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Master drummer/percussionist and defender of Afro-Latin musical traditions

Interview: One On One with Bobby Sanabria

by Alfredo Cruz

Master drummer/percussionist, composer, teacher, and defender of Afro-Latin musical traditions, Bobby Sanabria has recently debuted an important release with his volatile band Ascensión. Could this be the record of 1993? Bobby stopped by New York area jazz station WBGO to talk with Alfredo Cruz about where he's been, where he is, and where he's going. The following has been transcribed from that interview with the kind permission of Mr. Cruz and WBGO.

AC: You spent several years playing with Mongo Santamaria.

BS: That's correct. In the early eighties I spent nearly two years performing with Mongo. I got to record two albums with him. I learned a lot from this tremendous person and historical figure in Afro-Cuban percussion. It was a time when I was a "road warrior", learning about life on the road.

AC: Not many people may know the name of Bobby Sanabria, but in the community of musicians you are highly regarded and respected not only as a top notch percussionist and arranger, but also a historian, musicologist, defender and preserver of Afro-Cuban traditions.

BS: Well, not just Afro-Cuban, but Brazilian and everything that collectively has to do with our culture. I wouldn't call myself an ethno-musicologist. I'm just somebody who learned a lot about the music. I'm still learning. I'll continue to learn my entire life. I like to pass it on to others, just as some of the elders have passed it on to me. I have been very fortunate to have worked with some very talented people in this business, and they would lay things on me because they knew I was interested. In this country our identity has not been established. Everybody listens to our music and knows of it, yet we are still invisible in every aspect; politically, socially, and musically.

AC: You have worked for the past several years with the late great Mario Bauzá and his band.

BS: Well, I'm still there. There is a misconception that the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra no longer exists. In fact we just played the San Franscisco Jazz Festival. Maestro Bauzá's orchestra continues under the leadership of trumpet virtuoso Victor Paz and Rudy Calzado, the lead vocalist and one of the arrangers. We'll be in Philadelphia in February for the Presidential Jazz Festival. Also, before Maestro Bauzá's untimely death the orchestra recorded one more album entitled 944 Columbus Ave, where he lived for so many years. And there is talk of us recording yet another album. The orchestra lives on.

AC: ...Thanks to you guys

BS: Yes, but there exists another misconception that if you're a keeper of a tradition, that you are stuck in a time period. I've always said that I have one foot in the present, one foot in the past, and my head toward the future. We pay honor to the past, as René Lopez would say. We honor those who suffered and paid their dues so that we can be out there playing the music. If it's played with a high level of integrity, it will reach more and more people.

AC: Aside from all of the other projects that you are involved with, you also lead a band, Asencion, that you have been fronting now for several years, as well. Finally after many years of work and struggle, we have a debut compact disc entitled New York City Aché on the Flying Fish label. You were describing it earlier as a sort of a concept work, a muscial time journey. Can you elaborate on that?

BS: Well, from a superficial standpoint people who go to clubs or listen to the radio hear the music and say "Oh, that's nice", but they don't realize how deep this tradition goes. What I wanted to do with this record is what I have been doing with Ascension ever since I formed the band. I wanted to bring out the fact that this music is very important culturally to us, and should be to everybody that listens to it. The album starts in Africa which is our rhythmical foundation and ends here, in New York City, with the things that we do today and how the jazz aspects are related. You can say it's a concept album, but that doesn't mean you can't just pick out one tune and enjoy it on its own terms as a good piece of music. Those of you who pick up this album will not only enjoy some good music, but you will also learn something about our traditions and roots.

