Tomás Peña: Congratulations on forty distinguished years in the music business and the release of SPIRIT WARRIOR!
Papo Vázquez: you, Tomas. I’ve been lucky and blessed to play with some of the greatest musicians. I wouldn’t have made it this far if it had not been for the people who believed in me and never judged my mistakes. As a creative artists, there are no coincidences, and there is something unseen that guides our actions. I believe in a supreme spirit that lets us know if we are on the right path. Everyone must decide what path to take, but the most important thing is to surround yourself with people that care and love you. Once you get to the stage and miss the element of love and respect, the Holy Spirit will not embrace the music, and the audience will sense it. You can go on stage and try to impress the audience with your skills, but that has nothing to do with the magic that music can be. Allowing something larger than yourself to drive the music takes courage and faith. Mysterious things happen on stage, and everybody looks at one another and asks, “How did that happen?” I thank God for blessing me with a beautiful wife that has stuck with me. The greatest thing in life is love. It absolves everything!
TP: Amen to that! What does the title, Spirit Warrior, signify?
PV: It’s the human struggle that every one of us faces in life, right vs. wrong, good versus evil. We are all spirit warriors at different levels. Some battles bring us to the edge of destruction. The important thing is not to let it destroy one’s spirit. Life can be challenging, and some never make it back from spiritual battles.
TP: You’ve been performing, studying and analyzing Puerto Rican music for years. What have you learned thus far?
PV: Our culture is rich! Danza, Plena, Bomba, Musica Jibara, La Danza and romantic trio music are microcosms; the more you dig, the more you find!
TP: Spirit Warrior showcases your skills as a composer and arranger. I’m curious to know your method for composing a tune.
PV: I sit for months, sometimes years, composing the basic ideas, but at the end of the day, it is a collective effort. I couldn’t do it without the input of the guys in the band. For example, I’ll write something down. I’ll ask Anthony Carrillo or Carlos Maldonado their opinion if it relates to the percussion section. Some ideas work from the start, and others do not. Willie Williams has been with the Pirates for more than fifteen years. We always discuss the compositions as a whole, tonalities, grooves, etc. That’s my approach to composing and arranging. Before I make final prints for rehearsal, everyone has seen their parts. We move forward when I see they feel good about what’s on paper. The materials must be ready months before we go into the recording studio. The final part is the months of preparation on the trombone, which the great J. J. Johnson described best: “The trombone is a beastly instrument, and we’ll leave it at that for now. The trombone is a world unto itself.”
TP: Where do you draw inspiration?
PV: I listen to previous recordings. I cross out the stuff we have done before and make lists of styles or rhythms we haven’t explored. The inspiration for the tune, El MORRO, came from Anthony Carrillo, who mentioned that we didn’t have a Bomba Sica. Other times, I’ll sit at the piano and start something there. It depends. If it’s a ballad, the keyboard is where I begin, or I work with something on my bone (trombone). Other times I sit at my computer and write ideas until something makes sense. After I have a basic plan on paper, I send it to the guys for their input on their particular instruments. I feel very fortunate to have good friends like Sherman Irby, who is also my co-producer and gives me his point of view. So, there are many layers to what you’re listening to. As a composer and arranger, you must make sure that what you put on paper works for the individual performer. You don’t just write something, shove it in someone’s face, and say, “OK, this is what you have to play!” That would be counter-productive. About seventy-five percent of the ideas make it to the final product. There are a bunch of ideas in the vault!
TP: Tell me about the repertoire.
PV: HURACAN (Hurricane) is a fast Plena. It’s a different twist on what we know as a descarga (jam session), using the rhythms of the Plena as a base, with a bridge.
EL MORRO is a Sica with an Arabian feel. Also, melodic ideas from (the album) Oasis (2012) seeped into the composition. At first thought of calling it El Moro, like the Moor(s), because of the Arabian melodic concept. I finally decided on El Morro in honor of San Felipe, the fort in Old San Juan. The Sica rhythm has a powerful drive; it feels like an army or a fleet of ships on attack. When I listen, I imagine cannon blasts. El Morro is one of the most descriptive compositions.
BUMBO CON BUMBA was inspired by the Punta de Clavo, similar to how Plenero Marcial Reyes played. El Maestro Anthony Carrillo says, “We created another version of Plena.” We call it “Plena Pirata.” Bumbo was a Pirate’s drink, made with rum, water, and cinnamon; Bamba was a friend who loved being around musicians.
THE LITTLE PEOPLE is an elementary composition that sounds like a children’s song. It starts as a Danza and then goes into a medium “jazz swing.” It also reminds me of the holidays.
THE MOLE is a “jazz waltz,” which, for some reason, reminds me of a spy movie.
