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In Conversation With Francisco Mora-Catlett




“Music is about freedom, that’s what it proposes, that’s why it’s so popular and that’s why people love it. And it’s not freedom that come without discipline. This is something that Sun Ra taught me very well. You have to be disciplined in order to obtain the tools to express freedom.” Francisco Mora-Catlett

Interview Conducted By: Tomas Peña – Oct 2013

Francisco Mora-Catlett at the Detroit Jazz Fest 2013 - 1

Francisco Mora-Catlett, Detroit JazzFest 2013 by Lisa Luevanos

For nearly 50 years Francisco Mora-Catlett has marched to the beat of his own drum. Born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Mexico, his father is the Mexican painter Francisco Mora and his mother is the renowned African American sculptress, Elizabeth Catlett. He began his career as a studio musician for Capitol Records Mexican Division with Abraham Laboriel and moved to Boston in 1970 to study music and drumming with Alan Dawson at the Berklee College of Music. Francisco also earned a scholarship to study with the legendary Nigerian drummer and activist, Babatunde Olatunji. He returned to Mexico in 1973 and crossed paths with the prolific composer, pianist and bandleader Sun Ra and traveled the space ways as a member of the Arkestra until 1980. During his tenure with Sun Ra, Francisco moved to Detroit and formed his own bands. In 1987 Francisco recorded “Mora!” his first recording as a leader and was awarded a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to study with the legendary drummer, composer, band leader Max Roach and recorded several projects with Roach’s all-percussion ensemble, “M’Boom.” He returns to Detroit in 1992 and accepts a position as a visiting professor with Michigan State University, teaching percussion that derives from the African presence in the Americas. In addition, in 1996 he played drums and percussion on “Bug in the Bassbin,” with Detroit techno producer Carl Craig’s groundbreaking jazz/electronica fusion project, “Innerzone Orchestra.” Three years after Francisco recorded his acclaimed second album, “World Trade Music and his first “OUTERZONE” in 2000. Since relocating to New York in 2002, Francisco and his wife, the Cuban dancer and choreographer Danys Pérez Prades “La Mora” founded the “Oyu Oro Afro-Cuban Dance Company,” and recorded with the Freedom Jazz Trio, “Outerzone” and “Afro Horn MX,” one of the most noteworthy recordings of 2012. “Rare Metal” marks another step in the evolution of AfroHorn. Francisco Mora-Catlett is the recipient of several awards from The Detroit Council of the Arts, The Michigan Council of the Arts and The National Endowment for the Arts. In a career that spans nearly 50 years, Francisco Mora-Catlett creates music according to tradition that is elusive, defies definition and nourishes the spirit.


AfroHORN - Rare Metal 1

Art work by Nia Mora

Congratulations on the release of “Rare Metal,” the follow-up to “Afro Horn MX,” one of the most noteworthy and “best kept secrets” of 2012.

Thank you.

You were introduced to the writings of the African American writer and poet Henry Dumas, and the short-story, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” during your tenure with Sun Ra. Of all of Dumas’s writings, why did this story have such a big impact on you?

In between the lines of the story, Henry Dumas is appealing to the human nature of expectation through myth. In reality the Afro-Horn is a cleansing or healing tool for misconceptions or ideas, of what things are vs. what they should be. To understand this we have to meet the man, Henry Dumas, and his style of writing and what he was writing about. What I find fascinating is the fact that Dumas utilizes all of these elements that derive from the African presence in the continent and demonstrates how it interrelates with the social make-up as it evolves. This is what happens with the Afro-Horn. The Afro-Horn is a spiritual tool that delivers. It has the potential of uniting people and the potential to “clear out” unfounded notions and misconceptions. The other thing I like about Dumas’s writing is the fact that it is elusive and defies categorization, which is intrinsic in the nature of music.

Your music has been described as a fusion of the mystical and spiritual insights of Henry Dumas, African mysticism, Cuban Folklore, Latin American surrealism and avant-garde jazz.

It is music and it stands by its self! This is something that Duke Ellington and Max Roach talked about when they were confronted with the idea of jazz. They proposed that this music is as valid as any other music. It doesn’t have to be put into a category. Music is about freedom, that’s what it proposes, that’s why it’s so popular and that’s why people love it. And it’s not freedom that comes without discipline. This is something that Sun Ra taught me very well. You have to be disciplined in order to obtain the tools to express freedom. The Afro-Horn reveals these things and heals this pre-perception of what things should be or what things have to be. The music stems from tradition, hard work, investigation and life experience.

