Interview Conducted: 2015
“Ignacio Berroa is an all American Afro-Cuban drumming maestro, completely fluent and conversant in all styles of music. He is a gift to our music.” Peter Erskine
Ignacio Berroa is recognized as one of the greatest drummers of our times. He was honored by inclusion in the 2011 Mp3 compilation entitled “Jazz Drumming Legends,” which features some of the most renowned drummers in Jazz history.
He was born in Havana Cuba on July 8, 1953. He began his musical education at age 11 at the National School of Arts and subsequently at Havana’s National Conservatory, starting his professional career in 1970. By 1975, Ignacio had become Cuba’s most sought after drummer.
In 1980, he left his country during the Mariel boatlift and settled in New York City where he met the great Cuban musician Mario Bauzá, who introduced him to Dizzy Gillespie. In August 1981 Gillespie invited Ignacio to join his quartet.
Ignacio Berroa also participated of all the important bands Gillespie assembled during that decade such as The Dizzy Gillespie 70th Anniversary Big Band, The Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars Big Band and the Grammy Award winner, United Nation Orchestra. His relation lasted until Dizzy’s death.
Jazz Legend Dizzy Gillespie best defined Ignacio as: “… the only Latin drummer in the world in the history of American music that intimately knows both worlds: his native Afro-Cuban music as well as Jazz…”
As an author and a renowned educator he made his mark with the instructional video: Mastering Art Afro-Cuban Drumming and the books: Groovin’ In Clave, and A New Way Of Groovin’. He also conducts clinics and master classes around the world.
His first album as a leader, Codes, was nominated for a Grammy in 2007. Codes also won a Danish Music Award in 2007 as best International Jazz Album.
His second album Heritage and Passion was released in 2014.
Ignacio has recorded and played with musicians of the stature of: McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Wynton Marsalis, Freddie Hubbard, Clark Terry, Jackie McLean, Jimmy Heath, James Moody, Jon Faddis, Slide Hampton, Michael Brecker, Milt Jackson, Jaco Pastorius, Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, Tito Puente, Mario Bauzá, Lalo Schifrin, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Danilo Perez, David Sanchez, Michel Camilo, Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Ivan Lins, Joao Bosco, Lenny Andrade, Lincoln Center Orchestra, WDR Big Band and BBC Big Band.
Tomas Peña: Welcome Ignacio. It’s a pleasure to speak with you.
Ignacio Berroa: Thank you, Tomas
Your debut recording as a leader, Codes, was released twenty-six years after you arrived in the U.S. (2006). In 2013 you released Heritage and Passion. Why the gap between recordings?
I was not enthusiastic about the options. I didn’t want to record an album using my own money and go through the tedious process of shopping around during these difficult economic times and wind up giving the final product to a company that distributes the album and takes ownership of the music.
Also, being separated from my family, taking care of them and wondering whether I’d ever see them again was a huge factor in my not being ready to record an album as a leader, and learning a new language and adapting to a different society. It was like being born again.
I also wasn’t ready to record an album in a short while and not have control of the mixing process. For me, it’s not important to record an album every year if the conditions aren’t right. I see the albums like my friends, I have a few, but they are good.
My dear friend Dizzy Gillespie encouraged me to make an album. He said, “Ignacio, why don’t you record an album? You can have me as a guest, and it won’t cost you a penny.” I appreciated Dizzy pushing me to record, but I wasn’t ready, mentally or musically. I didn’t want to do something that I would regret later, a typical Latin jazz album that fit the prototype: jazz standards with congas, timbales, and drums in the background, there is already plenty of that out there.
Another critical factor was the record companies lack interest in drummers because of the instrument. It’s no secret that it’s easier for record companies to sell albums with vocalists and melodic music.
Drummers have always been the guys in the background. Historically people don’t pay too much attention to us. For example, when the majority of jazz critics and musicians talk about the Bebop era, the names that always come up are: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, hardly anyone mentions drummer, Kenny Clarke. One of the few times I heard his name mentioned was on a Carmen McRae live album, where she’s about to sing a Monk tune, and while describing the importance of Monk on the Bebop movement she mentions Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Kenny Clarke.
