Manuel "Papayo" Corao: A Man For All Beats

Manuel Papayo Corao

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.”

Jumping On The Bandwagon

“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.

Pitbull And The Hip-Hop Vibe

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.

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Manuel Papayo Corao

Papayo’s Percussion

Drums Pearl Bobby Allende Congas and Bongos
1 11" x 30" Quinto
2 11.75" x 30" Conga
3 12.5" x 30" Tumba
4 7" / 8.5" Bongos
5 14" x 24" Pearl Elite Fiberglass Djembe
6 14" / 15" Pearl Elite Brass Timbales
7 12" x 5" Pearl Marc Quiñones, Q-Popper Timbale Snare
8 16" x 12" Floor Tom

Cymbals Sabian
A 16" HH Chinese
B 16" AA El Sabor Crash
C 13" AA El Sabor Splash
D 17" HHX Evolution Crash
E 18" HHX Evolution Crash

Electronics Roland
F SPD-S Pad

Percussion Pearl
G Trap Table includes Shakerine, Guiro, Chimes, Woodblocks, Cabasa, etc.
H Pearl Stacker with Cowbell and Block

Manuel “Papayo” Corao also uses Evans Tri-Center Synthetic heads (congas/bongos), G1 Clear (djembe), G2 Clear (timbales), G1 Coated (snare/floor tom) and Pro-Mark timbale sticks.

“We had no shows before,” he says. “We just hit the road and started working together. From that moment on until today, I do believe that my life has changed, personally and professionally. It’s hard to be on the road. I’ve been traveling for the past four years for Pit. Professionally, you gotta work double; you gotta help put it out double, which means I’m a percussionist but I also want to do some other things: I want to be an artist, I want to write songs. So you gotta record on the road. It gets lonely, but I love it.”

A little back-story here: “In 2007,” he says, “it didn’t come out until 2010, but I had a band and a CD called Concrete Rebels, a reggae jam band. I was the percussionist, vocalist, and producer of that band, doing everything. I realized that all the money I was making on all these other gigs, I had to say goodbye to commit to this.” Asked if Concrete Rebels will remain a band over the long haul, Papayo says, “I never like to close doors. I love reggae; it’s gonna satisfy me no matter what. We did five or six shows in Miami, and then we decided to go into the studio and record the CD.”

On the occasion of this interview, Papayo was on the verge of yet another tour with Pitbull, the band preparing to leave for a late-summer tour of Australia. “They’ll all be festivals, in arenas,” he says. “We’re going to be opening up for Enrique Iglesias. It’s going to be pretty exciting, because it’ll be the first time I get to open for Papa Enrique in front of these huge crowds.”

Playing with Pitbull is not your typical Latin percussion gig, given that he’s a rapper and the style of playing loosely falls into the category of Latin hip-hop. “Here’s the thing,” Papayo says, matter-of-factly, “there are different types of percussionists, and I respect them all. What I’ve had in mind as a percussionist is to always try to keep that tempo and [stay] in the key. My main focus as a percussionist in order to be able to complement the Pitbull show as a hip-hop artist is to understand the different patterns of percussion. Because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what the piano played or what’s the beat or what is it that you’re playing to. You gotta do a pattern, and you gotta keep the pattern. Because I think every person that’s on a stage playing live should think as a producer to be successful, and not clash with whatever the other musicians are doing in the band. I have written songs for Pitbull as well — they are part of the show. I think it has become like a family thing.”

Clicking With Omar

One of Papayo’s main delights here is his playing with Pitbull drummer Omar Tavarez. “We both have been playing together for so many years,” Papayo says, “that we both feel very good as musicians; we get along on stage very well.” In fact, their history predates Pitbull. “My first gig that I had with Omar was with Suenalo,” he says. “Suenalo was like the launching base. You know, they used to play that type of music, too, the Miami beats.”

