Frank Colón: New Sounds & Ancient Traditions

frank colon

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.’”

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Mom and dad were not exactly caliente on the idea. “They said, ’No way! Not in this house! If you really want to get into some music, I think you should play the violin,’” Colón continues. “So then I turned around and I said, ’No way! Over my dead body!’ Nothing against the violin per se, but in the neighborhood I lived in, if I walked down the street with a violin, I would have had to fight every time I walked home.”

An eventual truce was called on piano, but Colón’s heart was somewhere else. “My father would clock me in an hour of rehearsal every day. And when he’d turn his back and get up or do something else, I would close the piano and start beating out rhythms!” Colón says, laughing. “But I still do refer to my piano training today. When I see notes in my head, I see the keyboard. It’s a good solid foundation for whatever comes after that.”

Enrolling at American University back in D.C., Colón took full advantage of his new-found freedom. But while his liberated roommates were on the hunt for beer, he was looking around for bongos. Moving off campus, Colón followed a voice in his head and called a student house that had posted a vacancy. “I walked in the door, met the first guy and glanced over in the corner of the living room,” Colón recalls. “There were two conga drums over by the window. I said, ’Yeah, sure. This is it! I’ll take the room!’”

It was only then, with a set of skins finally at his disposal, that the 20-year-old political science student made his first serious foray into drumming. Slowly but surely, Colón began to explore a hobby that would explode into an insatiable passion. Salsa records were jammed “to death,” while he put feelers in every direction, taking advantage of the flourishing musical community that an international city like D.C. hosted. Drummers like Barnett Williams of Gil Scott Heron fame were establishing drum circles in DuPont Circle and Malcolm X Park, and Colón found them.

With agile hands and a keen ear, Colón began to nurture the rare skill that would become a defining facet of his sound – the talent for recognizing potential, not just in people, but in instruments themselves. At one drum circle, Colón saw Williams pick up the shekere, a big hollow gourd shaker that is a mainstay of the maraca family. “When I saw him play, I saw the possibilities of treating that as a major instrument, not just an accessory,” Colón says. “It’s a maraca, but it’s also a drum. The way you use your hand underneath produces a tone similar to a drum. It’s a combination of both.”

Not long after, Colón ran into a Brazilian drummer, and he set his sights again. This time, it was on the berimbau, a quirky Brazilian contraption that comes across as the duck-billed platypus of the drumming world.

“I saw the berimbau, and I was like, ’What the hell is this?’” Colón says, a note of genuine puzzlement still in his voice over 20 years later. “It’s ’string percussion.’ The berimbau is like a bow and arrow, the string is a wire, and you hold the bow vertically. At the bottom side, you attach a gourd, which resonates against your belly. The right hand holds a beater and a straw basket maraca at the same time. And the left hand is holding ... [laughs]. The hardest thing about the berimbau is holding it. That alone took me a good two months.” But those early stumbles eventually led to the mastery of the instrument that Colón now commands.

Another unusual instrument with a Brazilian pedigree that caught Colón’s eye was the cuica – a small drum that is open on one side, with a stick attached to the inside of the drum’s skin. By putting in a hand and stroking the drum stick, a sound is created that can be altered by pressing the skin in the front.

“When you don’t know how to play it, it sounds like a burp or something,” Colón says. “All it did was this low thing: ’Oooooo.’ But I always looked at the cuica as a chromatic instrument, with the possibilities for the full range of notes.” Colón made the friction drum into his own personal piano, developing a technique that allows him to play melodies, and even classical music, on it. Extensive use of the sound can be heard on much of his current work, as on the progressive jazz trombone album Heads And Tales by Ray Anderson’s Alligatory Band.

With his learning curve continuing upward, Colón attended a concert in 1975 that would literally change his life. One Summer day in D.C., the bata master Julito Collazo – one of only a handful of Afro-Cuban master drummers in the U.S. – hosted a workshop. Everyone in the area who considered themselves percussionists showed up to see Collazo. “Nobody,” reports Colón, “was disappointed.”

Colón had his mind blown during the demonstration, yet found the bravado to play the cowbell in the following jam session, and therefore felt he had the right to talk to Collazo afterward. Colón and a friend came away with a prized possession: Collazo’s phone number in New York City.

“It took us a week before we got the nerve to call,” Colón says. “What were we going to say? I’ve heard that guys went through this with Miles Davis, and Miles Davis would lay it to you: ’If you don’t have anything to say, then keep your mouth shut.’ We finally got through, and arranged to come up and start taking lessons from him.”

Colón began commuting from D.C., embarking on a strange, intense relationship with Collazo that was not teacher-student, but master-disciple. “I’d drive four-and-a-half hours to get to his house in Manhattan,” says Colón, “and we’d practice one rhythm.

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“And sometimes when I came up, I’d just hang with him and drink coffee and not play. When that happened, I’d drive back five hours in the snow, and practice the same stuff that I learned two months ago. And sometimes I came up and he was waiting for me on the steps. We’d go up immediately and work on six different things, and I’d go back dizzy with all this stuff.”

