Chucho Valdés – Jazz Bata 2 (Mack Avenue Records, 2018)
Cuban pianist, bandleader, composer and arranger Chucho Valdés’s Jazz Bata 2 is a recording where everything is right and wonderful in the musicscape of Latin jazz.
Encompassing the eclectic, the electric and the elegant, Jazz Bata 2 is where the lyrical of Mr. Valdés’s extraordinary piano meets the meaty richness of batá drum and percussion. On this, his first release on the Mack Avenue Records label, released on November 16th, Mr. Valdés opens the floodgates to a glorious ebb and flow of jazz punctuated by delightful Cuban and African influences.
To trace the creative thread of Jazz Bata 2, one must go all the way back to 1972 and Mr. Valdés’s Cuban album Jazz Bata with bassist Carlos del Puerto and batá player Oscar Valdés, both who would become members of the group Irakere. Now, Mr. Valdés has teamed up with Cuban musicians Yaroldy Abreu Robles on percussion, Dreiser Durruthy Bombale on batás and vocals and Yelsy Heredia on double bass. Mr. Valdés notes that this continuation of his creative journey of Jazz Bata now comes, “with more resources, in every sense” and “with a wider panorama.” The results are extraordinary.
Opening with “Obatála,” Jazz Bata 2 unfolds as a mesmerizing puzzle of shards of Mr. Valdés’s prodigious talents on the piano, rounded curves of double bass, textures of vocals and architectural constructs of percussion and batá. “Obatála” easily incorporates the free sleekness of jazz, the sweet soulfulness of Cuba and the rich recesses of the Yoruba traditions with the batá drums.
“Son XXI” is no less extraordinary with delicious bass, piano and sultry Cuban rhythms. It should also be noted that the recording itself is fabulous and a listen to the lushness of “Luces” and “Ochun” is evidence of the expertise put into the recording. The sassy “Chucho’s Mood” is certainly a standout with bass and batá solos.
Jazz Bata 2 is also a bit of a tribute recording to Mr. Valdés’s father and teacher Ramón “Bebo” Valdés. In celebration of the centenary of Bebo Valdés’s birth, and interestingly enough Mr. Valdés’s 77th birthday as father and son share the same birthday, Jazz Bata 2 contains the track “100 Años de Bebo.” A charmer with Cuba writ all over it, it also features guest violinist Regina Carter who adds sweetness to the tribute.
“El Guije” opens with some catchy rhythms and vocals before giving way to some hypnotic rhythms and piano lines and finally lapsing into some wonderful drumming and call-and-response vocals.
Jazz Bata 2 closes with “The Clown.” As lushly worked as the rest, this track is the piano playground by Mr. Valdés and is where piano lines curve, bend and turn themselves inside out in the most wonderful of ways.
If Jazz Bata 2 is the continuation of a creative journey the ride is more than fine.
There are drummers, then there are drummers. Some go out of their way for exceptional things to happen to them. Tony Rosa, master conguero and master batá drummer, resided in the City of Los Angeles, California. He played batá for the Orisha community for 7 years with conga batá master, legend of legends, Francisco Aguabella, from Matanzas, Cuba.
Francisco was a very stern group leader; whether it was his Latin Jazz Orchestra or Folkloric group and his religious batá ceremonies. Francisco either liked you or he didn’t like you. It was always beneficial to be on his good side. Francisco had three Afro-Cuban folkloric groups in California: one in San Francisco, another one in Los Angeles, and a third in Sacramento. Sometimes I say ‘Masters’ are so good, that they actually are not teachers.
Francisco Aguabella’s apprentices have reached legend status and Tony Rosa is one of them. Tony Rosa performed with Francisco Aguabella’s Afro Cuban folkloric group in Los Angeles, along with batá master Virgilio Figueroa and Francisco Aguabella.
Virgilio Figueroa, also from Matanzas, Cuba, made a remark in one article I wrote for World Music Central, where Virgilio contributed on a tribute to Francisco Aguabella. He said that Francisco showed his apprentices Afro Cuban rhythms that are no longer played in Matanzas today!
