In Verna Gillis’ apartment in Greenwich Village’s west side, the doorbell rings with a special rhythm—the clave; the beat that underlies almost all Cuban music. And if Verna’s phone could ring to that rhythm, it would because she owns Soundscape, a large club in a loft that serves as headquarters for Latin jazz in New York City. Naturally, it’s at Soundscape that some of the best young Cuban musicians, impelled to leave Cuba by politics, find each other and play together. Two of the people you’re likely to see there are drummer Ignacio Berroa and conguera Daniel Ponce.
Ignacio Berroa, who has always played the North American drumset, not Cuban percussion, arrived in Key West, Florida on a boat from Cuba on May 25, 1980. He brought one change of underwear, one extra shirt, a toothbrush and comb, leaving everything else, including his practice pad, behind in Cuba. He had never owned a drumset anyway. “It’s not like the U.S. You don’t have music stores where you can just go in and buy a drumset,” he says. In Cuba, he used the drums wherever he worked, most often in a recording studio. From Key West, he finally made his way to his aunt’s house in New York City.
At the same time, jazz saxophonist and bass clarinet player Paquito D’Rivera decided to defect to the U.S. He already had a contract with Columbia Records, since he had been discovered by Dizzy Gillespie on a tour of Cuba. By the time Paquito arrived in New York, Ignacio Berroa had already checked out the scene. He had jammed together many times with Paquito in Cuba. Ignacio, who had heard a wonderful conga player at the Village Gate in New York, told Paquito, “Hey, man, if you want to form a group, I’ve got a great conga player for you, Daniel Ponce. He’s playing at Soundscape.”
Paquito thought that he had heard every marvelous thing there was to hear from conga players. “After all, I’m Cuban,” he reflected. But he went along to Soundscape and heard Ponce. “He’s a monster,” said Paquito. “I had never heard anyone like him.”
“Nobody had ever heard of Daniel Ponce in Cuba,” says Berroa, a small, smiling, friendly man, who crams his drumset into a little car to get from gig to gig, sometimes several in a single day, in New York City. “Now everybody knows him, not only here but in Cuba.”
D’Rivera did form his own group, with several Cubans, including Ponce and Berroa, who quickly became known to American pop and jazz musicians on their own. Berroa recorded with Paquito and McCoy Tyncr. He played with Eddie Palmieri and most regularly with Dizzy Gillespie. Ponce, making himself known as the most exciting young conguera in town, played conga on three albums with Paquito. He played bata with Laurie Anderson, the vocalist and experimental electronics musician, on her album for Warner Brothers. Ponce also played conga on Elektra Musician albums with Bill Laswell and Material, and on his best known work, an album with Herbie Hancock for Columbia entitled Future Shock. In addition, Ponce recorded a breathtaking duet, “Nigerian Sunset,” with bebop singer Bobby McFerrin during a 1982 Kool Jazz Concert at Carnegie Hall, which starred a half dozen top young jazz “lions,” as the festival dubbed them. Ponce formed his own group, Jazz Bata, and made a record, “New York Now,” on the Celluloid Label. It features two of his original compositions, “Africana Contemporanea” and “Cojelo Suave,” meaning “Take It Easy,” for which he received a CAPS (Creative Artists Public Service) grant.
On the surface, Daniel and Ignacio have plenty in common. Daniel was born on July 8, 1953, Ponce on July 21, 1953. Both came by boat to Key West in 1980, leaving everything behind in Cuba. They are fast, versatile, super drummers. And when they play together, they make a special connection, with the bond of the clave behind them. But Daniel loves jazz, and Ponce is a Cuban-music chauvinist with a special affinity for rock and singing. Berroa always plays as a sideman, while the taller, more muscular Ponce, with a reputation for egocentricity and a dashing but rare smile, likes to lead his own group.
After three years in the U.S., both talked about their work. Ponce was particularly proud of the unique force of Cuban music. Long before jazz had its name, the rhythms of the Caribbean entered the U.S., brought along by slaves from Haiti, the Spanish-owned islands and South America, most notably to New Orleans, where the French and English cultures dominated. By the turn of the century, the rhythmic accents spread to other cities too. Afro-Cuban rhumba and tango rhythms showed up in the music of such early jazz stars as Jelly Roll Morton, W.C. Handy and Cab Calloway.
