“You got to check him out, Anga is bad!”
That’s how most people are introduced to Miguel “Anga” Diaz. Known for his explosive soloing and inventive and melodic style, Diaz has been the buzz among underground conga aficionados for several years, breaking traditional percussion boundaries throughout Europe, the Caribbean, Africa and India. His itinerary is jammed with gigs backing the creative leaders of modern Cuban music (Irakere, The Afro-Cuban All-Stars), jazz (Steve Coleman, Roy Hargrove), jungle (DJ Gilb-r) and all creative points in between.
In person, you can’t help but be struck by his wide smile and huge, catcher’s-mitt-sized hands. These hands produce an incredibly powerful sound, even though he keeps them very low to the drums with a minimum of movement. But sheer power isn’t the only tool at his disposal. You can clearly hear the shading of his phrases, with each open tone ringing out to form a bass line or melody. Rapid slaps accentuate the phrase of another soloist, and the palm/fingertip rocking patterns idle impatiently, waiting to spring out at you. His moves around the drums are executed with such velocity that they defy the weight of those big hands. Each stop-and-start slap-mute combination and double-stroke hand chase is so clean that Diaz’s lifelong commitment to the evolution of conga drumming is blatantly obvious.
Born into a musical family in the small town of San Juan y Martinez in the Province of Pinar del Rio, Cuba, Anga started his musical studies at the Escuela Nacional de Arte de inar del Rio. Later he studied classical percussion at the Escuela de Arte in Havana. But he didn’t start learning to play the congas until he began watching legendary Cuban congueros Tata Güines, Changuito, and Jorge “Nino” Alfonso (who was the first conguero in Cuba to use five drums). “He had a technique that allowed him to play five congas with ease,” Diaz told writer Victor Rendón. “I got a video of Nino from Maestro Chucho Valdes [musical Director of the prestigious Cuban band Irakere] and studied it thoroughly. From there I united his style with mine.” Diaz actually went on to join Irakere in 1987, and toured and recorded with the group for seven years.
After his departure from Irakere, Diaz, who has family in Paris, has divided his time between Cuba and France when not on the road. The musical climate of Paris – three hours from London by train and three hours from Dakar by plane – is truly cosmopolitan. “In Europe, and especially in Paris, the same people who listen to traditional jazz listen to rap and Arabic music or jungle,” Diaz explains. “They are very open to musical experiments. In the States the audiences seem to be more class or racial based in their tastes, with Latinos listening to Latin music and blacks listening to rap, and so on. Also it can be a bit more conservative in the states. They are more responsive to the music that I play with Roy Hargrove for example than with Steve Coleman’s Five Elements.”
Paris also offers Diaz the opportunity to hear and play not only with some of the incredible drummers in the Afro-French tradition, including Paco Sery, Bruce Wassy and Moktar Samba, but also in the rich European jazz tradition led by drummers such as Andre Cecerelli. These uniquely Parisian blends create bands that are just as likely to have a DJ as a piano player, and a dancer from Senegal rather than a singer. While he isn’t afraid to experiment, Diaz also feels the need to carry on the historic rhythms of Cuba, to keep these traditions alive by playing them for the rest of the world. This is documented in his video Anga Mania! (Music In Motion Films).
Having just spent a month in Cuba recording three new records, including the new Afro-Cuban All-Stars release for the London-based World Circuit label, Diaz is reflective about playing with some of Cuba’s older musicians: “What I love is that the older Cuban musicians love to play with me. That is a great reward. I love to play with the oldies.” He continues with enthusiasm: “On this record with the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, some people are going to be surprised when they hear that it is in the older son clave. The clave that the older soneros used went along with the melody. When you play with older musicians you see that the clave isn’t as important to them today.”
Does that mean that Cuban drummers have become too Americanized? “Well, Cuba definitely is Americanized musically, because Cuban musicians listen to a lot of different things,” Diaz says. “And by doing this they add more richness to their playing because they only take what they want from it and return to who they are. Also they see how popular Cuban music is throughout the world right now, so they are beginning to become aware and to look back at the history of their music.”
Because of his incredible technical abilities on the congas, Diaz often finds himself compared to Giovanni Hidalgo. While this may be inevitable, Diaz dismisses the suggestion: “Giovanni and I are about the same age and people like to compare us, but it’s not really what I wanted. When I started working professionally, Giovanni was already very well known. I didn’t want to try to be technically better than he is. I wanted to develop a different style and just be myself.
