Studying drums in another culture
part one Cuba 1985
If you have been playing any type of ethnic drums for any amount of time the fantasy of playing in another land or even performing has probably cross dour mind. For years I watched friends and even students of mine crossing the borders of other countries to study live and learn by immersion and non western ways.
They inevitably came back full and excited. I listened to the cassette tapes in the early days before video cameras and then watched their videos later. I knew it was my destiny to travel and to study and to some how share what I learned and even somehow introduce some of the experiences and people I had met along the way with others outside of their culture.
In 1985, my dream came true to go on a study tour to Cuba. We went with a legal tour group through Florida.
We had classes arranged but our teacher and my life changed dramatically after we met Pello El African hanging out in the lounge of our Hotel. To this day I do not know how he got there, if it was divine guidance, coincidence or if he just hung out there. For us, it was a match made in heaven.
He offered us the world, well at least the the world of Afro Cuban music, dance and drumming at it’s best.
The agreement was at first was we would pay him a small amount for services provided such as classes and taking us about. A first he gave us group conga lessons. He taught us the proper way to play his famous invention, the “mozambique” which he told us he named for no other reason then to give light to the samll country Cuba was helping out.
It became a dance craze in the 60’s and put Pello and his mozambique on the map.
After a few days studying with him at his apartment and our hotel he brought in some incredible musicians to teach us bata, such as the late great Amado Gomez among others. He brought us to the houses of important composers, musicians and song writers as well. It was a holistic approach 100%.
Do to my lack of Spanish language ability I often did not know who I had met until after the meeting, but there was always some strong coffee, a cigar and some rum involved. Prior to going to Cuba i indulged in none of the above but “when in Rome do as the romans do” my father used to say. So I was off and running.
We were all hungry to learn, to experience and took it all in. We kept a hectic pace and it was like a lifetime packed into a few short weeks. We would go at it all day and night until we passed out. I remember we would fall asleep sometimes with our clothes on and wake up to the car horn honking for us to go on our all day and evening excursions.
We ended up at the Vedadao Jazz festival where I got to see the now legendary and incredible Changito perform for the very first time and solo on timbales, His solo blew me away.
It reminded me of the time I was the only one in the audience at an Elvin Jones jazz show at a small restaurant in Hermosa beach. I was hitch hiking down the coast from Canada to California and had scrounged up enough for a fish dinner. It was my first full meal in a long time. I did not know who Elvin Jones was at the time, but when he started to play, I could not eat my long awaited fish meal. I have never heard anyone play drums like that before.
At the time, my ego thought he was messing with my mind as he looked right at me and played in that wonderful off beat style I did not understand at all at the time. It was so off yet on. I thought about it constantly for weeks and then had to research about it when I finally returned home. I had been drumming formaly for two years but never heard anyone play like him.
At the jazz festival in Cuba we also saw a young Gonzaldo Rublecava perform as well as the incredible saxophonist Arturo Sandaval.
Pello took us to the legendary Tropicana night club, the same one many of our parents or grandparents honeymooned in! It was one of the most amazing tactile , sensual, exciting and musical experiences of my life. At more then one point of the evening there were dancers everywhere, streaming down the aisles like a damn had broken, pulsating to the rumba on the stage, on the walls even the catwalks near the ceiling!
When Pello and our entourage first came in the Tropicana they quickly gave us a table front row center. Two bottles of Havanah Club rum were plunked on the table. We all had huge smiles on our faces as we lit up our Cubano cigars. The music, a mix of rumba, salsa, afro cuban folkloric and even pop was fantastic. Smooth and very well rehearsed. There were no mistakes.
At one point Pello took us backstage during the performance, where we watched the salsa band from the side of the stage. As I was watching he tried to push me on the actual stage while the band Estrella Cubano was playing.
So, I pushed back against him. I did not see him ask or signal the conga player. What the hell was he doing?! He was insistent so the next thing I know, there I was walking on stage towards the conga drum player in the middle of a song in the middle of a performance, with a legendary band I had only heard on records (no CD’s in those days folks), in a packed Tropicana.
It was quite dream like. As I approached the stage, the conga player smiled and backed off the 2 congas on stands. I started to play. I do not remember what I played.
What I do remember was how easy it was. The rhythm was so strong, the clave was so evident and the feeling of clave was so thick in the air that I felt like you could cut it with a knife. The whole group was about clave, they were not just playing instruments for melody. each player was also drumming, playing an accompaniment rhythmic part was his instrument.
It was truly a magical mount in my life, much like when I was walking out on stage to play with Todd Rundgren the old school pop star at the Filmore in San Francisco. I felt like I was walking on clouds.
Anyway back at the Tropicana, we got to meet all the dancers who were still in their scantly clad erotic costumes. Rare form as a good friend of mine would say. Just as exciting was for all of us to meet the drummers and musicians of The Tropicana as well.
On Saturday I had another big surprise. we went to Conjunto Folklorico National’s Saturday Rumba. I was watching my heroes of conga drums playing when suddenly I heard a very botched version of my name being called in Spanish to go and play.
“Miguel Ploog-nneeeg”..Thank god someone gave me the quint, as it was much easier to play then the tumbao or sgundo (bottom and second) parts. I got into it and it was amazingly fun. My good friend got too nervous and could not play his part at all, despite having played it for years and years. He just got too nervous. And some people did not play at all.
After our piece was done I jumped off the drum a walked quickly to the side but Pello sent me back to shake hands with all the players as in my heated excitement I totally forgot!
At the end of our study trip Pello let us know he wanted a video player. After much deliberation and discussion we all chipped in and got him the much needed device. I think it was a Beta player, too.
Years later when I would go to Africa for the first time I played at the parties and performances in Mali. But in Guinea most of the time, I watched instead of played.
I was so overwhelmed with the incredible talent young and old in Africa, it was great to just listen for a change.