A lot of young musicians record albums and ask, “Why am I not working?” My answer is, “You have a lot of albums, but you don’t have a career!”
Good point. Your friend and compatriot, Gonzalo Rubalcaba produced the albums, Codes and Heritage and Passion.
Gonzalo is one of the most incredible musicians I’ve could work with. We also have a great friendship. We are like family, so having him as the producer on both albums has been great.
Heritage and Passion is a superb recording. Are you happy with the way it turned out?
Thank you, I’m pleased with the result. I also think it’s a great album. There are things I could have done differently, but that’s life, you learn from every experience.
The cover is an abstract rendering of the Cuban flag and the American flag. It symbolizes your roots and where you went to pursue your passion.
Exactly! And I want to give credit to my wife, Flor Rodriguez, whose input on the cover art reflects my heritage, my passion and the connection that has always existed, musically and historically between Cuba and the U.S.
The liner notes are autobiographical. Before reading them, I had no idea that you started as a violinist.
My dad, Ignacio Berroa Senior, was a professional violinist and played for some of the more important Charangas in Cuba in the 50s, like America del 55 and Fajardo y sus Estrellas. He also played on National Radio and the TV Orchestra of CMQ. My mother wanted me to play the violin. She passed away when I was ten years old. About six months after she passed, my dad brought home two jazz albums that changed my life forever; one by the Nat King Cole Trio and the other by the Glenn Miller Orchestra with Gene Krupa on drums.
Just before turning eleven I went to the National School of the Arts to study violin. I didn’t want to hurt my dad’s feelings or betray my mother’s desire for me to be a violinist but after one year of pretending to play the violin and hanging out with the percussionists at school, I asked my friends to talk to my dad and to tell him I wasn’t the least bit interested in studying the violin. Fortunately for me, my father didn’t make a case out of it, so in that regard the transition from classical music to percussion was easy.
Just to clarify, you’re referring to classical percussion.
Music schools in Cuba didn’t have a drum department. I don’t know if they do today, I don’t think so. When I went to school in Cuba music training was strictly classically oriented. I was trained on a snare drum, lessons were taken on a practice pad, and we had no snare drums or mallets.
Not having a drum instructor and the resources to listen to jazz made it difficult for me to play the drums and learn the jazz language because I did it on my own. At the school, we were prohibited from playing popular music unless we were authorized by our superiors to do so. The National School of the Arts was a boarding school with a semi-military disciplinary system. If you were caught playing popular music you could lose your right to go home for the weekend.
During the 60s and 70s, it was also difficult to be in touch with Afro-Cuban rhythms from the Yoruba system because practicing any religion contradicted with the socialist ideology of the Cuban government. Those who were faithful to Catholicism or Afro-Cuban religion went against the government’s ideology. This changed after 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Cuban government was forced to change course, and popular Cuban music and Afro-Cuban music became a lucrative product for the Cuban government.
The album begins with the pairing of Ornette Coleman’s When Will the Blues Leave and Ray Barretto’s Vine Pa’ Echar Candela.
I have a great deal of love and admiration for Ray Barretto. He was a great human, a great musician, and a great guy. He always treated me with love and respect. I was a big fan of his music, and I like the tune, Vine Pa’ Echar Candela. In Ornette’s case, When Will the Blues Leave is one of his tunes I like the most. One day I was in the shower humming When Will the Blues Leave, around the same time I was working on my Afro-Cuban Jazz and Beyond project, where there’s a clip of Conjunto Rumbavana from Cuba playing Vine Pa’ Echar Candela. Suddenly, the tune came to mind, and I thought of a way to combine it with When Will the Blues Leave. It was Ray saying, “Hey Papa, don’t leave me out,” so I grabbed my I-Phone and recorded the idea. Coincidentally, Luis Perdomo and Ricky Rodriguez played in Barretto’s band, so during the rehearsal, I sang the idea to them, and they loved it.