Tony Rosa took the big step and moved to New York City. Being an accomplished conga drummer, he linked with great all time master timbalero Manny Oquendo and Conjunto Libre, with co-leader bass legend Andy Gonzalez, brother of legendary conguero and trumpet player Jerry Gonzalez. Tony also performed and recorded with the legendary group Conjunto Folklórico Nuevoriqueño Experimental and recently won a Grammy performing and recording with Arturo O’Farrill.
Let see what Tony has to say about his life and career.
Tony, tell me your background, or family background in Latin music and drumming.
I am Puerto Rican, born in New York City, raised in Los Angeles, California. My father is from Mayagüez, Puerto Rico and my mother from Loiza, Puerto Rico. My influence comes from my mother, being a priestess of Elegua and taking me to all the African dance classes and “tambores” (religious drum ceremonies) as a kid.
How did you meet conga bata master Francisco Aguabella? Tell us some of your history with Francisco Aguabella.
I met Francisco Aguabella in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Francisco was very serious when it came to Cuban drumming (batá, yesa, etc…) He was very selective with who he would share and teach Matanzas-style drumming with.
So how was it that it occurred for you to go to New York City from Los Angeles?
I went to perform in New York with El Chicano. While there, I hung out, checking out other Latin bands. The music vibe in New York was intense at that time. Salsa was booming. I felt like I wasn’t growing musically in Los Angeles so I decided to move to New York in 1996.
You performed with Manny Oquendo and Conjunto Libre. What was your experience with that orchestra?
I started with Manny Oquendo y Conjunto Libre in 2000. Never ever did I think I would be with Libre steady. Manny was very picky when it came to conga players. That’s how I got respect from others; plenty wanted “that chair”. Laughs out loud.
What other bands have you played with in New York?
In New York I have performed and shared the stage with artist like Nelson Gonzales (legendary tres player), Miles Peña, Chocolate’s group Grupo Foklórico Nuevayorkino Experimental, DLG, Orlando “Puntilla” Rios, Bebo Valdés, MalPaso Dance Co. from Havana Cuba, Lou Soloff, among other artists.
What do you think is the difference in musicianship Los Angeles, vs. New York City?
There are great musicians and drummers everywhere, I think it’s all about attitude. New York musicians are aggressive, where Los Angeles musicians are more laid back. My opinion!
You won a Grammy. Tell us a little about that situation?
Winning a Grammy was very exciting and awesome. My first Grammy was with Cachao Master Sessions in Los Angeles 1994. I didn’t find out till later on. Conguero Richie Flores informed me. I am so proud to say I am a 4 times Grammy Award Winner, feeling blessed. The other 3 Grammys were with Arturo O’Farrill and The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra.
What are you doing now musically in New York?
I currently have a 9-5 and traveling and still playing drums.
What does the future bring for Tony Rosa, master conguero and batalero, the musician?
I am currently working on my own project CD, recording. Latin Jazz with Afro Cuban and Puerto Rican rhythms. Lots of drums…
Thank you, Tony Rosa for your interview. Now that I have up and coming musicians that have been in the circuit for a while, the next few interviews that I will be doing is with the middle generation of musicians, to expose their contributions to the Latin music community. Those musicians are Latin percussionist, orchestra leader and Puerto Rican Folkloric Director, California-based Jeri Quiñones from Vieques, Puerto Rico and legendary Latin bassist Lalo Vazquez from northern California, residing in Mexico City. There will also be other specialty interviews to surprise the readers as well.
Ilú Keké is an album dedicated to the batá drums, a set of three barrel drums (itótele, iyá and okónkolo) used in sacred Afro-Cuban rituals as well as secular Cuban music. The album presents traditional batá drumming performed by elders and younger instrumentalists, spoken word and sacred Afro-Cuban chants as well.
The album tells the story of a set of religious drums known as ilú keké that were discovered in a small Cuban village and brought back. Ilú Keké. Transmisión en la Eritá Meta is collaborative work between British ethnomusicologist Amanda Villepastour and Cuban producer Luis J. Bran Acevedo.
