“Chacha began teaching me bata when I was 12. Later on, I learned the rhythms of Arara and Yezá, because my grandmother [was into] Yezá, and my stepmother went to ceremonies that used the Arara rhythms. The guy who owned the place we went to pray was named Mayito, and when he saw I was interested, he volunteered to teach me to play Arara, which is played with four drums and one bell. The patterns are very difficult to learn, which is why I’ve been teaching at UCLA for the past four years. I want to make sure this music is passed on.”
Aguabella began his professional career as a ceremonial drummer, and the different rhythms he’d picked up – Arara, Yezá, Abacúa – helped him find gigs. “Because I had strong family roots in the religion, I could go to a gig where all three rhythms were played, or go to three different ceremonies and play a bit of each.”
Eventually Aguabella branched out into secular music, playing in nightclub bands. He was a member of Conjunto Bibito Torriente and was the main drummer at Caberet Sansui, where the house band was led by Rafael Ortega. But his fortune took a radical turn in 1957 when he met the pioneering African American dancer Katherine Durham, leader of the Katherine Durham Dance Company. Durham was an ethnomusicologist as well as a dancer and choreographer, and had mastered a talent that’s rare even today. She discovered a way to make folk music pay, by adding a bit of show biz polish and spectacle to the traditional music she used in her presentations. When she decided to incorporate the rhythms of Haiti and Cuba into her work, she went to the source and hunted down the musicians who were living the tradition. In the ’50s she lived first in Haiti and later in Matanzas, where she met Aguabella.
“When I met Katherine Durham she was looking for a drummer for her dance company, and to make a movie in Hollywood,” Aguabella says, laughing. “She wanted real Cuban drumming and asked me to come to the United States with her dancers. I played with them for a couple of months and got homesick, but she asked me to stay, ’just one more month’ she said, so we could do the movie. After the movie she asked me to stay until we finished a tour of Europe and Australia, and I stayed.” The two months eventually clocked in at seven years, during which time Aguabella’s incredible musicianship became well known in the Latin jazz and pop music communities. At this point, the two-month gig has become a career of 41 years.
Early on Aguabella hooked up with Dizzy Gillespie – Chano Pozo recommended him as a man who could play the “real Cuban rhythms.” He has also played with Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Malo and Carlos Santana, as well as leading his own band Francisco Aguabella y Agua de Cuba.
But as impressive as his pop music credentials are, it’s Aguabella’s contributions to Cuban music that have made him a legendary figure. He’s contributed to some of the greatest Afro-Cuban albums ever recorded, including Puente’s Dance Mania, Eddie Palmieri’s Lucumi Macumba Voodoo and Mongo Santamaria’s Yambo, the album that introduced many North Americans to the rhythms of Santeria for the first time.
“Mongo is not from Matanzas,” Aguabella explained. “But he wanted to do an album of traditional Cuban drumming. He called me up and said, ’I know you know more about the rhythms than I do. Why don’t you come to the studio and do the arranging, and we’ll divide the royalties.’ So I went in and made the charts and directed the production. I even wrote some songs for it.”
Aguabella also wrote a couple of Tito Puente’s best-known tunes: “Agua Limpia Todo” and “Complicación.” Where does his inspiration come from? “I’m a rumbero from Cuba, and for me rumba is a way of life. My music, like the rumba, starts in the street with the way you walk and talk, the way you move your hands when you talk, or maybe the sound of a bus driving by. When I was growing up and learning music, I learned a lot of rhythms and melodies and they stayed in my head. When Tito Puente came to me and said ’Write me a rumba,’ I put together those sounds I remember inside my head. For inspiration I rely on my memory. I may remember the walk of a pretty girl or how I felt when John Coltrane saw me play.