Steve Berrios: Latin Jazz Innovator
AAJ: What was the first record date that you remember where you really felt like you were doing something?
SB: I guess it would be with Mongo.
AAJ: Well, why don't we talk about that, how you got that gig and how that materialized.
SB: The reason I got that gig was because on my hotel gig there was a Sunday matinee. So there would be a hip band like Mongo, or a band like that, that would play the matinee. Mongo heard me play and he was having trouble with his drummer at that time. So he asked me would I be interested in doing the gig, and you know what my answer was [laughs]. So I didn't even give two weeks notice. I got somebody else to sub for me, I didn't even get paid my last weeks pay.
AAJ: Well, when opportunity knocks...
SB: Right, I had to jump at the chance. I did that week at the hotel but during the day I was rehearsing with Mongo's band. But I knew most of his stuff 'cause I was a fanatic. I was a big fan of that band, so it wasn't that hard for me to jump in the gig 'cause I knew all the material they were doing at that time. But we rehearsed for about a week at the same time I was doing the hotel gig at night and after that I just left everything there.
AAJ: Who else was in the band at that time?
SB: Well, me and Sonny Fortune joined at the same time, there was a trumpet player named Ray Maldonado, Rodgers Grant on piano and Victor Vanegas on bass. It was a good band. I forgot the other the other saxophone players name, I think it was Maurico Smith. When me, CJ [Carter Jefferson] and Moldonado were in the band that was the trio of doom [laughs].
AAJ: How long was Carter in the band?
SB: Maybe a year or two, then he went with the Jazz Messengers.
AAJ: Do you have any favorite recordings from your time with Mongo?
SB: Man, it's been so long and I haven't really listened to any of those records since that time but maybe Up From The Roots (Atlantic, 1972), Afro-Indio (Vaya, 1975) has a couple of things on there, maybe A La Carte (Vaya, 1976) but I haven't heard those things in so long I can't really judge them. But I dug those records more than the commercial stuff he did.
AAJ: Did you meet Willie Bobo at that time or was it before that?
SB: Willie Bobo met me before I was born. My grandmother and his mom were tight; they used to live on the east side like I told you. So I'm sure Willie saw me in my mom's stomach. And we were pretty tight. He used to come by the house and I used to see him around the neighborhood. He's one of my main influences.
AAJ: What did you find special about his playing?
SB: Just his flexibility, to play authentically in whatever style he was playing. He could play straight ahead jazz and he could play authentic "Latin music and I don't know too many cats like that.
AAJ: Well, there's you.
SB: [laughs]. Well, I got that from Willie. Even in speaking he was extremely bilingual, you couldn't tell if he was African-American, or if he was Afro-Cuban, or Puerto Rican, you know what I mean? I admire that in people, that they can switch and they don't speak with an accent or whatever.
AAJ: Again, I think coming up in New York...
SB: Yeah, that's unique to New York.
AAJ: What about Julito Collazo? I know he was a big influence on you.
SB: Well, he got here I believe in '55. He and Franciso Aguabella came here from Cuba with Katherine Dunham's dance company and my parents took me to see that ballet, and I was extremely inspired by seeing that folkloric stuff. And again my dad knew him, so he used to come by the house, so he knew me since I was ten years old.
AAJ: When did you start hanging out with him and learning about bataÌ drums? [BataÌ are a trio of drums that originated with the Yoruba of Nigeria and are played in Cuba, the US and elsewhere as part of ceremonies of Orisha worship].
SB: All through that time. Just coming up, we used to see each other, I was a late teenager and he was playing with Eddie Palmieri at the time. So in order for me to get in to dance I used to wait backstage and carry his timbales. And he was in Mongo's band playing percussion so we really got tight; we were roommates on the road.
SB: No. I heard that before I saw the Katherine Dunham Ballet. I had already heard that music.
AAJ: Was that on records?
SB: On records, yeah. There's a record of Katherine Dunham's dance company on some obscure label and my dad had '78s of Los Munequitos de Matanzas. They started in '52, so I think their first record came out in '53. Back in the days before the blockade anything that was fresh out of Cuba was here in New York. Back in that time, from Miami, even with your car, you could take a ferry to Havana. But seeing it live, that was something else.
AAJ: You got to go to Cuba at one time. Was that with Dizzy?
SB: That was with Leon Thomas back in '85. That was a great experience. It was Leon's band and Dizzy's band. We were there for about ten days and I didn't sleep for ten days! [laughs] I caught as much music as I could. I saw Los Van Van, Ritmo Oriental, I even heard an Abakua ceremony but only from the outside. I heard a lot of different bands. When I first got there I hooked up with Changuito [drummer with Los Van Van] and he's a big influence on me, a great player. With Leon I think we did four different gigs, a couple of concerts for the people, and a show at a big opera house (I forget the name). It was a cultural exchange thing, it was really nice. Too bad the people down there don't have anything...just music and rum. You should go before Castro checks out, before it turns into McDonalds and all of that.
AAJ: As far as the folkloric scene in New York, who were some of the other guys learning the bataÌ tradition from Julito?
SB: Well, Julito and Francisco are the first ones responsible for that instrument being in this country. After that, many years later during the Mariel era then it got even more intense. [Mariel refers to the boatlift in 1980 when many Cuban exiles arrived in the US ] Orlando "Puntilla Rios and Alfredo Calvo came here and later those cats brought the sacred Anya drums here. Before that there were no sacred drums. [Anya is a diety believed by devotees of Orisha worship to reside inside sets of consecrated bata drums]
AAJ: Do you have any thoughts on the drum as a spiritual entity?
SB: Oh, definitely. Any percussion instrument has a spiritual vibe to it and I treat them all the same way. Some more than others, but of course. Playing a tambor [religious ceremony] would be the extreme end of it but say someone comes into a club and they're down in the dumps, the music can lift up their spirit. Music is something else man.
AAJ: Who was in Julito's crew, playing with him and learning from him.
SB: Well, almost everybody before 1980. But he only taught a select group of guys because he wanted to maintain the integrity of the religion and the instrument. After Mariel, everybody and their mother could get some inside info for a couple of dollars. Julito had more integrity than to be a sell out. And by the time Mariel came along he had already backed away from playing because in '79 he became a babalawo [priest of Ifa] so he was focusing more on that. But, in my particular crew it was me, "Flaco [Hector Herenandez], Frank Colon, Moreno Tejeda, and "Chachete [Angel Moldonado, leader of Batacumbele]. There were a few guys around...Milton Cardona.
SB: Definitely. That was like the mid '80's I think.
AAJ: How did that recording come about? Were you guys playing ceremonies around New York or was it more of a performance ensemble?
SB: A little of both, cause Milton used to do college concerts. So basically the drum crew was me, Flaco and Jose Fernandez. So we just went into the studio and everything was basically one take, even the coro [background chorus]. What you hear on that record is the same group that played a lot of different colleges. I know we did that record in one day. I think it came out pretty good.
AAJ: Yeah, I'd agree. Definitely! So getting back to Mongo I guess you guys did a lot of traveling?