The musicians featured in the album include the elders Justiliano Pelladito Urrutia on itótele; Pedro Pablo Tápanes González “Pello” on iyá; Pedro Aballi Torriente “Regalado” on okónkolo; the Ilú Keké drummers: Idalberto Berriel Pérez on itótele and acheré; Orlando Alvarez González on iyá; Eusebio Hernández Rodríguez “Nandito” on okónkolo; and José Luis García Fernández “Pepito” on okónkolo.
The vocalists are: Yaima de los Milagros Pelladito Portillo (female lead and chorus); René Sergrañe Menocal (male lead and chorus); Regla Pérez Herrera (chorus), Odalis Fuentes Pérez (chorus); and Yaimel García Poertillo (chorus).
The nicely-packaged album includes details about the history of the Ilú Keké, color photographs, track descriptions and credits.
Ilú Keké. Transmisión en la Eritá Meta is a great introduction to the fascinating world of the batá drum, recorded live in Cuba.
Francisco Aguabella was one of the greatest Latin drummers. He was a conga and bata master, a Latin Jazz orchestra leader, and composer. Francisco was born on October 10th, 1925 in Matanzas, Cuba and passed away on May 7th, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.
Francisco composed many pieces and eyes and ears were always open to his tunes. ‘El Agua Limpia Todo and ‘Complicacion’ were composed by him and recorded and performed by the Tito Puente Orchestra. The dance halls from New York City to the West Coast went crazy. This was the mambo era after the war, a magnificent time and reason for all the races to unite, whites, blacks, Jews, Latinos, Asians, all who wanted to learn the new dance steps to the mambo, cha cha cha and the rumba (as in Walter Winchell rumba not Afro-Cuban folkloric rumba).
Tito Puente made the world go crazy with Francisco’s tunes. One of these, ‘Marchando Bien’ was recorded on Tito Puente’s last CD that featured Eddie Palmieri, and was sung by the late Pete ‘El Conde’ Rodriguez.
At times, I would be at a restaurant, eating with Francisco and he would hum a few bars of a tune and chuckle, saying “Listen, this is something I composed and Eddie Palmieri is interested in it”.
Francisco resided in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years, making recordings, performing with the Latin rock group Malo; Carlos Santana; and Tito Puente. He was the musical director to Cesar’s All Star band nightly at Cesar’s Palace, a nightclub owned by pianist Cesar Arscarrunz. Francisco was always performing with his own Latin Jazz orchestra and traveled at night to play a bata drum ceremony in Los Angeles the next day without resting. Francisco traveled back and forth to New York City to play with Eddie Palmieri, to participate in recordings and to perform with various other Latin orchestras. In his later years, Francisco returned to Los Angeles.
Francisco had a knack in finding young new talent, such as the late vibe player, composer and bongosero Nerio Degracia. Nerio wrote compositions and performed with Francisco and in his later years had his own Latin Jazz band.
Composition by Nerio De Gracia, Image of a Star:
The first Latin female pianist in San Francisco, Patricia Thumas performed with Francisco Aguabella while Armando Peraza was in his orchestra.
Conga drummer and batalero master, Virgilio Figueroa, colleague, friend and apprentice with Francisco Aguabella says about Francisco:
“I first met personally Francisco Aguabella in 1972 in Los Angeles through Julito Collazo, who was my bata teacher and friend in New York City at a bembe toque at Bebo Ochun ocha house, when I was 15 years old at the time. I relocated to Los Angeles in 1974 and became Francisco’s personal friends till his passing 5 years ago.
I became a full member of his traditional Afro Matanzero folk group in 1980. Francisco was living in the city of San Francisco at the time. In 1982 I became a Lukumi priest and traveled to Cuba in 1983 to expand my knowledge of the Lukumi religion and ceremonial bata drumming in the city of Mantanzas (Cuba). In turn, I met my padrino (godfather) Alfredo Cano Calvo (deceased) who also happened to be Francisco’s sister Librada Aguabella’s godfather.
