Francisco Aguabella: Sworn To The Drum

Francisco Aguabella

Master conguero Francisco Aguabella is a musician’s musician, a living bridge between the music of Africa, Cuba and North America and a composer who has contributed many standards to the Latin jazz songbook, including some of Tito Puente’s biggest hits. He’s also been a bandleader, session musician and music teacher, and recently won a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for his role in helping to preserve America’s cultural diversity. His rhythmic virtuosity and knowledge of the religious drum lore surrounding the ceremonies of Santeria, Abacúa and Yezá have won him legions of fans, and he’s widely acknowledged as one of the century’s great hand drummers, right up there with Chano Pozo and Machito. Not too bad for a boy who grew up loading sugar onto cargo ships in the port of Matanzas for five cents a sack.

“That was my ’day job’ as a young man,” Aguabella says. “I lived in a house with my grandmother, and besides playing music all night, I worked as a longshoreman. All the sugar that left Cuba came through Matanzas, in 350-pound sacks of raw cane. It was piecework – you got five cents for each sack you hauled onto the ship. In eight hours I could haul 200 sacks of sugar, then when I was finished with work, I’d go play all night long.”

Aguabella was born in Matanzas, Cuba, on October 10, 1935. He had six brothers and a sister, “but one brother died of typhoid fever as a child. The brothers and my baby sister stayed behind and still live in Cuba.” Like many Cuban musicians, Aguabella has music in his blood. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hear music,” Aguabella says. “My father and uncle played drums in local bands, but in Cuba everybody plays the drums, especially in my neighborhood.

“In Cuba we have the freedom to play drums in the street, to make music in the street. The first thing you hear when you wake up in the morning is the drums. It’s a national sport, as important as baseball. On my street there were five or six guys who had little bands, and on many days they’d all be out playing, having a friendly competition, drumming and dancing. Sometimes they’d close the street from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. because they’d be out there playing rumba all day long.”

Matanzas, capital of Matanzas province, is known as one of Cuba’s most African cities, a place where people descended from the Yoruba, Calabar and many other West African ethnic groups stayed in touch with the bedrock rhythms that came to Cuba with the slave trade. These tribal rhythms eventually evolved into the rumba, a style that has gone on to influence much Cuban music and is also the cornerstone of Latin jazz and salsa. Los Muñequitos de Matanzas may be the city’s most internationally famous band, but the rumba is everywhere in Matanzas.

“You see a bunch of guys on the street, and someone will start clapping his hands, or tapping out a rhythm on a Coke bottle with the bottle cap,” Aguabella says. “Then they’ll be pounding on wooden crates, or a wall, or splashing in the puddles of water dripping out of an old air conditioner, or playfully tapping on somebody’s head. You can’t escape the rumba.”

The rhythms of the rumba are also closely associated with the Cuban religions of Santeria, Abacúa and Yezá, a hybrid of Catholicism and various African spiritual beliefs. “The rhythm is part of the religion, and it remains as strong as it was when I left in the ’50s,” Aguabella says. “There are people who go to Cuba to be baptized, and learn how to drum. There are even Africans that come to Cuba, because the bata – which was once played all over Africa – is today only played in one part of Nigeria, and in Matanzas.”

The bata, a two-headed drum used in Santeria rituals, was the instrument that first attracted Aguabella when he was a youth. “I was friends with Esteban Vega – his nickname was ’Chacha’ – an original member of Los Muñequitos. We both went to the same school and belonged to the same religion, Abacúa, which is only for men. It’s a ritual sacred society, a brotherhood. We dress in burlap pants, to let people know we are part of Abacúa. You know other members by how you shake hands and the words you exchange.

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“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.

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“As I’m thinking about these things, I listen to what the conga is saying, and the main line of the song will come out of the drum. Then I come up with a bass line that fits into the rhythm of the conga, write it down and give it to the arranger.”

Aguabella learned how to read music and play bass after he came to Los Angeles from New York City in 1958. “I took classes at Los Angeles City College – music theory and bass,” Aguabella says. “I knew if I wanted to work with people like Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee, I’d have to read music. Everybody has their own style, and they don’t have time to teach you, so you have to read music.

“The bass I learned because I thought it would give me more versatility. For a while I practiced the bass for five hours a day, then I’d go out and play drums until three or four o’clock in the morning, but eventually the conga came out on top. I love the drums, and the more I play them, the more I want to play.”

Aguabella usually uses three drums, tumba, conga and quinto in the standard tuning: D, D Minor and A. “If I need another sound, I may retune them, but mostly I use the standard tuning.”

Aguabella keeps his hands in shape by playing; but if he has a blister or some pain in his fingers, he may play with a drumstick. “Some of the African rhythms I play on the bembe require a stick, but unless I’m having some pain, I prefer to play with my hands. Playing is the best way to keep in shape.”

Aguabella should have plenty of opportunities to play in the coming year. The master recently inked a deal with Cubop, a division of San Francisco’s Ubiquity Records. Aguabella’s first release on Cubop will be a re-issue of Hitting Hard, a record from the mid ’70s recently rediscovered by acid jazz fans. It will be followed by other back catalog items, as well as a new recording featuring most of Aguabella’s current band with guest appearances by many of his friends and associates.

“I’m not afraid of hard work,” he says. “When I played with Malo, I played five congas, which had never been done before. Sometimes I’d lose ten pounds in one evening, because I’d sweat so hard.”

A Selected Francisco Aguabella Discography

Solo Album (on Cubop): Hitting Hard

With Tito Puente (on Rhino): El Rey del Timbal: The Best of Tito; (on RCA): Top Percussion; Yambeque: The Progressive Side of Tito Puente; (on Concord Jazz): Oye Como Va: The Dance Collection; (on Tico): El Rey

With Mongo Santamaria (on Fantasy): Mongo’s Greatest Hits; Yambu; Afro-Roots; Mongo

With Joe Henderson (on Original Jazz Classics): Canyon Lady

With Louie Bellson and Walfredo de los Reyes (on Original Jazz Classics): Ecue Ritmos Cubanos

With Eddie Palmieri (on Sony): Lucumi, Macumba, Voodoo; (on Intuition): Sueno

With Santana (on Columbia): Swing of Delight; Spirits Dancing in the Flesh

With Bobby Hutcherson (on Landmark): Ambos Mundos

With Benny Velarde/Francisco Aguabella Orchestras (on Fantasy): Benny Velarde/Francisco Aguabella Orchestras

With Paul Simon (on Warner Bros.): 1964-1993

With Israel “Cachao” Lopez (on Crescent Moon/Epic): Master Sessions, Vol. 1; Master Sessions, Vol. 2

With Pete Escovedo (on Concord Picante): Flying South

With Emil Richards (on Interworld): Lutana

With John Santos (on Xenophile): Hacia El Amor

With Herb Alpert (on Almo): Passion Dance