Julián Cabrera: Musician, Rumbero, Gentleman and Scholar

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Julian-Cabrera

Julián Cabrera’s style on the conga drum was rock-solid, never flashy, he preferred to keep the rhythm simple but lively, and, because he was a dancer, he played for the dancers. You have to keep in mind that Julián was first and foremost an accompanist, a team player who patiently waited his turn at bat, taking a solo only when it was called for (and as tasty a soloist as anyone out there).

RETROSPECTIVE

Julian CabreraJULIÁN CABRERA was one of the funniest musicians I ever met. But he was also an incredibly talented percussionist and a fine human being. He was a well-studied drummer whose astute knowledge of Afro-Cuban rhythmic patterns has yet to be appreciated by contemporary drummers. He possessed a sagacious ear for melody and a keen penetration or discernment of harmony, not to mention an analytical understanding of what exactly it was that made people tick. He was, as Robert Bolt would say, a man for all seasons, a likable guy who was always changing, never constant.

While still in Cuba he studied music theory, completing a four year bachiller* course in piano as well. A bachiller student is one who has completed the necessary studies for admission into the advanced university level. But as fate would have it, Julian took a wrong turn (or perhaps it was a right turn), pursuing instead a career in popular music, rather than staying the course in his classical studies. Urban life in 1950’s Cuba was an ever winding road, and if you came from humble beginnings you never knew exactly where that road would lead to. He certainly had the knack for the more serious music of the day, but intuitively he followed the music of the streets, preferring it to that of the conservatory. “La rumba me llama”, is how an old Cuban adage would best describe it. And who knows, perhaps if young Julián had stayed on the keys he may have become another Bola De Nieve.

Instead, he watched and listened in awe to the great conjuntos and charangas of Havana, absorbing all the various musical genres that abounded in that city and learning the intricate language of percussion. In like manner he mastered the dance steps that accompanied each of those rhythms. By the time he arrived in the United States, Julián Cabrera was more than just prepared. Musically speaking, he was ready for the big time, or so he thought.

Oddly, his contemporaries on the local circuit never truly recognized (nor acknowledged) his contributions to modern Latin music. In fact, very few even remember him, and this is what is so puzzling to me. He retired (briefly) from the music scene toward the end of the decade of the seventies, and to the astonishment of anyone who knew him during the heyday of the Palladium Ballroom, he remained (and still remains) a very under-rated musician.

Google his name and you come up blank. Mention him to just about any young devotee of the Fania school of Cuban music and they will invariably scratch their head and say “who”? I find it deplorable that Julián has never been given his proper due by the so-called “historians” of that era. I mean, what gives?

MEXICO BECKONS

In spite of this oversight, Julián Cabrera holds a sacred place in the history books. While still a young man, he made a substantial contribution to our music, albeit by chance. Early in his musical career, he made friends with Mario “Papaíto” Muñóz, who was then playing with the famed Orquesta América. As is so often the case, Julian appeared at the right time in the right place. Papaíto would be his ticket off the island and into the movie theaters of Latin America. Julián was at the forefront of the Enrique Jorrín band in Mexico, and as much as any other Cuban musician, including Papaíto, he helped introduce the basic steps to what was essentially a slowed down version of the mambo, known as the cha cha chá, a dance which later became the rage in the United States. Regrettably, Julián’s contribution to that popular dance was overshadowed by those of his contemporaries south of the border. To his surprise, he missed the proverbial boat on that one.

Meanwhile, New Yorkers were also busy “doing the cha cha”. The big band era was nearing its zenith and Julián grew tired of Mexico. It was time for another change of season. But there were other equally proficient percussionists already “making it” in the Big Apple, and many of them were at the top of their game. He needed to hook up with someone who was already a legend. Just as the pachanga craze began taking over the world’s ballrooms, Julián made the move up north, but (in his own words), he wasn’t ready for what he found. Unlike Mexico, the competition up north was stiff. It was a tough town to mess with, and everyone had their own personal agenda. So he settled for just being on the right team. And what a team that would turn out to be.

You see, Julián was never one to toot his own horn, and in the end he failed to capitalize on the short-lived fame he had acquired with Jorrín. So instead of the more authentic Cuban style, we wound up with Killer Joe, who was never really a great dancer, and who like Julián, just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Upon seeing Joe Piro giving dance lessons at the Palladium, Julián commented to bandleader Mario Bauzá that this was a far cry from the original dance. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but it seemed to have lost its bounciness and its flair. He felt the urge to go and show the teacher how it was really done, but Bauzá told him to cool it, as this was where the bread and butter was. Another great lesson was learned.

Like most fads, the cha cha chá ultimately ran its course. Everything was one-two-cha cha chá, and by the time Castro and the Kennedy administration shut down Cuba, a new musical era was approaching. The Cold War was about to hit the Cubans and their friends where it would hurt them the most, and the changes were coming at them fast and steady, like a locomotive. New York would soon be the mecca, with its own homegrown Latin dance craze. Unlike past decades, when new dance genres would invariably originate in Cuba, then take flight and ultimately plant its seeds in urban centers such as Paris or New York, this one (as lively as it was) would prove to be even less glamorous than the cha cha chá. Right around the time that Julián was getting himself settled in the Naked City, the great Arsenio Rodríguez wrote a piece in which he analyzed the emerging sound: “Que te parece, el son montuno es pachanga”. And so it came to pass.

