Percussionist Francisco Aguabella is emphatic when asked whether anyone else can perform the types of rhythms he has been playing since he came to the United States from Cuba in 1957. "No," he says in his heavy Cuban accent, "nobody else can play these rhythms, because I'm the only one who learned these rhythms in Matanzas."
Aguabella isn't exaggerating. A member of the first wave of master drummers who visited America after Dizzy Gillespie hired conguero Chano Pozo in 1946, Aguabella and a handful of others forever changed the evolution of jazz by injecting it with their unique Afro-Cuban sway.
"Francisco is part of the first echelon of drummers who came to this country and are responsible for all the drummers who came after them," says local percussionist and Afro-Cuban historian John Santos in Sworn to the Drum, an excellent 1995 documentary on Aguabella by El Cerrito resident Les Blank. "After Chano came this whole slew of drummers. There was Patato, Candido, Armando Paraza, Mongo Santamaria, Julio Collazo, and Francisco. They set the standard. The recordings they made with jazz artists, salsa artists, and pop artists are the ones we all listen to, to learn how to play."
Aguabella's rhythms were even more startling than most, springing from his roots in the Cuban province of Matanzas and his deep involvement in the African-derived religion Santeria. As Aguabella explains, Matanzas is steeped in African culture because many former slaves, especially the Yoruba from West Africa, managed to keep their cultural traditions largely intact. "[The slaves] land in Matanzas and they leave all the rhythms in Matanzas," he says. "I used to work in Cuba at the cabaret. In Havana there were more bands; it was the headquarters for bands. But in Matanzas we had more rhythms: bata, guiro, bembe, palo, tumba francesa, bricamo."
The story of Aguabella's arrival in the United States is a long one: A three-month stay with choreographer Katherine Dunham's Caribbean dance troupe stretched out when Dunham couldn't find anyone else who played like Aguabella. Finally landing on the West Coast after a tour of Australia with Dunham in 1957, Aguabella went on to perform with everyone from Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra to Tito Puente and Cachao, while living in Oakland and Los Angeles, where he currently resides. Over the years he's also recorded a handful of records of his own, the latest of which, Agua de Cuba -- on the local label Ubiquity's CuBop imprint -- is a glorious mix of Afro-Cuban grooves and Latin jazz that proves Aguabella isn't merely boasting when he describes the uniqueness of his particular Matanzas-bred rhythmic sense.
The Yoruba who landed in Matanzas kept their religion alive by secretly linking their gods to Catholic saints; in Aguabella's case his patron saint, Santa Barbara, represents Chango, the Santeria god of thunder and lightning. Santeria has a rich mixture of rhythms and ceremonies, and Aguabella soaked them all up.
"My grandmother belonged to the religion of the Arara," he says, "and she belonged also to Yeza. And my mother belonged to Bata. So then my mother and my grandmother, when I was small, they saw that I liked to play drums, and then they teach me, and then I learned to play those kinds of rhythms. And so now I know all of them."
The most direct way Santeria has influenced Aguabella's music is in his use of the bata drum (a double-sided conga also called a "talking drum") in non-ceremonial settings. "I think the Afro-Cuban music was kind of unknown," he says. "So I tried to introduce the Afro-Cuban beat. I decided to use the bata drum from the Santeria religion, the Afro-Cuban religion. So I played the bata for people different from the people who normally heard it."
The use of this drum first distinguished Aguabella, and his innovative style can still be heard on Agua de Cuba. But, as Aguabella is quick to point out, "We have two different kinds of bata. One is to play with the band, and that is called abericula. It's not a sacred, religious bata. But the bata we have for the religion we are not allowed to play with the band. It's only for Santeria, for ceremonies, you know, not for playing in public."
Other elements of Santeria seep into Aguabella's music as well. "Sometimes I play in Afro-Cuban 6/8, and it's a connection with Santeria, because I play the rhythm of the bata with the band," he says. "Sometimes I play a Cuban rhythm and then I change, I slip in some of the Santeria. But it's not really like when I play for the Santeria religion. Like on 'Dahomey Blue' [from Agua de Cuba], dahomey is one of the rhythms we play for San Laceron. Then on top of that I play the rhythm from Arara. ... So you know, it's not hard for me to fit these rhythms in with the band."
Although Aguabella's reputation among musicians and connoisseurs of Afro-Cuban drumming is legendary, the mainstream recognition that has been bestowed on other Latin jazz musicians eluded him until just a few years ago, when one of his mid-'70s albums, the Latin-groove-meets-Curtis-Mayfield-funkified Hitting Hard -- just reissued by CuBop -- became a collector's item on the underground DJ market. "To be honest," says Andrew Jervis, vice president of Ubiquity/CuBop and a club DJ himself, "the first time I ever heard about him was when copies of his Hitting Hard album were floating around and exchanging hands for ridiculous amounts of money."
Jervis, who subsequently arranged for Aguabella to record for CuBop, wasn't surprised that Hitting Hard had become such a hit. "Especially in England and Japan, there's a fascination for Brazilian and Latin stuff, funk, old soul, and stuff like that, and the album is a cool mix of all those things," he says. "It had all the right ingredients that make people go, 'Yeah, I've got to have that!' "
The initial rediscovery of Aguabella among a younger crowd spurred by Hitting Hard should continue with the release of Agua de Cuba, an album that if anything is an even stronger (and certainly more distinctly Afro-Cuban) showcase for the artist's entrancing rhythms. Jervis, for one, thinks it's only natural that a generation of music listeners weaned on dance music should gravitate toward Aguabella's Afro-Cuban rhythms. "There's a line that draws it all together," he says. "And Francisco is one of the last living legends who came over in the first place and retaught us all how to think about and play the drums. There's not many people left who hooked up with people like Dizzy Gillespie, and basically came up with these rhythms that people hadn't heard before."
Founded in 1995, Ubiquity/CuBop has released 22 albums of Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz, including new discs by Aguabella and Johnny Blas and reissues of works by Pucho & His Latin Soul Brothers. The recent Cuban Roots Revisited is a musical summit of sorts, including performances by Aguabella, Santos, and local pianist Omar Sosa.
Mainstream success or not, it's doubtful that Aguabella himself will approach his craft any differently, as is clear when he talks about contemporary Cuban music. "What I say is the new generation in Cuba now, they are more progressive with their rhythms," he maintains. "It's more like pop music, or reggae, or funky, or whatever. I like it, but they are different rhythms. I don't play that. I play my rhythms.