Milton Cardona: Spirit Of Tumba, Soul Of NYC

Milton Cardona

“To me there’s only two kinds of music, good and bad. It doesn’t matter if it’s Latin or pop or jazz. If it’s good, I’m all right with that.”

Milton Cardona, one of the hardest-working drummers in all of music today, has both the ear and, after nearly 35 years on the scene, the discretion to play what’s good and refuse what’s not. He’s played conga and bata – and vocalized – with a gamut of artists that runs from David Byrne, Don Byron, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon, Reinhard Flatischler (Mega Drums), and Jack Bruce to Tito Puente, Papo Vasquez, and Dave Valentin. Cardona also has recorded well over 200 albums.

Cardona lives in the Gun Hill section of the Bronx – a tidy, blue-to-white collar residential area of one- and two-family houses of whites, Latinos, Caribbeans, and an African or two. Cardona lives comfortably, if almost modestly with his family in a two-story house with a small yard. Living room, music listening area, and kitchen make up the open parlor floor. The widest TV screen anyone has ever seen outside a sports bar dominates the living room, indeed, the whole floor. Beneath the screen is a printed sign, proof that the house is accustomed to visitors, with – one would surmise, risking reproof – a fair proportion of them musicians: “Please use our ashtrays, not our floors.” On the walls are framed posters from several of the more memorable shows he’s done and a line-up of just some of his Grammy awards.

Hours melt away as we talk comfortably, with Cardona never straying from his focus – his music. Interruptions come as he admonishes the Cardona’s playful poodle, gives fatherly instructions to his teenage daughter Carmen, and answers innumerable phone calls.

Cardona is a compact man just beginning to show middle age. A thick, drooping black moustache and dense eyebrows define his somber face. His arms are big but not mighty; they speak of one who has mastered rather than beaten his drum.

Milton Cardona has traveled the world, but lived nearly all of his life in the Bronx. His family came up from Mayaguez, Puerto Rico when he was five to settle in the South Bronx. He’s both a prodigy of the New York City schools and a product of the streets. He began to study classical violin in elementary school, but by his early teens, the Afro-Cuban rhythms of the streets had possessed him. Having moved on to acoustic bass in school, while teaching himself timbales at home, Cardona was learning congas and chanting and doo-wop from the street vets by the time he was in junior high school.

Mongo Santamaria is the only conguero Cardona cites as an influence: he was the real deal in those days, since he was from Cuba. But Cardona is quick to maintain that he cut only his baby teeth on Mongo: “When I was coming up, it was Mongo. He’s the one I used to watch and listen to. Until I got a little older and started hearing some other stuff, some stuff from Cuba. Nothing against Mongo, because I have a lot of respect for him, but, his style is not the style that I wanted. I guess that’s part of growing up. First you’re so much into one cat and then you’re going elsewhere and you go to other levels.”

As with most Puerto Rican musicians, in New York especially, Cardona has been infected with the traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms that have pulsed like a heartbeat through the streets, parks, and schoolyards of East Harlem, the South Bronx and other barrios since the mass migrations of Cubans and Puerto Ricans of the ’50s and onward. The rhythms are the scripture of Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion with roots mostly in Yorubaland, Nigeria. Cardona was initiated early on; Santeria is a part of his very fiber.

Upon initiation he made it a point to learn Lukumí, the Yoruba-derived language used in Santeria ritual and chant. “I always said, why should I learn the prayer if I don’t know what it means,” he reasons. “So I got into studying with [Babatunde] Olatunji’s son. I love to rap in Yoruba.” Cardona is frequently called into sessions for his chanting. One can’t help but see Cardona’s attraction first to doo-wop and then to chanting; both are influenced by the African call-and-response choral style.

Last year Cardona performed at a CD release party for Chesky’s The Conga Kings Jazz Descargas. He played percussion, mostly bell, to Giovanni Hidalgo, Candido, and Patato Valdez’s congas. Other artists featured on the album, such as trombonist Jimmy Bosch and trumpeter Chocolate, rounded out an outstanding group. The encore brought back just the congueros and Cardona, chanting. Even after such driving musicianship, the room – the rather anonymous B.B. King’s blues bar – became immediately hushed in deep spirituality.

When the question regarding Santeria’s profound effect presents itself, he responds in technical terms, distinguishing between a “commercial” 6/8 (“what you hear in a lot of recordings nowadays,” even what he’d learned from Mongo) and the 6/8 one learns from going to bembès, or drum-defined Santeria throw-downs.

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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 Lukumí). 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.