Congratulations on forty distinguished years in the music business. Also, on the release of SPIRIT WARRIOR.
Thank you, Tomas. I’ve been lucky and blessed to play with some of the greatest musicians alive during my lifetime. 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 artist, there are no coincidences, and there is something unseen, call it what you like, 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. Believe me, once you get to the stage, and you are missing 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. I’ve been a witness to such things. Mysterious things happen on stage, and everybody looks at one another and says, “How did that happen?” I thank God for blessing me with a wonderful wife that has stuck with me. The greatest thing in life is love. It absolves everything!
What does the title, SPIRIT WARRIOR, signify?
It’s the human struggle that every one of us has to face in life, right or 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 tough, and some never make it back from spiritual battles.
You’ve been studying and analyzing Puerto Rican music for years. What has it taught you?
Our culture is rich! You could spend years learning one style: Danza, Plena, Bomba, Musica Jibara, La Danza, or romantic trio music. They are microcosms; the more you dig, the more you find.
Spirit Warrior showcases your skills as a composer and arranger. How do you compose a tune?
I sit for months and even years composing the basic ideas, but it’s a collective effort. I couldn’t do it without the input of the guys in the band. For example, I’ll put something down on paper, and if it has to do with the percussion section, I’ll ask Anthony Carrillo or Carlos Maldonado to tell me what they think. Some ideas work from the beginning; others don’t.
Willie Williams has been with the Pirates for more than fifteen years. We always discuss the compositions as a whole as well as tonalities, grooves, etc. That’s my approach to composing and arranging. Before I make final prints for rehearsal, everyone has seen their parts. When I see they feel good about what’s on paper, we move forward. The materials have to be ready months before we go into the recording studio. The final part is the months of preparation on the trombone. The great J. J. Johnson said it best, “The trombone is a beastly instrument, and we’ll leave it at that for now. The trombone is a world unto itself.”
Where do you draw inspiration?
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 have to make sure that what you are putting 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!
Tell me about the repertoire.
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. I guess there were melodic ideas from (the album) Oasis (2012) that seeped into the composition. At first, I thought of calling it El Moro, like the Moor (s) because of the Arabian melodic concept, but 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 the attack. When I listen, I imagine cannon blasts. It is one of the most descriptive compositions.
BUMBO CON BUMBA was inspired by the Punta de Clavo, similar to the way Plenero Marcial Reyes played. According to El Maestro Anthony Carrillo, “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 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). Hilton was a good friend and an early influence when I moved to New York from Philadelphia.
The tune is heartfelt, moving. Tell me about your relationship with Hilton.
I remember visiting Hilton at his apartment in Manhattan with my good buddy Miguelito Colón, a genius musician and trombone player, also no longer with us. Hilton was a hero since my arrival in New York in 1975. He was playing with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and I would sneak into the Village Vanguard to listen to the band. That he 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 as a soloist 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 Mc Coy Tyner) – I have always loved McCoy Tyner’s piano playing. A bass and piano vamp reminds me of McCoy.
IN THIS LONELY PLACE was recorded as an instrumental in the recording At the Point Vol. 1 or Vol. 2. We play it sometimes; it has evolved into what you hear now.
You composed the tune for your wife, Lina, as a Valentine’s Day gift. 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, 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, which was 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).
How many years have Pirates & Troubadours been in existence?
We have been making music for about thirty-one years. My first band, Papo Vázquez Bomba Jazz, was created in 1984 in Puerto Rico. My second band recorded on Breakout (1991), I guess I was still using the Bomba Jazz name for that Band. The first time I used the name Pirates Troubadours 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 17-piece Orchestra and Dance Band. What’s not on the list is my Oasis Project, created in 2010, which earned me an NEA Latino Master Award.
Someday I’d like to document it, but that’s a big project. It’s a company of 27 performers that includes, Poets, Dancers, High Def Videos of Beaches from all over the world, guest artists, a string section, woodwind section, horns, five percussion players, etc.
There’s also my suite Sube El Rio/ River Rising, which was commissioned by the Bronx River Arts Center, never recorded. Music commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center, my commissioned piece for the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra – Cimarrón. Also, commissions from the Arts Ensemble Chamber Orchestra. The work is part of the evolution of the Mighty Pirates Troubadours.
Congratulations on the premiere of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Pregones Theater in the Bronx. How did the project come about?
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 out. It was a learning experience, and it turned out very nice. Sometimes you have to have faith in the people steering you in a particular direction, but it can get scary, especially when taken out of your comfort zone.
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?
I want to say, “Thank you,” to your readers. The interview will give them some insight into our process and serve as an essential source of information for anyone interested in learning more about our music.
Before I close, some years back, I interviewed you on the air for WFDU, 89.1 FM (Under the Radar). Towards the end of the broadcast, you gave me a black baseball cap with the Pirates Troubadours logo and a stern warning. “Once a pirate, always a pirate, there is no going back!” I wear it proudly! On a more serious note, your discography, awards, and commissions speak volumes. Congratulations on a long and distinguished career.
UPDATE (2020) 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 an inkling, in typical Papo fashion, he said, “It’s a secret!” Stay tuned for details as they become available.
Photo: Tomas Peña