It’s only a short subway ride from central Manhattan, the headquarters of the international record trade, but it may as well be another universe. In basements throughout the Bronx, the breathtaking displays that mark the santeria religion – richly colored altar cloths, flowers and fruits, bright beads – have been carefully laid out. Babalawos (high priests) and dancers await the arrival of the messengers who can initiate communication with the orisha, the divine being of santeria. They are waiting for the drummers.
It was on this tiny stage with no spotlight that percussionist Frank Colón had some of his earliest “gigs,” playing the bata drums – a cornerstone of the Afro-Cuban religion where rhythm and ritual interlock. During a ceremony that may last from five to eight hours, three bata drummers will converse in strict, mind-boggling patterns that have remained unchanged for over 300 years. The drums of santeria act as a strictly scripted, entrancing spiritual guide – intense textures that are a world removed from the 4/4 of a hi-hat, bass and snare.
Twenty years ago, Frank Colón was simply a disciple in this mystical atmosphere, where drummers open up doors to elation and understanding. Today, however, Colón is considered a master percussionist on an international scale. He has hand-delivered his athletic style to stages across the Americas and Europe, and his discography is measured in pages. Meanwhile, his vibrant playing has colored the soundscapes of Wayne Shorter and Weather Report, Mickey Hart, Manhattan Transfer, Olatunji, Milton Nascimento and Mary J. Blige, to name just a few.
The only degree Colón holds is a B.A. in political science. His education in percussion is culled from far more unorthodox roots: a few piano lessons, Washington, D.C., drum circles, an immersion in bata, an in-depth study of Brazilian percussion and finally an ever-expanding presence on the live and recording circuit. Colón, a quietly energetic person with an easygoing manner and an arresting gaze, has earned his Ph.D. by remaining a perpetual student and explorer.
“I can’t just sit at the conga drum and do the conga thing all night,” Colón says. “I hear more sounds. I have to contribute more. If I can play the congas and the bongos and the timbales almost simultaneously, then why not? So I don’t fit in the salsa circuit.”
A refusal to be limited and a big difficulty sitting still are logical traits in a musician whose job description calls for a high degree of versatility. Colón’s insatiable curiosity led him to a thorough knowledge of percussion in multiple cultures, acquiring not only an arsenal of Latin, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian percussion, but an ambidextrous approach to playing it all.
Colón’s extreme independence is a highly-impressive ability, one that lends him a high value as a player. “The purpose was to sound like more than one person,” Colón explains. “I’ll try and play two things at the same time in opposite modes. In the studio, it can sometimes save time, and that, in the producer’s mind, is saving the clock and saving money. You can use one track instead of two, and two instruments in one take.
“When Harry Belafonte found out I could do that, he sort of shrunk the band. There were two percussionists and a drummer, but he got into a disagreement with the other percussionist. In the meantime, while he was looking for a second, I was covering the bases. So he said, ’I guess we don’t need a second.’”
To the average concertgoer in America, the presence of an onstage percussionist translates to a luxury that comes from a big budget. But the increased profile of world music in the past few years has made an enormous difference in the role of the percussionist. Working with instruments whose roots are thousands of years old, those who make their living playing gourds, shakers and congas are taking a more visible seat in today’s musical spectrum.
Well-known artists like Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart have long made a strong case for turning Western ears to music from Guatemala, New Guinea and Madagascar. So why has this important part of the musical world come to light only recently? Hard to believe, but for a long time many were wary of aligning with the commercial mainstream.
“Each culture, in a certain way, wanted to retain its identity in a guarded fashion,” Colón points out. “Now you have all these different cultures synthesized together in a sellable format. So the role of the percussionist has changed into what it’s actually always been – not a hybrid, but the legitimate coming together of cultures for a singular purpose: the making of popular music.”
With the niche of world music expanding into a full-blown category, complete with its own section at Tower Records, Colón is expectedly happier than ever. But then, this percussionist’s strange life has unfolded in the manner of a true world musician.
Born in Washington, D.C., and relocated at a young age to Puerto Rico, Colón grew up with rhythms pulsing through his veins. “I was about 10 or 11,” Colón recalls, “and I told my parents, ’I really want to get into some music. I want to play drums.’”