No doubt you could write a book about your experiences as a member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Looking back on that period in your life, what did you gain from the experience? What do you remember most?

The fact, that I was extremely lucky. I am not fond of the idea of luck or pre-destiny, but I believe that there are no coincidences. Before I met Sun Ra I was carrying around the album, “The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra” proclaiming, “This is the music of the future, the avant-garde of now!” At the time I was a student at the University of Mexico. Everybody thought I was crazy!

How did you and Sun Ra meet?

Looking back on the experience, I was very fortunate. I went to school for years trying to learn the “language” of jazz. Understand, growing up in Mexico I was not exposed to African American music, though Afro Cuban music was very present in the form of Celia Cruz, Pérez Prado, etc. After Berklee, I returned to Mexico with the idea of creating an avant-garde jazz movement, but it didn’t happen. At the time I was struggling to make a living, performing commercial music, and then I saw a poster that read, “Sun Ra at the “Palacio de Bellas Artes”, I couldn’t believe it! I went running over there and after the concert, I went backstage to talk to the fellas (fellow musicians) and I overheard Sun Ra saying that he needed to send for a drummer because Lex Humphries was leaving. So I said, “Sun Ra, I am right here, I play drums, man!” He told me to come back to the theater the next day so that he could hear what I do. The next day I went to the theater, set up my drum-set and Sun Ra said, “Play.” “Play what?” I asked and he replied, “Just play!” So I played my conceptual thing, my “free” bag and Sun Ra looked at me really interested, then he went away and came back … this went on for about 30 to 45 minutes, I was really working up a sweat. Finally, he came over to me and said, “You got the gig!” I played with the Arkestra in Mexico City for about three months then Sun Ra told me that he was returning to the U.S. and he asked me if I would like to work with the Arkestra in the U.S. At the time I was having difficulties with my VISA so Sun Ra accompanied me to the American Embassy. Picture this: As we approached the Embassy gates two marines lowered their weapons and yelled, “Halt!” Sun Ra waved his hand like a Jedi Master and said, “I have business in this embassy” and they immediately lowered their weapons and said, “Go right in.” Now we are in the American Embassy – no one gets into the embassy just like that! – We get directed to an office and sit in front of a man who asks, “Can I help you?” To which Sun Ra replied, “There are very few people in this planet that can play my music.” Then he pointed to me and said, “He is one of them! I want to take him to the United States with me and I want you to give him a VISA for three years,” and he handed the man my passport. The guy looked at me, looked at Sun Ra then he disappeared for about 20 minutes. When he came back he said, “Everything is fine” and he handed my passport to Sun Ra. As we walked out of the Embassy Sun Ra turned to me, handed me my passport and said, “The power of the word is stronger than the power of the sword!” let’s go. That’s how I re-entered the United States. I wouldn’t be talking to you right now if it weren’t for Sun Ra.

I get the impression that with Sun Ra truth was often stranger than fiction.

The band traveled from Mexico City to Chicago, by bus, which is something the big bands used to do all the time. I quickly realized that the most precious, living, was schooling me breathing school of African American music that anyone could ever ask for. For a young musician like me, there was no place else that I would rather be.

Another major influence in your life and career was the legendary drummer, composer, arranger Max Roach.

When I was working for Capitol Records in Mexico, someone sent me the album, “Percussion Bittersweet” and it turned my life around. After listening to Max’s music I said to myself, “If I am going to play this instrument for the rest of my life I want to be like this man.” Max possessed all of those characteristics of a progressive creative artist, a composer, a bandleader and a highly technical developed musician.

How did you and Max meet?

