To mark the 64th birthday of the great Havana-born drummer Ignacio Berroa, I’m posting interviews that I conducted with him in 2014 and in 2008. The latter interview was conducted over a leisurely breakfast one morning during the Dominican Republic Jazz Festival, where Berroa was performing with a group that included the great conguero Giovanni Hidalgo, who contributed to the conversation. The earlier interview was conducted in May 2008 live on WKCR, to publicize a gig at the Jazz Standard.
Ignacio Berroa (Dominican Republic, Cabarete, Nov. 7, 2014):
TP: Since you have a new recording and you’re performing your repertoire tonight, I’d like to know something about what you’re going for as a bandleader and composer in presenting it.
IB: What I try to convey as a bandleader and as a composer… I am not a great composer actually. I composed one tune on my previous album, Codes, “Joao Su Merced,” and on this one I composed one called “Laura’s Waltz,” which I dedicated to my granddaughter. It’s a 3/4; a waltz.
But the message that I tried to convey in both my albums, and in the next album that I will do, is always to mix the music from my heritage with the music of my passion. That’s why the name of this album. Since I was a kid, as you can see in the liner notes, I fall in love with jazz, and I always want to be a jazz player. But coming to the United States, I figured that I have to do something that will be interesting. First of all, I didn’t want to be a Latin drummer, because not too many people to compete. The main reason why I left Cuba was because I always wanted to be a jazz drummer. But in order for me to be different from the others, what I figured was to mix my rhythms, the rhythms of my country with the straight-ahead of jazz, which, in my opinion, and as we know if you check history, have a lot of in common—because everything came from Africa. So rhythmically speaking, we’ve got a lot of things in common. The only thing is that in jazz they swing the notes, BING, BINK-A-DING, BINK-A-DING, and we might do BING-BING-PA-BING, BING-PA…— This is a triple feel from the Africans. [SINGS IT] On top of that… You can superimpose. [DEMONSTRATES ON TABLE] That’s it.
So for me, rhythmically speaking, it is easy to understand where we’re coming from. So mixing both cultures is what has made my drumming interesting. That’s the main reason why I became Dizzy Gillespie’s drummer for ten years. I always tell people… I don’t like to talk about myself because it seems like I’m bragging. The way I see it, and the way it is, in the history of American music I am the only drummer from another country (you can correct me if I’m wrong) that played with the master and the creator of bebop for ten years. Sometimes, when people try to pigeonhole me into that “Latin drummer,” I always tell them, “Well, but Dizzy Gillespie didn’t play salsa.” So I was with Dizzy Gillespie playing world music, if we want to call it that way, but I had to play a lot of straight-ahead. And if my ass was sitting in that chair for ten years, it means that… Dizzy was dizzy but not stupid. So he knew what he had in that chair. That’s what I always try to combine. That’s what differentiates me from other drummers.
TP: Was that concept in place when you got here?
IB: That was something that developed. When I arrived to New York, I didn’t know the meaning of “yes.” I had a great mentor. Mario Bauzá was my mentor. Mario Bauzá was the first one who told me, “Ignacio, in this country, what they pay is for originality. If you become another one, you are another one; if you become a clone of Art Blakey, you are Art Blakey’s clone. Or you are Philly Joe Jones’ clone.”
So I found my way to incorporate… As a matter of fact, I remember very clearly when I started playing with that… Dizzy used to play a tune called “School Days” which was a shuffle that he used to sing, and one day while we were playing “School Days,” I was playing the shuffle, and then suddenly, at some point, I started playing the Afro-Cuban clave. While keeping the shuffle, I put the clave. He turned around and he looked at me like I was crazy. But he kept singing because the beat was going on. He loved it. The only thing I did afterwards was changing that pattern from the cowbell to the cymbal. That was the beginning for me, when I said, “Wait a minute; I am going to start going for this.”
TP: Dizzy must have been very supportive of all that. He must have loved that.
IB: Dizzy was in love with Afro-Cuban rhythms. Very simple. It was Mario Bauzá who turned him on to that. It was Mario Bauzá who encouraged Dizzy Gillespie to move to New York, because Mario Bauzá met Dizzy in Philadelphia while Mario was playing with Cab Calloway. He met Dizzy at a jam session. Back then, musicians used to stay in Philadelphia to hone their skills before moving to New York. Mario met Dizzy at a jam session, and it was Mario who told Dizzy, “You are ready; go to New York; and when you go to New York, you call me.” It was Mario who put Dizzy Gillespie to Cab Calloway’s big band, because Mario was about to go do the band with his brother-in-law Machito. It was Mario who told Cab Calloway, “this is the guy that I met here,” and that was the famous phrase… Cab Calloway didn’t like Dizzy. Cab Calloway used to say that Dizzy played Chinese music. But Mario kept pushing, and when Dizzy proved that he was able to play the first trumpet book, Mario left and Dizzy stayed with Cab, but they became friends. It was Mario who put in Dizzy’s mind all the Afro-Cuban thing, and then it was Mario who told Dizzy in 1943 or 1944 , when Dizzy said he wanted to do something new, Mario was the one who told him, “Why don’t you hire this conga player who just came from Cuba?”—that name was Chano Pozo.
TP: Did Dizzy work with you on swing rhythms, or did you have it together?
IB: No. I had it together, but then I learned about the language. Dizzy taught me… I learned a great deal with Dizzy about the language. The same way that I am never going to be able to speak English without this horrible accent, Dizzy told me about the language—about articulation, about phrasing. When he was doing a phrase, where to hit the bass drum. He said to me, “I’m playing a phrase, A-BEAT, BEAT, BEE-DO-BE-DU, BE-DA-BA-DOO-BI-DI, BEE-BAHP-BE-O—OH-OH. He said, “When I stop there to breathe, that’s where, in this language…”
Of course, another thing that I did and I am going to do until the day that I die, I continue listening to the masters. So I learn every day. Every day that’s something that I am going to do as long as my mind continues working.
