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Bobby Sanabria


"Questions, Questions..."

A series of interviews with the members of The Latin Jazz Discussion List. All the questions were submitted by other members of the group, their peers. Each artist was given a number of questions with the option of answering as many as they wished. Further discussion with the artist in this forum is invited...

Today's Subject:

Bobby Sanabria
Drummer/percussionist/composer/arranger/bandleader
New York City
Bobby Sanabria was born and raised in the South Bronx. He recieved his
B.M. in Applied music in 1979 from the Berklee College of Music in Boston
where he actually was the first student of Puerto Rican descent to attend.
The degree required him to be fluent in both the Classical and Jazz
traditions and he recieved the Faculty Association Award for his work as an
instrumentalist. Since his graduation he has performed/recorded with a
veritable who's who in the world's of Jazz and Latin music including Mongo
Santamaria, Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mcphearson, Larry Harlow,
Louis "Perico" Ortiz and the legendary Mario Bauzá to name just a few. He
has also been featured on numerous studio sessions for commercials as well
as soundtrack work, most notably "The Mambo Kings" and "Hombres Armados". In
1981 he was the recipient of a National Endownment for the Arts grant as a
jazz performer. His ensemble Ascensión has been critically acclaimed for its
multi-cultural outlook on the Latin-jazz continuum and their CD "NYC Aché"
(1993) was nominated for a NAIRD award. His latest work, Afro-Cuban Dream...
Live & In Clave!!! (2000) is a big band performance recorded at NYC's famed
Birdland and was recently nominated for a Grammy. He is on the faculties of
The New School and The Manhattan School of Music.
Website: www.bobbysanabria.com
Latest CD: "Afro Cuban Dream - Live and in Clave"
Q: "Tell us a little bit about your childhood - where were you born and
raised?"
Oh brother, here goes...
My full name is Robert Dennis Michael Sanabria. My father told me he
named me after two of his favorite people, Robert Kennedy and Dennis the
Menace. I'm not kidding. Michael is my confirmation name. I have a sister
Joanne who lives in Chicago and is two years younger than me. I was born on
June 2, 1957 in St. Francis Hospital in the Ft. Apache area of the South
Bronx in NYC. Just a bit of trivia, Nicky Marrerro was also born there and
the hospital no longer exists. I'm a true S.O.B (Son of the Bronx).
My father's name is José Sanabria and he hails from Guanica, Puerto Rico
and comes from a family of fifteen - 9 sisters and 6 brothers (he was the
14th). My mother, Juanita Ortiz, hails from Yabucoa, Puerto Rico and comes
from a family of thirteen - eight sisters and five brothers (she was the
eight born, and the only one from her family to come to NYC for a better
life). Both my mother and fathers families are farmers, or as I would
proudly say "Jibaros del campo". The barrio in Guanica that my father is
from is Ensenada. My fathers brother, Ray (the youngest), married Nellie
Ramos who is Yomo Toro's 1rst cousin. When I first met Yomo years ago, as
soon as I told him my name, the first thing out of his mouth was, "Muchacho,
si yo conosco a todo tú familia!!! Yomo is from the same barrio in Guanica.
The barrio in Yabucoa that my mother is from is called Jacanas. My father
and his brothers learned how to play golf as boys because there was a
country club built by the American owner of the sugar refinery in Guanica
and they became caddy's for the club members. Since both of these cities
were historically sugar refining centers I inherited the spirit of the
machete from both of my parents. They met at a house party here in the
Bronx. My mother was a "costurera" (dressmaker) and was involved in the
early protests to get fair treatment for the Puerto Rican women who made all
the dresses for Fashion Ave. and were payed slave wages. My father came to
NYC not knowing a word of English but he learned from an Italian classmate
of his at Bronx Vocational High School. He learned the trade of machinist
and worked for a firm in Long Island that made parts for the military during
the Vietnam era. After many years he eventually left that and began working
for the Post Office. My mother eventually learned English from me and began
to assist in the local Public School and eventually through her hard work
and her big heart, became involved in teaching mentally retarded kids. I
used to help her with her lesson plans. My father's passion was reading
about history and listening to music. They are both now retired. The reason
I mention them is that I'm very proud of them and their tireless spirit. The
Bronx was not a pretty place in the 60's and 70's.
