Bobby Sanabria: Clave Visionary From Fort Apache

bobby sanabria

“The sacred and profane in the same plane,” Bobby Sanabria says about the notorious neighborhood of his upbringing, where his multi-purpose passion for rhythms got an early start. “I always tell people that I grew up in the most culturally and socio-politically diverse environment that you could have, which was the South Bronx of New York City. You have the yin and yang of everything.”

Now in his early forties, Sanabria is a perfect reflection of that chaotically balanced environment that he witnessed from his childhood front door. His life runs at a supercharged pace as he works to break new boundaries in Afro-Cuban jazz, while laboring equally hard to preserve the best practices of the past and pay tribute to the men and women who developed them. He’s happy to tell you about his last album’s Grammy nomination, give an encyclopedic history of Afro-Cuban music, or just get philosophical on your ass, but first a little more about that tough neighborhood, and the huge effect it would eventually have on the global music scene.

“I grew up in the Fort Apache section of the South Bronx in the 1960s, which was like Beirut at the time,” Sanabria relates, in his even voice that succeeds at being authoritative and laid-back at the same time. “The South Bronx was an example of America’s failure in the inner city. You’d see films of the South Bronx all over the world; how poor the people were, how drugs had decimated the neighborhood. Heroin was the biggest thing when I was growing up.

“But at the same time, the drum was very present in NYC. In the projects, where you had people from Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, you would always hear the sound of guaguanco in the summer evenings. Imagine growing up in the canyons of the projects, hearing guaguanco and falling asleep to that. Or Kool DJ Herc, who was the first hip-hop deejay, plugging two turntables into a light pole and starting up a party. It was an incredible time period, and the ’70s and the ’80s was the most progressive period in NYC for Afro-Cuban music.

“I wanted to throw that out there, because the center of activity for Afro-Cuban jazz is NYC. I feel the musicians here never got the credit they deserve for keeping Afro-Cuban music alive. Acknowledgement is given to a lot of bands in Cuba, but not to the bands coming out of NYC at the time.”

Today, Sanabria can take credit for continuing the next wave of progress for the area. His skills have him playing through a packed weekly schedule of live and studio sessions. Additionally, he’s a professor with a regular schedule of classes in Afro-Cuban music and history at both the Manhattan School of Music and The New School. The news flash is that his latest album, Big Band Afro-Cuban Dream…Live & In Clave!!!, received a nomination for Best Latin Jazz Recording at this year’s Grammys (the statue eventually went to Chucho Valdés for Live at the Village Vanguard). The infectious concert went down at Birdland as Sanabria led a 20-piece Afro-Cuban big band through a fierce set of tunes, where the complexity of the music is often masked by the ease with which listeners can dance to it.

While big band may not seem like an obvious choice for a child of the South Bronx to express himself, it makes perfect sense when you think about the airwaves that also snuck into Sanabria’s blood as he grew up. “You had variety shows on TV – Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett – and they all had big bands,” he says. “In a way it’s funny, because when I was very young I rejected the music of my own culture. I did hear the music of Puerto Rico and Cuba in the records my father owned, but I was involved in the whole American pop band culture. But then all of a sudden Santana comes along, and all of the things I loved in R&B and rock, and all of the things that I knew in jazz came together with an Afro-Cuban basis and some elements of Brazilian.

“My goal when I was younger was to become the most versatile player in the world. The reason that I wanted to do that was because of all of the music that I grew up with in NYC that I loved. I loved Afro-Cuban music – and of course I still do – and I was influenced by people like Cal Tjader, Tito Puente, and Machito. I also loved doo-wop music, rock, hardcore, R&B, and all of those types of music require certain skills. And, in a funny way, they’re all related.”

With so many styles flying around inside his head, Sanabria soaked up the multitude of percussive styles that come with the territory. Surprisingly, however, Sanabria doesn’t identify himself as a hand drummer, even though he can smoke his way through a conga, bongo, bells, clave, atcheré, guiro or any of a wide array of rhythm instruments. Actually, his weapon of choice is a full kit of drums, which is the only instrument he plays on Live & In Clave.

“My primary instrument is drum set,” Sanabria confirms. “I always felt that it was. I still get hired as a percussionist at studio sessions, but if you asked me to pick just one instrument it would be the drum kit, because the drum kit is the only instrument of percussion that can universally fit any situation.