TP: Who are the American masters that you listen to? Who are the Cuban masters that you listen to?
IB: Cuban masters? Anybody. From Los Muñequitos de Matanzas… I got that background because my father was a musician (violin). He’s still alive, but he’s 85 years old. He retired. But I grew up in a house where I used to listen to Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Abelardo Barroso, La Sublime(?—10:17), (?) Gonzalez, Jose Fajardo… All those Cuban bands, that was in my house, and that was on the street. On my way from my house to the school, somebody would be playing in a jukebox in the court of my house Muñequitos. So that was in the air. My mom was crazy. In the house, the radio was always on. But dad was a musician. My grandfather was a musician.
TP: So your path was not unlike Gonzalo Rubalcaba or Paquito D’Rivera, whose fathers were musicians.
IB: More than that. Gonzalo’s father and my father… You want to know something very curious? You’re going to have to pay me for this. [LAUGHS] The first job that my father had as a professional, in a charanga band in Cuba, the pianist was Gonzalo’s dad. You know what? This is something that if you go to Cuba or if you want to go to Miami… From that era, there are just two guys alive. Gonzalo’s dad and my father. When those two guys die, there’s going to be nobody to ask about that era. Because those guys are the only ones alive—Gonzalo’s dad and my dad.
TP: Who are the American drummers you listened to?
IB: My first idol was Max Roach. My notebooks in Cuba, they used to say… I wrote in all my notebooks, “Max Roach, Max Roach, Max Roach.” He was my idol. That was the first bebop album I was exposed to, was the Max Roach band with Clifford Brown and Harold Land. So I listened to Max Roach while I was in Cuba. But don’t forget, I grew up in an environment that Cuba and the United States have no relations, Americans were our enemies, playing jazz was promoting the music of the enemy, and there were no more record stores. The second album that I had was Miles Davis, Four and More. So from Max Roach, I jumped to Tony Williams without listening to Jimmy Cobb, Philly Joe Jones, Blakey… It was Max Roach, Tony Williams, then later I was able to listen to Relaxin’ by Miles Davis, and then I was able to listen to Philly Joe Jones. It was like that.
But then, after I arrived in the United States in 1980, I had the opportunity to check out everybody. Then I said, “Now I’m going to do my homework the way it’s supposed to be.” Then I discovered Baby Dodds, Chick Webb, Papa Jo Jones. I did my whole homework. Also drummers that unfortunately were not very famous. One of the drummers who inspires me the most is a guy who used to play with Dexter Gordon, Eddie Gladden. He was one of the most inspiring drummers for me. I loved Jack DeJohnette. I love every drummer. If I have to pick one, my idol—Roy Haynes. He is my idol. When I grow up, I want to be like Roy.
TP: On both records, you use a very expansive sound palette—electronic wind instruments, synthesizers.
IB: Yes. It’s just that I want to do something different. It is a matter of taste. Some people are curious, and some people criticize that. I have learned in my 61 years that you cannot please everybody. We are in 2014, and it is an era where we have been using synthesizers for a long time. I remember being in Cuba when we were able to hear My Spanish Heart, and on all those Chick Corea albums he was using a lot of synthesizer. So I wanted for this album to have that sound, to have the EWI or the Yamaha MIDI control. So that’s going to be… To me, it gives a fresh sound, a different sound, but with the Afro-Cuban flavor behind. That’s what I want to get on this album… You miss the electric guitar. I don’t want to do another album that sounds… With all due respect to those purists, those people who think that mainstream jazz has to sound always like this, and Latin Jazz has to sound always like this. But I’m looking for something else. From my point of view as a drummer, what has to be happening is while you’re playing behind that. That’s what has to be happening. The way Miles Davis used to say, “When I put a band together, the first guy I look for is the drummer.” If the drummer is happening, the band is happening. So my conception is, I can have 5-6 guys for three organs, five guitars, two bassoons, three oboes, but I’m playing with Giovanni and we have that motor running, that’s the main thing.
TP: Giovanni made a comment when you went off to get the record that he was waiting to get some drums, and that, as a conga player, he sees the drums as kind of his…did you say piano or orchestra?
GIOVANNI HIDALGO: I was saying that I like to play drums, too. For me, the drumset is the piano of the percussion, and the conga player ….(?—18:26)…. That’s it. It’s exquisite like a great perfume, the drumset. That’s vast. You have to divide yourself not in four. In five. Because you’re playing four different things plus what you have in your mind—that’s five things in one.
TP: How often are you able to perform live with this band?
IB: Now that I have a new album out, I hope I do more. Unfortunately, I don’t work as much as I think I should be working. One of the things, in my opinion, in the 34 years that I have been in the United States, we drummers have always been seen as second-class citizens. We cannot be bandleaders. It has always been like that. I’ll give you a good example of the way people overlook drummers. When you hear people talking about the bebop era, everybody mentions Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk. You almost never hear somebody mentioning Kenny Clarke. Why? Because we drummers are the guys who are sitting behind there to make everybody look good, and we drummers don’t have the capacity of being bandleaders. I hope some day that will change, because that’s not right. If you check history, the drummers that were able to make a career with the bands: Blakey with the Jazz Messengers, because he brought to those bands Lee Morgan, Freddie, Wayne, all the great musicians that we know. Elvin Jones, a little bit, with his Jazz Machine.
TP: Tony Williams.
IB: Tony for a while. But the only drummer that you might think of who was able to keep a band running for a long period of time was Blakey with the Jazz Messengers. It is hard for drummers. So nowadays, people, promoters at festivals…people who are in charge of festivals, they would rather hire a quartet by an upcoming piano player than the Giovanni Hidalgo Quartet. They see Giovanni as not what they call the “front line.” But nobody thinks how that front line will sound with a good drummer or a good conga player behind. So we have also the right to be a bandleader. This is my second album. The way life is, some people are going to like it, other people are not going to like it. But I see a lot of things out there in the festivals that are not as good as Giovanni’s band or my band or Dave Weckl’s band. It is always they think, “You are a drummer,” and when you are a drummer… Actually, I remember when I recorded that album for Blue Note, thanks to Bruce Lundvall. A lot of people in the company didn’t want to sign me, because from their point of view… And I agree. I’m not holding this against them, because in the end, this is a business. They told Bruce Lundvall, “Drummers don’t sell.” Thank God, Bruce Lundvall thought that the music on Codes was worth it for them to make an album. And do you know what? Codes sold very well—for jazz.