My childhood was a dichotomy. The 60's were a very exciting time period
socially, culturally and of course musically. I remember that jazz and Latin
music were everywhere. On T.V. I remember seeing Candido on the Ed Sullivan
Show, there was jazz to be heard on cartoons, variety shows, and on dramatic
T.V.. I remember staying up late to see Ed Shaughnessy playing drums for the
Johnny Carson Tonight Show, then I would switch the channel to see Bobby
Rosengarden on the Dick Cavett Show. An hour before that I would see The
David Frost Show and see Grady Tate playing drums. The one thing I noticed
was that they all had music stands and were reading music. That was very
impressive. Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Louis Bellson were the most visible
drummers at the time and they would be featured as guests on these shows and
would play explosive drum solos. How could you not fall in love with the
music and the instrument. Also Dick Cavett featured cutting edge artists and
really deep interviews. I saw Frank Zappa, La Lupe, James Brown, and many
others too numerous to mention on that show.
NYC radio was incredibly progressive at that time. Frankie Crocker was
the program director at WBLS and came up with the concept, THE TOTAL BLACK
EXPERIENCE IN SOUND. That meant that a typical segment would feature
Mandrill, Earth Wind & Fire, Santana, Buddy Rich, and El Gran Combo!!!
Frankie was a jazz lover but of course it was Black station playing hard
core R&B, but he knew of the power of the Latino community and knew the
common connection we all had was Africa. He also didn't care that Grand Funk
Railroad or Edgar Winter were white, he just cared that they had soul. I was
also listening to Symphony Syd, Joe Gaines, Dick "Ricardo" Sugar. Jazz wise
I would listen to Les Davis on WRVR. After all was said and done I would
listen to WNEW the progressive rock station. They had a DJ named Jonathon
Schwartz. He was another closet jazzer so he would play Alice Cooper and
follow it up with Blood Sweat and Tears and then say, "Now the Count Basie
of Latin music, Tito Puente!!! Alison Steele was also on WNEW and she would
play The Mahavisnu Orchestra, King Crimson, Focus, Genesis, progressive
rock.
Felipe Luciano had a Sunday afternoon show on WRVR, NYC's jazz radio
station called "Latin Roots" He would play classic Arsenio, Sexteto La
Playa, Tito Rodriguez, etc. but he would also play all the hip contemporary
things that Eddie Palmieri, Larry Harlow, Tipica 73 and others were
producing. The difference was he looked at the music as great art and he
would interview the musicians, have collector/historians like René Lopez,
Max Salazar and Henry Medina and of course others on the show to talk about
the history of the music. It was like going to school every Sunday. Kako
(the timbalero for the Alegre All-Stars) lived in the neighborhood I grew up
in (The Melrose Projects) and so did the timbalero for Ricardo Ray and Bobby
Cruz, Candido (not the famed Cuban conguero). My older cousin John Collado
introduced me to one of his friends, Howard King. Howard also lived in my
neighborhood and was the drummer for tenor saxophonist Gary Bartz. He was
only eighteen years old. I saw them perform on Public TV (channel 13 in NYC)
at the Montreaux Jazz Festival of 1970 -71. I also saw Mongo perform with
Armando Peraza on that same show. Tito Puente, Machito and Ricardo Ray
performed a concert in my neighborhood when I was twelve. It was mind
blowing. My father took me on my fourteenth birthday to see the reunion of
Tito Puente and La Lupe at Madison Square Garden. Tipica 73 opened the show,
Azteca from the West Coast performed with Lenny White on drums. The place
was packed and Tito Rodriguez had just died. Felipe Luciano asked everyone
to light a match and they turned out the lights and he payed homage to him.
At night in my neighborhood you would here the sound of guaguancó
resounding through the canyons of the projects in the summer. My other
passion was sports, mostly baseball and track but I excelled in football and
b-ball. I got my reflexes from this. I wanted to become an astronaut,
astonomer, race car driver, second baseman for the Yankees (those were the
Horace Clark years so there was a distinct possibility). The only profession
you could do all of these things at the same time was music. 'Nuff said.
The other half of the dichotomy? Drugs, gangs, graffiti. Heroin was the drug
of choice in the South Bronx during those years. That, along with completion
of the Cross Bronx Expressway, political corruption (Mario Biaggi, Stanley
Simon), a weak mayor, the lack of jobs, substandard housing and education,
led to the South Bronx becoming the poster child for urban decay all over
the world. I strongly believe that the only thing that kept it together was
the explosion of music that was being produced during those years by Fania
Records. In 1974, 40,000 screamin' freakin' mostly Ricans showed what an
important part music is to the Latino experience at the Fania All-Stars
concert at Yankee Stadium. That was the real Latin Explosion. What the press
is talking about now is a lot of bullshit. The difference today is that
there are so many of us that they can't ignorace us anymore. So much for
birth control. But by 1977 the city imploded with the blackout. I was lucky,
I never got into drugs and by high school music consumed me.