My mother, Elizabeth Catlett, had an exhibition in New York at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1971. Max showed up with (singer/songwriter/poet) Oscar Brown Jr. and I struck up a conversation with him. I asked Max for advice on how to become a good drummer, he was always very gracious and generous with me and simply said practice all day long and play all night long, it took me a while to get to that. When Max visited Detroit in the early 80’s, I approached him about studying with him and about applying for a grant with the National Endowment of the Arts to do so in New York, and he was very supportive of the idea. Before I knew it, I was in Max’s living room and he told me, “We aren’t going to be playing any paradiddles” (drum exercises), we are going to learn the business. Overtime I became an understudy for the advanced percussion ensemble, “M’Boom,” which featured some of the top percussionists of the day – Joe Chambers, Freddy Waits, Omar Clay, Roy Brooks, Warren Smith, Ray Mantilla, Fred King and Eli Fountain, among others. As an understudy I had to work on learning everyone’s parts and find things that I could contribute to an already exceptional percussion improvisational repertoire, which made me study really hard. Also, Max was the person who took me to Cuba for the first time. When I went there I realized a lot of things about Cuban Music that I couldn’t perceive in the United States. Cuba is another world, another universe! Max gave me the opportunity to get into the real aspect of Afro-Cuban traditions.

You also studied under the legendary Nigerian drummer, Babatude Olatunji. Who can forget “Drums of Passion?”

“Drums of Passion,” is the first LP I ever had! I met “Tunji” in Boston at the Center for African American Artists (also known as the Elma Louis Center) in 1971. I received a scholarship to study with him. It was Olatunji who introduced me to the African culture, the Orishas and the legacy of our spiritual ancestors. I studied African drumming with Olatunji on Tuesdays and African American drumming with Alan Dawson at Berklee on Wednesdays. It doesn’t get much better than that.

AfroHORN 3

Photo by George LeGare

You chose to unveil “Rare Metal” at the Detroit Jazz Festival. Given the fact that you lived and worked there, it must have felt like a homecoming. How was the ensemble received?

We had such great reception from a wonderful audience, it was beautiful. We smoked, we burned, we had a full house, we got standing ovations. The icing on the cake was saxophonist John “J.D.” Allen, who sat in with us. We left a smoke screen behind. It was something that I really wanted to do for Detroit.

Francisco Mora Catlett at the Detroit Jazz Fest 2013 - 2

Photo by Lisa Luevanos

It’s no secret that the city of Detroit has seen better days.

It’s a double-edged sword. The city is broke. On the other hand it is also experiencing a renaissance and a reformation. Detroit has given so much to the world; the people are strong, honest and sincere. You can’t come to Detroit with gimmicks because they will read you from a mile away. You have to be for real.

“Rare Metal” begins with the invocation, “Moyuba Afro Horn.” What is the significance of opening the recording or a live performance with an invocation?

The invocation is part of the philosophy of the album and of course, the surrealistic ideas of Henry Dumas. “Moyuba Afro Horn” praises the ancestors and expresses how grateful we are to be able to offer this music. Also, we are announcing the fact that something is about to happen and we are expressing our gratitude to the audience and to the forces of the universe. (Listen to Sam Newsome soprano sax playing a percussive part with the Mbira).

“Afra Jum” appears on “Mora!” your first recording as a leader. It also happens to be one of my personal favorites.

I wrote “Afra Jum” in the 1980s. Actually, it’s “Afra Jam,” so we get back to the idea of elusiveness and of that, which cannot be, describe or be seen. Basically, it’s an arranged juju-jam session with all participation (Check out Alex Harding’s explosive baritone sax solo and Aruán Ortiz wonderful harmony and expressive high energy solo).

Barasuayo Mamakenya speaks about the owner of the roads, opening the way to the stars, the constellations and the vibratory principles of nature. Shades of Sun Ra …

Barasuayo Mamakenya is a praise song for the deity Eleguá in the Yoruba liturgy. In a wider perspective Eleguá represents vital force, the force that makes things happen. It also alludes to the ability to communicate, like we are doing right now. I have seen and heard trumpeter/percussionist Jerry González perform this tune numerous times in a jazz context. I told Jerry that I recorded the tune and he said he has to get the album. (Beautiful solos by Alex, Aruán and Sam).

(Interviewer’s Note: The tune, appears on Jerry Gonzalez and Fort Apache’s “Crossroads” as “Eleguá”)

5X Max (Five Times Max) is a tribute to your mentor, colleague and friend Max Roach.