But it is a mental thing. Bill Stewart? He has to be sideman. But now, if Bill Stewart wants to go out with his band? No. I would like to work more. I don’t know if I am going to convince promoters, because that’s out of my hands. I don’t know if booking agents might want to sign me. When I released Codes, it was nominated for a Grammy. It was an album with Blue Note Records. I had my story behind playing with Dizzy, with Chick, with everybody. I called every booking agent in the United States, every reputable booking agent. Nobody took me. I don’t think Jeff Tain Watts works a lot with his band. We’re drummers and that’s the way they are seen. They are drummers.
I hope for the future generations, even after I die, that this conception will change. Because when you go to see the Roy Haynes Quartet, man, that’s a hell of a band. I think that what we have to change is the conception that because we are drummers, we cannot be bandleaders. That’s wrong.
TP: Stepping away from the injustice of it or the need to do it…
IB: I like that word, “injustice.”
TP: Whatever the word… Do you do a lot of clinician work?
IB: Yes, and I would love to do more. Because students need to know about their history. It is very important to know about the history. People need to know where the rhythms came from, our heritage. They need to know that the slaves were brought from Africa, that the slaves were not just brought to New Orleans but to the Caribbean and Brazil and to Peru, and that’s why all the connections exist, rhythmically speaking. People need to know. Even Cuban guys. Last night at the restaurant, my bass player, Armando Gola, who is a young guy, he doesn’t know about the history of Cuban music. He didn’t know where the danzon came from. He didn’t know where the cha-cha-cha came from. He didn’t know where the son came from, which is the foundation of the music that we have for years been calling salsa.
Another thing that I want to teach people is the conception of Latin Jazz. Because when you talk about “Latin,” you’re talking about a huge continent called Latin America that begins in Mexico and ends in Tiera Del Fuego, down there in Argentina. But when you hear Latin Jazz… I tell people, “Do you know that each of those countries has their own rhythms, their own identity?” Do you know that Mexico has a national rhythm? Do you know that Peru has a national rhythm? Do you know that Colombia has a national rhythm? Chile. Brazil, of course, is the only one that everybody knows. But each country has their own rhythm. Puerto Rico has its own rhythms. Haiti has its own rhythms. So I don’t hear many people playing Latin Jazz with any Venezuelan-Peruvian-Mexican influence. Everything is congas, an instrument that was created in the island of Cuba. Those patterns came from there. And the timbales…
So why Latin Jazz? Very simple. Because in the ’40s, when everybody started playing at the Palladium, when Tito Rodriguez, Machito, Tito Puente, the Latinos who used to go to dance at the Palladium were just two groups—Puerto Ricans and Cubans. So the Americans used to say, “Let’s go to the Palladium to check the Latinos.” That’s how the name Latin Jazz came…
TP: I guess Cuba had the big entertainment infrastructure, which helped develop the music as well.
IB: From my perspective, it’s very simple. The geographical location of Cuba is what gave Cuba the advantage of having more rhythms. Why? Because it was the biggest island. It was the island that needed more slaves. And the Spaniards brought slaves from different groups. So the Arara, the Abakua, the Congo, these different cultures were forced to live together. Everybody had their rhythm. People that didn’t like each other, and they were forced to live together. So that atrocity led to the rhythmic richness that we have today. Puerto Rico was a smaller island. Puerto Rico was the last island in the Caribbean that got into the slave trade. When Puerto Rico got into the slave trade, it was the tail end. So Cuba, because it was the biggest island and they needed more labor, they brought more people. So in other words, in my opinion, the island got lucky.
Second thing. Their position geographically. When someone was coming from Europe to perform in Venezuela, to perform in Argentina, to perform in Peru, Cuba was at most a stop. They had to stop in Cuba to refuel, to get food. So Enrico Caruso was coming to perform in Argentina. Caruso would stop in Havana, and he would perform in Havana, because he had three days to stop in Havana. That gave Cuba the advantage over the other islands as far as musical development. Because it was the biggest island. They needed more of the slaves for the sugar, for everything they were doing in Cuba.
TP: Also, a lot of the American jazz musicians came there in the ’40s and ’50s, after World War 2.
IB: I’m talking from the origins. Then, Cuba is 90 miles away from the United States, so a lot of Americans going to Cuba. So definitely, the geographical position of the island is a key role on the development of the music in Cuba. We got lucky, because if the island of Cuba had been off the coast of Argentina, that would have been our ass!
TP: So playing with Dizzy didn’t just teach you swing rhythms, but also to bring in all the national rhythms of Latin America. I’m assuming you had to play those specific rhythms in the United Nations Orchestra.
IB: This is another thing that I want to clarify. A lot of people relate me with Dizzy to the United Nations Orchestra. I started playing with Dizzy Gillespie in 1981.
TP: I understand that. I’m only following up on your point about every country having its own rhythm…
IB: Yes, and in the United Nations Orchestra, what Dizzy wanted to do was to bring together that that’s what we need to do.
TP: I guess my point was to ask if that influenced you as well. He schooled you on American swing, and I wondered if he influenced you in that regard.
