Miguel Aurelio Díaz Zayas, percussionist: born San Juan y Martínez, Cuba 15 June 1961; twice married (three daughters); died Barcelona 9 August 2006.
A conga player who helped other artists achieve six Grammy nominations - half of which went on to win - Miguel "Angá" Díaz was not your average session musician. The conguero of choice for the stars of the Buena Vista Social Club, he remained true to his roots while pushing the boundaries of his instrument's melodic and harmonic possibilities on up to 10 tuned drums.
He was equally comfortable in traditional Cuban and international jazz and hip-hop circles. The founder of World Circuit Records, Nick Gold, describes him as "just an extraordinary technician and virtuoso on the congas and he seemed to have brought them to another level . . . from them being a part of a rhythm section, he'd brought them forward. "
As a naturally creative and percussive child in western Cuba's sleepy, tobacco-growing province of Pinar del Río, Díaz ruined a whole set of his mother's pots and pans, and soon discovered the congas in the Sunday afternoon street jams popular in his village. "Angá" was a family nickname inherited from his father.
By the time he was 15, he had won a scholarship to attend the Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA) in Havana. The very day he arrived, he was invited to join the school's cutting-edge group Treceto de la ENA. Four years later, the group broke up and reformed as Opus 13, and Diáz began his professional career in earnest, playing and recording with them internationally for the next nine years.
It was also in Havana that Díaz met his "spiritual master" and musical mentor Tata Güines and the pianist and bandleader Chucho Valdés, whose group Irakere he would eventually join in 1987. The player he replaced was Jorge "el Niño" Alfonso, who had pioneered the use of a five-conga battery, and Díaz adopted the same approach - with his own open-minded touch - building a reputation as a performer and recording artist all over the world during the next seven years with them.
He left Irakere in 1994 to pursue a freelance career, and established a home in Paris with his second wife, Maya, starting to divide his time between there and Cuba. Immersion in the French capital's diverse music scene served to widen his already multi-faceted approach. Díaz ran master classes in two American universities and began a collaboration with the US experimental trumpeter Steve Coleman, with whom he later recorded two albums. In 1995 the album Pasaporte that he made with his idol Tata Güines won an EGREM award - a Cuban Grammy - and the following year he played on the album Habana with Roy Hargrove's band Crisol, thus helping to bag the first bona fide Grammy of his career.
When Juan de Marcos González headhunted Díaz for his cross-generational Afro Cuban All Stars project in 1996, Díaz was happy to return to his roots. Their first album A Toda Cuba le Gusta was part of the seminal 1997 trilogy of CDs launching the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, which broke all previous sales records for Cuban - and world - music.
Díaz subsequently participated in the second Afro Cuban All Stars album Distinto, Diferente (1999) and the pianist Rubén González's album Chanchullo (2000). He formed an especially intuitive partnership with the bassist Orlando "Cachaíto" López, whose groundbreaking début Cachaíto the following year combined DJ culture and their tumbaos (jams). In 2003, Díaz was also a key player on Ibrahim Ferrer's Buenos Hermanos and Mambo Sinuendo with Ry Cooder and Manuel Galbán, both of which won Grammys.
Díaz continued his association with Coleman, produced the award-winning tuition video Angá Mania! (1999) and featured on a lo cubano, the 2000 début album by the Paris-based Cuban rap group Orishas. By 2003, he had moved to Barcelona and opened another sporadic touring and recording partnership with the Cuban pianist Omar Sosa.
He appeared on albums with the "Buena Vista sister" Omara Portuondo and the trumpeter Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal in 2004, and last year saw the release of the wildly eclectic Echu Mingua (his début as a bandleader) which he viewed as a continuation of his experimental work with Cachaíto.
Jon LuskReuse content