I met all of Aguabella’s blood relatives and became the bridge between them. In 1983 I decided to bring from Matanzas Cuba the first consecrated full set of añan bata to Los Angeles and recruited Aguabella to move here to Los Angeles from San Francisco and teach us how to play Matanzero style since he was the only one in the USA that new how to play in that manner. Tony Rosa, Mike Orta and myself were his only students at that time.
What impressed me to most about Francisco Urrutia Aguabella was his commitment in preserving the traditional Matanzero añan style of playing which he learned at the tender age of 15 by master oluaña Carlos Alfonso and the power he had when he played never got tired and demanded the same from his players.
Personally, I learned with him many other style of drumming such as olukun, iyesa, bricamo, bembe, arara and bakoso, styles that are no longer played in Matanzas today.
Francisco was a time capsule from the 40s and 50s.The main thing I miss about him is his sincerity and honesty and overall loyal friendship. Francisco did not befriend many people, but he made friends with me, and gave much needed advice growing up as a young man. For me, besides a friend and teacher he will always remain my Afro-Matanzero legend the one and only.”
Francisco Aguabella had few personal apprentices some who have reached legendary status due to their contributions in music:
John Santos, 5 time Grammy nominee and musical director of many charanga orchestras and Afro-Cuban folkloric groups throughout the decades. He’s a bata, instructor and clinician and a Latin music historian and musicologist.
Michael Spiro, music professor at University of Indiana, clinician, instructor, musician, and bata and Brazilian percussion master.
Tony Rosas, conguero, bata master, and musician currently based in New York City, performing with Conjunto Libre and Conjunto Folklorico Nuevorriqueño and other Latin orchestras;
Virgilio Figueroa, bata master, conguero, performing musician with other Latin orchestras in the Los Angeles area, with his tireless contributions to the Los Angeles, Nevada and other communities with his sacred añan drum group;
And me, Les Moncada, musician; former Latin orchestra leader & Afro-Cuban folkloric drum group leader; bata performer in clinics with Francisco Aguabella; founder of Latin Drumming Educational site on Facebook: Timbales and Congas Bongo Bata and Bells and 8 other Latin instrument sites on Facebook, and writer for World Music Central.
Francisco left us history in his recordings, especially his Afro-Cuban folkloric recordings. Additionally, Francisco contributed a great deal of folkloric knowledge to the Afro-Cuban recordings of Ramon Mongo Santamaria.
Francisco Aguabella once told me, “I do not play the drum, I have lived the drum”. Remembering that phrase, it’s great when one’s daily line of work is drumming for a living, teaching drum lessons and or even selling drums and miscellaneous supplies to drummers, or as a musician full time.
Michael Pluznick is such a drum master, who has been learning and teaching drumming all his life. What a dream job! Any drummer would actually die for! Michael is constantly traveling worldwide, teaching drumming classes and playing with the legends of drums for example djembe drum legend Bolokada Conde.
Michael was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, but he presently resides in Delray Beach, Florida. Michael travels extensively to Asia and Africa and soon will be voyaging on his third trip to Cuba soon!
I became familiar with Michael when a group of young drummers decided to go to Cuba in 1985 for a venture. They wanted to learn more, had exhausted their resources in the San Francisco Bay Area and decided to go to Cuba.
During this trip to Cuba, they studied with the masters and brought back videos that knocked everyone’s socks off. I was one of the sponsors of the group, as an aspiring Latin percussionist also wanting to know more and more.
Michael and his group recorded the famed Changuito timbales solo in front of the hotel in Cuba, saw the show by Juan De Dios, quinto conga drummer and dancer, and met Pello El Afrokan who is the inventor of the Latin rhythm Mozambique, made famous by Pello, pianist Eddie Palmieri and timbalero legend Manny Oquendo.
Pello then invited them to his apartment for batá lessons and a rumba, with elder batá legend, Amado Gomez present. At a certain point, the legendary Afro Cuban rumba singer Carlos Embale walked in. There is a video of this session that might be recovered in the future. I no longer have this video personally.