IB: No, I think I already was into that. I think that my encounter with Dizzy was meant to be. We were supposed to run into each other, and exchange ideas, and the United Nations Orchestra was something that was supposed to happen, and luckily, it happened, because he gathered the greatest musicians from the different countries. He had Giovanni, he got Airto, he got Danilo Perez, he got me, he got Arturo Sandoval, he got Paquito, Moody, Slide Hampton. That’s also what I’m trying to do nowadays. I’m trying to mix the music and play also with other musicians, with American musicians, and see what happens. Because when you play just with a musician that knows your music, that’s very easy. That’s what I tell people. Some people don’t like that I came to the United States, and that I play straight-ahead and that I want to play straight-ahead. Oh man, you should play Cuban music. No. Why? I wanted to compete. There is nobody… How many people am I going to compete with here in the United States? The late Steve Berrios. Who else? I arrived in New York in 1980, and I’m going to compete with Steve Berrios? So I came all the way from Cuba to compete with one guy? It makes no sense. I want to compete in the good sense of the word. Compete. Learn. I want to compete with my heroes. I want to see what they have done. That was the challenge.
TP: It’s like, in writing, Joseph Conrad or Nabokov, who were born and raised in another culture, and wrote great novels in English.
IB: Yes. But if you come from a country…
GIOVANNI: What he’s saying is the truth. Because the first one to come to New York and Puerto Rico to bring another area of the songo was Ignacio Berroa. In 1980, and from that year until the end, that was because of him. That was another approach, another vision to the drummers. You never saw that before. We are in 2014, and he’s still right here.
TP: The only drummer I can think of… What Willie Bobo did on Inventions and Dimensions was pretty remarkable, I think.
GIOVANNI: Bobo was William Correa, a Puerto Rican guy, but he was with the Cubans… Amazing. When Tito Puente, him, Patato, they did the Puente Percussion… Boom. It was an explosion. I am telling you, to be brief, still, when you put all of those recordings… Ignacio came…
TP: I think Art Blakey’s drum records in the ’50s raised consciousness.
GIOVANNI: Blakey was ahead, because he was using… Remember this album with Kenny Dorham, Afrodisia? It was Patato on congas. This album from Max Roach, Supercussion—that was Patato on congas.
TP: Blakey would have three percussionists, 2-3 trap drummers—he did a few of those for Blue Note.
GIOVANNI: Amazing. He did one with Charlie Persip, Blakey, and Papa Jo Jones. But ….(?—37:09)….. all that time over here, and he is one of our mentors, and one of our examples forever, how to play the drums approaching with the Latin, with the Jazz, with the Afro. The rudiments for that… I’m telling you, always what he said before, Cuba, Puerto Rico… It’s amazing. He’s amazing. Even for me. I’m still learning. Like, I’ve been playing since I was 3 years old, but I’m still learning, and it’s never-ending. In the world of drums, which is the leader of percussion, with sticks and with the hands, that’s another beautiful thing… Like I said, deep. Very vast, and so…how you call that… Hovering or…the flowing…
GIOVANNI: Flowing. You know what I mean? Now much better, because now… I’m going to agree with what Ignacio said, because it’s the truth. We’re in 2014, and I believe… As far as I am concerned, many of those young drummers are good ones, but I believe they are missing something. Like I do always, Ignacio and myself, we don’t forget the pioneers.
IB: The tradition.
GIOVANNI: The tradition. We don’t forget the analog. Ok? The digital era is so good, but if you forget the analog, if you forget the pioneers, forget about it. Stay at home and forget about it.
IB: So we were talking about going to universities, and I was saying that. Universities meaning… That’s an interesting conversation that we were having yesterday. For example, universities… We all know that we are facing economically difficult times, but for example, certain universities, in the same way that you go to any major university in any place in the world, and the Classics department has 96% money, and the 4% goes to the jazz department, even though in the jazz department… It is rare to see a jazz department bringing a drummer for a residency, for a master class, because universities are more concerned about bringing this guy who is going to teach the students about harmony, the voicings, this-and-that… But you have to put your things in rhythm. So what I mean is that there should be a balance, and heads of jazz departments in different universities, have to be aware, “Ok, this is the budget that I have; I am going to bring this guy, this guy, but I am also going to bring Ignacio, Lewis Nash…” Because those guys have something to say that is going to benefit all the students. When I go to universities, the most important thing I request is that everybody attends my clinic. I tell the guy, “I want every jazz musician in my clinic.” Because I am going to tell them about the history. I am going to tell these guys who write music, the arrangers, when you’re going to arrange a piece of music, you have to know about the clave, you have to know… Based on the style of music you’re going to write, you need to know about the articulation, how you’re going to phrase, how you’re going to do… [SINGS THEME OF “EVIDENCE.”] If you’re going to play that as Latin rhythm, before you sit down and open Finale or whatever on the computer, you need to know about that.
TP: Last year I did a piece for Jazz Times where I talked to 10 musicians from Cuba about their formative years. Almost all of them told me that in the conservatory, in ENA and the regional schools, Cuban folkloric music was treated the same way as jazz—both were out of the curriculum.
IB: All those guys are younger than me, except for Paquito.
TP: I wanted to ask you about your musical relationship with Gonzalo. You played with him…
IB: Ten years.
TP: Haven’t you played during the last decade?
IB: Actually, no, I didn’t. I played with Gonzalo until we recorded the album Paseo. Paseo was the last album that I recorded with him, and then we toured that album, and then after that… I think I stopped playing with Gonzalo in 2006-2007, when I recorded my album, Codes, and then I went on my own. I think that in 2008 we did a short tour in Europe as a trio.
TP: But I wanted to ask you about that partnership. It seems to have taken music forward.
IB: Things happen for a reason. Gonzalo is ten years younger than me. I was a very good friend of Gonzalo’s brother, Jesus Rubalcaba, who passed away. We went to the same school together, and when I left Cuba, Gonzalo was in his teens. We played for the first time in 1996 in Puerto Rico, at the Heineken Jazz Festival, by accident. I was playing at the festival with Tito Puente’s Latin Jazz All-Stars, and I was also playing with Danilo Perez Quartet. Gonzalo was performing there, but the United States denied a visa to his drummer at that time. I was living in Miami, and the guy from the festival called me and said, “Ignacio, do you have any problem playing with Gonzalo Rubalcaba?”—because of the political situation. I said, “Ask him if he has any problem playing with me. I have no problem playing with Gonzalo. I live in Miami, but I don’t care. Music is music.” In fact, in 1995, I did an instructional video, and I invited Changuito to the video.