What makes Cuban music different from all other music? “The difference between Cuban music and all other music is the different rhythms,” says Ponce. “From that, everything is different. The instruments—the congas, bongos, timbali, bata, and agogo [a double cowbell]—are Cuban and different from other countries’ instruments. And there’s a different feeling. Each country has its different feeling. Cuban music has more force than other Latin countries’ music. Brazilian music is basically the samba, which is softer. The Dominican Republic has the merengue. But Cuban music has so many more rhythms and is more complex.”
Both Ponce and Berroa believe the main inspiration for Cuban music was the church—the Afro-Cuban religions, just as the blues and jazz came from Gospel music. Ponce drew in his feeling for the religious- inspired Cuban music as naturally as he breathed Havana’s air and heard the music of the streets—especially in his ghetto neighborhood of Jesus Maria. His grandfather played bata drums, which, before the Revolution, were used only in religious music. Ponce’s grandfather played music for the Yoruba religion, which came from the Yoruba tribe in West Africa. “You’re born into that environment,” says Ponce, “and you just pick up the music. The bata is as common as the piano or guitar here. As a baby, I just picked up music, beating on tin cans and later played conga, primarily at carnival” (Mardi Gras, which Castro switched to July and called a celebration of the Revolution). “That was my specialty. Actually the instrument is called a tumba, to be correct, and I’m a tumbadora. There is a rhythm called the conga, and that’s how the name conguera came into being.”
He started playing conga at age 12. Immediately it became his first love among instruments, “because you can really play this well; you can make rhythms in a group or solo. And I like the responsibility of this particular instrument within the music.”
Once he played for nine hours straight during carnival, with his long, graceful, cafe au lait colored hands bleeding a little, building up callouses on his palms. His first influences were Benny More, a singer who is now dead, Tito Gomez, a popular singer, and Chuchu Valdez, a pianist. “So many singers, yes. I like singers so much. If I could have chosen in my mother’s womb, I would like to have been a singer of romantic songs.” He also liked Munequitas de Matanzas, a singing and instrumental group that played flamenco, guaguanco and rhumba—three of the 61 varieties of Cuban rhythms, most of which are unknown outside of Cuba.
He had played only Cuban rhythms before he arrived in the U.S. Now critics say he is managing to bring about “Cuban fusion,” blending the Cuban rhythms with rock and funk to produce a more sophisticated or commercially pleasing music for North American audiences. And with so many rhythms going at once, typical of Cuban music, he stirs up tremendous excitement. He plays what two or three drummers are supposed to play—and plays rhythms against each other, with the drums tuned differently, each supposed to have a different beat.
He never dreamed about developing his style or setting up Cuban fusion as a goal before he set eyes on Key West. If he had spoken English, he might have looked for a job in areas other than music in the U.S. But he went into music to earn a living, and played the music of the street embellished by his ear and taste for rock. He thrilled critics. His explanation is, simply, “I just liked to play.” Although he loves jazz, he prefers rock or funk, and pays special attention to his new influences: “Stevie Wonder—todo” (everything he does), “Patti Labelle, Michael Jackson, Barry White, Bobby McFerrin” (Daniel kisses his fingertips and blows a kiss into the air like a salute) “and Mel Torme” (which he pronounces “Meltamay”). Ponce’s manager, Verna Gillis, is certain that Ponce will be responsible for popularizing Cuban fusion. He agrees.
“And now I want to talk about the salsa,” he said through Verna, who acted as his interpreter. “For me it’s a sauce for clams and spaghetti. It was a name that was given in about 1960 to draw attention in the Latin community to the music. In reality, this is popular Cuban dance music. In Cuba we call it son montuna” (one of the many Cuban rhythms) “the fast and the slow part of the evolution of a piece of dance music.
“When U.S. and Cuban relations fell apart, salsa became strong here. It was the way the people who promoted the music called salsa exploited Cuban music here. They used the concept to build up a record ing industry. But son montuna is what they call salsa here.” Furthermore, “it’s time to preserve salsa for the past and change it by incorporating electronic instruments, effects and different dances,” he adds.
