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.

AAJ: Let's talk about this new record. To start, let's talk about some of the people who are on it. If you yourself are intimately connected to the beginnings of the tradition because of your performances with the folks you just mentioned, then I'm guessing it must be cool for people like your pianist, Yeissonn Vilamar, who's a younger guy, to have you as that touchstone. Now he's got a direct connection to the root because he's getting a chance to play in your band and expand his vocabulary. Do you think that's the case?

BS: Of course, of course. To use that whole corny cliche of the "circle of life," it's like the circle of music. As the tradition was passed on to me, I pass it on to the next generation. I do that in a very direct way, through my teaching at the New School University and also at the Manhattan School of Music, where I teach the only authentic Afro-Cuban jazz orchestras on the college and university level. The great thing about the concerts that we do is that the majority of the audience is always young people, so they get turned on to the music. They're always coming up and saying, "Mr. Sanabria, where can I hear this music?"

The sad part is that jazz radio leaves much to be desired today, because there isn't that much jazz radio on the airwaves. So it's important that with this show you have [The Jazz Session] and with other shows and the print media, it's important that we get the message out there for young people to get involved in this music, which really represents the best of what we are as a society. It's America's greatest art form. People from all over the world come to study it. Yet the average 16-year-old kid walking down the street, if you asked them are they into jazz, they wouldn't know Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington. I consider what I do very serious, especially on the teaching end.

AAJ: One of the things about this new record is that the music comes from a lot of different sources. Not only members of your band, but also a couple previously unrecorded pieces by composer Hermeto Pascoal. And also music by one of the all-time great Afro-Cuban composers, Frank Zappa. How did you choose "The Grand Wazoo"?

BS: [laughs] I've always been into Frank Zappa. I first became familiar with him on the Dick Cavett Show. It would come on at 11:30 at night. I also used to flip back and forth between that and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, because both shows had big bands. On the commercial breaks, they would play. I had a TV in my room and I would keep the sound low so that my parents wouldn't know I was still up.

I also used to see the David Frost Show, which would come on at 10 o'clock at night. Mike Douglas was on in the afternoon. All these TV shows had bands. But not like the type of bands that you see today on David Letterman or other shows. These were primarily big bands, with full saxophone sections, trombone sections and trumpet sections. So it was really exciting on the commercial breaks to see these bands.

They had incredible drummers, too. The Dick Cavett Show had Bobby Rosengarten as the drummer and musical director. Johnny Carson had Ed Shaughnessy with an incredibly massive double bass drum kit with like five tom-toms. I was impressed that he had three or four music stands.

AAJ: And some impressive facial hair.

BS: [laughs] Yeah, those big mutton-chops. And Grady Tate was the drummer for David Frost. Occasionally, different players would sub in these bands. I remember watching the Johnny Carson show and [drummer] Billy Cobham was subbing for Ed Shaughnessy. The musicianship on these shows was incredible.

So on the Dick Cavett Show one night, I see this guy that Cavett introduces as "The Ugliest Man In America." It's Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. I started getting curious about him and checking out his records. In college, I really got into him, especially this one album called The Grand Wazoo (Bizarre, 1973) and that one particular tune. I always said I'd like to do some of his music and adapt it to big band, but utilizing Afro-Cuban rhythms.

I came up with the concept of this chart, and the different rhythmic changes and all that. Our lead trombone player, Joe Fiedler, I gave it to him and he came out with a beautiful adaptation that really pays homage to Frank and also to the universality of Afro-Cuban jazz. Frank, to my knowledge, never got involved in any ethnic things, unless you want to call R&B music something ethnic, which it is from the black community. He was prolific in terms of his historical knowledge of R&B and blues. But he never got involved in Latin rhythms. I think at the end of his life, he was going to collaborate on something with [Irish traditional group] The Chieftans. Alas, it never happened. I'm thinking that he's listening up in heaven and really smiling, because one of the things I love about Zappa is his unique way of combining funkiness and intelligence and humor in his music.

In this piece, we added the exciting rhythmic element of Afro-Cuban rhythms, and also some Dominican rhythms, too. At one point in the piece it switches to merengue from the Dominican Republic, so it's a combination of the blues shuffle, bembe, which is the rhythm that comes directly from Nigeria in West Africa, then was brought to Cuba in 6/8. We show the connection between jazz rhythm and West African rhythm when you hear that combination in the opening of the piece. Then there's obviously some orchestral elements, then it switches to son montuno, cha cha cha, then it goes to merengue, and then it goes all out to a church revival, where David de Jesus, in the role of Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus, the mythical figure that Frank Zappa created, plays the Grand Wazoo's Mystery Horn in a symbolic battle against the forces of jive and junk that the jazz musician battles constantly in this world today.

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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