Rhythm and Identity

A Q&A with Bobby Sanabria, musician, composer and professor of Latin jazz

(Courtesy of Corbis)

The history of jazz is not strictly black and white, Bobby Sanabria contends. It contains shades of brown, too, in the form of the millions of Hispanic people from throughout the Caribbean and South America.

Why those musicians don't get their due frustrates the award-winning musician and composer. So, Sanabria—the son of Puerto-Rican immigrants—uses the power of the blackboard as well as the drums to right this wrong; in addition to performing, he teaches courses on Latin jazz at New School University and Manhattan School of Music in his native New York. We interviewed him over the phone at home in the Bronx shortly after he returned from a series of gigs in Italy.

What is Latin jazz?
Latin Jazz is simply jazz, harmony, arranging and improvisational techniques fused with Latin rhytms. Afro-Cuban and Brazilian are the two main streams of Latin jazz.

Afro-Cuban is based on clave, a rhythmic structure that we inherited from West Africa. It spread to Cuba and from there to the rest of the Caribbean including New Orleans. A good example for you to listen to would be Bo Diddley's signature song, "Bo Diddley."... Those five simple beats are the rhythmic force. Clave ensures the rhythmic integrity and forward momentum of the music. It's like a mantra, like a sacred thing.

Brazilian music doesn't use timbales, congas, and bongos that are part of the battery of Afro-Cuban jazz. The percussion instruments native to Brazilian music are different; some examples are large tom-toms called surdo and single-jingle tambourines called pandeiros. They also use agogos, which are double bells used for samba and other rhythms.

The common thread between them is West Africa. Brazil's African roots go back to Angola, Benin, and parts of Nigeria, whereas Cuba is more Yoruba, Bantu and the Efik peoples.

What places and people are included in the term Latin jazz?
Many different musicians from many parts of Latin America are fusing their folklore into jazz. Listen to Astor Piazolla, the great Argentinean master of the bandoneon [a type of accordian]; he completely modernized tango using techniques of jazz.

My group Ascensión was very much in the forefront of using different genres such as cumbia from Colombia, bomba y plena from Puerto Rico, where my parents came from, and joropo from Venezuela.

Was there a song that helped Latin jazz cross over?
"St. Louis Blues" by W.C. Handy has a Cuban-related baseline. There are many other examples.

Elements like that have been present since the beginning of jazz, which begs the question of why haven't the accomplishments of Latinos in jazz been noticed since they were there at the beginning.

Why is that so?
Because people like Ken Burns and other people in the jazz establishment look at jazz in this country as being black and white. He and other jazz historians to this day miss out. For example, more than 20 of the musicians in James Reese Europe's Harlem Hell Fighters Regimental Band were Puerto Rican.


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