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Bobby Sanabria: Afro-Cuban Storyteller

By Published: March 24, 2008
AAJ: And that entire history of the world of music can be yours in about six and a half minutes. You've probably just mentioned seven or eight rhythmic styles that the average person has never heard of, and I think it points to how diverse and complex this tradition is. In the course of one six-minute tune, you can cover rhythms and musical traditions from eight or nine different cultures. It's amazing to think about how much music is out there to discover for the average listener.

BS: That's one unique thing about this big band—the rhythmic knowledge that we have. To play this music correctly, you really have to have players that have lived that tradition in some aspect and have played it, so that you can really understand the vocabulary. Not only the vocabulary of those traditions, but of our traditions here in the United States in terms of black music, particularly jazz and funk and R&B.

I remember somebody asked me once, "How does a Puerto Rican guy from New York like you get involved in Frank Zappa?" I started laughing and said, "Why not, man? I grew up in this country." There's the answer. The person I have to thank for that is my father. He has very eclectic taste. You can consider it eclectic, but it's really a natural thing. He'd listen to music in a La-Z-Boy chair that he'd sit in. It would take him two hours to get to work. He worked as a machinist in Long Island, so he had to take several trains to get the hell out there from the South Bronx. When he'd come back, my mother used to tell me, "Leave your father alone when he comes home, because he's going to be very tired. He's going to eat, then he's going to sit in that chair and just listen to music."

I'd be in the living room doing my homework while he was there listening, so I would listen to what he was listening to. He would listen to everything, from Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 to the music of my roots in Puerto Rico—jibaro music, that's folkloric music from the mountain side of Puerto Rico—to bullfighting music from Spain to the current pop music of the day. I remember the day that he bought Sex Machine (Polydor, 1970) by James Brown and he put it on. I had known about it from being in the 'hood, but I was surprised that my father got that record. I asked him, "Why did you buy this record?" And he goes, "Why not? It's good music." So there's your answer.

When did being a professional musician begin to seem like a realistic career choice for you?

BS: When I was about 12 years old, a series of epiphanies happened for me. I saw Tito Puente perform in front of the projects I grew up in, which was 681 Cortland Avenue, East 153rd Street in the South Bronx, in the Melrose projects. Those were really sour times in the South Bronx. The Bronx was burning, which is something that this documentary From Mambo To Hip Hop touches upon. Why the South Bronx became the symbol of urban decay. It's too complex to talk about now, but mainly it was because [urban planner] Robert Moses built the Cross-Bronx Expressway. That displaced the whole middle-class community that was in the South Bronx at one time and sent the South Bronx into an economic tailspin.

The one thing that kept everybody alive was the music. You have to understand that in the summertime, two things would happen the first day it would get warm in the South Bronx. You'd hear the sound of the Mister Softee [ice cream] truck, the jingle. Anybody that's grown up in New York knows that these trucks go all throughout the city, and they have a particular jingle that everybody recognizes right away so that you know the truck is in your neighborhood. You'd hear that jingle. The other thing you would hear was the sound of Cuban rumba—guaguanco—in the parks. You'd hear the clave [sings rhythm].

So that was a very big uniting factor for the community. It was the time of the Civil Rights Movement, the time of people, especially the New York Puerto Ricans, looking for their identity. They found it in Cuban music. In what became known as salsa. Although the city was going bankrupt, they would occasionally throw concerts in different neighborhoods. I guess to keep the natives who are restless entertained with music.

One of those concerts was Tito Puente's orchestra, the Machito orchestra and Ricardo Rey and Bobby Cruz's orchestra, playing in the neighborhood. I mean, it was incredible. You're a little kid, you're watching this band play, and the mighty Tito Puente. Tito Puente was not a very tall man, but he was a giant amongst men when he played the timbales. He was directing his orchestra, and the first song he played was "Para Los Rumberos." He wrote the piece and arranged it. It was an up-tempo showcase for his virtuosity on the timbales. When the saxophones would stand up to do the mambo background lines, to launch the orchestra into orbit—I mean, it was something very, very incredible for a young man of 12. I saw that and said, "Holy—" you know, whatever.

And then I saw [drummer] Buddy Rich on TV on the Tonight Show. I also heard Cal Tjader's great group on the radio, the great vibraharpist from the West Coast. Wilie Bobo was the timbale player and jazz drummer in that band. Mongo Santamaria, who I also got to record and play for, was in that band.

So that was the epiphany, and I said, "This is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life."

Selected Discography

Bobby Sanabria, Big Band Urban Folktales (Jazzheads, 2007)

Bobby Sanabria, Quarteto Ache! (Khaeon, 2002)

Bobby Sanabria, Live and In Clave (Arabesque, 2000)

Bobby Sanabria, New York City Ache! (Flying Fish, 2003)

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