The Dream of a Comeback for Cuba’s Big Success
Story submitted by Heidrun Haug
Irakere was Cuba’s invention to enable the Cuban scene to compete with the international rock music development. The innovative band became a great success and won a Grammy in the 70s. The Cuban state cut the success tour when it forced the group to cancel their concerts in the US in favour of local events. The founders Chucho Valdés, Cuba’s most famous pianist until today, and Oscar Valdés, percussionist and singer, are two of Cuba’s many great music stars. After the breakup of Irakere, Oscar Valdés went on by himself and founded Diákara, a group of eight musicians with an Afrocuban, partly traditional religious repertory which plays every Thursday at the Havana’s Jazz Café on the Malecon. Roberto Santamaria, conga legend Mongo’s nephew, asked Oscar about his musical career – and his dreams for Irakere.
Oscar, you were born into a family of musicians. Did this determine your own way as a musician?
I grew up with my mother who was divorced from my father. My interest in percussion awoke when I listened to an old drummer who not only played the Batá but also manufactured them by hand. He taught me about the fundamental touch of that traditional drum. When I was 17, I went to see my father who played in an orchestra in Habana. During the intermission I went up to the drums and started to play. You can imagine my father’s surprise. Also once I got the chance to step in for a player who was sick. The orchestra director appreciated my rhythm knowledge and called me many times after that.
What pushed your career?
My way of playing straight forward and my creativity. I learned to play different percussion instruments and all types of Cuban rhythm. For example, in a Rumba dance show I had to play the complete set of bongos and timbales with great improvisation and a variety of creativity. I worked in different bands and shows. In the 50s, I was a very busy musician.
Can you tell us the story behind Irakere?
With the Cuban revolution triumph, cultural developments like Rock and Jazz were inhibited, which was a wrong development. But in the beginning of the 70s, the government recognized that the best way to attract young people was to create an orchestra with “música moderna”. Many young musicians like Paquito de Rivera at the saxophone, Carlos Emilio at the guitar, Carlos del Puerto at the bass, Chucho Valdés at the keyboard met with famous old ones like Guillermo Barreto and worked together under the direction of Antonio Maria Romeu. He was the conductor of the big orchestra and he knew a lot about jazz. These are the musicians who later formed Irakere.
This kind of music was new for Cuba. What did musicians from other countries think about it?
First we performed in Canada during a very important music exhibition. When other musicians from all over the world heard us, they complimented us strongly. In 1972, the orchestra was out to the boom. Many of us were unhappy and we felt that the band should better be apart. One of those days we met at my mother’s house and we planned to talk with the authority of the Minister of Culture. That was the day when we founded Irakere. The band gave a new spin and big development to Cuban music. Especially to the fusion of mixing traditional elements of our root music like Yoruba, Abakua and Arara with jazz, rock and funk – all the new waves of universal modern music. Irakere became a big footprint and influence in our music. We got a lot of international premiums and awards including the Grammy.
Can you explain the roots of Cuban drums and percussion and its influence on Cuban music?
The list of groups of elements of percussion in Cuba is very long. We are deeply influenced by African culture, especially from Congo and Nigeria. From the north of Nigeria came the Yoruba people, who brought their culture and music with its religion called La Regla de Ocha. In Cuba, that religion is called Santaria. They use three batá drums to play the music of its gods. The big drum is called Iyá, the middle sized one is called Ytoteles and the small one Okonkolo. The culture of Congo also brought drums which are employed in its religion – here called Palo Monte. Another group is called Carabalies who has a secret society of warriors called Abakua. All these elements have been integrated into Cuban music and mixed with Western elements. Among the actual Afrocuban instruments of percussion we can see them as bongos, bells, congas, timbales, maracas, cajones, clave, güiro and chékere.
You are also a priest of Yoruba, lucumi. How do you consider the influence of religion on Cuban music?
In Irakere we mixed this religious music with contemporary styles like Rock, Soul, also Symphonic. In the beginning, this fusion was difficult for me because I felt it was a violation to the religion. Many times I changed the words out of respect for our saint religion. Once Mercedita Valdés, one of the most recognized singers of this religious music, approached me about the subject. We both agreed that it was especially important to remain authentic. So, I studied the fundaments very seriously and tried to maintain the tradition. We created a masterpiece dedicated to the reflection of the historical King Chaka, who was a big hero against colonialisation in Africa. We used the real elements and combined these with Jazz and Symphonic. You can hear it in the piece “Misa Negra” included in the album we recorded during our tour in 1979 through the USA. This album got the Grammy for this kind of music. I kept working with this fusion to obtain the sound and tradition of our roots.
Many musicians of the new generation want to play in the Northern American way and forget their origin. I believe that the fusion with the Afrocuban roots makes our music more attractive because this makes it unique and not just a copy.
There were some rhythm innovations, too.
