the States, visits by Cuban artists (which are few and far between) are regarded as something special. Two such recent visitors have graced our shores: master drummer/percussionist José Luis Quintana, AKA "Changuito", and jazz vocalist, composer, arranger, trumpeter, percussionist, drummer, dancer and bon vivant Roberto "Bobby" Carcasses. Changuito's mastery of Cuban percussion revolutionized the way instruments like congas and timbales were played by applying techniques of independence (one limb freely working against a set pattern played by another limb) developed from the language of the drum set. He is best known for his work with Los Van Van.
Bobby Carcasses' varied career started in his formative years as an interpreter of lyric opera. He then worked in a double vocal quartet with the famed Tropicana review. He then went on to be a dancer, then an athlete (he was Cuba's high jump champion in the 1960s). He went on to be a musician - first a conguero, then a jazz drummer, a jazz bassist, and a trumpeter. For this multi-talented individual, his founding of Cuba's first legitimate jazz festival in 1979 and his subsequent career as a jazz vocalist combining forms such as són (the foundation of salsa) with scat are important highlights.
I had the privilege of speaking to both renaissance men at NYC's Drummer's Collective prior to a master class they were about to give where yours truly was the host. What follows are excerpts from that interview.
Bobby Sanabria: Bobby, we know you were in New York City last year. Were you ever in NY or the states before?
Carcasses: Yes, I was in N.Y.C. in 1958 appearing with the Tropicana review at the Waldorf Astoria. We also made an appearance on the Steve Allen show. Armando Romeu was the director of a double vocal quartet, male/female, that I sang in. And then, of course, last year.
Sanabria: Did you get to see any of the N.Y. based bands playing Cuban music?
Carcasses: Oh yes, I had the great experience of seeing Machito's orchestra at the Palladium, and of seeing Buddy Rich's big band at Birdland.
Sanabria: Did this influence you as far as your further involvement exploring jazz vocalizations?
Carcasses: Well it started to solidify it. I had sung lyric opera as a child and had some vocal coaching from José Ojeda. But it was in 1961 that I first began to "scat" sing (improvise, vocally, on jazz tunes).
Sanabria: Who are some of your influences from a jazz vocal perspective?
Carcasses: Well, Ella Fitzgerald and John Hendriks, first and foremost, but I also like Leon Thomas and, of course, Bobby McFerrin. But, remember, my first instrument was the conga drum, so the rumba vocal tradition has influenced me. Cuba's greatest sonero, Beny Moré has also influenced me greatly.
Sanabria: Have you and Changuito known each other for a long time?
Carcasses: Well, let me tell you I used to gig with Changuito's father, Pedro Luis (also a percussionist) at the Cabaret Nacional in Cuba. In 1964 I was the acoustic bass player for Felipe Dusairez, a fantastic pianist in the style of George Shearing. Chango' was the conguero.
Sanabria: Being that it was in the style of Shearing, Chango - was there a vibist?
Changuito: Oh yes, Armando Romeu played vibes...
Carcasses: Yes, and then Rumberto Egües, Richard Egües' son.
Sanabria: Did you travel with this group?
Carcasses: No, we had a steady gig at a place called Red Coach in Veradero and then La Red in Havana.
Sanabria: Was it straight-ahead jazz you guys were playing?
Changuito: Yes. Occasionally we would do a mambo-jazz type of thing, but it was ninety percent straight-ahead swing. Oh, by the way, Felipe was the one who gave me the nickname "Changuito".
Sanabria: Were you listening to jazz drummers at the time?
Changuito: No. The only jazz drummer I heard was Tony Valdez Dominguez, who was the drummer with Felipe at the time. He was the one that inspired me to develop my creativity on the conga drums and the techniques I use today. Everyone knows him as Tony Valdez.
Sanabria: Did he show you any patterns or techniques?
Changuito: A little. He showed me some very creative things on the drum set. He also talked to me about applying some of that vocabulary on conga drums. I started practicing eight hours a day from '64 through '67 because of him.
Sanabria: Where is he now?
Changuito: He's in Miami. I'm crazy to find out how he is and to speak with him. He is an incredible player. The creative things I've done on the drum set when I was with Los Van Van are mine, but the inspiration is rooted in Tony.
Sanabria: What Cuban drummers inspired you as far as the Cuban drumming tradition is concerned?
Changuito: Well, Emilio Del Monte, a guy named Feliberto, another guy named Daniel - I forgot his last name - but, most of all, Walfredo De Los Reyes and Guillermo Barretto.
Sanabria: What about influences as far as the conga drum?
Changuito: Well, this guy who also lives in Miami who used to come by my house when I was a kid, Papi Cadaviecco. I'd love to see him also.
Sanabria: He used to play with Tito Puente. Tito told me he had an incredible sound.
Changuito: Yes, a slap like Mongo's; tremendous.
Sanabria: And your father?
Changuito: Oh yes, he was my first influence. I began playing when I was five years old. Roberto Calderin gave me my first bongo. By the time I was eight I was playing with bands like Fajardo's and Arca÷o's because my father would bring me to their gigs.
Sanabria: A few minutes before we started this interview you had a reunion with an old friend...
Changuito: Yeah! Rudy Calzado! He used to baby sit me when I was a little boy. He held me when I was a tiny baby. I couldn't believe it when you told me last night that he would be here...I used to see him sing with Fajardo!
Sanabria: So, your first exposure was to the charanga (flute and string) tradition.