The first cut, "Elegba," pays homage to our African roots. Elegba is one of the deities of the Yoruban pantheon. The Yorubans were the largest group of Africans that were brought to the Caribbean, especially Cuba. There are many chants that are used in praise of Elegba. He is praised first in any Yoruba ceremony because he's the guardian of the crossroads of life, the gatekeeper so to speak. Life is governed by Elegba because he is always putting forth challenges that we must confront and ultimately make either positive or negative decisions. This song has been done on other recordings produced in Cuba and even in the U.S. by other artists who wanted an authentic African element. A lot of people have done it with conga drums or batá drums without any vocals at all. But I took a different approach. I wanted to focus on the beauty of the chekeres, the beaded gourds that are used in Yoruban Bembé ceremonies in tribute to the different Orishas, or deities. When we play this style, which is called toque de guiro, we use three chekeres and a guataca, which is not really a cow bell but a farming tool — a hoe blade which is played with a nail. When played correctly it is very sonorous like a cow bell. Although very famous for their work with metals, the Yorubans enslaved in Cuba had no way of making bells. The Spaniards would not allow them to use the ovens for fear that they would make weapons. The use of the hoe blade instead of the bell is known as guataca, to invent something. The use of the three chekeres are similar in sound to bass notes on a string bass. Often one conga drum, a soloist, is used as well. We intentionally didn't use a conga drum so that you can hear the sonority of the chekere's bass notes.

AC: How would you describe your approach to your music?

BS: Very simple. I combine all of the things I have learned through the years through my musical training as well as from the university of the streets, all of my background not just in Cuban music — but all the forms of Latin American music and jazz, and combine them with whatever type of piece we are doing in an artistic way with integrity and respect to our ancestors. You might hear Ascension do a blues or a straight-ahead jazz number, or possibly an avant-garde piece. Perhaps a contra-danza. A percussion ensemble piece. Maybe something by Mozart. It all relates in one way or another to the Latino experience because all of those elements have made up the modern Latino person today.

AC: We hear elements of that on your recording. There's a tune by Thelonious Monk called "Blue Monk." Is there something in Monk's music that adapts well to Afro-Cuban rhythms?

BS: Yes, I mention that in the liner notes. I think he was a rumbero at heart. Remember, he came up in the '40's — he's really the father of modern jazz, be-bop. He checked out Machito and Puente. There is a big similarity between his and Pérez Prado's piano playing. I don't believe they ever met but they were both very eccentric in the way they wrote tunes, their arrangements, and the way they played. Anyway, on our "Blue Monk" you hear Lewis Kahn on violin in the beginning, which brings into it an element of bluegrass. But it's done as a Són-Cha Cha Cha.

AC: That tune has a screaming tenor solo by Jay Rodriguez.

BS: Yeah, Jay's an up and coming young lion. I met Jay about five years when I was playing at the Village Gate with Luis Perico Ortiz. Paquito D'Rivera was the guest soloist that night and he brought Jay to sit in. Jay has studied with Paquito's illustrious father, Tito D'Rivera, a great saxophonist and clarinetist. Jay sounded great and we've been friends ever since. Now if he could only show up to rehearsals on time (laughs).

I see Blue Monk as an homage to my days at the Berklee College of Music, where I studied from 1975-1979 and got my degree. In my first year I think I was the only Puerto Rican there. Little by little more musicians from the island enrolled and when we got together we'd jam. This tune was one of the jazz standards we adapted to Afro-Cuban rhythms

AC: Who are some of the other musicians in the band?

BS: Lewis Kahn on trombone and violin. John DiMartino on piano, an Italiano from Philadelphia. Donald Nix on bass, who has played with everybody in this business. Mr. Eddie Bobé, a tremendous percussionist and great source of information. He plays conga and batá, bongó. Mr. Gene Jefferson on lead alto and tenor sax is from Panamá. Many remember him from the saxophone section from Tito Rodriguez' orchestra at the Palladium. Mr. Hiram Remón our great vocalist and percussionist from Colombia is a great source of knowledge as far as the musical folklore of South America is concered. Ascension is like a mini United Nations.

AC: That's another group that you have been associated with recently — Dizzy Gillespie's U.N. Orchestra which is now being led by Paquito D'Rivera.