Michael and the group also met and associated with the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba and batá elder Carlos Aldama, who was the lead batá drummer for the Cojunto Folklorico. Today, Carlos Aldama resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, and sometimes on a whim, I have wondered, that if that trip inspired musicians to move to the USA and the San Francisco Bay Area.Let’s see what Mr. Pluznick has to say:
Les Moncada – Michael what is your family background.
Michael Pluznick – My family is of Russian descent, via Poland. My grandfather moved here to the USA prior to World War II.
When was the first time you actually heard percussion and realized that it interested you and that you would have a love for drums?
My father was able to get us free trips to Puerto Rico in the 60s when it was first becoming a tourist location. I wandered on the beach and heard drummers there for the first time as a small child. At our hotel, there was a band with a bongo player. I will never forget one Christmas there they were giving out presents and they gave my friend some tack head bongos. I was so disappointed I did not get them! Hounded my father for several months until he was able to find me a Mexican tack head drum and later he got me one with actual hardware.
How did you start studying drums, who were your teachers?
At the time I first started playing in 1967. There were no Cuban teachers in my area in New Jersey, so I took drum set lessons and learned basic fundamentals from a drum set teacher at a nearby music store. I had no technique, no slap and tone but I loved how it felt to play and practiced to Santana and Olatunji records.
I played in several bands as a thunder drummer not knowing how brutal I was! In 1975 I was at art school at RISD in Providence Rhode Island playing in the school jazz band. I met a local conga player, someone who told me I needed to study, that I would never learn, if I did not listen to people better then me.
At first I thought he was crazy. And then I had an epiphany, a realization that I had two possible paths I could partake on; one as a percussionist and hand drummer or one as an artist. I realized the path as a drummer would be incredibly difficult but in that moment of realization I decided to drop out of art school and pursue a path as a drummer.
I contacted a close friend of mine who was a very good player, George Terzis for lessons. He showed me how to hit the drum correctly and told me there was an actual language to playing drums. He introduced me to Gail Philipo in Boston. She had studied with several master drummers and she was able to give me a solid foundation in the concepts of traditional drumming from Cuba and West Africa.
After Boston I went to California where I studied full time with Simbo (Craig Goodman) as well as several local teachers there at the time including lessons with Marcus Gordan, Tobagi, Luis Cespedes among others.
My son moved to New York where I visited often and I started studying with John Amira who taught me Haitian drumming as well as Afro Cuban drumming for a few years. He wrote everything out in box notation so he got me into that as well.
I got a job as the percussion salesman at Haight Ashbury Music Center, (San Francisco) after the change of owners from Chickens That Sing Music. That was 35 years ago!
While I was at the shop I would often practice on the many conga drums that were there. Armando Peraza would stop in regularly and we would have a jam session. He would quiz me on each rhythm I would play for him and then he would solo. The shop would completely fill up with a hundred or more people every time he got down to business! It was an amazing experience.
Armando had a friend an African American friend named Ray Gardener (he wrote” Dance Sister Dance” for Santana). Ray would come in often to the shop and he invited me to record with him and Raphael Ramirez in the studio, which was my first experience recording. He and I had intellectual debates on traditional music vs. making world music combining traditional with non traditional.
Tell me about your trip to Cuba.
I had a friend named Jerry Shilgi, who passed away a while back. I met Jerry in the yard at Sproul Plazz in Berkeley California where there were jam sessions on Saturday and Sundays. I would not call them a drum circle, but something like that. Jerry introduced me to my teacher Simbo who played both traditional Afro Cuban and West African styles.
Jerry was connected to everyone and everything at that time.
We became roommates in China town in San Francisco. He found out about the trip to Cuba. No one we knew had gone before and it was a no brainer for me. I had to go.
I was able to acquire one of the first non commercial video camcorders to film with. We went officially as members of an educational group going to the Jazz Festival in Varadero (Cuba). While we were in the coffee shop at our hotel the first day we were there we saw the legendary Pello El Afrokan. We were there with Rob Holland and Bret Golin.
