Today it’s not uncommon to see percussion instruments like congas, bongos, timbales, maracas, and cowbells in the percussion departments of any major music store or drum shop across the country. It wasn’t always that way. In fact, back in the 1940s, the only place one could find a conga drum in the United States was at a small Cuban-owned bakery called Simon’s (pronounced see-moans) in New York City’s Spanish Harlem on 116th and Lexington Avenue.
Back then, Simon would either import drums from Cuba or make them to the customer’s specifications. Since he had to attend to the bakery, he didn’t want to waste time making a drum for a neophyte wannabe. He would ask you to play a basic tumbao (repetitive rhythm) on one of his own drums. If you couldn’t, he’d tell you to get lost. If you could, he would allow you to purchase one of the drums on display in the window. If you wanted a custom-made drum, he would ask you to place your hands on a piece of paper so he could trace the outline of your hands and make the drumhead to accommodate them. We’ve certainly come a long way.
When did this all change? Certainly artists like Don Azpiazú & His Havana Casino Orchestra, who first exposed American audiences in 1930 to authentic Cuban music; Xavier Cugat, who was of Spanish descent but raised in Cuba; or the great Puerto Rican pianist Noro Morales, among others in the 1930s, were making major inroads in mainstreaming Latin music in the United States. But when did the visibility of authentic Afro-Cuban percussion instruments with their dynamic polyrhythmic nature, and for that matter, the music, begin to make a major impact on U.S. culture, particularly in jazz? The question leads to two men who forged a friendship as boys in Cuba and continued it in New York City. Their collaboration in forming a new type of big band would create a new style of music, revolutionize jazz and popular music in America, and pave the way for a succession of drummers and percussionists whose influence is still being felt today. That orchestra is Machito & The Afro-Cubans.
Born in the city of Havana in the barrio of Pogolotti, Prudencio Mario Bauzá (1911—1993) was reared by Arturo Andrades, an amateur musician who offered to raise the boy when Mario’s mother became bedridden with asthma and his father was away often as a traveling baseball scout and cigar maker. Although Bauzá was born to a black Cuban family, Andrades, who was a white Spaniard, instilled in him an undeniable sense of self worth and pride. He calmly told him, “You will be educated, know your craft, and know who you are. No one will be able to deny you success.” Young Bauzá astounded his stepfather when at the age of five he could repeat on the piano the solfege (sight singing) exercises Andrades was teaching local children in the neighborhood. He quickly began to teach solfege to Bauzá and subsequently had him study clarinet, oboe, and bass clarinet. So prodigious was the young Bauzá that he began to be featured as a soloist with the Havana Philharmonic at the age of nine and subsequently became a regular member at the age of 12! He turned down a scholarship he won to study classical music in Milan, Italy, by stating with precocious maturity at such a young age, “There’s no future [at that time] for a black man in classical music.”
Bauzá’s boyhood friend was Francisco Raúl Gutierrez Grillo de Ayala Peréz (1908/1912—1984), who was known by friends and family by his sobriquet, Macho or Machito. The culture of Havana was (and remains) drenched in the street music known as rumba, a fusion of West African—rooted vocals, drumming, and dancing with southern Spanish-rooted flamenco vocalese that has at its root a constant dialogue between the lead drum soloist (quinto) and a male and female dancer. But Machito and Bauzá also grew up with the rage of the day in Havana, the son, a troubadour folk style born in eastern Cuba’s Oriente region, which is the root of modern salsa. At the core of the son is the ability of the vocal soloist (sonero) to improvise lyrics that rhyme and tell a cohesive story based on a given theme in the montuno (vamp). The montuno is a series of repeated chords done in a very rhythmic fashion (guajeo) that sets up a trance-like state against a background chorus (coro) for the sonero to improvise over in call-and-response fashion. Governing all of this is the underpinning of the clave, the rhythmic five-attack pulse that can be divided 2 + 3 or 3 + 2 (depending on the rhythm of the melody) that is the cornerstone of Afro-Cuban culture and energizes the music.
Although when asked to describe his singing style Machito would humbly say, “Yo tengo la voz de un boracho (I have the voice of a drunk),” he had several factors in abundance: sabor, taste, swing, and a keen sense of clave. His mastery of maracas became known in the neighborhood where he was tapped to sing coro and play maracas with Miguel Zavall’s Sextet and Los Jovenes Rendención in the ’20s. His apprenticeship as a vocalist began hitting its stride with Ignacio Piñiero’s famed Sexteto Naciónal at Havana’s Montmatre Club and Casino in the ’30s where he began to gain fame locally. But his boyhood friend Mario had come to New York City in 1926 as a clarinetist with the charanga (flute and violins) orchestra of pianist Antonio Maria Romeu to record. Bauzá was astounded when he witnessed Frankie Trumbauer playing C melody saxophone in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra during the Gershwin opus “Rhapsody In Blue” at the Paramount Theater. On his return to Cuba, he told astounding stories of New York’s famed jazz life and his epiphany. He would also marry his childhood sweetheart, Macho’s sister, Estella, whom Bauzá affectionately gave the sobriquet “Leona” (Lioness) for her fiery temper. Bauzá would return to permanently live in the Big Apple in 1930 and pursue a career as a jazz musician absorbing African-American culture. He in fact became part of a long history of Latino musicians who have contributed to the jazz continuum from 19th-century New Orleans to the present. In fact, Harlem at the time was filled with Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Panamanians, and Dominicans who were jazz musicians. Ram Ramirez, who was the composer of “Lover Man” and of Puerto Rican heritage, is just one example, as well as Bauzá’s trumpet playing cousin, René Endreira.