His interaction with Tavarez, who, at 28, is just three years older, makes for a solid unit — a percussion team on equal footing. “I think it has to do with the number of rehearsals,” Papayo says. “We have been rehearsing for a long time. It has a lot to do with listening, too: trying to listen to what he’s doing, and trying to fill up the space and not try to place something on top of what he’s doing. I try to play something different than what he’s doing and then match up. That’s why I think my role as a percussionist in a hip-hop band or playing with a hip-hop artist like Pitbull has been successful. So, musically, I think Omar and me, we really click.”

Some drummers don’t play that well with percussionists. You have to be a certain kind of drummer to “click.” “What I like about Omar as a drummer,” Papayo goes on to say, “is that he shows respect for what I do. And I show respect for what he does as well. Again, it’s a matter of listening to each other, especially when percussion and drums are the rhythm base of the whole thing. He’s a really tight drummer; he can keep a beat. And we can alternate, doing different things. I play a cover here; you play this there. We never say ‘no’ to ideas; that’s another thing, too. And that comes with respect. I have an idea and I present it to him, and he does the same thing for me. So I think it means a really good music relationship.” It also doesn’t hurt that the two live together. “I see him more than I see my own family,” Papayo says.

Papayo is a big proponent of recording performances to get better. It’s something he and Tavarez do on a consistent basis. “If you don’t listen to what you did, then you wouldn’t be able to correct it. So that’s why we really focus a lot on recordings. Every time we do a show we try to record it and just listen back and see what we can come up with.”

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Playing with a rapper like Pitbull, which has included opening for big-name acts like Lady Gaga, Wyclef Jean, and The Flaming Lips, Papayo confesses, “I never thought I was going to be playing percussion with a hip-hop artist; I never liked hip-hop, I never listened to it. So, I guess I was just preparing for it.” And what about electronics? “I wish I had the taste for it,” he says. “Why? Here’s the thing: I love electronic percussion, but they’re kind of moody, you know, some things here and there. I use the Roland Handsonic HPD10 right now. For my upcoming tour, I’ll also be using an M-Audio Axion 29 MIDI controller, hooked up to Ableton Live and a Mini Korg Kaos pad for effects. Everything else is just playing with my hands, bro. My main instrument on percussion is congas, and I’m a timbale player, but I play every other percussion instrument as well.” As for recordings, check out Pitbull’s last two, Armando (2010) and Planet Pit (2011) for a full sampling of Papayo and Tavarez’s work with the rapper and the rest of his band.

A Career Of His Own

Apart from Concrete Rebels, Papayo has been busy building on his separate career as a leader. He has a new album coming out this year, On The Road, an album of all-original music that he produced, sings, and plays keyboards as well as percussion on as he works with other musicians. How does it compare? “It’s totally different,” he says. “Concrete Rebels is reggae. For example, the song ‘Eres Tu’ is merengue, which comes from the Dominican Republic. In addition, the song has some influences from Colombia with the accordion. I have always been into tropical music.”

As for influences, the list is a bit surprising. “I grew up listening to salsa a lot. And later, a guy [I saw who] I found myself asking, How does he do that, was Anga Diaz, a percussionist in Europe. He passed away a couple years ago. He mixed electronic music with five, six, seven congas all tuned to different keys. He used to play congas like crazy on drum ’n’ bass gigs, and the sounds he made with congas were amazing. He would focus a lot on technique. I don’t care how flashy you can play. I don’t care how hard you can play. But I do care about how did you get that? How many sounds can you get out of that one single hand drum? And, again, reggae has been a big influence. It’s a really complete music, super simple. And there’s Giovanni Hidalgo and Robert Vilera, a well-known master percussionist from Venezuela who I consider a mentor.”

When asked if he had a magic wand and could come up with his own dream band playing what would be his favorite music, he responds, “I just like to go for it. That’s what I’ve always been doing. I’ve been playing in a salsa band, a reggae band, then a Latin-ska band. I try to get as much information as I can from everything.”