We asked him if we could study with him (Pello) while we were there and he agreed to not only teach us, but he basically brought us around and introduced us to everyone in the music and drum scene you can imagine, as well as set up classes with us for rumba, mozambique and batá. We even had a rumba with Carlos Embale singing in Pello’s apartment!
We were able to sit in at the Saturday Rumba with Conjunto Folklorico Nacional as well as many of the famous night clubs and bands that were playing there at the time, as, Pello was so well respected. We barely slept and I remember several times passing out on the bed with all my clothes still on and waking up early with Pello waiting for us outside.
How did you get involved with the djembe drum?
My teacher Simbo insisted we study West African rhythms as he taught us that all rhythms on congas were some how rooted in and related to West Africa.
At the time there were no commercial djembes available so we were taught to make and skin our own drums.
Also, one thing a lot of people today do not realize is that in the mid-late 70’s there were no internet, CD’s or information readily or easily available. Plus most teachers were very secretive at the time for various reasons.
The rhythms, parts and arrangements were simply not out there like they are today. There were very few records available and there were not a lot of groups performing traditional music from Cuba, Africa or Haiti.
Professional percussionists and die hard students would learn any rhythm or percussion piece that came through. There was so little information compared to today. So therefore, many of us learned and played whatever came to us, or whatever we could find. There was not as big of a separation in styles as there is today. And if you wanted to get work you needed to be versatile in many styles.
Michael, who have you performed with or studied with, djembe wise?
I started with Simbo, then I took lessons with whoever would come through locally in the Bay Area including a talented griot named Karamba Diabate. When Abdoulaye Diakité came to the Bay Area, things changed drastically as he was open to and taught both women and white people. I personally believe that Abdoulaye is almost single handily responsible for the birth and explosion of the djembe in the USA. His philosophy is “Djembe Bara” or “unity of the drum”. He spent a lot of time in Santa Cruz where Drumskull Drums was born and many teachers came out of.
The next wave of djembe related music and drumming came with Mamady Keita who I studied with, in group scenarios as well as Mabiba. Wade Peterson a student of both also tutored me regularly for a couple of years.
I moved to Maui, Hawaii where I got to study with Mohamed Camara, M’Bemba Bangoura, Dame Gueye and many others who would come through on extended stays.
When I moved back to the Bay Area about 15 years ago I was able to study with and then perform with several groups. The most notable is Bolokada Conde from Guinea West Africa.
While I was living in the Bay Area, my chiropractor told me he wanted to record some music. I had a friend who was an engineer at Bear West Studios in downtown San Francisco. I took the chiropractor to the studio and helped organize the session. This was the start of me producing and recording regularly in studios. I was eventually able to play on several rock and pop albums and created several of my own recording studios and music and drumming CDs over the years.
I recorded and performed with members of The Grateful Dead, Clarence Clemons (from Bruce Springsteen), The Tubes, Todd Rundgren and some other pop stars in the Bay Area over the years. In the 80’s i was able to get a recording deal on the Narada label for 4 CDs of my own world music combining traditional themes with western instrumentation as well. You can see and listen to samples of all my stuff on my website: www.michaelpluznick.com
I see that your travel all over the planet, which I think is great. Do you teach, give clinics and can you mention the different locations that you travel to, can you tell me more about this.
Yes, 25 years ago I started to travel to Asia and fell in love with it. I also started going to India on various pursuits. I started bringing my drums here, both congas and djembes and found the local pockets of friendly and curious drummers.
Most drummers here in Asia are talented and self taught, these days from the internet. One thing led to another and I started to share and teach wherever I went. People here are appreciative like I was and still am when someone shows me something I don’t know.
When I can I sit in with the local jazz or funk groups for fun. Of course the musicians are struggling here so it is not a great place to gig.
Michael who is your all time conga drummer?
My favorite conga layer who I actually played with is Armando [Peraza]. I also love his bongo work. My favorite recording conga player is Mongo Santamaria. I love Giovanni and Richard Flores. They have taken it to a whole new level. I used to listen to a lot of Los Papines, they were my favorite for a while, especially Luis. Then of course there is Patato! And Daniel Ponce.