“Bacalao con pan” was very revolutionary, because we incorporated a polyrhythmic way of touch of Batá drums. Also I used a bell, held a stick in one hand and played five congas with the other one. The rhythm was called timba.
Many aged Rock stars are back on stage nowadays. Would you like Irakere to make a comeback?
I am happy with the work we accomplished. It was widely recognized and applauded in the world for everyone to see. To be honest, quite often, when I talk about it I get very emotional. It is like a son I have raised. And I expected to grow old with that band. If there would be a chance to come back I would quite happily do it. I felt great then – as a person and a musician. We were not just a band, we actually were a family.
In Conversation with “Drum Poet” Pazcual Villaronga
PAZCUAL VILLARONGA was born and raised in Spanish Harlem, New York. He attended Haaren High School and New York City Community College and graduated from Hunter College, earning a degree in Communications and a Master’s Degree in Bilingual Education.
Known as the “Drum Poet,” Pazcual recites poetry while accompanying himself on the congas (often joined by other musicians), creating an innovative fusion of poetry and discussion that takes his verses to a new level.
Pazcual is the recipient of the Golden and Silver Poet Awards in California and placed third in La Canción Bilingüe – The Bilingual Song Competition in Washington, D.C. He has read poetry at Columbia University, Teachers College, Hunter College, Hostos Community College, Manhattan Community College, and Connecticut’s Housatonic Community College.
His published works include the highly successful “Caracol” (Poems For The Children), “By The Music Inspired,” “Poet,” “Fire From Hell,” “Compendium,” and “Stereotypes and Cycles.” His most recent collection of poems and CD is titled “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens To Fall.” Pazcual’s work has also appeared in “Around the Mulberry Bush – An Anthology,” “Windfall – An Anthology,” and “Fahari.”
Now retired after over three decades of teaching, Pazcual is preparing several collections of poetry and a children’s book and performs with The Lehman College Latin Jazz Ensemble, directed by Victor Rendón.
TOMÁS PEÑA: Welcome, Pazcual! Tell me about the project.
PAZCUAL VILLARONGA: “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” is my salute to the musicians and their creative souls. Also, to the percussive rhythms and melodies, they share with us each and every time they perform. Also, it is my way of sharing with the world, through poetry, how they inspire me and the power and beauty of their musical creations.
TP: Thank you for sharing an advance copy of the book and CD with me and for taking me on a fascinating bilingual literary and aural journey. Before we delve into the project, I’m curious to know what drew you to poetry and the spoken word.
PV: Growing up, I was shy and introverted. Poetry was my way of expressing myself. When I was in high school, my friend Jose showed my writings to a teacher (Dr. Richstone) and the teacher replied, “There are better things you could do with your time.” Undaunted, my friend showed my writings to another teacher (Mary Lamboss), and she said, “You are the Poet Laureate of Harren High School!” Later, I formed the “Drum Poets” and began reciting poetry with percussion and music.
TP: How did the project come about, and why did you choose this title?
PV: It began with Víctor Rendón’s “Fiesta Percusiva” (2008), where I recited the poems “Soy Chicano” and “In the Pocket.” Shortly after, Victor appeared on José “Joe” Massó’s “Con Salsa!,” who played selections from the album on the air. He encouraged me to “make more music like this.” Shortly after, Víctor asked if I was interested in pursuing the project, and I immediately said, “Yes!” Victor Rendón agreed to produce the record with the following conditions: Trust him implicitly and don’t breathe a word about it to anyone until the project is completed. The rest is history!
The title, “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall,” is inspired by trumpeter John Walsh, who composed the song “On Whatever Day of the Week Saturday Happens to Fall” (the tune appears on Chris Washburne and the Syotos Band’s “Paradise in Trouble”) and whose philosophy is, “On Whatever Day of the Week Saturday Happens to Fall, musicians must answer the call and give their all.” Walsh’s philosophy resonates with me because it applies to poets and creative souls who must be in the moment when the muse appears.
TP: The recording contains a collection of your poems set to music: Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms, Jazz, and Latin Jazz and features an impressive lineup: Víctor Rendón, Wilson “Chembo” Corniel, Louis Bauzo, Yasuya Kimura, Mike Viñas, Amy Quint Millan and José Luis Armengot. Additional guests include Andrea Brachfeld, Henry Brun, Ariel De La Portilla, and Roman Diaz (see below for specifics). Tell me about the poem, “Right Pocket/Left Pocket.”
PV: My mother was concerned about my dad, who drank excessively and played pool at a local social club. She asked me to check on him and bring him home. When I arrived, my father was intoxicated and staggering. Shortly after, a neighborhood hustler and “aprovechao” (exploiter) named Chano challenged my father to a game of pool. My father immediately asked me, “How much money do you have?” And demanded I give it to him. Then, miraculously, he took a breath and straightened up. After that, it was “right pocket, left pocket!” Long story short, my father and I left the social club fifty dollars richer! When Victor and I arranged the tune, he had just acquired a set of “timbalitos” (9-1/4 and 10-and 1/4 timbales), which have a very distinct sound. If you listen closely, you will hear Victor mimic the sound of the cue ball striking the billiards.