Evidence is one of the Monk tunes I like the most. I was also told once in the early 80s that Monk had some Cuban friends in New York City who took him to Yoruba ceremonies. Monk was fascinated and asked his friend to take him again, so he was exposed to that. Some musicians speculate that some of his syncopated tunes, such as evidence may result from Monk’s exposure to Afro-Cuban rhythms. Also, Cuban pianist Frank Emilio Flynn, one pioneer of Afro-Cuban jazz and the descarga movement in Cuba, composed a tune titled Gandinga Mondongo y Sandunga with some similarities with the syncopated accents of Evidence, so obviously there’s a connection there. What I did with the song to add more spice to it, rhythmically speaking, was putting the accents in a different place and giving it a type of Fusion, Afro-Cuban treatment to the tune.
Laura’s Waltz is a melody for my granddaughter. La Bayamesa has a patriotic symbolism for Cubans during the war against the Spaniards, so I combined it with America the Beautiful as a symbolic way of connecting the music and history of Cuba and the U.S.
Nardis came up spontaneously. During a pause at the studio, Mark played the tune, Boris and I joined him, it felt so good we went for one take.
Ignacio’s Solo was Gonzalo’s idea of me doing a drum solo.
I became a huge fan of Brazilian music in the 70s and especially of Elis Regina, who recorded a beautiful version of Altos y Baixos on one of her albums. It’s a beautiful tune that, isn’t played much.
Ricky Rodriguez mentioned a composition he wanted me to check out for the band, so he brought the tune, Surviving the City to the rehearsal and added a guitar part. Gonzalo added some keyboard, and as a result, our this great tune fits perfectly with the concept I had for the album.
La Perla de Eden is a famous Cuban tune, composed by one of the iconic figures of the Son genre, Ignacio Piñeiro. The style originated in the eastern part of Cuba, Oriente province in 1810, so I played it as a jazz standard. What would happen in Habana in 1968 or early 70s, had I played La Perla del Eden in a jazz format? For sure, someone would have said, “Hey, cut that shit out!” And I would have been brought in for questioning (laughs).
Chick Corea was a huge influence on Cuban musicians in the late 70s. He’s also one of the most influential jazz musicians alive. When I was checking out tunes for the album, Codes, I asked him to send me the music of one piece he wrote for the album, Three Quartets, he sent me Cuartetos but I recorded the tune, Matrix instead.
In the liner-notes for Codes you write, “If someone expected to hear something different in this recording just because I am Cuban, I’m sorry to have disappointed you.” Coming from you, those are powerful words. Why would someone of your stature feel compelled to apologize for your music?
It’s not an apology, it’s a sarcastic way of telling people, “Sorry, I can navigate in the jazz idiom with no accent at all. I’m the exception, not the rule.
For some people, if you are Cuban, Puerto Rican or Dominican, or from another Latin American country they expect you to play Rumba, Son, Merengue, Bomba, Plena, Bolero or Salsa. You can’t get out of the Latin Jazz box because that’s where you belong. They can’t deal with you playing your music and swinging your ass off. There are still people out there who want to see you as Desi Arnaz or Carmen Miranda. In all fairness, there are also people who appreciate that you are absorbing, studying the music and taking the jazz idiom seriously.
Just to demonstrate, here’s an example. While playing for a week at a venue in New York City with the Gonzalo Rubalcaba Trio to promote the album, Inner Voyage, which is ninety-eight percent straight-ahead jazz, the first two nights the announcer introduced me as a “percussionist.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a derogatory term, but it’s not customary in the jazz world to call a drummer a percussionist.
On the third night, I approached the announcer and asked, “If the guy on this gig was Jack DeJohnette or Paul Motian, would you introduce him as a percussionist or a drummer?” Without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Drummer,” to which I replied, “So, why do you insist on calling me a percussionist? Is it because my name is Ignacio Berroa? Yes, I’m Cuban, and I’m playing the drums, and my name is Ignacio Berroa!”
During my days with Dizzy I’d be in a restaurant or some other place and because of my accent people would know in a heartbeat I was a foreigner. They would ask me where I was from and what I was doing. When I replied that I was playing with Dizzy Gillespie, invariably people would ask, “Are you the percussionist?” I realize, although I played with Dizzy for ten years and I’m included in Blue Note Records and Modern Drummer’s CD, Jazz Drumming Legends, some people will always call me the “Great Latin Drummer,” the “Great Afro-Cuban drummer, or the “Latin Jazz Specialist.”