How do you pick one? Thomas Cruz really has super cool stuff…there are so many fantastic and unbelievable players I love… but for me, what rocks my world is old school, deep pocket and groove. Maybe I am just getting old!
Who is your favorite bongo drummer?
Bongo… again it’s Armando and Dandy. I saw Karl do a bongo and an amazing bell solo the other day and I was quite impressed. I feel his playing has sky rocketed as well.
How about your favorite timbales drummer?
Timbales… I am an Orestes fan as well as Changuito. And I do love Chepito as well. He ripped in the day! The first time I saw Changuito was with Los Van Van in Cuba in 1985. I was filming them and standing behind him. I had no idea who he was in those days. Rob Holland did, but I did not. He was not an international sensation then.
Anyway, he did about a 15 minute solo and I filmed the whole thing. I had never heard anyone play like that except maybe Elvin Jones. So outside, so revolutionary”. All I can say is he blew me away!
Michael, who is your favorite djembe player?
Bolokada Conde and M’Bemba Bangoura for Guinea style; Abdoul Doumbia and Moussa Traore for Mali style; Dame Gueye for Senegalese; and Dr Jobi for Ivory Coast style. These are all older and some people consider “old school” style. There are several super hot young players who I listen to but I prefer to study with and play the older style(s).
Of all the drums and instruments you play, which is your favorite and why?
I cannot honestly say I have a favorite, I love congas, bongos, shekere and djembe. I practice and play as much as I can. These days, I suppose, because of the popularity of drum circles I get most of my students wanting to learn djembe so as far as work, it is almost always on djembe these days.
For me it is all related. When I study Malian music (I lived in Mali 2 times) I hear the roots and a direct undeniable connection to Afro-Cuban drumming. It is so plain and clear!
The 6/8 (or 12/8) bell, the root to all the drumming we do is in every drum music that comes out of the West African diaspora be it Cuban, Haitian, Brazilian or other regions in the new world. It is all connected and so are its instruments.
What is the future for master drummer, teacher Michael Pluznick? Recordings, lessons, travel?
Ha, ha, ha. Brother, I am not even close to mastering anything. Fortunately, I have contact to and I am able to study with masters, and I see them online.
Mastery is a far off place for me. I am happy and will always be happy to be a student of this fine art and I am motivated to continue learning and studying every day.
I feel I have very good methodology for sharing and teaching, I can help people so I teach. I continue to record projects whenever I can and whenever there is a opportunity. I love traveling and hopefully with God’s help I will continue to do so.
I would like to thank Michael Pluznick for his time with this interview due to his busy schedule and wish him the world of the best in the “spirit” of drumming for many years to come!
When you talk about drums, there are the handmade versions of drums and then there are also mass manufactured drums. Michel Ouellet the owner of MOPERC located in Canada has one of the most outstanding handcrafted drum companies around, making congas, bongos, wooden timbales (tarolas) and soon, once again, batá drums.
Michel is an extremely social individual even though he has a busy shop schedule. He made time to talk with me as did the famed Jay Bereck. Let’s see what Michel has to say about himself and his drum company.
Michel, can you tell me little about your background?
I was born in a “not musician” family but very young I loved and listened to much music. My father was a blacksmith and was very clever with his hands so seeing him working daily, I began very young to make and build different things with my hands, spending my time beside him in his shop.
Michel, when did you first discover the drum, conga, bongo etc?
I moved to Montreal to study Arts at college. There, I began to play bongos with my guitarist room-mates. At the first 80s I began to study Latin percussion with different good players in Montreal as my friends Pierre Cormier and Andre Dupuis who studied in New York and Cuba. I learned rumba at this moment with them. This was my passion. I played hours and hours.
What made you start a drum making company?
At the age of 28 I moved to the country with my little family. I was a carpenter. The first month I arrived here, 27 years ago, I made for myself a djembe with a log with my chain saw! I accompanied African dance class with my first djembe. I made a second one that was better and I did more than 20 instruments in this way. Mostly, djembes and also batás.