“Basically, it’s a conglomeration of everything. You have tom toms that sound like timpani – they can play melodies in the hands of a skilled player. If you attach cowbells or woodblocks, then every possible sound in the world of percussion can be imitated, and one player can play that. So the bass drum is the bottom end, the middle level is the tom toms, and the high level is snare, which can sound like timbale. Then the cymbals can be used to keep time.

“If you know the techniques, the possibilities are never ending. But what happens with most players is they think only on a singular level. They keep very good time, but maybe they’re not great soloists, or vice versa. Some players are great colorists. Some players are versatile in just one, two, or three styles and that’s it. We’re coming into an age that, because of the influence of Brazil and Cuba and other world cultures, drummers are finally becoming multidimensional. That’s the future of drumming. In 20 years, there’s not going to be such a thing as a ’drummer.’ Everyone will be a multi-percussionist, and it could happen even sooner.”

The new breed of diversified drummer will bring rich rewards to music as a whole, Sanabria claims. The definition of the drummer is arguably expanding faster than it is for any instrument, and could result in a lot more to listen to in the near future. “You’re going to get this incredible wealth of music that’s going to be very, very fascinating,” he predicts. “It will have deep cultural roots, and will challenge the audience also.

“Look at what’s happening now in contemporary music. In the pop world, it’s just a reflection of the technological advancements that we made, but there’s no soul most of the time. That’s why I love jazz so much. It’s a music of emotion and passion – particularly Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music – and these are the only [genres] that you can really get intimate with, not only from the playing aspect, but from the emotional and intellectual aspect also. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Aerosmith, but using that as an example, the reason they’re so good is that their music is still based on deep roots in blues and funk.”

Taking into account all the complex principles that the Live & In Clave album represents, it’s a good thing that Sanabria chose to make it a live recording, otherwise, there’s no telling how long he might have labored on getting all the tracks down. In keeping with his need to acknowledge the masters, Sanabria sees the record as an original work that doubles as a big compliment to some of his favorite musicians.

“The album is a tribute to five musicians: Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, (mambo innovator) Arsenio Rodriguez, (percussionist/composer) Chano Pozo and (trumpeter/saxophonist/bandleader) Mario Bauzá,” says Sanabria. “These are the five people that, in my opinion, changed the course of contemporary jazz and Latin music.

“This is not a standard big band. Every time someone says ’big band’ they think ’retro’ right away. I wanted to take this music and bring it into the next millennium, and the only way to do that was through the rhythm section that I have. There’s no other rhythm section that could do what we did on that big band album. The album is an outgrowth of my smaller ensemble, Ascensión; that’s basically my working band. I wanted to do something on a grander scale, expanding on the freedom that we had in that small group to instantaneously stop on a dime, change rhythmic directions, feature the players as virtuoso soloists, and I knew it could be done in a big band context.”

bobby sanabria

Going with a band that satisfied his tough standards for stylistic diversity, Sanabria’s big challenge wasn’t to pull off every type of music he wanted to represent, but rather to make sure that it all made sense together. The solution was the opposite of heavy practice and knowing the songs cold. Instead, the drummer/bandleader warned his musicians to expect the unexpected.

“Every time you hear bands that do Afro-Cuban jazz, and switch rhythms into funk or swing, in my opinion, it sounds contrived. With this rhythm section, however, all of these players have this intimate knowledge of all these styles like New Jack Swing, hard bop, blues, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and so on, but all of a sudden when they’re backing up solos, the rhythm section can drop out. Then I’m challenging the soloist to deal with the chord changes and the structure of the tune.

“Every tune is a surprise, so when I give a list of instructions they come with a disclaimer: ’Everything is subject to change, so pay attention!’ It’s sort of like a wild ride where you’re taking a lot of chances and pushing things to the edge, which is a very challenging thing for a jazz player. But the musicians, as I knew they would, rose to the occasion.”

Playing in the rhythm section alongside Wilson “Chembo” Corniel on congas, Roberto Quintero and Hiram “El Pavo” Remón, John D Martino on piano, and Boris Kozlov on bass, Sanabria stuck to his guns and stayed behind the drum set the entire time. With a host of NYC’s finest in the band and making guest appearances, Live & In Clave records a truly special gathering. “A lot of these players are known to their musical community, but unknown outside of there,” Sanabria says. “Their ages range from early twenties to 79 years old. The best bands in jazz and Latin music have always been combinations of youth and experience, and this is a perfect example.”

