Bobby Sanabria: Afro-Cuban Storyteller

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So that was the epiphany, and I said, 'This is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life.'
Bobby Sanabria is a living museum of Afro-Cuban music. Sanabria is a percussionist, drummer and educator who is at the forefront of Afro-Cuban music—particularly the frontier where it intersects with jazz. In 2007, Sanabria released Big Band Urban Folktales (Jazzheads, 2007), an album he says takes the music "beyond the 21st century." Jason Crane, AAJ contributor and host of The Jazz Session, sat down with Sanabria in May 2007 to talk about the history of Afro-Cuban music, Sanabria's own career, and "The Ugliest Man In America."

All About Jazz: Let's talk about the Bronx. When people think of Afro-Cuban music in the United States since the 1950s, they often think of New York City, but it seems like we can get even more specific than that and take it right into the Bronx. Will you talk about why the Bronx is so important to the development and continuation of this music?

Bobby Sanabria: The Bronx, at one time, had more night clubs and dance halls than Manhattan. So there was a vibrant, incredible scene in the Bronx for Latin music in general, particularly Afro-Cuban-based music. The Puerto Rican community became very large there, particularly in the South Bronx as they started migrating from South Brooklyn and Spanish Harlem. You can almost follow the migratory pattern by looking at the subway lines, and how they came from Manhattan and Brooklyn into the Bronx.

So there was an incredible scene. Many jazz clubs existed also in the Bronx, so there was a very vital jazz scene. In fact, there's a documentary that I was involved in—I was a co-producer—called From Mambo To Hip Hop: A South Bronx Tale that deals with this incredible history.

AAJ: Why is it that the Puerto Rican community was so instrumental in keeping Afro-Cuban music alive in the United States? How did that become their task?

BS: It's funny, I myself wanted to find answers to that. I started getting them when I did the Mambo Kings soundtrack many years ago. Many of the great older musicians were involved in that soundtrack, particularly Juan Jose Mangual Sr., who was a great bongo player with the Machito orchestra for many, many, many years. We were talking about that and he said, "Well, when I was growing up in Puerto Rico, all I listened to was Cuban music on the radio." I asked him why was that and he said, "That's what we listened to because there weren't many radio stations in Puerto Rico at the time, so when you put on the radio you mostly heard Radio Progresso, Radio CMQ."

[These stations were] coming directly from Havanna—these huge, 20,000-watt radio stations that transmitted all over the Caribbean, all the way to Central and South America, they could even be heard in Texas. So radio had a big thing to do with the relationship with the Puerto Rican community on the island. And of course, when they migrated to New York City in massive numbers in the 1940s and 50s, they brought that listening tradition with them. The bands that they saw here in New York City—the main band that they saw was the Machito Afro-Cubans, which was the main band that was responsible for creating Afro-Cuban jazz under the musical direction of [trumpeter] Mario Bauza.

Mario Bauza led to me being involved in Afro-Cuban music. I was Mario's drummer with his great orchestra for many, many years. I played with [conguero] Mongo Santamaria. And of course, the person who did the most for Afro-Cuban music, the great Puerto Rican timbalero, the great Nuyorican composer, arranger, dancer, raconteur, bon vivant, maestro Tito Puente. Mario Bauza always said that the person who has done the most for Afro-Cuban music has been Tito Puente.

AAJ: You just brought up an important point. In a couple weeks you're going to be 50. That means you're still a young guy and you're talking about having played in a band that connects pretty much all the way back to the beginning of the Afro-Cuban jazz tradition here in New York. That's amazing.

BS: I've been fortunate. I've played and recorded with basically everybody that created this genre. Mario Bauza, the father of the tradition. Chico O'Farrill, the great composer and arranger, who was the first to write extended works using the rhythms from Cuba in a big band setting. Maestro Tito Puente. [Conguero] Ray Barretto. [Saxophonist] Paquito D'Rivera. You name it, I've played with them and recorded with them. Also [trumpeter] Dizzy Gillespie, the acknowledged father of bebop along with Charlie Parker. I feel very fortunate and proud, and I always turn to those people for inspiration in whatever I do.

That's the great thing about this new Big Band Urban Folktales record. In the previous big band record we did, Live and In Clave (Arabesque, 2000), what I wanted to do was bring the tradition of the three great orchestras—Tito Puente's orchestra, the Machito Afro-Cubans, and Tito Rodriguez, the great vocalist, those three orchestras, which are the archetypes of this tradition—up to contemporary standards, to the 21st century. With this new record, we've expanded upon that and gone beyond the 21st century. I'm very, very proud of it.

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