Max was an artist who was ahead of his time. He was experimenting with mixed-meters as far back as the 1950’s. For example, the album, “Percussion Bittersweet” features Carlos Patato Valdéz and Eugenio Totico Arango (Patato y Totico) accompanying him in 7/4 time, which was unheard of at the time. In honor of Max, I play the tune in 5/4 time, thus 5X Max. (Powerful “rhythmatizing” solos by Alex and Román Diaz I go at it with Max and Big Sid Catlett in mind).

Salina Ago/Salino Ago Reprise

This song comes from the Haitian settlements in the eastern part of Cuba. A very important subject that helps a wider understanding of the diverse cultural elements that were in New Orleans and propitiated the creation of Jazz Music is “The Migration of Settlers from Saint-Domingue (Haiti) that settle in Eastern Cuba and moved to New Orleans in the year 1810”. After the revolution in Saint-Domingue (The Haitian Revolution) many French Créole colonists fled with their slaves and free people of color, some of whom also had and transported slaves with them, to the Eastern part of Cuba, the Spanish crown was very pleased to have them there because Cuba’s capital had been moved to Havana and the land was left rural and underdeveloped. In 1810 Napoleon invaded Spain, France and Spain became enemies so all these settlers had to move in mass to New Orleans and doubled the city’s population. (The vocals, provided by Danys Pérez and vocalists from Oyu Oro, give this work initial incredible authenticity. Salim Washington’s flute rendition and Sam Newsome’s wonderful soprano sax solo give improvisational character to the piece).

Olodo, Blue People and Blue People Epilogue

The tune, Olodo is a poem by Román Diaz. He and I were talking about the “Tuareg People” from the Sahara, also known as the “Blue People” and their incredible survival instincts, their ability to navigate the stars and navigate life, and Román came up with this poem. The title was originally supposed to be “Azul” but Román changed it to Olodo. (Check out Sam’s soprano sax)

Henry Dumas speaks about the Bluepeople (his spelling) in the short story, “The Metagenesis of Sun Ra” (to Sun Ra and his Arkestra).

Make Ifa – featuring the poetry of Jayne Cortez.

“Jayne Cortez” liked the Horn band and she came to many of our performances. She was also a friend of Henry Dumas. Did you know that, in addition to being a great poet she had a performance band called “The Firespitters?” I proudly have a bunch of her albums! When we were putting the album together Román and I decided to choose a poem by an African American poet. I went into Jayne Cortez’s arsenal of poems and found, Make Ifa. Sandra Harper’s vocals provide just the right voice and bassist Rashaan Carter nails the Ifa chant while Alex Harding (a former “Firespitter”) reminds us of the power of Jayne Cortez. The tune is a tribute to Jayne, who we all miss her so much.

Ye Ye Olude

This is a song for the Orisha Oshun. Oshun is the cosmic force that represents love and everything that life is worth living for. She’s the owner of the rivers, the sweet waters, honey, music, gold and everything that is good in life. In order to avoid the obvious, we chose not use the batá drums for this work. Instead, we incorporate a rhythm of Dahomeyan origin called Iyesa. The tune is a joyous dance that came together naturally. I am very happy with the way this tune turned out, there is nothing contrived about it. (Check out Sam’s soprano solo while Aruán expands the harmonic and rhythmic sonority, taking it to the outside, I love Rashaan Carter’s bass solo it swings all he wants while Román keeps together… I’m smiling all the way)


Photo by Keita Hanyuda, art work by Nia Mora

Let’s talk about the collective, a multi-cultural, multi-generational, multi-talented collective of musical heavyweights and bandleaders in their own right: saxophonists Alex Harding, Sam Newsome and Salim Washington, pianist Aruán Ortiz, bassist Rashaan Carter, percussionist/vocalist Román Diaz, percussionist Andrew Daniels, Oyu Oro vocalists: Danys “La Mora” Pérez, Meredith Wright, Liethis Hechavarria and Sandra D. Harper.

When I arrived in New York Salim Washington was very supportive of the Afro Horn project. Today Salim lives in South Africa but he was in New York when we were recording the album so I invited him to join us, and he graciously accepted. His oboe, flute and saxophone added another dimension to the music. Aruán Ortiz and my wife are from Santiago de Cuba and Román Diaz, who hails from Havana, has known my wife (from the Afro-Cuban Folklore Artistic scene) since she was 11 years old. Sandra Harper and the vocals come from her Afro-Cuban dance company Oyu Oro. When I first met Sam Newsome, I instinctively said to him, “We have to do something together, man,” even though I hardly knew him. Rashaan Carter and I are both from Washington, D.C., Alex Harding and Andrew Daniels go way back rooted in Detroit. The connections run deep and there are no coincidences!

