You want to pin him down? Call him for a salsa gig? A reggae gig? A Latin-jazz gig? Try a Latin hip-hop gig, with vocals thrown in. Manuel “Papayo” Corao, all of 25, is your man. To add some extra flavor, this Caracas, Venezuela–born percussionist is also a songwriter, arranger, and producer, not to mention a singer.
And catching him now — while he’s still with rapper Pitbull and his band for that hip-hop gig — might just give you a snapshot of what he’s capable of. Indeed, for readers of DRUM! Magazine, Papayo’s résumé may seem a bit fresh, but he’s been in and around music ever since he was grade-school age, starting at Venezuela’s Conservatory Of Music, Juan José Landaeta, named for the 19th century writer of religious and patriotic songs. That was before he, at age 11, and his musical family left home for Miami in 1996 following complications stemming from his father’s government service and the political situation there.
Once they arrived in Miami, it wasn’t long before Papayo (a name his family gave him because he looked like a papaya when he was a kid — no kidding) continued his studies after high school, focusing on music production at Miami Dade College and composition at the Alex Berti Music School. “I never finished,” the percussionist recalls. “What happened is I had to make a choice: either go out and tour or finish up school.” That’s when Papayo did a U.S. tour with the reggae/Latin/ska band Don Pepe. “Hopefully, in the future, I will make it happen.” Meaning, that yes, eventually he’ll get back to his formal education and finish up. But right now he’s focused on his work with Pitbull and developing his own career as an independent artist. Speaking of the Berti School, he says, “I went there to study piano, which is what I used to write. That’s my second instrument, besides percussion. All my music studies taught me a lot, opened up a lot of my creativity, especially the theory and composition classes. I grew up a percussionist and suddenly I realized I had other passions, which were writing and singing. It was learning how to complement what I had in my head as music, but to be able to play it and express it.”
“I’ve always been the youngest musician in every band that I’ve been with,” Papayo says, referring to Don Pepe, the first band he joined, in 2000. “During the audition, I was 14, and I told them a lie that I was 17. [laughs] I got to play with them for five years and got to travel a lot around the country. We had a lot of fun and I learned a lot. I got the audition through a friend of a friend of a friend, word-of-mouth.”
By 2004, the funk/reggae/Latin band jam band Suenalo was next, a band where Papayo was able to really express his singing chops for the first time. “We used to have these huge, long jam sessions,” he says, “so I had to take, like, 25-minute solos, and that gave me a lot of strength and technique. And I started to sing with them. I started doing choruses, and then they gave me the opportunity to do a couple songs.”
Does he sing and play at the same time, or take a break and sing? “I do both,” he says, which means on the breaks he’s able to get out from behind the percussion rig to walk around and sing. He describes Suenalo as playing a kind of Cuban hybrid music, with a band that featured and backed up well-known artists. “So many musicians have come and gone: Bossacucanova, Grammy winners Bacilos, Grammy nominees Locos Por Juana. Suenalo has always been a launching pad for artists coming out of Miami.”
The following year, Papayo found himself in yet another playing situation. Part of what made this gig special was that the producer of his next venture, Elastic Bond, is also from Venezuela. “Somehow we all just clicked, and they asked me to play one gig. I did it for nothing. Like with Suenalo, I used to do a lot of singing and backup vocals. When I want to do something, I want to talk about the project first and then we figure out the money.” With Elastic Bond — on whose album Excursion Papayo plays percussion and does vocals — Papayo was exposed to electronics in a much bigger way, paving the way for his work with Pitbull. Keyboardist/musical director Andres Ponce has described Elastic Bond and their novel approaches to funk, Latin, and bilingual rap this way: “We do this through mixing retro sounds with sounds of today and producing this sound with an approach of mixing electronica and samplers with organic instrumentation and songwriting.”
Are they funkier than other bands? After all, they were nominated for “Best Funky Fusion Band” by the Miami New Times? “No,” Papayo says simply. “I would describe Elastic Bond as indie chill-out music. Chill-out means chillin,’ relaxed, laid-back.” Still, Elastic Bond helped inch the burgeoning multitalented Papayo that much closer to the hip-hop vibe of Pitbull.
At the end of 2008, Papayo was still playing with Suenalo, and the manager of the club they were playing at happened to mention Pitbull was looking for new bandmembers. And so, as with every musical situation Papayo seems to have been involved with, he once again rode the word-of-mouth route straight into Pitbull’s band. Indeed, the following week, Papayo was in the studio with his new employer, rehearsing out of nowhere.
“That week,” he remembers, “we got into a rehearsal where we played for eight, nine, ten hours a day for a whole week. And then the next week, we were packing up, leaving everything we have here in Miami and just hitting the road.