Q: "When did you first fall in love with Latin music?"
When I heard the early Cal Tjader recordings with Willie Bobo and Mongo
Santamaria and when I heard Tito's early version of Para Los Rumberos from
the 50's. The virtuosity of the drumming and the hipness of the music drew
me in. I also went to an aunt's wedding at the old Luigi's in the Bronx when
I was very young. My family's table was right next to the band and they
opened up with a descarga to loosen up. I was transfixed on every thing that
was happening. Also the concert where Tito, Macho and Ricardo Ray appeared
in my neighborhood was a turning point. The first recording I heard when I
was kid was "Recuerdos de Navidad" by Trio Vegabajeño from Puerto Rico on
78rpm. I would play that when I was 4 or 5 over and over again because of
the beautiful requinto guitar and the martillo of the bongo and of course I
drove my mother crazy. Then I got into the Beatles but came back to the
music through Santana and what I mentioned before. What was the second
record I heard after Trio Vegabajeño? "I'm in With The In Crowd" by Dobie
Gray and then "Reach Out, I'll Be There" by The Four Tops. That was because
my father had the most eclectic taste of anyone I've ever met. He had
everything from hardcore Jibaro music, to tango music, and hardcore R&B as
well as Cortijo, Puente, Basie and Brazilian music, etc. and his love of
history. He shaped my open minded aesthetic.
Q: "What piece of music made the most impact on you and why?"
That's a hard question, because there are many answers. I would say the
excerpts of Ligetti's "Atmospheres" from the soundtrack to 2001 a Space
Odyssey. My father took me to see that film when it first came out. There
was only one theater in NYC showing it because it was in Panavision. I
believe it was 1966, 67 or 68 but I'm not sure. You see "Atmospheres" is a
piece of music completely for voices. It is one of the most haunting,
frightening, beautiful works of all time. When I heard that along with what
I was looking at (the astronauts discover the monolith on the moon), I
realized the sacredness of sound and the power of art.
Q: "At what time of the day are you most creative?
It really doesn't depend on what time of the day. It really depends on
the project I'm working on and how
inspiring it is.
Q: "Who is an artist/s you think more people should be aware of?"
There are three. Marco Rizo Ayala, Ricardo Pons and Jorge Sylvester.
Marco was Lecuona's protegé and studied composition with Igor
Stravinsky. He never was completely taken seriously because he tended to do
light jazz and was not in the public eye. But his harmonic conception was
totally coming from advanced compositional technique and I got to study some
of his works for large orchestra. He was the only person who really knew the
history of Cuban classical piano in this country and I'm proud I conducted
the premiere of his last work, Suite de Las Americas in Philadelphia two
years ago after his death. His claim to pop culture fame was he was the
pianist on the I Love Lucy Show and the true composer of the theme song.
He's also responsible for getting me into teaching, but that's another
story. Marco was a Santiaguero. I've never met anyone in my life who was so
humble. There was not one pretentious bone in his body. I would suggest
people check out his CD "Habaneras". It traces the history of Cuban
classical piano.
Ricardo Pons is probably the greatest jazz musician Puerto Rico has
produced. And that's with all due respect to you David Sanchez, William
Cepeda fans out there. Some of you may be shocked by that statement, but I
shit you not. I think if he gets the opportunity he will prove me right,
he's already proven it to me. He was in the vanguard in fusing Afro-Puerto
Rican rhythms with jazz and making this fusion palpable to the dance
oriented audience a long time ago. He's a great arranger and composer. I
still do not understand why he is not mentioned by his fellow
Puertoriqueños. Jealousy, envy? Jive seems to be more the answer, which is
really a by product of the previous two things I mentioned. Unfortunately
there is a lot of "hipocresia y falsedad" in this business when it comes to
other cats giving respect where it is due. That's why I'm more than happy to
talk about Ricardo's talents. Besides his jazz playing his classical flute
playing is ridiculous and his Cuban style flute playing is also superb.