Anyway, we played as a trio, Gonzalo, Eddie Gomez and myself. Then I think the following year Gonzalo moved to Miami, and he called me, and that was the beginning of our ten years collaboration. It was something I’ve always called “love at first sight.” We started playing and we clicked. We’re coming from the same background. Even though I was ten years older than him, he brought me to his level, the way he sees music. That was a challenge for me, because when I recorded those albums with Gonzalo, I was already an old guy. It’s like when Roy Haynes recorded “Question and Answer” with Pat Metheny. So it was something very special, and I think that something beautiful came out of that. Paseo is an album that everywhere I go, when I teach at universities, everybody comes to speak to me about Paseo or Supernova. All the kids remember those albums. So it was a very special collaboration, and I hope that some day people may want to see that again. But aside from that, Gonzalo is one of my best friends.
TP: And he is the producer of your record.
IB: He is one of my best friends. I am very happy. I think it was something that was meant to happen, the same way that I think my encounter with Dizzy Gillespie was meant to happen. In my mind, there is no doubt that there is something external that has to do hold the things together. Ok, you’re going to meet this guy, you’re going to meet this guy, and you’re going to go… The same way that Parker and Dizzy met. I don’t want to compare us to Dizzy and Parker, but you know what I mean?
TP: People cross paths.
IB: Crossed paths. Exactly. That’s what I’m trying to say.
I was saying at the beginning that the people in the industry, booking agents, promoters, I think they should be more open-minded and realize that I’m a drummer, but that doesn’t mean that I just have to be a sideman. People also have to be open, like… I’m Cuban. I think that’s not an issue now, but it was an issue for years. I’m Cuban, but my taste playing straight-ahead has been proven. Some people still always try to box me or pigeonhole me. “Oh, Ignacio. Latin. He’s the king of Latin.” It’s hard for them to accept, “Man, Ignacio came here and he became a great straight-ahead… Ignacio came here and absorbed our language. Ignacio did his homework.” In the same way that I would be proud if Blakey would have gone to Cuba, and end up playing in Cuban bands. I’d be happy. Because someone, a foreigner, came to our country and absorbed our music, and became so good that he’s playing with all the Cuban bands.
[END OF CONVERSATION]
Ignacio Berroa (May 22, 2008) – (WKCR):
[From Codes, “Matrix”]
TP: Ignacio Berroa is performing Friday and Saturday at the Jazz Standard with a quartet, featuring pianist Robert Rodriguez, bassist Ricky Rodriguez, and saxophonist Ben Wendel.
Over these performances, will you be performing primarily music from this record?
IB: Pretty much, and also some new music that we have been playing, planning to do the second album, but I don’t know yet when I’m going to do it, or which company I’m going to do it with. We’re going to be playing mostly the music from Codes and some new material.
TP: Is this your first album as a leader?
IB: My first one. I haven’t done any.
TP: A long time in the making. You’ve been a professional musician in the U.S., and before that in Cuba, for what, 40 years probably.
IB: Oh, man, for a long time. I started my professional career in 1970. I left Cuba in 1980, with the Mariel boat lift. In fact, this coming Monday is going to be my 28th year since I arrived in the United States.
IB: Thank you. I feel very happy about it. It took me a while to do an album, even though a lot of people always were encouraging me about doing my own project. My friend Dizzy Gillespie was always asking me about, “When are you going to do your album?” But I didn’t feel I was ready to do what I really wanted to project in an album. I always tell people who ask me, “It would have been very easy for me to do another Latin Jazz album in the early ’80s, and have Dizzy Gillespie as my guest artist.” It would not have cost me a penny; I mean, it would have been a success.
TP: Why didn’t you do it?
IB: Because musically speaking, I was not ready. I was not ready to do… I’m the type of person that, you know, I don’t like to do something that I’m not going to feel proud later on. So musically speaking, I think I was… Maybe it is in my mind, but in my opinion, I was not ready, because I didn’t want to do another Latin album. Unfortunately, a lot of people have the vision that when you are from Cuba, from Puerto Rico, what you have to play is just son montuno, cha-cha-cha, because you are a Latino. My passion since I was a kid was jazz. I always wanted to be a jazz drummer, and my mission is to mix Afro-Cuban rhythms with the jazz language. Believe me, Ted, back in the early ’80s… And I was struggling with a lot of things. I left Cuba in 1980. My wife at the time and my kid stayed behind. The Cuban government kept them for many years. I was in a new country where I didn’t speak the language. So I had to support my family in Cuba, deal with all the new situation—it was very hard. So my mind was not in the right frame in order to say, “Ok, I am going to do an album that I will be proud of.”
TP: You were trying to survive.
IB: I was trying to survive, and I was trying to keep my family in Cuba, dealing with the Cuban government, trying to allow my family to leave the island—which they didn’t for four years. So it was rough.
TP: With this recording, you’ve assembled some of the finest musicians in the world, American, Puerto Rican and Cuban, to perform with. Gonzalo Rubalcaba, whose group you’ve been part of for many years…
IB: We’ve played together for ten years.
TP: Edward Simon as well. David Sanchez and Giovanni Hidalgo. A slew of high-level Cuban musicians like Armando Gola and Felipe Lamoglia, who you played with in Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s quartet. But you assembled them differently within the framework of your compositions, and each tune has its own identity, so it’s evident that you put a lot of care into making this, and into the sounds you put forth.
IB: Sure. It wouldn’t be possible without the help of all the great musicians who participated in the album. But yes, it took me a while. I really thought about it. It was a long process about realizing what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do the tunes, to make the arrangements, which were made by Felipe Lamoglia. It took a lot of time, Felipe and I getting together, and me explaining to Felipe what I wanted, the way I want to phrase the melodies—like what I did with “Matrix.”