“Giovanni is from the school of Changuito and I’m from the school of Tata Güines,” Diaz continues. “The difference between Changuito and Tata is that Changuito developed everything around songo and Tata developed everything around marcha [tumbao]. The leaders of the ’school of marcha’ are Patato Valdes, Mongo Santamaria, Armando Peraza, Candito and Tata. Niño Alphonso comes from the school of Oscar Valdez and the rhythm batumbata.” The kinship between Diaz and Güines is documented on The Cuban All-Stars Pasaporte, an Eja recording featuring both percussionists.
While Diaz’s playing style represents an extension of a certain rhythmic lineage, his soloing knows no boundaries. But rather than engage in a cutting contest with the other soloists, he takes a more melodic approach – setting up bass lines and layering counter melodies, similar to the way a bassist or pianist would. He then riffs on these patterns with the virtuosity of his horn-playing bandleaders.
Diaz is aware that many fans of Latin music expect drummers to be competitive toward one another, but he shrugs it off and says, “There are many great percussionists, and we all have our different ways of expressing ourselves. Every person expresses him or herself differently. The public decides which type of expression they prefer. It has developed this way in Cuba, as well as Puerto Rico. For instance, Tata, Patato, Mongo, Armando and Candito are all from the same generation, and are all great, but each has their own recognizable sound and style. They didn’t try to do what each other did.”
Although Diaz sometimes records with four congas, he prefers to use five. “Everybody asks me what my tuning is, but it depends on the type of music that I’m playing,” he explains. “With traditional music like the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, I’m not going to tune the drums high. I’m going to tune them medium. With Steve Coleman I’m going to bring them up a bit. It can vary from song to song if I am in the studio. In music school, what I worked on was to listen. By listening to what is around me, that should tell me how I’m going to tune. The same is true for how I play. I don’t play according to the rhythm section; I play according to the melody. I also listen a lot to the piano and bass and try to fit into that. There wasn’t a piano player on the record that I just did with Cachaito. I played Cachaito’s bass lines on the congas so he could improvise. We didn’t miss the piano. It’s not congas, or percussion, or clave – it’s music!”
Actually, Diaz’s setup is a bit like the piano. He has two low drums to his left (at 9:00 and 11:00 o’clock), from which he likes to begin many of his patterns. He does this despite the fact that he is right-handed. So why did he develop this left-hand lead system? “You hear an idea and you figure it out,” was his truthful advice.
Certainly, the pursuit of your own style isn’t something that can be developed in a vacuum, and Diaz has been fortunate to have played alongside masterful musicians. “The only way to develop your own style is by doing,” he explains. “With Roy Hargrove we play more of a traditional jazz style with a Cuban rhythm section, which brings it very close to traditional Cuban music. It was easy for us [the rhythm section] to play with Roy because that music is in all of us. If you take the jazz standard ’Giant Steps,’ and you put Cuban percussion with it they naturally meet.” In contrast, Diaz describes his work with Steve Coleman as “research,” and explains the approach: “Steve tries to work within some forms of traditional music, but he needs to combine his own music and jazz to the traditional style. We try to add different concepts and sounds, but it’s not fusion, nothing is diluted.”
With Coleman, Diaz has traveled to India, Cuba, Africa, America and throughout Europe, playing concerts and clubs. In Cuba, Diaz watched Coleman dissect many of the local musical forms, then break them into pieces. “He may take half of a clave pattern found in Abakwa, for instance, and use that to build what the drums or the bass are doing and what he is going to play on the saxophone over the top of it,” Diaz explains. “And he has these rhythmic patterns from all over the world that he will call on, and that everyone in the band must know.”
While in flight over the top of five congas, cowbells and timbales with his hands and feet streaming out clave ostinatos, such sudden direction changes can pose a serious challenge, even for the rhythmically gifted. Diaz accepts it in stride. “Steve pushes you to play more than you know. He knows that once he takes you into virgin territory, and you are fully in the moment, that something special can happen.”
Fortunately, Diaz’s intense recording and touring schedule allows us to experience these special moments up close. And because of his passion and commitment to music, you can be sure that when he comes around next year, he’ll be even better!