Sounds – Reviews

Great Musicians, Few Gigs, Afro-Cuban Bands Keep On Keeping On
San Francisco Classical Voice; June 28, 2011; Jesse Hamlin

Michael Spiro and Tregar Otton were among those interviewed in this long overview article on Bay Area Afro-Cuban bands at

Here is the article's text, but check out the original for pictures and other information:

Great Musicians, Few Gigs, Afro-Cuban Bands Keep On Keeping On

It was impossible to sit still the other night at Berkeley™s Freight & Salvage, where John Santos™ Latin-jazz sextet took off on La Rumba Me Lleva (Rumba Carries Me Away), an original tune that lived up to its title. A singing melody shaped by flutists John Calloway and Melecio Magdaluyo, it danced to the syncopated rumba rhythms played on fish crates and other makeshift percussion instruments by 19th-century black Cuban dockworkers.

œIt™s all about the rhythm, says Santos, explaining the enduring allure of Afro-Cuban music, with its popping polyrhythms and irresistible grooves. A fusion of African and European (mostly Spanish) elements, the music has entranced listeners and dancers worldwide, inspiring artists as different as Georges Bizet and Jelly Roll Morton, Aaron Copland and Ry Cooder. Morton, the storied New Orleans pianist who claimed to have invented jazz, famously remarked that all good jazz has œthe Spanish tinge, meaning Cuban rhythms like the habanera.

œAs Duke Ellington said, ˜It don™t mean a thing if it ain™t got that swing,™™™ added Santos, an esteemed performer, bandleader, and Latin music scholar, whose prime ensemble serves up everything from ancient Yoruban chants to Coltrane-fueled jazz solos. A tall man of 56 with a trim goatee and a fondness for snap-brim hats, he was chatting backstage at Freight & Salvage, where the sextet was celebrating the release of its latest CD, Filosofí­a Caribeí±a. A native San Franciscan of Puerto Rican, Irish, and Cape Verdean ancestry, he™s one of the swinging musicians who™ve made the Bay Area a vital center for Afro-Caribbean and Cuban-based music and dance.

A spate of great Cuban and Cuban-music-loving players live here, even if there aren™t many places for them to play these days, and the pay generally stinks.

Renowned Artists Hit the Festivals

One of them is the legendary Cuban timbalero (timbales player) Orestes Vilató, a seminal figure in the creation of New York salsa, which is a bracing 1970s mix of jazz, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and other sounds that he calls œa dish with different ingredients. A hugely influential percussionist whose father sang opera, Vilató moved here in the early 1980s as a member of Carlos Santana™s band. With his deep knowledge and mastery of traditional Cuban dance music — danzón, son, mambo, cha-cha-chí¡, and other forms — he became a kind of father figure to the gifted younger musicians he worked with here, among them Santos, Calloway, percussionist Michael Spiro, and pianist/composer Rebeca Mauleón.

Another renowned Bay Area player is Sandy Perez, a dazzling percussionist who grew up in a celebrated family of musicians and dancers in Matanzas, the African heart of Cuba. A master of sacred and secular Afro-Cuban folkloric forms, Perez will lead a group of drummers, singers, and dancers — including his mother and another visiting member of the famed troupe Los Muí±equitos de Matanzas — at the free Yerba Buena Gardens Festival on July 17.

œSandy is a genius who™s been playing since he was in diapers in Matanzas, says Santos, who will be singing with Perez™ group at Yerba Buena, and performed with him at San Francisco™s Carnaval bash last month. Perez also appeared in May at the CubaCaribe Festival, an annual celebration of Cuban and other Caribbean dance programmed by the Cuban dancer/choreographer Ramón Ramos Alayo.

Outside those and other festivals, though, there are few venues where top musicians can make a living. You can hear salsa and other Cuban-rooted music at lively spots like Club Cocomo in San Francisco and the Seahorse in Sausalito, but the club scene is much diminished from even a decade ago, when bands could play three or four nights a week. Now they™re lucky to get four gigs a month.

Artists like Vilató, who plays abroad more than he does here — he'™s touring Italian film festivals this summer with a band put together by the Cuban-born actor and conga player Andy Garcia — rely primarily on teaching to put bread on the table.

œBy the time you put gas in the car, pay the bridge toll and parking, it costs me money to go out and play, says the straight-talking timbalero, who lives in Martinez, teaches at the Bradley School of Music in Concord, and performs at private house parties. You can, however, hear him tomorrow night (June 29) at Yoshi™s in Oakland, where Vilató will be playing bongos at a tribute/benefit for Benny Velarde, the Panamanian-born percussionist who began playing Cuban-based music in San Francisco in the late 1940s.

Deep Roots: The Afro-Cuban Scene in San Francisco

Velarde, who will also perform at Yoshi™s, worked with the famed San Francisco“based, Latin-jazz vibraphonist Cal Tjader in the 1950s. So did two celebrated Cuban percussionists who lit up the local scene and inspired countless aspiring drummers: Armando Peraza, the brilliant conga and bongo player who also worked with pianist George Shearing and was featured with Santana two decades later; and conguero Mongo Santamaria, whose Afro-Cuban folkloric recording, Yambu, for Berkeley™s Fantasy Records, had a big impact on young guys like Santos. It featured another great Cuban percussionist, Francisco Aguabella, who brought the tradition of sacred Afro-Cuban drumming here.

In the 1980s, Aguabella, a master of the two-headed batí¡ drums played at Santerí­a religious ceremonies, began to share his knowledge with Santos, Spiro, and another noted Bay Area drummer, Harold Muniz. Spiro, who went to Matanzas in 1984 to study batí¡, drummed at ceremonies with Aguabella, and played popular Cuban dance music and folkloric stuff in bands like Batachanga. (Santos, Mauleón, and Calloway, all of whom would go Cuba to study, were also in the band.)