Ricardo was a last minute replacement for the "Live & In Clave" CD. He made
one rehearsel and played everything flawlessly and took a fantastic solo on
"Manteca" on baritone, which is not his principle horn (alto is his axe). He
has since left NYC because he was offered a teaching position in Puerto Rico
at a university. He knows the Bomba and Plena inside and out and is a
fantastic "barrilero". He's is a priest of Obatalá in Ifá. A beautiful cat
and great father, Puerto Rico is very lucky. Check out his Viento De Agua
CD, "De Puerto Rico Al Mundo".
Jorge Sylvester is from Panama. His principle horns are alto and
soprano. Another cat that people are asleep on. Jorge is a combination of
Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson
and Dave Leibman. He has his own style and won't budge for anyone. That is
to be commended because he wants to have his own identity. Compositionally
Jorge is on another planet. People don't get what he's doing (not even the
musicians) because there are so many sub layers to what he's writing that to
really appreciate it you have to get past the technical demands placed on
the players. Most people today are lazy (including many musicians), they
don't want to be challenged in any part of their lives and that includes
listening to music. He's got two solo projects out "Music Collage" and "In
The Ear Of The Beholder". Check them out, but if you do, please sit down and
listen!!!
Q: "Are you a songwriter?"
No, I'm a composer.
Q: "What are your priorities when you get to the stage?"
If I'm a sideman, to make sure that all my equipment is functioning
properly so that I can give the artist I'm working for the best possible
performance of his or her music. Obviously that means respecting the artists
vision. If they are secure with themselves they usually allow me (or anyone
else) to make a suggestion, they know I care about the music and that is my
only concern. If they're incompetent or not serious or they don't respect me
I'm at the point in my career where I won't even deal with them. If I'm a
leader the same holds true except I have many more responsibilities. Getting
the music together, what is to be played, featuring everyone strengths. And
I also have to make sure I inspire the players and audience to take the
performance to the next level, the spiritual. That is why I'm very picky
with who I use. It's not enough to be technically capable, you have to
understand and respect my vision also.
Q; "Which one of your CD's that you have recorded would you keep if the
others were forever lost?"
The Afro-Cuban Dream... Live & In Clave!!! CD because of the totality of
the work, from a writing, arranging and playing standpoint.
Q: "Which one of someone else's CD's would you keep if all others were
lost?"
Another tough question with many answers but off the top of my head,
"Caravanserai" by Carlos Santana.
Q: "Name an All-Star band of your favourite musicians."
That's very easy to answer, the musicians in my quartet, big band and
Ascensión.
Q: "What musicians or band would you have wanted to play with from the past
and why?"
Another easy question to answer...
Cal Tjader - where else would you find an opportunity to play good
straight ahead jazz as a drummer and good Afro-Cuban jazz as a timbalero in
an authentic manner?
Frank Zappa - the combination of sarcastic humour, absurdity, complex
music, theater, improvisation played with a rock n' roll attitude is a dream
come true.
Machito and Tito Rodriguez - discipline, combined with elegance and
sophistication You also get to solo and play for people who know how to
dance on the "2".
Tipica 73 - I would have loved to bring my knowledge of modern Cuban
drumming to that band in its heyday.
Count Basie - it was Buddy Rich's favourite band.
Don Ellis - Don was the supreme futurist. He was light years ahead of
everyone compositionally with his use of odd meters and understood
Afro-Cuban as well as East Indian classical music.
Charles Mingus - another futurist but from the Black American
perspective.
Q: "Are critics important or do you rather see your music reviewed in the
vanity press? Are you susceptible to bad reviews?"
In pop music critics aren't that important (most of it is superficial
anyway). In jazz, classical, Latino oriented music, etc. they are VERY
important because the market is smaller and the decision of the buyer to
purchase a CD is directly tied in many ways to what a reviewer writes. I
assume by vanity press you mean a friend, or someone who is recruited by the
label or yourself to give you a favourable review? That exists in the pop
world where there are big budgets for that. In jazz the writers are fans and
love the music too much. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist, but it's on a
much smaller scale. That also doesn't mean they are completely knowledgeable
about a specific genre like Brazilian or Afro-Cuban based jazz. I see a lot
of incompetent writing by critics. In defence of critics, they get a lot
of pressure to listen to a lot of product in a short amount of time,
sometimes they only listen to the first couple of tunes of a CD because they
have twenty or more CD's to review for three different magazines.