BS: Most people know me as a drummer or timbalero, however, in that orchestra I have been performing as the percussionist. I have been traveling with them and it's been an incredible experience working with Paquito, who is a master musican. A lot of people don't know the depth of knowledge he has, not only on saxophone and clarinet, but historically speaking, and his repertoire. He's a world class classical soloist. And everybody knows his alto playing. We just finished recording an album.. I'm very proud to be associated with that organization.

AC: One of my favorite tunes on your CD has you playing on vibes!

BS: Yes, that's a tune I dedicate to all the mambo-niks out there. It's a fantastic compostition by Francisco Paquito Pastor entitled "LLegué," which means I've arrived. On the introduction you'll hear Max Hyman, the owner of the Palladium.

AC: There's some really nice voice work on this tune. I especially like the harmonizing at the end of the song.

BS: Yeah, there are vocals throughout the album. In my experience with other bands, I've had to sing coro and play at the same time. I've been incorporating more and more vocalizations. We do a lot of chants, from Venezuelan Joropo chants to Colombian chants to chants from the African Santería vocabulary. The idea behind the harmonies in "LLegué" was to get the lush sound that was so prevalent in the mambo era. Especially with the vibes. Everybody knows Cal Tjader, the Joe Cuba Sextette, el maestro Tito Puente — who also performs on my album — we do a couple of duets together on timbales and drums. As far as Afro-Cuban dance music is concerned, the mambo era, from about 1948 through the early 1960's, was the epitome, the height of composition, arranging, and dance. Nobody will ever top that.

AC: What do you think gave it that quality?

BS: The main thing was that jazz was the popular music at that time. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were getting coverage in Life magazine, Look magazine, and newspapers. Jazz was very prevalent. Jazz is a very sophisticated kind of music. Everything that came out of the big-band era of the 1930's be-bop period and the small group virtuoso ensembles in the late 1940's influenced the bands that were playing Afro-Cuban music. Maestro Mario Bauzá with the Machito orchestra fused all that together. The bands were large ensembles with saxophone sections, trumpet sections, trombones, etc. For the arrangers, it was like being a rat at a cheese factory! You could really write and do it up...all the arrangers were competing with each other, who is gonna write the hippest chart? What killed everything was when Castro got into Cuba in 1959 and all the record companies stopped recording Cuban music. Everything went underground. That music has to be studied. The industry generally treats our music as a throw away thing, like a box of corn flakes. This music, however, is a highly developed art form. It's over five hundred years old. That means it's older than jazz, it's older than rock and roll. It's just as old as European orchestral music. It has to be studied that way. The integrity of the music has to be kept up. I'm a champion of that like Wynton Marsalis is of the jazz world. But I'm not the only one. There are many other soldiers, just like yourself, in this battle.

AC: I want to touch upon you're educational activities. I know that your involved with the Drummer's Collective here in New York as well as some other venues.

BS: I was just added to the faculty of the Mannes College Conservatory in Manhattan. I teach two ensembles where we deal with Afro-Cuban music and its relationship to jazz. The students are required to learn about the history of the music. I don't go in and say "OK, let's do "Caravan" as a Guaguancó or a Rumba Columbia". They have to know what a Guanguancó is or what a Rumba Columbia is, the history of the Danzón, or the Són. So I deal with that. I use videos, I lecture, etc. and only then do I get into the nitty gritty of playing. Of course, the first thing I talk about is cláve, which is the cornerstone of Cuban music. I do the same thing at the Drummer's Collective except there I'm dealing with musicians who are drummers and percussionists. I teach privately there and I also teach part of a course called Afro-Carribean and Brazilian rhythms. It's a ten week course that covers Afro-Cuban rhythms, West Indian rhythms, Brazilian rhythms, and, we cover New Orleans because all of that is connected. A lot of people think that jazz and Latin music are two separate entities. But the fact is that they cannot exist without each other. If there was not Afro-Cuban or Latin American music there would be no such thing as jazz today. If you go down to New Orleans, you listen to some second line music you'll hear clave. [He sings a ditty while clapping out clave] What I'm clapping out is the same thing that you hear when you listen to Tito Puente, to Poncho Sanchez, to Celia Cruz. The root, clave. It's in New Orleans music! So jazz cannot exist without us. And, in turn, we cannot exist without jazz. We're all part of an old African tree. Only some branches are closer to the trunk than others. Our branch is very close to mother Africa in terms of rhythm.