TP: So you conceptualized it and he executed it.
IB: Exactly. Most of the arrangements were done by Felipe Lamoglia. The only thing that I did was tell him, “I want to play ‘Matrix’ this way; the melody has to go like this; we’re going to do it this way.” The same with “Pinocchio.” Things like that.
TP: Listeners may be curious about aspects of your formative years. You said you became a professional musician at 17, 1970, in Cuba, and you always wanted to be a jazz drummer.
TP: During the years when you would have wanted to be a jazz drummer, there was sort of an official proscription from the Cuban Government, I think…
IB: You said “sort of”? You weren’t there! [LAUGHS]
TP: I wasn’t there. Being tactful doesn’t work sometimes. First of all, how did the interest gestate? Are you from a musical family?
IB: Yes. My father used to play the violin. My father also is a jazz lover. So I was lucky that one day my father came to my house with two albums, one by Nat King Cole and the other one by Glenn Miller. I was 10 years old, and when I heard the music, I fell in love with that music. It was like love at first sight. Glenn Miller, “Moonlight Serenade,” Nat King Cole singing “When I Fall In Love.” When I heard that music, something got me. I said, “that’s what I want to do.”
The rest was very hard. There is something that I always like to talk… Some people have been asking me about writing a book, and it is about my generation from the ’70s, the musician generation… For us, it was very hard. These days a lot of people see that in Cuba they have a jazz festival, and there has been a kind of openness now for the music. I should say, in my opinion, that happened after 1980. But in the ’70s it was very, very hard. It was prohibited to play jazz. I remember, for example…just to give you one example…playing at the Radio and TV orchestra, and the conductor… We’d be playing an arrangement that had 16 bars of swing, and I remember seeing the conductor from the podium saying, “Ok, guys, those 16 bars, we’re going to play cha-cha-cha.” Because it was playing jazz; it was playing the music of the enemy. The way my generation was raised in Cuba was that Americans were our enemies, and playing their was music was trying…they were trying to penetrate our ideology…their ideology through music. So that’s hard it was for my generation. We had it very hard in the ’70s. That’s something that a lot of people don’t know.
TP: You’re 5 years younger than Paquito D’Rivera, who’s written about this in his autobiography. Are you from Havana or somewhere else?
IB: I’m from Havana, too.
TP: What were your steps in learning the drums? And I’d also like to ask if folkloric music was part of your upbringing…
IB: That was also prohibited in the ’70s, because it had to do with the Yoruba religion, and anything against the Communist ideology was prohibited.
So I am a self-taught drummer. In Cuba, in my days, everything was a classical training formation. I went to the National School of the Arts, where I studied percussion. I had a great teacher who studied here in New York in the ’40s with Henry Adler. But you’ve got to take this into consideration. There were no drums. Playing popular music was prohibited. Any kind of popular music. Jazz was the music of the enemy. Playing bata drums and Yoruba things was something that was not within the Revolution ideology, so it was also prohibited. The religion was prohibited—kind of. People would…
TP: People went underground with it.
IB: Underground. Very underground. If you want to do something in Cuba… People who practiced the religion openly were like in ostracism. You were not able to go to the university. You were not able to travel. You were nobody. I really admire those brave people who really practiced the Yoruba religion very openly in the late ’60s and the ’70s.
TP: As far as your identity as a trapset drummer, were you listening to people for models? Were there people in Cuba…
IB: No. I was lucky. Don’t forget, before Castro took power, Cuba was a very prominent country, very close to the United States, and a lot of people who were jazz fans had albums… Like I said to you, my dad came to my house with a Nat King Cole and a Glenn Miller album.
TP: So you had albums to listen to, and models.
IB: The young musicians, we had to go to the old musicians’ houses and listen to the albums, so we had some information. But also, the most important thing is…what I always say is this is what saved our life…was the proximity of Cuba to the United States. Just 90 miles from Cuba to Key West, so when the weather was good we were able to listen to the radio station coming from Key West, and some people also were able to see some TV shows. So that’s what kept us informed of what was going on.
I never had any drums lesson. I’m a self-taught drummer. The only people I was able to listen to was on albums… To give you an example, my first exposure to modern jazz was Max Roach with Clifford Brown. So Max was my first influence. Then I was able to listen to an Art Blakey album. From there, the jump went to Miles Davis, Four and More—Tony Williams.
TP: Well, you did pretty good.
IB: [LAUGHS] Yeah! I was listening to those albums every day, and play the drums by myself, and also I had no drumset—there were no drums in Cuba. So it was very tough.
TP: As a young guy were you seeing relationships between what those drummers were doing… Max Roach was influenced to a certain degree by Haitian drums and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Africa had been to Africa. Did you discern correspondence in the patterns…
IB: Yes, I knew that since I was there, and I knew that American musicians like Dizzy Gillespie were very much into Afro-Cuban music. So yes, I was able to hear it immediately.
TP: Were you in contact with any of the Cuban musicians and a little older who became the first wave of post-Castro jazz musicians that Americans knew about, such as Chucho Valdes, or Emiliano Salvador (who they didn’t know so much about), or Paquito…
IB: Oh, yeah. We used to play… Sometimes we used to do jam sessions, on-the-ground jam sessions. I remember in 1977-78, there was a club in Havana called the Rio Club. It used to be called the Johnny’s Dreams. We were allowed to play jazz just Mondays. So I was in contact with those musicians, and also with Emiliano Salvador. We played together in the same band from 1975 to 1979—for four years.
TP: What was he like? Americans don’t know so much about him.
IB: Emiliano Salvador, in my opinion, was a great piano player. He was my favorite piano player. Chucho is a great piano player. For my taste, Emiliano was my guy—let’s put it that way.
TP: What was the difference for you?