LA PACHANGA SE BAILA ASI

Shortly after his arrival in New York Julián did a brief stint with flautist Belisario López before being drafted into the Machito/Bauzá Orchestra, where he stayed throughout the 60’s and right up until 1975. He was joined in that awesome rhythm section by Uba Nieto and Virgilio Martí on percussion, recording about a dozen albums with the now legendary band, mostly for the Tico, Cotique and Mericana labels. His effeminate voice as “Hoja Seca” with Graciela on the tune “La Bochinchera” is a classic: “Graciela la bochinchera, si no le cuentan forma un berrínche” (Graciela the gossipper, if she doesn’t get the dirt on someone soon she’ll throw a fit!).

Inevitably, fate stepped in once again on his behalf, and the Machito Orchestra grew wings. Julián once commented to me how he always felt so blessed in having been a part of the first New York based Afro-Cuban Jazz band to travel to Japan. He often reminisced about his travels abroad with Macho, Mario and the likes of René Hernandez on piano and Archilla on bass. This was the team he loved to play on, because it was a winning team. During those years Julián made friends with an awful lot of famous musicians, such as Cecil Payne and Danny Turner, with whom he shared a passion for outdoor sports. They would often take young Mario Grillo (Macho’s son) to Lake Kiamesha, in the Catskills, near the Concord Resort Hotel and spend hours endulging in their favorite sport, fishing. Mario recently recalled to me that Julián would make him some great papalotes (kites) to fly around the hotel. The Concord was a world-famous destination for visitors to the so-called Borscht Belt (known for its large resort industry in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s). The Machito band was a favorite of the more than 1,500 guests who spent their summer evenings mamboing away to the beat of bongoes, timbales and congas.

Julián Cabrera’s style on the conga drum was rock-solid, never flashy, he preferred to keep the rhythm simple but lively, and, because he was a dancer, he played for the dancers. You have to keep in mind that Julián was first and foremost an accompanist, a team player who patiently waited his turn at bat, taking a solo only when it was called for (and as tasty a soloist as anyone out there). I know, because I witnessed his prowess on that instrument. I saw him “bring it on home” many times. I had the honor of sharing the bandstand with Julián while I was singing with the Lou Pérez aggregation, when he would play only one tumbadora (standing up) in typical Cuban charanga style.

Julián was also quite proficient on bongó and timbales (especially when playing the danzón). Whether he was “keeping” the tempo behind a pair of timbales or laying out a bad-ass masacote on the skins, Julián would give off a happy-go-lucky vibe that was utterly contagious. He seemed to favor taking short solos that said something about the piece, never overplaying or over-extending it, and always, (I do mean always), with the dancer in mind.

If he saw a down-home rumbero in the audience who wanted to “echar un pie”** (cut a rug), he would make eye contact with him (or her), and that’s when his quinto riffs would come to life. Suddenly, the dance floor would be transformed into a callejón or an open courtyard where a conversation between Julian and the dancer would ensue. As if he were anticipating the dancer’s every move, Julián’s “toques” would be in perfect sync with the dancer’s feet and legs  – and of course with their hip movements (a very important thing in the “rumba” style of dancing).

But there was more to Julian Cabrera than just throwing down with some good rumba. Julián may have been a rumbero at heart, but he was also a “charanguero” par excellence. And as any drummer will tell you, that takes real discipline. As a güiro player, Julián was an integral part of the New York based charanga band La Típica Ideal, playing alongside such formidable players as Tommy López and Elizardo Molina. Off stage, he was a well educated gentleman, soft spoken and “old school” in his manners, but with a keen street-wise sense of humor. Most important, he was a friend who was always there to lend you a helping hand, whether you needed it or not.

I’m sorry that I can’t give you a more comprehensive bio, but these are just a few of my reflections of Julián Cabrera. I actually got to be very good friends with him, and this was many years after we initially played together. It was Julián who gave me the idea for my radio slogan “la onda del jícamo.” When he passed away, I remember saying to myself: there goes one of those “unsung heroes” that I’m always hearing about. But alas, it seemed that I was the only one who felt this way.

THE MEMORIAL

During the memorial service held for Julián at the Times Square Church on 51st Street and Broadway in Manhattan, I was very moved by the musical eulogy offered in his memory by trumpeter Ray Vega (to my knowledge Ray was one of just two musicians) who paid his respects that night. Yet, as in countless such services, I realized that the true value of a musician is measured not so much by how many people come to the wake, but rather by how many of his or her friends show up to honor them. For sure, a musical icon will draw many more people (mostly fans), even though a large percentage of them are there for the show, and not because they appreciate the artist as a friend.

Indeed, Julián Cabrera had many friends there that night, but to my utter surprise, only two or three (possibly four) musicians came, and only one played music in his honor, and such heavenly music it was. In general, I found the lack of recognition and respect to be really, really sad. That’s why, every now and then, I put on one of Julián’s records, lift a glass of Spanish wine (which he loved) and toast to his spirit, wherever it may be.

*Secondary School in Cuba; High School in the United States.

**The literal meaning of cutting a rug is to make room on a dance floor… in order to show one’s stuff… and in a manner of speaking to “grab the spotlight”. It originated in the American juke joints of the 1920’s, at around the same time as the Cuban slang expression “echar un pie”.

“Monguito El Unico” Ramon Quian Y Su Conjunto in Panama. Julián Cabrera on Tumbadoras, Héctor Rivera on Piano and Ramón Aracena on Trumpet, Juan Irene (Figurín) Pérez on Tres.