“Son montuna, or salsa, uses the clave. And so do almost all other types of Cuban music or rhythms—guaracha, rhumba, guaguanco, yambu, yoruba, Columbia, macuto, mozambique, which is a dance rhythm primarily for carnival, and chaonda, which is more a spectacle than a popular dance—to name a few of the 61 varieties, all but one using the clave—the 3-2 clave for son or salsa, and the 2-3 clave for guaguanco and rhumba, for example. Each music has its own basic rhythms, but you can play the clave within them all. You can play clave with funk or rock, and in chaonda, danzon, everything.
“The Cuban clave is different from the Puerto Rican idea of the clave,” says Daniel, talking about an issue that has stirred up a lot of emotion among Latin musicians. “Here they use the 3-2 clave in son for everything, because the other one—2- 3—is too difficult and complex for non- Cubans. The music of salsa is plastic music. Anyone can play the clave, but non-Cubans weren’t born into it. Even some of the Cuban percussionists who came here a long time ago have lost the sense of the Cuban clave, which is a profound, rhythmic feeling.
“The difficulty is not playing it but maintaining it with the bass line and the piano line. Piano players and bassists should study the clave to play Latin music.”
When asked about his feelings for play ing with Ignacio Berroa, Ponce replied, “Ignacio is so complete because he can play Latin jazz, funk, everything. I prefer to play with him than others, because the combination is just natural, without rehearsal. From the Cuban concept of music, there’s no one else I can do that with.”
Berroa, as an expatriate, finds himself a soul brother in special commune with Daniel Ponce. Berroa always wanted to live in New York, because that’s where the jazz was. He plays the polyrhythms of the beboppers and avant-garde musicians, with Cuban rhythms interspersed and integrated, and adds a special excitement to American jazz groups.
Berroa was born into a family of professional musicians. His father, a classical violinist, played in a charanga band with Fajardo, and Berroa’s grandfather, a flutist, played in a charanga dance band—a band with two violins, a bass, a piano, a flute, congas and timbales. Berroa’s mother, who died in 1963, “was a beautiful dancer,” he recalls. “She met my father in a dance hall in Cuba.”
His mother always wanted him to play the violin. But he preferred watching drummers. After she died, Ignacio tried the violin for a year but couldn’t resist the drums. Finally his father told him, “Okay, man, go ahead.”
At the Escuela Nacional de Artes, the National School of the Arts, he scored badly on a drum aptitude test. So his father went to see a trumpeter, Eddie Martinez, a friend, who was also a friend of the drum teacher in school, Fausto Garcia Rivera. Martinez said, “That’s a stupid idea that Ignacio has no talent to play the drums.” Fausto, who had studied with Henry Adler and been friends with Buddy Rich and Shelly Manne, made room for Ignacio in class.
“When I started listening to music, all the time I wanted to be a jazz musician. I listened to Glenn Miller all day long in the house, since I was 11 years old. The first time I played timbales in Latin music, it was here in New York City. There are not too many drummers in Cuba that play straight ahead. I can’t explain why I wanted to be a jazz drummer. But I was all the time in my house like this,” and he snapped his fingers in a syncopated jazz rhythm.
“I had Art Blakey, Max Roach, Buddy Rich, and Shelly Manne records. Some people had the records before the Revolution, and later we heard the Willis Conover broadcasts of jazz over the Voice of America. If you have a good radio and a good antenna in Cuba, you can go to the roof. It’s easy. I was always doing that for the Willis Conover program. I was always concerned about the weather—if it was good or bad—for reception. I knew what was happening in the U.S. when I was in Cuba. I learned to play drums by learning to read music and working with my practice pad. And I listened. Nobody told me to do this with the bass or that with the snare. Never.
“And I had a lot of trouble because of jazz. First of all, Castro doesn’t know anything about the arts—only sports. I think he went to see the ballet one time, never the symphony. It’s not difficult to be a musician in Cuba. What’s difficult is to be a jazz musician. It’s from the U.S. You can’t be a jazz musician in Cuba. The government doesn’t like it.
“You can play jazz in Cuba once in a while. But if you have a group, you have to play Latin music. That’s the music of the country and represents the taste. I played in jam sessions in some places—in Paquito’s home or someone’s home. I met Paquito when I started to study music at the Havana Conservatory, and Paquito went to another conservatory. We became friends; sometimes we worked together in recording sessions, jam sessions or in clubs. The Rio Club now, which used to be called Johnny’s Drinks, I think, used to allow us to play jazz on Mondays in the 1970s.