TP: Your words conjure up images. I felt like a fly on the wall! I also enjoyed the poem, “El Chembito,” where percussionist Wilson “Chembo” Corniel masterfully accompanies you.
PV: The poem was born while listening to Chembo’s solo on the tune “Lagos” which appears on Victor Rendon & the Bronx Conexion Latin Jazz Big Band’s “True Flight” (2016). I realized that in Chembo’s hands and in the hands of the masters, you feel and hear the connections between past and present and are privy to a glimpse of the future. Chembo has a way of taking you along for the ride as he time travels between rhythms, feelings, and emotions! His hands never falter, and his ideas are always fresh!
TP: The poem, “I Saw You (Tribute 4 Miles)” talks about a unique experience you shared with trumpeter José Luis Armengot onstage.
PV: Yes, Jose was standing to my right, and he was soloing on the tune “Fragile.” I turned to Jose; he was wearing dark glasses and leaning back like Miles used to, and I saw Miles! At the time, I was not aware that Jose idolized Miles. Later, I read the poem to Jose and I said, “You are Miles!”
TP: Tell me about the poem, “In the Pocket.”
PV: The poem is inspired by Omar Castaños, who said, “Some musicians express themselves and don’t say a lot. But every once in a while, you will find an artist who sits in the pocket, and everything is pushed away. I saw it happen when the masterful Luis Bauzo took a solo at “Gonzalez y Gonzalez” (NYC) in front of a packed house and stopped the room. The poem was born at that moment!
TP: The poems mentioned earlier are examples of what listeners and readers can expect. There is much more to savor! The CD and book will be released on December 1, 2022. Is there a CD Release Party or a live performance in the works?
PV: We have yet to set a specific date, but, yes, it is in the works.
TP: “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” will be available at: http://amazon.com via https://cdbaby.com, and all the major digital streaming, and download sites (iTunes, Spotify, etc.). Also, readers can listen to and download the CD on Pazcual Villaronga’s Website: http://conceptovillapaz.com.
TP: Closing thoughts?
PV: If I have touched you with one word, phrase, or poem, I have done my job as a poet!
TP: Indeed, you have! “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” recalls the writings of the Nuyorican poet and playwright Pedro Pietri, playwright Tato Laviera, activist, journalist, media personality Felipe Luciano, and Latina poet Sandra Maria Estevez, among others. Rarely has the spoken word, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms, and Latin Jazz come together as organically and beautifully as it does on this exciting and innovative project. Highly recommended!
1. Drummers Prayer
2. By the Music Inspired
3. In the Pocket
4. What Do You Do?
5. El Chembito
6. How Many of Us Listen?
7. Bongo Habla Otra Vez
8. Que No Se Te Olvides
9. Right Pocket/Left Pocket
10. On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall
11. I Saw You (Tribute 4 Miles)
12. Alma Jibarita
13. Puerto Rican Trilogy
14. Puerto Rican Trilogy
15. Puerto Rican Trilogy
16. Speak Easy
17. Soul Riffs
18. Entendian Voz
19. Another Night in Tunisia
20. En Las Manos de Los Maestros
21. Afro, Is That You?
22. Now and Then
THE NEW DRUM POETS
Pazcual Villaronga – Executive Producer, Poetic Voz, Conga and Shekeré
Víctor Rendón – Producer, Drum Set, Timbales, Pailitas, Shekeré, Batá (Okonkolo), Coro
Wilson “Chembo” Corniel – Congas, Batá (Itótele), Guataca, Coro
Louis Bauzo – Bongos, Congas, Barril (Primo), Batá (Iyá), Bonkó Enchemiyá, Güícharo Puertorriqueño, Coro
Yasuya Kimura – Congas, Bongos, 1st and 2nd Cajón, Maraca, Coro
Michael Viñas– Bass
Amy Quint Millan – Piano, Coro
José Luis Armengot – Trumpet
- Andrea Brachfeld – Flute
- Henry Brun – Conga, Shaker
- Ariel de la Portilla Acoustic Bass
- Roman Diaz (Batá and Various Percussion)
- Diego Lopez (Batá and Various Percussion)
- Allan Molnar First Marimba
- Yumi Suehiro Second Marimba
LEFT TO RIGHT: Pazcual Villaronga, Yasuyo Kimura, Louis Bauzo, Víctor Rendón, Wilson “Chembo” Corniel.
POETRY BY PAZCUAL VILLARONGA
- COMPENDIUM (1991)
- POETRY (1995)
- BY THE MUSIC INSPIRED (2002)
- FIRE FROM HELL (2004)
- CARACOL – P0EMS FOR CHILDREN (2009)
- ON WHATEVER DAY SATURDAY HAPPENS TO FALL (2022)
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