As far as bad reviews are concerned, they affect everyone. In jazz it's
hard because you want to take chances, it shows you are growing as an
artist. But that goes completely against the mandate of most record
companies. Don't kid yourself, anyone that tells you different is full of
shit or doesn't know what time it is. Bad reviews affect whether you get
another chance to record, sales etc, everything. I will say one thing, I've
noticed that people who are in the superstar category, be it movies, sports,
theater, recording, are influenced less by it since they have achieved a
certain level of immunity because of their status. But believe me, if Tiger
Woods loses three matches in a row, the press will have a field day. The
challenge is always to be consistent with your work and that comes from not
just accepting "well, that's OK. it's good enough".
Q: "Do you believe in music as art as opposed to a product for
merchandising?"
It's both. After you complete the work you want as many people as
possible to hear it. I don't believe in this "museum piece" attitude about
jazz, folk, experimental or classical records. If it is good, it should be
heard, if it is great it should be heard by everyone. You can sell anything
in this country, unfortunately that includes mediocre music. Great art is
not just for a small group of privileged elite pseudo intellectuals that
then discuss it over tea and crumpets while they laugh about how ignorant or
deprived the rest of the world is. Great art is meant to be shared with as
many people as possible so that it can "... wipe away the dust of everyday
life"... as Art Blakey said about jazz.
Q: "How do you see yourself in relation to the tradition?"
I'm a participator, educator and hopefully an innovator.
Q: "What music do you listen to when you are relaxing?"
I don't listen to any music when I'm relaxing.
Q: "Give us a mental image of your favourite view in the world."
Having an afternoon constitutional on the banks of the Lake in Lugano,
Switzerland.
Q: "What changes or landmarks in your life can you attribute to the music
you play?"
It's made more people happy and inspired more positive energy than any
other thing I can think of.
Q: "When the music is at its best in your opinion, what is happening (to
make it the best) and what do you feel?"
Well that's an easy one and a complex one at the same time. I could go
on and on but it's very simple. There is a spiriual communion that is
happening with the players and the audience that is fed by this incredible
positive energy that is being transmitted through the players. It doesn't
happen all the time but it's starting to happen more and more because I have
in my ensembles players who are really competent and respect each other.
That gives you alot of options on an improvisational level. Q: "Would you
still be a musician even if that means you would die of hunger?"
If your question is literal, hell no, my son needs me. If it it isn't,
well I've been hungry many times but music has always provided for me
because - I'm proud to say - I know my craft. If I died of hunger because I
was a musician that would be pretty lame because it would mean I was a lousy
musician.
Q: "If you had to choose a short segment (a few bars) from your work to
represent you, which would it be?"
I want to meet the person that came up with this question. O.K. here
goes. The drum fill that I do on "Nuyorican Son" on John Stubblefield's
second chorus leading into the bridge to introduce the trombones.
Q: "What food would you most liken your music to?"
A big fat juicy "chuleta" followed by a nice glass of champagne.
Q: "Do you believe in Aliens?"
Ñamnu rictus veractu!!!
Q: "One piece of advice for musicians."
Take your craft seriously but try not to take yourself too seriously.
Respect comes from knowing your craft well and honoring those who have come
before. I was fortunate to have learned this at an early age from historian
René Lopez. He always would say "Honor those who have come before, don't
just remember them". Unfortunately today most musicians I've met in my age
group or slightly younger are very self absorbed. Not everyone is like this,
but most are. In contrast I've found that older players are truly
supportive. They are
as interested in how one is doing personally as well as professionally.
Pass on what you know, but only to those who show respect for the
culture and who really want to learn. It is a great honor to be a good
musician, your job is simple, to make people happy. Oh, and probably the
most important thing, get plenty of sleep!!!
I almost forgot, learn how to dance. It is the only way that you will
learn the importance of the proper tempo for a piece of music. I know that's
more than one piece of advice, perdoname.
Oh and by the way, I'd name Hermeto's rooster and pig Tom and Jerry
Gonzalez::)
Q: One piece of advice for listeners (or dancers).
For listeners, please read the liner notes and find quiet time to REALLY
listen.
For the dancers, learning how how to come off on "2" is essential... in
mambo on the "2" side of the clave... Learn Samba and Rumba.
See you on the scene!!!
Aché,
Bobby Sanabria

Credits:
Allan Johnston - format questions
Eliseo Cardona - translations

Lea esta entrevista en Español visite www.anapapaya.com

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