IB: The difference for me at that time is that Emiliano sounded more like McCoy and Chick Corea. He sounded more to me like a New Yorker. Back in the days, I remember it was Emiliano who introduced me to my favorite drummer, Roy Haynes. It was Emiliano in 1975 who told me, “Ignacio, check this guy out.” I don’t know how he got the recording. Probably through the guitar player, Paolo Menendez, who was American, and he was able to come over here, to this country, while living in Cuba, and he used to bring some records. Emiliano told me one day, “Ignacio, check this guy out.” So Emiliano was to me, and for a lot of people in Cuba back in the days…he was the guy. We always have this thing, “who’s the best?” It’s not a matter of who plays more. Who’s the best?
TP: It’s your taste.
IB: For my taste, Emiliano Salvador was the guy.
TP: I know Enrique Pla was the drummer in Irakere. Was that an exciting band for you? It’s very influential on the way Cuban music sounded subsequently.
IB: Irakere was a great, great band. It was a band composed of the best instrumentalists in Cuba at that time, and it was a big influence. Also, I have to say it was only band. It was the only band that the Cuban government allowed to do that. Also, in my opinion, Irakere was a band that they wanted to play jazz, and they had to put in the percussion in order to cover what they really wanted to do. Because with no percussion, there would have been no Irakere. But those guys back in the day, Paquito and Arturo and Chucho, what they really wanted to play was straight-ahead jazz. That was their passion. That’s what they wanted to play. But Irakere was a very influential band in our life. Like I said, the greatest musicians, the greatest instrumentalists in the ‘70s were in that band. It was also the only band that the Cuban government allowed during that period.
TP: You just mentioned 1975-1979 playing with Emiliano Salvador, and during those years is when Dizzy Gillespie precipitated the Havana Jazz Festival…
IB: 1977. It was not a jazz festival. What happened was… For some reason, a boat that left New Orleans…
TP: It was a cruise ship, I think.
IB: Some musicians were on it… I don’t know how that cruise ship stopped in Havana for two days. How? That’s something that we have to ask the Cuban government and the American government.
TP: Well, whatever it was, Dizzy Gillespie came in, and I presume you met him around then…
IB: I didn’t meet… I want to straighten this out. I didn’t meet Dizzy Gillespie that day. I was lucky that I was able to get a ticket to see the concert. It was one concert in 1977. Dizzy Gillespie played. The late Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines also played. I don’t remember who else. I was able to see Dizzy with his quartet—Mickey Roker, Ben Brown on bass, Rodney Jones on guitar. I remember that when I left, when the concert was over, we were standing on the sidewalk and I told my friends, “Well, I can die already; I saw Dizzy Gillespie.” I don’t know how that was arranged.
Then in 1979, it was the big Havana Jam, where Bruce Lundvall, who was the President of Columbia… I also don’t know how that was arranged through the Cuban government. They did those three days, Havana Jam. But the first time we were exposed to Dizzy Gillespie was in 1977, when he did that concert. I was not able to speak to him. I’m still trying to learn how to speak English, so you can imagine that 28 years ago… As I said to you, when I arrived into this country, I was not able to say “yes.” So I met Dizzy Gillespie officially the day that Mario Bauza introduced me to Dizzy Gillespie, here, in New York.
TP: In 1980, you left Cuba under not-luxurious-conditions to come to the United States…
IB: For them, back then, I was a traitor. I left Cuba because I always wanted to leave the island. I was always looking for freedom, and I want to play jazz, and I was not allowed to do that in my country. But I also have to add to this that even… I always tell this to people. Even if Cuba had been a free country, I was coming to New York anyway, because the musicians I wanted to play with were here. So I would have come here anyway.
TP: So you came here through the Mariel boat-lift…
IB: It was the Mariel boatlift, when 125,000 Cubans left the island. I landed in Key West, and from there I went to a camp, Indian Town Gap, and I spent 36 days there going through the process. By that time, the American government realized that Castro had sent a lot of spies. So after 36 days at the Indian Town Gap in Pennsylvania, I came here to New York, where I have family. I had an aunt who was living here… She left Cuba in the ’40s. So I was lucky to have my family here; they were very supportive. So the first time I went to Miami, I went there as a musician.
TP: So you became an American professional musician in New York.
IB: This is my town. I was born and raised here in New York.
TP: What sorts of things were you doing early? Latin Jazz and Salsa, or…
IB: It is hard for me to remember. The first gig I did with my good friend, the late Mario Rivera, who was a great musician. He had a band called the Salsa Refugees, and I think that was my first gig. That band was composed of the late Hilton Ruiz, Andy González, Jerry González, Steve Turre and Mario Rivera. Then I started playing with a band called Tipica Novero(?—30:18), where I was playing timbales. That was the first time in my life I played timbales. I never played timbales in Cuba. I never played percussion in Cuba.
TP: You never played percussion in Cuba.
IB: Ever. In my life. No. Also, don’t forget, I was a rebel, and I wanted to be a jazz drummer, and that was the music that was prohibited. I was reluctant to play other things. Which I regret. Also, the first time I started playing congas, I realized that my hands hurt a lot. I said, “No-no-no, this is not for me.”I didn’t want to have any callouses on my hands. I like my soft hands.
TP: So you moved from Cuba into a very different pan-Latin community, New Yorkers but also people from different parts of the Afro-Caribbean region.
TP: What was that like for you aesthetically? Did it have an impact on your way of thinking about music?
IB: No, not at all. Well, I put things into perspective, and I said, “Well, this is a different ballgame now—you have to adapt.” I like baseball a lot. You have to adapt now to this new league. Believe me, I was very happy to be here. My main concern back in the days was that the Cuban government had my family as hostage in Cuba and that I didn’t know how to speak English. It was terrible. I always tell people, “Can you imagine if I take you now to Beijing and I leave you there and say, ‘now you’re going to live here.’” It was terrible. I don’t want to remember that. It was terrible being in a city, in a place where people were around you, talking, and you didn’t know what they were saying. I also remember that my friend, Andy González, Jerry González, they were very helpful back in the days.
