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Francisco Aguabella is the most important Cuban percussionist alive. Since coming to the United States in 1957, he's worked with everyone from Tito Puente to Peggy Lee, Mongo Santamaria to Paul Simon. Even Marlon Brando has sought his services.
"I was playing a club in Havana [in the 1950s]," says Aguabella, "and Brando liked congas, and he came in and asked me to go to his suite and play drums with him. He was a good conga player. Later, some musicians came up to me, excited, at the club and said, 'Brando is looking for you. He said he wants to have a party with lots of Cuban drumming.' They were very impressed."
Aguabella, who keeps his age a mystery, was born in Matanzas on Cuba's north coast, a region strong in Yoruba and the other West African traditions that give Afro-Cuban music its pulse. Considered a master of those traditional rhythms even before he left the island nation for the United States, Aguabella has skills and knowledge that have since earned him record deals and university appearances as well as, in 1992, a National Heritage Fellowship. A flurry of releases in the last few years has established his reputation with a new dance-and-rhythm-hungry generation.
A small but formidable presence behind his congas, Aguabella runs a band by percussive hypnosis, cueing sax or keyboard solos with subtle changes of rhythmic patter that, no doubt, has roots in Chango or some other religious musical form. He drives the music with a constant chatter from the bata, the conga set-up that allows him to be both brain and heartbeat of the sound.
His new album, Ochimini, for the Newport Beach–based Ubiquity/ CuBbop label, uses the same formula that Aguabella cooked up for his first recording in 1962, Dance the Latin Way, fusing the jazz, pop and Latin sounds of the day with traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms from his homeland.
The title tune is a perfect example. "'Ochimini' means 'praise," the conguero explains. "The Yoruba religions have ceremonies, ceremonies for the morning with the bata, ceremonies for after meals. After we have lunch, we pull out the drums. This is 'Ochimini.' It is our way of making praise. We have one after dinner, too."
But this doesn't mean that "Ochimini" or any of the other eight tunes on the album are somber spiritual meditations. The disc is a driving, dance-oriented collection fit for a party. Another Aguabella original, "Funky Cha," seems like a nod to Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters ("It can be danced as funk and as a cha-cha," he says). Even the old standby "Makin' Whoopee," done at a ballad tempo, is alive with graceful yet detailed percussion.
Aguabella explains that the traditional Yoruba rhythms that spread to Cuba from West Africa were part of daily life when he was growing up. He heard them during Santeria religious ceremonies, and they pervaded the musical culture.
"In Cuba, I went to learn the bata [the three-conga "talking drum" setup] and it took a very long time. We didn't have CDs, we didn't have phonographs. We had to learn from those who knew. The three drums, the three colors, had to be learned one at a time, first the small one, then the next. You had to learn to make one drum talk before you could go to the next. You had to know how to put them together."
There were no radios or recordings in his rural village either, so Aguabella didn't hear jazz until he began traveling to Havana. "I didn't hear American music until the first time I was asked to play with [an American] band. I had to learn quickly."
Brando wasn't the only one impressed with the young conguero. In 1954, Aguabella was tabbed by choreographer Katherine Dunham and music director Franco Ferrara to come to Italy to anchor the soundtrack recording for the dance-happy cult film Mambowith Shelley Winters. He landed in New York three years later and began a long friendship with Mongo Santamaria. He can be heard on Mongo's 1958 album Yambu (reissued by Prestige as Afro-Roots), a landmark disc that includes Latin legends Cal Tjader and Willie Bobo.
Soon he was based in California and touring with Peggy Lee (he's heard on Lee's classic 1963 Blue Note album Mink Jazz). Tito Puente, who had included Aguabella on his 1957 LP Top Percussion, urged him to move back to New York. Aguabella, liking the California weather, demurred. He played Caesar's Palace with Sinatra, the Monterey Jazz Festival with Dizzy Gillespie, and toured with Santana. He formed the Latin rock band Malo with Carlos' brother George Santana, and was tabbed by the late trumpeter-composer Don Ellis for his soundtrack to The French Connection II.
In the early '90s, the reissue of his '70s-era recording Hitting Hard brought a new wave of interest in his music, as DJs in the UK and Japan began to sample his infectious rhythms. Since then, he has released a handful of new recordings for Ubiquity.
Perhaps his greatest contribution to music is his passing on of the Yoruba rhythmic traditions. Aguabella has been a visiting professor for a number of years at UCLA's Department of Ethnomusicology, where he teaches not only ceremonial rhythms, but the rhumba and the cha-cha as well. In Les Blank's short documentary Sworn to the Drum,distinguished bassist Israel "Cachao" Lopez cites Aguabella's allegiance to Cuban traditions and calls him "one of the strongholds of our music."
Does he fear that the Afro-Cuban rhythms of his native Matanzas will someday be lost? "No, no," he asserts. "As long as there is Santeria, as long as there is a strong Yoruba culture, there will be these rhythms, there will be these ceremonies. You have to learn the rhythms if you want to play these ceremonies."
And while he expresses love for his homeland, he expresses a dislike for the politics connected with it. He had no comment on the U.S. government's recent denial of a visa for Ibrahim Ferrar to attend the Grammys. "I believe it is the musician's job to play—for Republicans, for Democrats, for everybody. Freedom is a political thing. But it's also a musical thing."The Francisco Aguabella Latin Jazz Band performs at Steamers Café, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 871-8800. Sat., 8:30 p.m. $5 (Reservations recommended). All ages.