AC: The tree metaphor is very interesting. This concept is glossed over in jazz journals or academic institutions. The Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, for example, does a fantastic job of documenting and investigating and researching jazz. But, unfortunately, they have not developed a branch to study Cuban music.

BS: They have to. Not just Afro-Cuban music, but Afro-Brazilian music, Afro-Puerto Rican music, Afro-Colombian music. The reason that clave and those kind of rhythms that sound similar to Cuban rhythms, to Puerto Rican Rhythms, to Brazilian rhythms, to Haitian rhythms, are found in New Orleans is because New Orleans is a Caribbean city and that the last three places that eradicated slavery as we know it were Puerto Rico in the 1870's, Cuba in 1879, or 1886 with respect to the Chinese slaves, and Brazil in 1888. Most of these freed slaves, when they went looking for work in the United States, went to New Orleans. Once you get to New Orleans you could get anywhere because the railroads just about completely connected the whole United States. From there you could get to Kansas City, New York, Chicago, St. Louis, etc. etc. All of that gumbo all mixed together in a creolized fashion, what we call criollo in Spanish, and created what was New Orleans music and developed into early jazz. That eventually got up north and developed into all the branches of jazz that we have today. This is something that is not discussed. Nobody gives us credit. I really get turned off when jazz musicians look at our music superficially. I've heard a bunch of young jazz guys put one thing on their album that has some sort of quasi-Latin rhythm. It's done on a very superficial level because they don't want to study the music. They think that if they include a conga player, that it will sound Latin. Meanwhile, the drummer doesn't know anything about cláve, he doesn't know how to play any Latin rhythms — he plays some sort of quasi-calypso thing that he heard Steve Gadd do, which isn't authentic either. Yet we, as Latinos, take the study of jazz very, very seriously. In fact, there's a crop of young Latin turks who play jazz who know more about jazz than their own rhythmic roots. It goes both ways. I hate to sound like I'm preaching, but it's the truth.

AC: The first time I saw you was in 1979 or 1980 when I first came to New York to study music. I went to the Johnny Colón School of Music in East Harlem and there you were leading the ensemble. I said "who is this cat?" You seemed to have it all together. I was even more impressed when I found out that you were a percussionist. The popular misconception is that percussionists are not of the same musical level as other musicians. People tend not to associate musical mastery with a percussionist. And that you were not only an arranger, but a very gifted composer. There is something on your new release that you composed especially for the late great maestro, Mario Bauzá.

BS: Many people know me through my association with Mario. There was a private funeral service which was essentially for the orchestra and close friends and family. Then there was a public service at St. Peters Church and a lot of people were there. Ray Barretto, Tito Puente who said some very beautiful and also some very funny things about Mario. Paquito. A lot of people. But I was checking out the crowd, looking around, and I saw none of the cats from the so-called salsa scene. I mean nobody. Man what is this? This man was the greatest purveyor of our music, who brought our music into the twentieth century, and none of these cats were there! It was ridiculous. How can these cats complain that our music isn't getting any recognition when they themselves don't recognize the true warriors of our music and give back to them some of the respect they are due. The song Adios Mario is my way of paying homage to this great man. Paquito D'Rivera is an invited guest soloist who, on clarinet, does a beautiful job in capturing the essense of what Mario was about, this bridge between jazz and Latin music.

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