I want to take this opportunity to express, once again, that my musical goal, when I came to the U.S. in 1980, was to compete and find my place among my colleagues in the jazz world. Coming to this country to find my place as an Afro-Cuban drummer would have been the easy way out, so I took on a real challenge and fought the good fight. I was fortunate that Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz icons gave me the opportunity, and I made the most of it. So, I’m fighting this fight for those young musicians around the world, especially in Latin America, who dream about coming to this country and becoming jazz drummers and jazz musicians.
What do you make of the statement, “Ignacio is one of the greatest drummers of our time. It is a shame that a lot of American drummers don’t know him. American drummers like to go after names, but sometimes the people you don’t know are the ones you should know?”
The great Dennis Chambers said that in a quote for my first instructional book, Groovin’ in Clave. That’s a powerful quote coming from one of the greatest drummers of our time who has seen and played with everybody. A statement like that makes me proud and forces me to get better and do my best when I sit behind a drum set or walk into the classroom.
Let’s talk about your role as an educator.
I love education. Part of our mission is passing our knowledge and experience to others. When I was in Cuba, I wanted to figure out and learn what some of my idols, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, and Jack DeJohnette were doing but I wasn’t able to see them live or ask questions. I didn’t even have the resources to listen to their albums, so for me going to institutions and sharing my knowledge and help students and teachers clarify confusion is rewarding.
Lots of students and musicians are confused with Afro-Cuban music. People go to Cuba for a week or two, learn about the Son and Rumba clave, a few drum patterns, some genres and go back to their countries thinking they have a great deal of knowledge about our culture and create their interpretation and create confusion instead of teaching.
Our music has yet to receive the respect and attention it deserves in the U.S. and abroad, the same thing with jazz education. At the last JEN Conference in San Diego, California, Herbie Hancock encouraged educators to expose students to the right information. We have to balance jazz education and expose the students to established musicians who have played with the greatest musicians on the planet as opposed to teachers with credentials who have no practical experience. We have to prepare the students for the real world, where professional expertise is paramount.
Do you teach often?
Not as much as I’d like to. Again, it is the way educators see drummers. For example, it’s not customary for the head of a jazz department at a college or university, to use the budget to bring in a drummer for a residency, as a guest artist or for their annual concerts or festivals. They usually bring in an artist that plays a melodic instrument or an educator who teaches arranging, jazz history, etc. A few see the importance of bringing in a high-caliber drummer who can impart a great deal of knowledge with the students and teachers.
Institutions are also facing budget cuts, but I think they should explore ways of contacting those with the wherewithal and will donate money to jazz education. Also, people are more interested in being entertained than learning. We have to change that. It’s a long battle.
Lately, I’ve been going to some colleges and universities to present my video, Afro-Cuban Jazz & Beyond. The project covers four hundred years of developing Afro-Cuban music since the slaves to Cuba, the influence of Afro-Cuban music on jazz, and its impact on Cuban music to today. It’s a fantastic presentation. I would like to take it to every university, college and high school with a jazz program in the U.S. and abroad.
In the presentation, I show the influence of two of the most critical groups brought to Cuba, the Abakuá from the Yoruba Kingdom, and their role in developing Rumba. The second group came from Haiti in 1791. They brought Tumba Francesa and the dance steps that everyone today calls salsa. From there I go through the most important genres of Cuban music: Tumba Francesa, Son, Danzón, Danzonete, Cha-Cha-Chá, Mambo,Guaracha, introducing Cuban music by Don Aspiazú, Mario Bauzá and his Afro-Cuban Jazz, which led to the Latin jazz of the 60s and the 80s in Cuba and the U.S. and a few examples of the music of today. I also include anecdotes from my long career with Dizzy Gillespie and demonstrate how to apply those rhythms to the drum set and their integration to jazz.
I should mention these are my findings, I always tell people, “If you disagree with my findings, show me yours!”
Thank you for private viewing. Your presentation is interesting, informative and entertaining. This summer, you and pianist Hilario Duran will present the film at various educational institutions and conduct clinics and concerts throughout Canada. Best of luck!