While Sanabria is more than satisfied with the sound he got, he’s even happier that the album taps into the historical undercurrent that defines rhythm for him. “The other thing I wanted to bring out is the spiritual, ancestral connection that we have to Africa, and that’s why this album opens up with the Yoruba chants for Elegua, the guardian of the crossroads in the Yoruba religion,” he explains. “The one thing lacking in most music today is that the players forget about the spiritual connection that music has in our lives. When you see a good rock, jazz, Latin or classical group, if the elements are really right, you almost feel like you’re in some spiritual type of ceremony, and I try to do that every time we perform. I think the spiritual side is one of the many reasons that the album got nominated for a Grammy, as well as the brilliant playing, compositions and arrangements.”

With his professorial knowledge of Afro-Cuban music, Sanabria can rattle off a long list of historical cats that he’s indebted to. Not surprisingly, Tito Puente shares top billing on that list, and his playing made a mark on another of Sanabria’s albums that’s rich in rhythm, 1993’s New York City Aché! While known to the world at large as a master timbale player, Sanabria reports seeing first-hand the equal ease with which he handled being a pianist, arranger and bandleader.

“In the early ’70s there was a period where Tito didn’t have a piano player – he couldn’t find a guy that could sight read the intricate parts,” Sanabria says. “So he hired a drummer, and Tito would play the gig on piano, and he was soloing too! So I said, ’My God, this cat is unbelievable!’ No offense to people like Ringo Starr or John Bonham, because people talk of them in reverent tones, but if these guys are gods in the drumming world, then Tito Puente must be beyond that, and people don’t realize that.”

It was two decades later before they finally got together in the studio for New York City Aché! Puente didn’t disappoint when he recorded the appropriately titled tracks “Two Generations: Parts I, II & III.” “That was an incredible experience,” Sanabria remembers. “It wasn’t like we trying to blow each other away. It was more like a father and son having a nice talk. It was a very spiritual thing.”

While his fiery live performance style, coupled with his technical and classical ability (culled from his training at the Berklee College of Music) have made him as international as anyone, Bobby Sanabria seems a little like Woody Allen – never entirely removed from the beat of New York City, no matter where he is. “I’ve been all over – this is the most incredible city in the world,” he states. “You see the best and worst of everything; the alpha, the omega and everything in between. In many ways, the city is having a cultural renaissance, but the fear I have is that the city will become a parody of itself. I think that won’t ever happen, however, because of the diverse cultures that are found in this constantly evolving metamorphosis in all the music scenes in NYC.”

With everything going on in Sanabria’s life, it may all seem like a little much, and you wouldn’t be the only one overwhelmed by his rhythmically consuming lifestyle. “There’s pluses and minuses,” he concedes. “The plus is you get a certain degree of respect, and you get called for projects that are musically satisfying. The minuses are that you tend to have to try and find time for the simple things in life, like sleep or family relationships. I think it is possible to find a balance, and I’m still looking for that balance. It’s hard enough for a normal person, but we’re musicians, and most musicians tend to be self-absorbed in their work. That’s why we’re misunderstood by outsiders, because you’re dealing with your emotions constantly.

“That’s also why all of the different disciplines in art can influence and expand your horizons, and it comes through in your compositions, playing and the way you deal with people. I would suggest to anybody who’s young to be as diverse as possible in terms of appreciating all aspects of art. Music is one art form, but you have painting, literature, sculpting, poetry readings. Hey, Albert Einstein used to play in string quartets out in Long Island!”

The longer the conversation goes on with Bobby Sanabria, the more people you find out he’s indebted to musically. His father, his son, Frank Zappa, Santana, Cal Tjader, Willy Bobo are all perpetually present in his musical continuum, one that’s added up to make him busy beyond the big dreams of many a musician, whether they’re in New York, L.A. or Indonesia. But beyond anyone he could give credit to, the biggest influence in Sanabria’s life just may be the power and mystery of the drum itself.

“There’s an old Abakwa saying, ’Through the drum, God speaks,’” Sanabria says. “Because it’s the link that we have to the spiritual world, because there’s nothing like skin on skin. It’s the simplest instrument to make, and the most difficult instrument to play musically. On vibes, you can do melodies, but to play music on drums is probably the most difficult thing to do in the world. There’s probably a lot of people in hell where the Devil says to them, ’Okay, try to make some music on these things!’”