But musically speaking, it expanded my horizons. I said, “Wow, this is something else.” Because I was living in a small pond, in Cuba, and then suddenly I was in the ocean, where you see every kind of fish! So it really opened my mind. It made me conscious of what I really wanted to do.
TP: Andy and Jerry González had played with Dizzy around 1970, and I guess they were really getting into their own concept of hybridizing jazz rhythms with Afro-Cuban rhythms, which I imagine must have had a great appeal to you.
IB: Oh, yes. I was very attracted to their approach to the music. That’s something they always tried to do, and I said, “This is what I want to do playing the drums.” But also, I have to be honest. I want to play straight-ahead jazz! That is my passion, and that’s what I’m here for.
TP: Straight-ahead jazz means something a little different now than it did 25 years ago. Straight-ahead jazz means incorporating timba rhythms, 7/4, 9/4, as well as 4/4, and you’re someone who probably laid down a little bit of the information that helped some people do that.
IB: Yes. But still, for me… I am going to be 55 years old in July. For me, my passion is playing straight-ahead swing—DING-DING-A-DING. Swing.
TP: Not 7/4, not…
IB: No. That’s my life.
[MUSIC: “Joao Su Merced”]
TP: Hearing that brings up something we were discussing off-mike, that over the last 20 years, rhythms from Cuban popular music, from timba, have become part of the jazz mainstream, 7/4, 9/4 and so on, and your remark was, “I like that, but I like to play straight-ahead,” and also that in African music and Cuban music odd meters don’t really come into play.
IB: Yes, that’s my opinion. I have never heard any bata or any Yoruba percussion rhythms playing 7/4 or 11-by-5 or… Probably I am getting old. I really respect and admire all the musicians who like to play those odd meters. But in African music, I don’t think there is any 11-by-something or 13-by-something. In Yoruban religion, I have been in a few ceremonies, and I have never seen anybody playing something for any saint in 11-something. Everything is 12/6. That’s what it is. I think that there is so much still that we can do with those meters.
Also, my theory about this is: I don’t talk in 11/4, I don’t walk in 9/4, I don’t walk in 6/4. So everything is like a 4. Everything has to swing. I haven’t found yet where those odd meters swing. That’s just my opinion. But in Afro-Cuban music, not odd meters. You don’t hear any… Now it is called timba, which I remember in the ’70s. That is not a new word. In the ’70s, when someone used to play with a popular band, like Van-Van or Ritmo Oriental or Conjunto Rumba Havana, if you asked me, “Hey, Ignacio, what is Tony doing?” my answer to you would be, “Oh, he’s playing timba; he’s playing with a timba groove.” That was in the ’70s. But when you listen to that kind of music, when you listen to timba, you’re not going to hear odd meters. The first thing that we have to keep in mind is that it is dance music, and the only people who dance with odd meters are countries where that music is the popular music, like Bulgaria for example. But in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, the Caribbean—no odd meters.
TP: When did you join Dizzy Gillespie?
IB: I joined Dizzy Gillespie in 1981. August…
TP: You played with him pretty much until…
IB: The story is, the first time I played with Dizzy Gillespie was by accident. That was in December 1980, when his drummer at the time got stranded in Boston, and Mario Bauza heard me playing in a rehearsal at Mario Rivera’s house, and he was the one who called Dizzy and told him about me. So by accident, I played with Dizzy that night, since his drummer got stranded and he called Mario and I went there and played with Dizzy. But I joined his quartet in 1981. Then I had to leave the band, because I had no status in the country. It was very hard for marielitos to travel. I left the band in 1983. When I became an American citizen in 1986, he called me back, and I was back with his quartet… Back then, it was a quintet with Sam Rivers on tenor. That went on until he died, doing his big bands, the 70th Anniversary Big Band, the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band, and then came the United Nations Orchestra. Most people think that I started playing with Dizzy with the United Nations Orchestra, but it was way before.
TP: What things did you learn from him? He was almost as eminent a teacher as a musician, in terms of conveying information to further his concepts.
IB: I learned a lot from Dizzy. We should blame him for this terrible English that I speak. He taught me… [LAUGHS] I learned a lot from him about the jazz tradition. I also learned a lot from Dizzy about the human aspect. But I learned a lot from the jazz tradition.
TP: Was he very hands-on in showing you information?
IB: He was a great human. Yeah. He was always teaching people, everybody, and always wanted to learn also. Dizzy used to call my room when we were traveling. He used to call me at 1 a.m. to talk about rhythms. I’d say, “Dizzy, man, I’m sleeping; come on, let’s talk tomorrow.” He was always into that.
TP: A night owl. Through much of the ’90s, you were part of Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s bands.
IB: Yes, I started playing with Gonzalo. After Dizzy passed away, I played for a while… Tito Puente put together a band called The Golden Latin Jazz All-Stars. I think that band went on for four years or so. Then in 1997, I started playing with Gonzalo. We played together for ten years. First we were playing as a trio. We recorded his first album for Blue Note, Inner Voyage, then came Super Nova, and then we recorded Paseo as a quartet. That’s when he hired Felipe Lamoglia, and we played as a quartet for a while. Then, when I did my album and I went on my own, I think it was time for me to do my thing, and he also wanted a change, I think…
TP: Talk about the collaboration. The band evolved greatly during that time, and it could go from great complexity, complex polyrhythms, to elemental swing.
IB: Yes. Gonzalo’s music is very complex. So the point for me was to make those complex things look easy. We talk about it. He knew what I was able to do. He was very hard on me. The stuff that he wrote for me, he make my life miserable, but he knew that I was able to do it. For example, that record Paseo is one of the greatest things that I have ever recorded, as well as one of the most difficult, or the most difficult thing that I have recorded. The thing is to make that look easy. But still, as much complex as it is, you can hear…
TP: The music breathes.
IB: Exactly. The Cuban music is there.
[MUSIC: “Woody ‘n You”]