During this time I was carpenter, as my career, during this part of my life. In the end of the 80s I began to study the construction of congas made by staves. I found different ways to build them. I saw the LP [Latin Percussion] method, with staves in two or three plies, I saw Skin On Skin who steamed and banded the staves (I went to buy congas at the Jay shop in Brooklyn).
I also saw how Valje (drums) would cut some grooves inside each staves to curve them. And I discovered the Junior Tirado; that Junior would cut each staves in a solid piece of wood. But I began with the steam method myself. Then I changed from cutting the staves to a solid piece of wood. This is the method I’ve used for 20 years and the one which I prefer.
The first congas I made I showed them to the percussionists in Montreal and they began to order some, and then ordered more. Later, I went to Toronto and the results were good, In 1990 I found the proper method officially, after 2 years of research.
The 90s were the years I developed my methods and different instruments. I have made batás, tamboras, congas, bongos, timbales, djembes, sabars, dununs, talking drums and different other little drums. Even a couple of drum sets for friends.
Quickly, I knew that my market would be in the bongos, congas and djembe drum making. Therefore, I have put the others drums on the aside and I just started offering timbales.
What kind of styles of music do you play and where have you traveled to expose your great product? Who have been some of the sponsors of your drums for your MOPERC Company?
In the 2000s. I came back on the scene with different models, salsa and grupo de son. I have Cuban friends Habana Café; with a salsa timba band. They still have a good success here in Canada.
I have played this style of music for 12 years on congas. But 8 years ago I quit the scene for keep my energy for my business.
I traveled to Cuba many times where I have concluded partnerships with Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Yoruba Andabo, Afrocuban All Stars, La Charanga Habanera and different musicians such as Panga (Tomas Ramos Ortiz), Rolando Salgado, Pacha Portuondo, el Chino…
In the USA I have held clinics during these last years in different places as PASIC in Nashville, in Los Angeles and once In New York.
Last year, at the age of 55 and after more than 25 years of business I made a move to sell MOPERC Company and retire. But for some technical and human reasons the sale did not work. I think it is because I have not finished with this work. Now I’m very glad to be here as owner and founder for some more years. I have many projects. The sales go very well. I sell much in USA, much in Canada and a little in Europe. Some of my drums go to South and Central America and some to Asia, Africa …
How is the drum production going? Do you plan to start making batá drums again?
I’m working now on a new model of conga made of oak and mahogany. I used to make many congas and bongos with oak and mahogany in the 90s and I loved the sound projection of these woods. That will be more a vintage style model reminiscent of the old Cuban drums used in the rumba before and after the revolution. I like oak for the great projection and volume it offers. I love mahogany for its warm and rich tone. These are very nice looking grains of wood too. During these years I worked with maple, birch, ash, mahogany, cherry, oak, and others.
I’m working now also on batás drums. I have made some set during the years. Yoruba Andabo, Muñequitos de Matanzas and others play my batás around the world now. I have many demands. I’ll come back with these “high class” models of batá’s soon in 2016.
What is in the future for MOPERC, your drum Company?
We just went out with wood timbales (tarolas) recently and we have had great comments and success with them. We produced 2 videos demonstrating the wood timbales with my good friend and great Cuban percussionist based in Toronto: Rosendo Chendy De León.
I’m working on other different videos with my partner Francis Mercier. We are planning to film videos in Montreal, Toronto and also in Cuba this winter.
I do not have retail dealers, my preference it not to. So the best way for my product to be heard is on videos, and certainly producing live clinics with musicians. That is why in 2016, I will be producing several clinics in Montreal, Toronto, New York in and probably in Miami.
I have a small team, 2 employees in my workshop, plus myself and Francis, who helps me to develop and create the marketing utilizing these videos. We only focus on quality and contact with musicians. It had been always my target; “to make them happy and proud of their instruments”. Money and success come only after when this is well done. I think every craftsman and his craftsmanship should be like this.