NO GOODBYES FOR YOU (for Hilton Ruiz). It is a tribute to Hilton Ruiz. He was a good friend and an early influence.
TP: The tune is heartfelt and moving. Tell me about your relationship with Hilton.
PV: I remember visiting Hilton at his apartment in Manhattan with Miguelito Colón, a genius musician and trombone player who is no longer with us. Hilton was a hero since my arrival in New York in 1975. He played with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and I would sneak into the Village Vanguard to listen to the band. The fact that Hilton was Puerto Rican was a source of inspiration. It gave me something to strive for. Before I left Philadelphia, mentor Jimmy Purvis said, “What you need to do is get a gig with Thelonious Monk, and then you’ll be accepted.” Man, what a tall order! The best thing I did was hook up with Hilton!
SALTO ANGEL is a tribute to Venezuela, the first country I visited outside the U.S. as a member of Larry Harlow’s Band in 1975. Since then, I’ve traveled there solo and with different groups.
PALO INCAO is a tribute to the birthplace of my father and grandfather (Palo Incao, Barranquitas, Puerto Rico). It gives me a melancholy feeling, a place that no longer exists or something we have lost.
MCCOY (for McCoy Tyner) – I have always loved McCoy Tyner’s piano playing. The bass and piano vamp reminds me of McCoy.
IN THIS LONELY PLACE appeared on the recording At the Point Vol. 1 or Vol. 2. We play it sometimes; it has evolved into what you hear now.
TP: You composed the tune for your wife, Lina, as a Valentine’s Day gift.
PV: My wife had been after me for years to record it! I would always say no-no-no-no! Sometimes I would sing it at gigs to make her happy, but I’m a singer. Now let’s be honest, Jack Teagarden and Billy Eckstine were all great singers, the one and only Louis Armstrong.
ROLLER COASTER is a Blues with Bomba Holandé as the base.
DESPEDIDA is an Aguinaldo Fajardeño, part of my musical surroundings at a very young age. My grandfather, father, and uncle were all troubadours. Jibaro music seeps into my music.
KEREPAKUPAI VENA is the original name of Salto Angel. I wanted to finish the recording with mother earth talking to us. Here is the landscape of Kerepakupai Vena’. Despedida fades into Kerepakupai Vena’ leaving city dwellers behind. The main actors in this piece are the Waterfall, Forest, and the creatures that live in it. That low sound you hear is the heart of the dragon that has fallen in the middle of the forest and is slowly dying. Those are his final breaths. On top of the waterfall is the Arch Angel Gabriel playing his horn in triumph over good and evil. At the end is the Shaman singing the song for the Cascade or Waterfall (Canto de Cascada).
TP: How many years have Pirates & Troubadours been in existence?
PV: We have been making music for about thirty-one years. My first band, Papo Vázquez Bomba Jazz, was created in 1984 in Puerto Rico. I recorded my second band on Breakout (1991). I guess I was still using the Bomba Jazz name for that band. The first time I used Pirates Troubadourswas was on my second and third CDs titled At the Point Vol.1 & 2. (1999). Then came Carnival in San Juan (2002), From The Badlands (2005), and the Grammy Nominated CD Marooned/Aislado(2007), followed by Oasis (2012). As you can see, the bands run the gamut, from small band Afro-Caribbean Jazz Groups to my Mighty Pirate Afro Puerto Rican Jazz and a 17-piece Orchestra and Dance Band. What’s not on the list is my Oasis Project, created in 2010, which earned an NEA Latino Master Award. My suite, Sube El Rio/ River Rising, which was also commissioned by the Bronx River Arts Center was never recorded.
TP: Congratulations on the premiere of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Pregones Theater. How did the project come about?
PV: That’s a unique project Associate Artistic Director, Alvan Colon, commissioned on my behalf. Initially, I turned it down because I didn’t feel qualified. Once we sat down, and he explained his vision, I understood what he wanted, so I asked (pianist) Rick Germanson to help me. It was a learning experience, and it turned out very nice. Sometimes you have faith in the people steering you in a particular direction. Still, it can get scary, especially when not in your comfort zone.
TP: Congratulations to the quartet: Pianist Rick Germanson, drummer Joel Mateo and bassist Alexander Apolo Ayala Berrios. They were magnificent. Do you have any final thoughts?
PV: I want to say “Thank you” to your readers. The interview will give them some insight into our process and be an essential source of information for anyone interested in learning more about our music.
TP: Congratulations on a long and distinguished career.
Papo continues to compose and perform with his group. When we spoke last, he was in the process of composing new material for a new project (recording). When I asked him if he could give me a clue, in typical Papo fashion, he said, “It’s a secret!” Stay tuned for details as they become available.