Master conguero Francisco Aguabella is a musician’s musician, a living bridge between the music of Africa, Cuba and North America and a composer who has contributed many standards to the Latin jazz songbook, including some of Tito Puente’s biggest hits. He’s also been a bandleader, session musician and music teacher, and recently won a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for his role in helping to preserve America’s cultural diversity. His rhythmic virtuosity and knowledge of the religious drum lore surrounding the ceremonies of Santeria, Abacúa and Yezá have won him legions of fans, and he’s widely acknowledged as one of the century’s great hand drummers, right up there with Chano Pozo and Machito. Not too bad for a boy who grew up loading sugar onto cargo ships in the port of Matanzas for five cents a sack.
“That was my ’day job’ as a young man,” Aguabella says. “I lived in a house with my grandmother, and besides playing music all night, I worked as a longshoreman. All the sugar that left Cuba came through Matanzas, in 350-pound sacks of raw cane. It was piecework – you got five cents for each sack you hauled onto the ship. In eight hours I could haul 200 sacks of sugar, then when I was finished with work, I’d go play all night long.”
Aguabella was born in Matanzas, Cuba, on October 10, 1935. He had six brothers and a sister, “but one brother died of typhoid fever as a child. The brothers and my baby sister stayed behind and still live in Cuba.” Like many Cuban musicians, Aguabella has music in his blood. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hear music,” Aguabella says. “My father and uncle played drums in local bands, but in Cuba everybody plays the drums, especially in my neighborhood.
“In Cuba we have the freedom to play drums in the street, to make music in the street. The first thing you hear when you wake up in the morning is the drums. It’s a national sport, as important as baseball. On my street there were five or six guys who had little bands, and on many days they’d all be out playing, having a friendly competition, drumming and dancing. Sometimes they’d close the street from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. because they’d be out there playing rumba all day long.”
Matanzas, capital of Matanzas province, is known as one of Cuba’s most African cities, a place where people descended from the Yoruba, Calabar and many other West African ethnic groups stayed in touch with the bedrock rhythms that came to Cuba with the slave trade. These tribal rhythms eventually evolved into the rumba, a style that has gone on to influence much Cuban music and is also the cornerstone of Latin jazz and salsa. Los Muñequitos de Matanzas may be the city’s most internationally famous band, but the rumba is everywhere in Matanzas.
“You see a bunch of guys on the street, and someone will start clapping his hands, or tapping out a rhythm on a Coke bottle with the bottle cap,” Aguabella says. “Then they’ll be pounding on wooden crates, or a wall, or splashing in the puddles of water dripping out of an old air conditioner, or playfully tapping on somebody’s head. You can’t escape the rumba.”
The rhythms of the rumba are also closely associated with the Cuban religions of Santeria, Abacúa and Yezá, a hybrid of Catholicism and various African spiritual beliefs. “The rhythm is part of the religion, and it remains as strong as it was when I left in the ’50s,” Aguabella says. “There are people who go to Cuba to be baptized, and learn how to drum. There are even Africans that come to Cuba, because the bata – which was once played all over Africa – is today only played in one part of Nigeria, and in Matanzas.”
The bata, a two-headed drum used in Santeria rituals, was the instrument that first attracted Aguabella when he was a youth. “I was friends with Esteban Vega – his nickname was ’Chacha’ – an original member of Los Muñequitos. We both went to the same school and belonged to the same religion, Abacúa, which is only for men. It’s a ritual sacred society, a brotherhood. We dress in burlap pants, to let people know we are part of Abacúa. You know other members by how you shake hands and the words you exchange.