œFrancisco used to say, ˜I don™t care what color you are, there™s a job to do. If you can play, get in here,™ recalls Spiro, who recently became a tenured music professor at the University of Indiana but comes home to San Francisco to play the music he loves. He™d flipped for Cuban music as a teenager, mesmerized by œthe depth of the groove. I grew up on James Brown. In Cuba, there wasn™t just one James Brown, there were a thousand of them. The profundity of that amount of groove in one place made you say, ˜I don™t know what all that is, but I™ve got to find out.™

Among other groups, Spiro coleads the splendid Orquesta La Moderna Tradición, which plays the first Sunday of the month at the Seahorse. It™s a traditional Cuban charanga — an ensemble comprising violins, flute, clarinet, bass, piano, and percussion — that originally focused on danzón, that elegant dance music that developed at the turn of the 20th century. (The music evolved from the French contredanse, brought to Cuba in the late 18th century by French colonizers fleeing the Haitian revolution.) Now the group mixes danzónes among the cha-cha-chí¡s and more contemporary Cuban music it plays for the salsa dancers who keep the band in business.

Salsa: The Next Generation

The band is co-led by a classically trained American violinist, Tregar Otton, who at 16 became the youngest member of the Berkeley Symphony. Otton formed the charanga with the Havana-bred dancer and conga player Roberto Borell, who™d left Cuba in the Mariel exodus of 1980, when thousands of Cubans boarded boats from Mariel Harbor bound for the U.S. (Another local Mariel exile, percussionist Jesíºs Dí­az, leads QBA, a crack ensemble that plays timba, the funk-flavored Cuban style that Mauleón calls œsalsa on steroids.)

œI loved the way the violins were used, as a percussion instrument, says Otton, whose teachers included Daniel Kobialka. œCuban music just spoke to me. It™s very rich. It has tremendous swing, and the melodies are beautiful. I love classical music, but you don™t really have a direct connection with the audience like you do when you play dance music. They™re moving to what you™re playing. There™s a real back-and-forth.

Spiro loves that energy, too, but he doesn™t experience it nearly as much as he™d liked to.

œI used to make my living playing live music, he says. œNow I teach for a living, and I play music because it™s in my genetic code. There aren™t many places to play anymore.

The summer festivals, though, serve up a healthy dose of Cuban-based music. Spiro plays the free Fillmore Jazz Festival on Sunday with trombonist Wayne Wallace™s Latin Jazz Quintet, and also plays the free San Jose Festival, on Aug. 14, with Conjunto Karabali, an old-style son band he leads with Santana percussionist Karl Perazzo.

On July 10, the Stern Grove Festival presents AfroCubism, a loose-knit aggregation of musicians from Cuba and Mali. They include the Buena Vista Social Club™s singing guitarist Eliades Ochoa, and Toumani Diabatí©, who plays the 21-string West African kora. On July 14, the local Latin Jazz Youth Orchestra, directed by Calloway, plays a lunchtime show at Yerba Buena Gardens. In September, the Monterey Jazz Festival opens with œCubano Be! Cubano Bop!, a tribute to the groundbreaking 1947 collaboration between trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and the great Cuban conguero Chano Pozo (who was killed in a New York bar fight the following year). Trumpeter Terence Blanchard joins conga player Poncho Sanchez™s Latin Jazz Band for the occasion.

Rebeca Mauleón Brings It Home

Sanchez is one of the many stars of Latin jazz, Cuban, and rock music with whom Rebeca Mauleón has performed and recorded. The versatile San Francisco pianist, arranger, and composer, who just returned from teaching Afro-Cuban idioms to music teachers in Finland, has worked with such diverse musicians as Tito Puente, Mickey Hart, and Oakland East Bay Symphony Music Director Michael Morgan, who premiered Mauleón™s Suite Afro-Cubano last year.

Mauleón was bewitched by Cuban music at 15, when she heard a salsa band featuring Perazzo at a Mission district street fair, and a group of rumberos jamming in Precita Park, a block from her house.

œWhen I heard that music, I knew that™s what I wanted to do, says Mauleón, 49, who™s a professor at City College of San Francisco, where she teaches the music of Latin America, composing, and Latin and jazz piano. (She™s also SFJAZZ™s new director of education.) œIt was the groove, the ostinato idea, the repetitive, danceable nature of the music. And that incredible syncopation. It just called me.

Two weeks later, Mauleón was playing in a charanga. She learned a lot about Afro-Cuban folkloric music from the local ensemble Coco Santo (meaning œSacred Coconut), led by the stirring Cuban singer Bobi Cespedes, who™s still active, and the African-American percussionist Marcus Gordon, an unsung hero who founded Carnaval and was the first to teach batí¡ here.

œI realized we had this incredible community, says Mauleón, who met her husband on one of her many trips to Cuba, where she hung out and sat in with great musicians like pianist Chucho Valdes and bassist Juan Formell. Those experiences affirmed her sense of purpose.

œI wasn™t born into this music, says Mauleón, who™s half Basque and half Jewish, œbut I know this music is me. It gets its hooks into you and doesn™t let go.

Jesse Hamlin has written for The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications over the past 30 years on a wide range of music and art, covering jazz musicians and symphonic conductors, sculptors, poets, and architects. He has also written for The New York Times, Art & Auction and Columbia magazines, as well as liner notes for CDs by Stan Getz and Cal Tjader.