“I was a famous musician in Cuba. From 1976 to 1980, I worked all the time. There’s one recording studio in Cuba. I was in that studio every day making records with everybody. I was in films.” But in 1980, the government restricted his foreign travel for playing. He decided to take his family to the U.S. But his wife wanted to stay behind because her mother was dying of cancer. On October 2, 1981, Berroa played at a festival with Dizzy in Puerto Rico and saw members of the famous Cuban jazz group called Irakere. His wife was supposed to leave Cuba on October 22. “But 12 hours before they were supposed to leave, someone from immigration went to the house and took their passports,” says Ignacio. They didn’t give any explanation and never let her leave. Ignacio thinks it’s because his success in the U.S. made Castro unhappy.
On the bright side: “The first time I had a drumset in my house was in the U.S. The rhythm is the most important thing in music— the rhythm section in jazz is the most important, just as it is in Brazilian and Cuban music. For me, the whole thing that people call Latin music comes from Cuba, except for the samba. And there’s a fight about this between the Cubans and Puerto Ricans. But the rhythm that the Puerto Ricans call bomba and plena is Cuban. Anyway, it’s stupid, because there are only two kinds of music, good and bad. But people learned from Cuban music.
“For me, the difference between Brazilian and Cuban music is that Brazilian music is more free. They have a lot of rhythms—something beautiful. You can move inside the rhythms. They have four people doing different things on different percussions—berimbau, cuica, drums and others. It’s my dream to go to Brazil for two months and study the music. They change the rhythm two or three times in one tune. That doesn’t happen in Cuban music. For me, the Cuban music is not as rich in rhythms as Brazilian music, I guess. You have to be attado [attached] to the clave in Cuban music. But you can put the Cuban clave into Brazilian music. If you have rhythm inside you, you can do whatever you want to do. In jazz, the rhythm depends upon whom you play with. I play straight ahead, and my influences have been Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes and Tony Williams—in that order. They have creativity and heart.
“The most important thing in the U.S. is that I can play jazz with the Cuban influence. I play a lot of rhythms. With Dizzy, you have to play straight ahead, Brazilian, Cuban, and funk. And he likes that you play in some way straight ahead, especially on his solos. Maybe I can use the clave in my left hand, but playing jazz I have to keep this up—chang—on the right cymbal with the right hand. Not everybody can do that. For that reason, I made an album with McCoy Tyner. He heard me on Paquito’s album and wanted me.” Berroa made Mariel (named for the Cuban exodus of 1980) and Paquito Blowing with D’Rivera. The album with McCoy Tyner is called La Legenda de la Hora. And Berroa has made another album with Batacumbele on a label in Puerto Rico.
“When I arrived in this country, I thought you could find a lot of drummers who could do a lot of things. But it’s not true. One drummer plays funk, while another plays straight ahead. And then it’s impossible to find a drummer who can both read music and play a lot of things. People say, ‘My specialization is . . .’ For me, Steve Gadd is one of the most beautiful drummers. He’s in the studio all the time—with Chick Corea, Paul Simon, and others. He can do it all. That’s what I call a drummer. I got the job with Dizzy because I can play a lot of things.”
Berroa attributes his special comfort in playing with Daniel Ponce to their common background, shared age and musical expertise. “Ponce knows how to play the new Cuban music with the new rhythms.” Having been in the U.S. only three years and getting work, Berroa has caused other people special discomfort. “They get mad,” he says. “But I was prepared. I was not in Cuba wasting my time. I wanted to be a jazz drummer. Now Dizzy Gillespie—he’s 65, like a father, but a beautiful person and one of my best friends, like Ponce is with me. I never dreamed I would receive a phone call from Dizzy Gillespie and be on the same stage with him. For me, that’s a dream.”
For Ponce, the shock of deportation from Cuba and separation from his son has, in one way, turned out brilliantly. He could have indulged in self-pity, but instead says firmly, “I’m glad that I’m here, because I feel that I’m spreading the word of Cuba. I’m Cuban. For me it’s not a matter of Fidel or anyone else. I love Cuba.”