Jazz: The mixers of the mama of all rhythms

From Tito Puente to Snowboy, Latin-jazz percussionists have ruled the roost. Quite right too.
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The Independent Culture
KEITH MOON, like many rock drummers with an exhibitionist streak, disliked being obscured behind other musicians. He wasn't too keen, for that matter, on being hidden behind a drum-kit. He believed the drummer's rightful position was at the front of the stage. If only he had been Cuban. In Latin music, the drummers and percussionists are the kings of the stage. They are both musicians and showmen.

In the 1950s, Tito "El Rey" Puente was the first drummer to position his timbales at the front of the band, enabling him to both dance and direct his musicians. Many other Latin- jazz percussionists, such as "Sabu" Martinez, Candido Camero, Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Ray Barretto and the English percussionist, Snowboy, lead from the front. Stands to reason: they govern the shape of the music, so why not govern the stage?

Bobby Matos, a leading contemporary percussionist, is adamant: "There's something about Afro-Cuban percussionists - they're not just drummers: they dance, they move, they sing." In the 1940s, Chano Pozo tied a conga to his waist and pulled off complicated dance routines. In the following decade, Carlos "Patato" Valdez developed increasingly inventive ideas for a Latin percussionist, including sitting on a conga drum and slapping its sides with his feet.

Although the Cuban trumpeter, Mario Bauza, effectively created Latin jazz in 1943 with his composition, "Tanga", it was the collaboration in 1947 between Dizzy Gillespie and the Cuban conga player, Chano Pozo, that is often regarded as its Big Bang moment. The premise of Latin jazz was to create a balanced musical exchange between American jazz and Cuban music, and without using Cuban percussion merely as decorative "ethnic" flavouring. But this marriage was not immediately fruitful, partly because Gillespie's drummer, Max Roach, found it difficult at first to play alongside Pozo.

This dilemma was explained by Dizzy Gillespie, who speculated that because white slave-owners in the Caribbean were more tolerant of African drumming, "the Afro-Cubans, the South Americans, and the West Indians remained polyrhythmic", whereas, presumably, black North Americans did not. Subsequently, Max Roach studied drumming in Haiti while Art Blakey sought to embellish his skills in Africa.

Chano Pozo, a picaresque character who was killed in New York only a year after his experiments with Dizzy Gillespie, belonged to the Nanigo, a secret African society in Cuba whose members spoke Yoruba. The African cultural retentions in the Caribbean are rich and help explain the importance of percussionists within Latin jazz. Dizzy Gillespie observed: "The people of the calypso, rumba, samba and the rhythms of Haiti all have something in common with the mother of their music. Rhythm... Mama Rhythm is Africa."

The migration of Cubans to New York, and the musical information they carried, was halted in 1962, following the economic blockade of the island. Consequently, new Cuban forms of music such as the Nozambique, the Pilan and the Songo, were scarcely heard in America. The ban was lifted in 1980 for five months, when 125,000 Cubans were legally allowed to emigrate by boat to America. Drummers such as Daniel Ponce and Orlando Rios were among them and their knowledge was devoured by musicians in America.

The resonance of their innovations was also sensed in England by Snowboy: "over the last 10 years, the folkloric sides of Afro-Cuban music, they're not a secret any more, stuck away in the religious ceremonies in Cuba. There is so much more learning to do now. The more knowledge you have, the more respect you have... At the end of the day, Latin music is percussion based."

Bobby Matos's albums, `Sessions', `Chango's Dance' and `Footprints', and Johnny Blas's album, `Mambo 2000', are on Cubop Records. Snowboy & The Latin Section's Cubop album, `Mambo Rage', is out this week. They play the Jazz Cafe, London, tomorrow night