Photo by Sarah Escarraz

When Bobby Sanabria grew up in the Fort Apache section of the South Bronx in the ’60s and ’70s, it was undeniably one tough hood. But for the budding drummer, it was paradise. “I’m very privileged, and I thank God that I grew up there in that period,” he says. “Like Dickens wrote, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ The Bronx was burning, but all this incredible music and culture was happening.”

Sanabria’s early career profile rose upon joining Mongo Santamaría’s band, where he lent his powerful, nuanced Latin jazz groove to the 1983 album Mongo Magic, followed by the recording that Sanabria says solidified his reputation with the public, 1984’s Espíritu Libre. Since then he’s performed with the royalty of Latin and jazz music, including Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Mario Bauzá, Chico O’Farrill, Paquito D’Rivera, Celia Cruz, Arturo Sandoval, Daniel Ponce, Jon Faddis, Randy Brecker, Henry Threadgill, and Max Roach’s elite percussion collective, M’Boom.

In addition to his roles as a drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger, conductor, producer, and filmmaker, Sanabria is also a busy clinician and a faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music and the New School university, where he leads Afro-Cuban jazz ensembles.

Sanabria has led numerous small and large ensembles, including his current Multiverse Big Band. Since his first release as a leader, NYC Aché (1993), featuring his nonet, Ascensión, he’s earned an impressive eight Grammy nominations.

The latest nom is for his Multiverse double-disc release, West Side Story Reimagined, which delivers an adventurous modern spin on Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 musical theater masterpiece. One critical theme of the work—as immortalized by “America”—is the plight of the Puerto Rican community striving for equity and justice. Because that ongoing struggle today encompasses ever more incoming cultures, Sanabria has expanded the score’s rhythmic vocabulary to span across Latin America as well as encompass African, jazz, funk, and R&B elements, all framed in fresh imaginative arrangements. Driving his twenty-one-piece band, Sanabria’s vivacious kit work delivers all those influences in innovative combinations. Recorded live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Manhattan, it’s a thoroughly thrilling event.

Bernstein’s timeless piece holds added resonance for Sanabria, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, giving his updated vision a sociopolitical wallop. “Besides being a tribute to Bernstein’s centennial,” he notes, “most of the money will go to the Jazz Foundation of America’s Puerto Rico relief fund for hurricane victims.”

How does the multifaceted drummer command his massive project? “Driving a big band, you have to have the subtlety and nuance of a small group drummer along with the power and muscle to hold a band of that size together,” he says. “But most of all, you have to inspire it.”

I call the big band the Multiverse, rather than just a “Latin jazz band.” When you’re talking about Latin America, you’re talking about twenty-one countries, each having dozens of styles. Actually, there are twenty-two countries if you count New York City, which is another branch of Latin America—and I’m not joking. But there’s a lot to draw from. Plus, since I grew up in the South Bronx, that means funk, R&B, soul music, and hip-hop are also part of my DNA. I want to be able to draw upon all that, and I need musicians who can do that as well. That’s always been the challenge—to find musicians that have that type of vision or don’t have the emotional baggage of, “No, I don’t like this kind of music,” or, “I like this kind of music more than others.” That’s always been the downfall of jazz musicians: the intellectual snobbery of jazz sometimes bites us in the ass.

The key to being a great bandleader is you’ve got to have a vision. And then you’ve got to have balls of steel. [laughs] Plus, conviction and the technical knowledge to put the various puzzles together. Also, in the case of the big band, there’s the knowledge I have as a composer and arranger. Going back to Bernstein, the conductor has to viscerally get the music across on an emotional level while technically knowing exactly what’s going on in every aspect of the orchestra. On top of that, you have to be a psychologist and a psychiatrist, a good planner and a good taskmaster. Just imagine playing Rubik’s cube or chess constantly.

Photo by Allen Spatz

The secret to any great musician is having knowledge of the history of whatever style they’re dealing with. Using Led Zeppelin as an example, they were deeply entrenched in the whole history of the blues and black American culture. And they used that to their advantage. Unfortunately, I don’t see that knowledge of history in most young musicians. The best drummers in any category have that all together. If you talk to a drummer such as Zoro, he could talk with you for hours about the history of R&B, and David Garibaldi has broken down funk to a modern science—he could tell you about all the different players and their nuances.

The way I play, I simultaneously think like an arranger. I’m orchestrating all the time. If you listen to the current album, there are lots of subtle, nuanced things I’m doing. As Wynton Marsalis said, “The highest example of art is nuance.”

When I was eighteen, I pursued Keith Copeland to study with him. At my first lesson, he said, “Sit down and play for me.” I started turning the seat to lower it because he sat very high. He said, “Hold on! What the f**k are you doing!” So I said, “What the f**k am I doing? The seat is too high, man!” And he said, “When you sit down on somebody’s drumkit, you don’t start adjusting everything. How would you like it if I came to your house and didn’t like the way the furniture was arranged, and I started moving it around? Sit down, shut up, and play for me!” I thought, Wow! I finally got the right teacher. Within a week he started getting me to swing. He made me a professional.

At drum clinics, what I’m trying to get across to drummers most of all, in regards to Latin music, is to not only respect the rhythms in and of themselves, but at the same time, to have a healthy respect for the culture. That’s the defining thing. People want to learn how to play a songo rhythm, a mambo, a Brazilian baion, or a maracatu, but they don’t spend the time getting into the culture. You have to get into the culture if you want to play these different types of music that fall under the rubric of Latin music with any authenticity.

I see a cultural divide in this country that’s really sad. When I do clinics and performances, I’m well aware of that—that I’m a representative of a culture. So I always put my best foot forward. I’m communicating, “Look, this culture that you think is so strange is really American culture. America is not just North America; it’s Central and South America, too. So this culture is your culture, but it’s been kept away from you through racism, prejudice, ignorance, and cultural insensitivity. I’ve been placed in this position, and I take it very seriously. There’s a bridge. I’m at the bridge there to welcome you: “Hey! Cross over and check out my world. Don’t be so fearful of this music. And if you are interested, remember: it’s not just rhythms; it represents a culture.

Tools of the Trade

Sanabria plays a Tama six-piece Starclassic drumset (bubinga or maple shells). His snare choice is a 5.5×14 (either bubinga, maple, or Bell Brass models). He uses LP percussion products (including five mounted cowbells), Sabian cymbals, Remo heads, and Vic Firth sticks.