The liner-notes are telling. I particularly enjoyed reading the comments of the band members. For example, Salim Washington wrote, “Great Black music from the ancient to the future!” Some of the other musician’s described AfroHORN as “a cultural gift,” “a complete community,” “family” and “hogar y escuela” (home and school), a sure indication that AfroHORN is more than “just” a band.

The only reason I am the leader is because somebody has to pay the bills and be responsible for the group. Obviously (smiles), our collective experience is what makes this music happen. AfroHORN is a collective effort and everyone should be given his or her “props.” It’s very important for the music and for the development of our sound.

In spite of the fact that Rare Metal is an independent recording and beholden to no one, I hope that it receives the attention Afro Horn MX did not receive. There is so much music that escapes the attention of the public because of the powers that be in the music business, the constraints of radio and the notion of money over art.

Afro Horn MX was an independent recording with limited distribution. In spite of that, it made the “Open Sky” list of top 30 recordings of 2012 and “Latin Jazz Network’s” list of Best Recordings of the Year, strictly through word-of-mouth and without a publicity campaign. It made me realize that AfroHORN is really on to something and it inspired me to continue on.

In the poem “How Long Has Trane Been Gone,” Jayne Cortez wrote, “There was a certain time when certain radio stations played all black music, from Charlie Parker to Johnny Ace, on show after show, but what happened, I’ll tell you what happened, they divided Black music, doubled the money, and left us split again, is what happened.”

Which brings me to the final question: What’s your take on the current New York music scene?

New York is a mecca. You have your established icons that have given so much, like Sonny Rollins and Ron Carter and all of this tradition and new musicians who come into an oversaturated situation. Sooner or later, they start thinking, that if they are going to survive they have to learn how to play pretty much like everyone else. The problem is that after a while they all start to sound alike. Every now and then a musician will stand out, but it’s very difficult to maintain a group and develop a unique sound in this atmosphere. Some cats have to leave New York in order to focus on their sound and develop some relevant new ideas. People, who are trying to make a difference, have to go to the spirit of it all. I don’t want to call it suffering because it’s an introspective thing. My advice to young musicians is, find your own sound. Or as Max Roach used to tell me, “You got to have your own if you want to add to the throne!”

Your career embodies what it means to be an artist with an uncompromising vision and spirit. What keeps you going?

It’s elusive (Laughs). I call it courage in motion, courage on the run! I don’t believe in luck or pre-destiny, but I have been very fortunate to have studied and performed with so many incredible musicians during my lifetime. At this stage in my career AfroHORN is really the icing on the cake.

Thank you for sharing your journey and congratulations on the release of “Rare Metal,” an exceptional recording that deserves to be heard.

Recommended Listening:

Mora! (Japanese Import – AACE Records)
Freedom Jazz Trio – New Under the Sun (AACE Records)
Afro Horn MX – (AACE Records)
Outerzone (Premier Cru Music, 2007)
Max Roach – Percussion Bittersweet (JDC, 2010)
Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra (ESP Disc, 2010)

Recommended Reading:

Echo Tree – The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas (Coffee House Press, 2003)
Jazz Fan Looks Back – Jayne Cortez (Hanging Loose Press, 2002)
Space is the Place – The Life and Times of Sun Ra (Pantheon, 2012)

AfroHORN 7

Photo by George LeGare


SAM NEWSOME: Soprano sax / SALIM WASHINGTON: Tenor sax, flute and oboe / ALEX HARDING: Baritone sax and bass clarinet / ARUAN ORTIZ: Piano / RASHAAN CARTER: Acoustic and electric bass / ROMAN DÍAZ: Percussion and Vocal / ANDREW DANIELS: Percussion / DANYS “LA MORA” PEREZ, MEREDITH WRIGHT, LIETHIS HECHAVARRIA and SANDRA D. HARPER: “OYU ORO” Vocalists FRANCISCO MORA-CATLETT: Drums, percussion, composer, arranger and general artistic director.

*Photo at the top by George LeGare, edited by Juan Mora-Catlett

A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject.

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