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Tribute to Frankie Malabe

Profile: Rest In Peace: Frank Malabe (November 28, 1940 - April 21, 1994)

by Bobby Sanabria

Frank Malabe was born on November 28, 1940, to Luis, a merchant seaman, and Frances, a housewife. Of his mother, Frank has said, "She's only seen me play, at most, six times. But if she hears a recording I'm in, she can instantly tell it's me." Raised in East Harlem, the neighborhood universally known to Latinos as "El Barrio", Frank's youth was spent playing stickball, fishing for catfish in Central Park and hanging out with "homies" like Willie Bobo.

When he was eight, Frank became inspired by a neighborhood musician known as "Don Pulli," who whistled tunes and used a cheese grater as a guiro and a box for a conga. By the time he was ten, Frankie had saved enough money from working at a bodega and a dry cleaners to buy his first conga drum for $35.00. Veteran player Ray Armando, knowing of Frankie's interest in percussion, gave him some pointers, as did bongocero Bobby Flash. The legendary Cuban guitarist Arsenio Rodriguez would offer encouragement, as would his brother, percussionist Quique.

For the next five years Frank practiced seven hours a day and jammed in impromptu rumbas on 110th street and Fifth Avenue with such players as "Little Ray" Romero, Tommy Lopez Sr., Changuito, Kako, and José "Buyu" Mangual. Frank once recalled, "Mangual would carry his bongos in a paper bag, since we didn't have things like cases in those days." Many of the city's greatest Latin drummers would leave their congas at Frankie's home, a first-floor apartment.

Inspired by congueros Candido, Mongo Santamaría, and his greatest influence, Carlos "Patato" Valdez, Frank began working with multiple drums. His first professional experience was with another youngblood from El Barrio, timbalero Angel Rene. He then went to work with two vibraharpist/bandleaders, Harvey Averne and Dr. Pete Terrace, with whom he would make his first recordings.

In 1958, Frank became one of the first congueros to experiment with a fiberglass conga drum built by an instrument-maker known as Mesa. By this point, he had fully refined his multiple-conga technique, largely inspired by virtuoso conguero Gene Blackwell who, according to Frank, "would do incredible things with five drums." Another important influence was the trumpeter/arranger/composer Marty Sheller, who introduced Frank to jazz and the coordinated independence then being developed by Latin drummers such as Willie "Wee Ya" Rodriguez and Jimmy "La Vaca" Santiago. By the age of twenty, he was recording and performing with Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, and the famed Alegre All-Stars.

In his long and influential career, Frank had worked with such diverse groups as the Munich Symphony and the La Playa Sextette, and Latin and Latin jazz pioneers and innovators such as Celia Cruz, Jorge Dalto, Charlie and Eddie Palmieri, Johnny Pacheco, Dave Valentin, Jon Lucien, Randy Carlos, Bob Mintzer, and the ensemble Frank is most often associated with, the Larry Harlow Orchestra.

Frank was always interested in passing along his knowledge of the Latin musical tradition. In 1977, he joined the teaching staff of Drummers Collective, a world-renowned learning center for drumset and percussion, and The Harbor Performing Arts Center, a repository of the history and culture of Latin music that provides low-cost musical instruction to the community. At both of these schools, Frank delved into traditional Latin-American rhythms as well as the creative possibilities of applying these to the drumset. Among those who have benefitted from Frank's instruction are such word-class drummers as Peter Erskine, Gregg Bissonette, Michael Shrieve and Kim Plainfield.

In 1990, Frank co-authored the groundbreaking study guide Afro-Cuban Rhythms For The Drumset with Bob Weiner, a drummer/percussionist well-versed in various ethnic styles and a music historian. This book has received widespread critical acclaim and is quickly becoming the standard drummer's sourcebook for these important styles.

Frank Malabe was not only an ambassador for Latin music but also a messenger of creativity, self-expression and acceptance. In many ways his life had come full circle. He began as a self-taught musician, rose to the top of his field as a player, and devoted much of his later life to teaching. His message will live on in his book, his students, his numerous recordings, and in each of us who knew him.

—Bobby Sanabria

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