Milton Cardona: Spirit Of Tumba, Soul Of NYC

Milton Cardona

Cardona’s first Latin recording (he smiles as he remembers his first ever studio date; it was with a doo-wop group called the Personalities) was with Johnny Colon, a tune he recalls as “Boogaloo Blues” on an album of the same name. He spent a couple of years with the boogaloo bands of the ’60s as a conguero, bassist, or in the chorus. As salsa began to crystallize, Cardona drifted over, landing with Willie Colon, salsa’s bad boy. Colon played the baddest trombone, vaunted salsa’s baddest vocalist, Hector Lavoe, and had, for sure, one of the baddest orchestras in all of the brilliance that was salsa. Cardona stayed with Colon for 16 years.

Cardona smiles, recalling the Willie Colon years. With nothing but praise for the music, Cardona reminisces, “To be a member of the Willie Colon orchestra, before learning how to really play, before being really good at playing, you had to be really good with your hands. With your fists, I mean.” He went on to describe some of the melees that became the band’s extracurricular activities. “A lot of times, you’d finish a set, you’d come out of the club and walk around the corner and see a scuffle, and when you’d get real close it was Willie fighting somebody else. It was crazy.”

The salsa days are over and Cardona is glad to have moved on. He’s grown tired of the rigors of club playing and, for him, the music’s taken a big tumble. “Now it’s a whole different thing, it’s a pretty-boy thing,” Cardona laments and amplifies. “They’re not playing for the dancers anymore. The bandleaders aren’t really bandleaders. Before, the bandleaders, they were musicians. Willie, he was a horn player. Now you got a lot of the leaders, they’re the singers, and their thing is romantic songs. It’s a turn off.”

Many veterans of the salsa explosion share his complaint. Unlike most of them, however, Cardona has the musical breadth and curiosity to have moved on to other genres; he’s not mired and malcontented, wishing for the return of the good old days. Except for a date here and there, he does his signature thing in Latin jazz now. For one, the gigs are easier (he’s back home before midnight, while in his salsa/boogaloo days, he’d just be leaving home at that hour) and the pay’s better (“You do a recording with a Latin band, the record would come out, and you would have to go to a record store to buy the record.”) More importantly, he feels that playing Latin jazz, especially with guys like Dave Valentin and Jerry Gonzalez’s Fort Apache Band, gives him a chance to be more creative.

“What I like to do is apply straight-ahead Latin rhythms to Latin jazz. Being that it’s Latin jazz, a lot of people change their styles around to fit that format, but to me, by keeping it pure, like not having to change the clave, that’s when you really create, and that’s what Latin jazz is about.” He’s also used his honed ear and sense of discrimination to either come in with his congas or lay back, “if it doesn’t feel right. There’s a lot of stuff in Latin jazz that I won’t play on. Because by adding, you can take away. You can play congas to any kind of music, but it’s got to feel right.”

Cardona is not a grandstanding drummer. He knows he’s got a contribution to make, and he’s sure of his chops, but he prefers tastefulness and subtlety to powerhouse playing. He likes to chide burn-the-skins, hot-shot conguero and friend, Giovanni Hidalgo, “Yo, Bro, you know you don’t have a style anymore,” because there’s a whole crop out there imitating Hidalgo’s lightning hands and their every lick. Cardona maintains that the wannabes even look like the stocky, bright-faced Hidalgo.

Cardona is confident of his signature. “I still got my own stuff,” he says. “[When people] hear me on a recording, they’ll know it’s me. One thing that I do different from day one, I hit the tumbadora in Latin music [the lower-tuned conga] on the 2 of the clave where nine of ten will hit it on the 3. That’s the way I feel it. Any Latin recording that I do, you’ll hear the tumbadora on the 2 of the clave. I don’t feel it on the 3. People hear that and they’ll know it’s me.”

Cardona has his own group, Eya Aranla (“Drums and Voices” in LukumĂ­). He gigs frequently with them, but for the most part, he’s been, and is content being, a sideman. “I love it,” he says. “I have my group just to get away from everything else, where I can control everything. But sometimes it’s a big headache. As a sideman, when I get called, if the money’s good, I do it. Or, if the gig’s not right, I don’t take it.”

Over the years he’s produced two CDs, both of them for Kip Hanrahan who’d given Cardona free reign on them. Bembè (1987) is a straightforward showcase of the orishas (the deities of Santeria), with the requisite three bata drums laying down the toque, or rhythmic pattern, for each orisha. The drums are embellished by chanting and other percussion, such as shekere and atchere (rattle). Cambucha (his daughter Carmen’s nickname) (1999) is bolder; with a retro and contemporary sound, it’s both playful and devotional. While Santeria holds down this second CD as well, the instrumentation is expanded – Papo Vasquez and Michael Brecker appear on horns, for example, with Andy Gonzalez on bass, and there’s some tasty piano contributed by both Bill O’Connell and Joe Torres. Cardona’s even composed a doo-wop ditty, “A Kiss” (what else?), for this one.

In his music room, Cardona plays some of the more progressive stuff he’s done, recordings with Jack Bruce (Shadows in the Air), Hanrahan (Desire Develops an Edge), and Uri Caine (The Goldberg Variations). He’s especially pleased to have worked on a two-CD set, The Sultan’s Picnic and Blue Camel, where he plays conga to mostly traditional Arabic arrangements. The music demonstrates the way his tumbao could both contrast and complement the oud and dumbek, his drum as much an icon of Afro-Cuba as the oud and dumbek are of the Arab world. Cardona sits down to give a hard, satisfied re-listen, then explains the story of the project.

He was playing several years ago at a world music conference, jamming on one tune with a myriad of musicians, feeling he had to create something interesting and distinctively Afro-Cuban on the spot. “And this guy playing oud stops, comes over to me, grabs me, gives me a big kiss on the cheek.” It was master oudist Rabih Abu-Khalil. He’d just found in Cardona the conguero he’d been searching for.

When the music for the sessions arrived in the mail, Cardona felt his heart sink. “I wanted to cry. I couldn’t make out any of the time signatures, things like 16/25, 9 this and that. I hadn’t realized how different Arab music is from the European thing.” He thought of backing out, but his wife convinced him to go to Germany for the recording. “It worked out great,” he enthuses. “I loved it because I had to be creating other stuff now. Whenever there’s something that used the feel of Latin I would do that. On this stuff with the Arabs, I’ve got to tune a certain way, play a certain way, and add stuff, because they don’t know the instrument, so they can’t tell you what they want. If they like it, they’ll tell you right away. It was just great.”

It turns out to be the last story of the day. After a quick tidy-up, Cardona loads two congas into the back of his well-traveled compact car and rattles off to a gig with Dave Valentin that evening.

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