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Colón’s Cage

Drums: Toca
1. Brass Timbales
2. 10" Classic Mini Single Timbale
3. 8" Classic Mini Single Timbale
4. 13" Legend Snare Drum
5. LE Bongos
6. 11" LE Quinto
7. 11-3/4" LE Conga,br /> 8. 12-1/2" LE Tumbadora
9. Djembe

Cymbals: Paiste
A. 36" Symphonic Gong
B. 8" Visions Mini Hi-Hat
C. 16" Signature Fast Crash
D. 16" Signature Thin China
E. 18" Signature Flat Ride

Electronics:
G. Dauz Pad
H. Gibraltar Intruder Bass Pedal With KAT Trigger
I. Korg Wavedrum
J. Electronic Rack
Korg X5DR
Alesis D-4
Casio FZ-10M Sampler 8-Channel Mixer

After a year, Colón finally quit commuting and moved to New York City. The “disciple” was given more responsibility, accompanying Collazo and his three bata drummers to santeria functions. Eventually, Colón was promoted to playing bata, a huge responsibility where carefully scripted “conversations” take place between the three drums: the small okonkolo, the medium-sized itotele and the mother iya.

Colón is not a santero (he is a practicing Buddhist). But perhaps it was after these intense santeria sessions, where the drummers’ responsibility went beyond the musical realm and into a truly spiritual one, that the real power of rhythm became clearer than ever to him. When Collazo became a santeria priest and “hung up his gloves,” Colón went full force into the professional drumming world that he had begun to work his way into.

As an independent, Colón found no problem getting gigs in the jazz circuit. A well-stocked calendar of dates with high-profile players like Olatunji and Gato Barbieri launched him onto the fast-track of freelancing, as word of his explosive performances and wide scope of knowledge started to spread.

But then Colón took a two-week break to meet his in-laws in Brazil, home not only of the cuica and berimbau, but of a wide range of percussion instruments in Colón’s collection, such as the surdo, ganca, agogo, reco-reco and a host of others.

Predictably, two weeks turned into two years, as the American percussionist became an instant hot commodity down south. Remember the shekere? “I played shekere on this album with a group called MPB4,” Colón explains. “This was the first time the shekere had ever been played in Brazil. All of a sudden this Brazilian producer loved this thing. There wasn’t even a Portuguese word for it! It was the ’in’ into recording in Brazil and Rio.”

Soon, word of this weird Yankee percussionist made it to Milton Nascimento, Brazil’s foremost international singer at the time. Colón was invited to lend his talents to Nascimento’s next record, Missa Dos Quilombos, an album of breathtaking beauty recorded live in an abandoned monastery in the hills of Brazil. After a world tour, though, it was finally time to head back to the States.

Back home, an introduction to saxophonist Wayne Shorter led to an all-too-brief stint with Weather Report. “To this day, I’m still tight with Wayne, but they had two leaders,” Colón notes. “I didn’t get along with one.” Colón soon bounced back, lining up long-running gigs with the powerful singer Tania Maria, Ray Anderson’s brilliant Alligatory Band plus countless other tours and records with jazz, pop and world music artists. Colón has graced Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum CD and The Tonight Show with Manhattan Transfer, and he recently released his first solo record, Live at Vartan Jazz.

Recorded at the Denver club, Colón’s disc is a bright, energetic collection that gives an idea of the force and wide scope that Colón likes to unleash every once in a while. “I was trying to make it a cultural mix,” Colón says. “Latin sensuality, jazz sophistication, with some rock and roll power. I definitely come from this rock aspect, which makes me a bit of a renegade in the jazz ambiance. I know how to balance it, but when it comes to delivering, my heart beckons for this hard-rock delivery. I have to rein it in.”

Armed with an all-star cast of Buddy Williams on drums, Aloisio Aguilar on piano, Gregory Jones on bass, and Wayne Johnson on drums, Colón alternately breezes, punches, and slides through the album’s nine arrangements. In his incredible show-closing solo on “A3,” Colón uncorks his lightning speed, as he uses all six limbs and the kitchen sink to put an end to things.

There’s much more in store for the self-confessed workaholic. Electronics like triggers and the Korg Wave Drum are enhancing his acoustic setup. Colón will be touring with his band, as well as recording a second solo album, as the seasoned sideman evolves into a frontman. Also upcoming is a percussion triumvirate that Colón has formed with fellow New Yorkers David Meade and David Silliman.

Meanwhile, Colón just caught a new rhythm and drum in his searchlight. It seems some players from Uruguay recently showed him candombe, and now he’s tapping the potential. “It’s totally new information,” he reveals. “I’d heard the candombe in recordings, but I’d never witnessed it. Then I started hanging out with these candombe players.

“Drummer to drummer, you never lose that little-kid type purity: ’I love this so much, could you please teach me?’ So here I am again, seeking out these guys, watching them play, saying, ’Hey man, how’s this done?’”

For Frank Colón, square one is always just around the corner.