Changuito: Of course, but I saw Chapottin's group and many others.
Sanabria: Do you remember your first true gig?
Changuito: In 1956, at the Havana Jazz Dance held at the Tropicana with Orquesta Hermanos Dusillas. I subbed on congas. I was eight years old.
Sanabria: So you were born in 1948.
Changuito: Yes, January 18 of 1948.
Sanabria: And you, Bobby?
Carcasses: I was born on August 29, 1938 in Kingston, Jamaica. My father was a diplomat assigned there.
Sanabria: Well, Cuba and Jamaica have a history; many workers migrated to Cuba to cut cane.
Carcasses: Yes, indeed! And I'm soon going to have Jamaican citizenship.
Sanabria: Chango, your career has been well documented with Los Van Van. Tell us a little about your history with the group and the songo movement in general, as well as your contributions from a drumistic standpoint.
Changuito: Well, first off, songo was around before I came into the band. Blas Egües, Richard Egües' brother was the first drummer and did the first early recordings. I came in 1971 and started to add my own creative aspect to the style. We had the conga drum, kata (a piece of bamboo struck with two sticks; also known as guagua), and güiro. I did not utilize the drums in the conventional sense; no cymbals or hi-hat were used. I started using those things seven or eight years later. We added the cowbell later too.
Sanabria: Many people here think songo is one specific rhythm, but it is a style with various different rhythmic patterns. Could you speak about this?
Carcasses & Changuito: (Laughter and smiles) Yes, yes, you are right!
Carcasses: Listen, Sanabria, you're on the right track. I don't understand why people here don't understand that!
Changuito: Yes, yes, everything is evolution. Depending on the compositions that we played in Los Van Van I would arrange the rhythm accordingly; but I based it on the original concept of kata, güiro, conga and drum patterns working together. They are like movements. [Listen to Los Van Van's tune "Llegue, Llegue/Guarare" on the compilation "Dancing With The Enemy" - Sanabria]
Sanabria: Speaking of this brings to mind the period of growth and experimentation that happened in Cuba in the 1960s and 70s. Bobby, can you speak about this and how the public reacted?
Carcasses: Good question. What changed everything was the Mozambique around 1964. When Pello El Afrokan (Pedro Izquierdo) started that it was like a fuse being lit. Everyone started experimenting. The public embraced it and the rest is history. The other thing I have to say is that Changuito is very modest. Before him nobody applied science to the study of Cuban percussion. Because of him there is now a formal way to study, from a technical aspect, these instruments.
Sanabria: In other words, a pedagogical method for developing virtuosity on the level of, say, a concert violinist.
Sanabria: Bobby. talk a little about your contributions to the Cuban jazz movement.
Carcasses: Well, in 1979 I helped produce the first Cuban Jazz Festival with Cuban based groups like the Modern Music Orchestra, Irakere, etc., and it has grown from there. It is now an international festival.
Sanabria: You also helped to found the Cuban musical theater movement...
Carcasses: Yes, in 1962. I've been involved as an actor, dancer, etc.
Sanabria: What about your athletic career?
Carcasses: Well, I was Cuba's high jump champion and held the record in 1966.
Sanabria: Do you remember your first real gig?
Carcasses: Well, like I said, I was a conguero at twelve, but to me my first real gig as a vocalist was in 1956 with the Bobby Collazo vocal quartet. He was a great composer and historian. He wrote "La Ultima Noche" and was living in the states.
Sanabria: Your forays into scat vocals combined with Cuban rhythm have led you to form your own group, Afro-Jazz.
Carcasses: Yes, I've had the ensemble for about ten years. "Nueva Vison" and "La Esquina Del Afro Jazz" with the late Emiliano Salvador are the best examples of this work. The compositions and arrangements are all mine and in my shows I sing, play flugelhorn, dance rumba and play piano. My official title in Cuba is Showman.
Sanabria: I've also seen some of your paintings which are extraordinary, continuing with the vocal aspect of your work. Are others in Cuba continuing on this path?
Carcasses: Well, Vocal Sampling, which you know about. I gave them a couple of lessons as far as scatting is concerned. They are doing great work.
Sanabria: Chango, what have you been doing since leaving Los Van Van about a year and a half ago?
Changuito: I have been teaching all over the world and performing with various groups and, as always, I am always listening and studying myself.
Sanabria: I spoke with drummer Billy Cobham and he told me about a recent joint recording you did in Europe.
Changuito: Yes, Billy, myself, Giovanni Hidalgo, Flora Purim and Airto. Just voice and percussion and drums.
Sanabria: Yeah, Billy told me you and Gio' just played the bass lines and harmonic accompaniment on ten tuned congas.
Changuito: Yes. The project came out beautifully.
Sanabria: Thank you both for your time. It's been an honor.
Carcasses: Thank you for your professionalism and for the reception here you have given us at the Drummer's Collective.
Changuito: Well, Bobby (Sanabria), we're going next door to do the performance, right?
Sanabria: That's right.
Carcasses: Well let's go...
Changuito, Carcasses & Sanabria: (all together) Echale Limón!!!
Doble! (all laugh)
Special Thanks to Bob Sancho and René Lopez for their liaison work in bringing Mr. Carcasses and Mr. Quintana to the United States. Thanks also to the staff at Drummer's Collective, John Castellano, Director, and D.C.I. Video, Rob Wallis and Paul Siegel, Directors, and Dan Thres, Sabian cymbals and Latin Percussion.