Gumbi Ortiz playing the conga drums in his studio in Gulfport, FL.
I. The Lesson, Part 1
“Don’t be scared! You’re tip-toeing like you’re nervous.”
We were nervous.
There we were, in Gumbi Ortiz’s private recording studio in Gulfport, FL, getting an impromptu conga lesson—and Gumbi Ortiz is, after all, one of the greatest percussionists alive.
We don’t play drums.
“Put the tips of your hands here . . . palm, tip, tip palm tip. Like that. Now we’re gonna add the boom boom part, and it’ll make all the sense in the world. Don’t rush it.”
But we wanted to rush it. We wanted to break off and triple-double-quadruple speed through the sickest of the African fusion rhythms we’d been hearing from him for the greater part of the last three hours. But we couldn’t. Because we were not good. Our skill level matched toy-monkey-with-snare-drum.
Palm tip, TIP PALM -TIP.
Palmtip TIP PALM-TIP!
Gumbi laughed. “You’re getting ahead of yourselves. Everybody wants to run before they can walk. Good. Don’t f[..]k it up!”
“Look, we’re waiting for the boom boom!” we said. “Where’s the boom boom?”
“There’s no boom boom yet. Wait for the boom boom! Go—palm tip, slap tip, palm tip. Good. Keep doing that.”
We got into time: palm tip, slap tip, palm tip. Then we got there: BOOM BOOM.
Palm tip, slap tip, palm tip, BOOM BOOM. Palm tip, slap tip, palm tip BOOM BOOM.
“Keep going,” Gumbi said, getting up from his conga and moving to the piano. “Keep going with the boom boom. Don’t mess it up,” he warned, a grin on his face, like he knew we were going to mess it up. But—he didn’t care because we were playing together, and that’s all that matters. We were palm tipping and boom booming, smiling like fools, when he pounded a handful of Cuban piano riffs and suddenly, in some parallel universe of supreme awesomeness, we were jamming with Gumbi Ortiz.
Listen to a clip from our jam session here:
II. One Question, One Hour
Most people know Gumbi as the superstar percussionist in jazz-rock guitar hero Al Di Meola’s band, where he’s been on the roster for 30-plus years. Born in the South Bronx in the 1950’s to Caribbean parents, Gumbi relocated to this part of Florida in 1979 with his family. He settled in St. Petersburg, where he’s been ever since, though he travels 250,000 miles a year touring and working on the kinds of cool projects that rich and famous musicians get to work on. (Stay tuned for his upcoming travel-food show with former student DJ Ravidrums.)
Now in his 60’s, Ortiz remains a kid from the Bronx—rough-hewn, street smart, scarred and with a terrific sense of humor—but able to swing in and out of different accents, dialects and histories with the ease of a completely politically incorrect person enculturated to the world. He’s a consummate storyteller, a sublimely entertaining mix of profane Bronx prophet, stand-up comic, armchair historian and African griot.
This beaded gourd sitting next to Gumbi’s computer is called a “shekere” (African, pronounced shake-a-ray) or a “guiro” (Cuban).
Gumbi is, in a strictly Cuban sense, a rumbero, Cuban-Spanish for a percussionist or dancer although the connotation is much deeper, much more indicative of someone carrying the spiritual and historical mantle of the complicated, contradictory nature of black and brown people in the Caribbean. To be a rumbero is to be a master of rhythm yet also its vehicle, to embody the identity of the violent, incendiary, other-worldly, beautiful amalgam of the colonial collision that created Afro-Caribbean culture—and to speak the language of God.
He learned to drum as a child for Lucumi sacred ceremonies in the South Bronx, so we started with what we thought was a simple question: why don’t we see Afro-Cuban sacred culture in Tampa as visible as it is in L.A. or New York?
Except, if you know anything about Afro-Cuban sacred culture, Santeria or Lucumi, both drum-and-dance African ancient spiritual systems grossly misrepresented by Hollywood, you know it is never a simple question.
“I eat rice and beans, and I play my drums,” Gumbi said, settling onto a stool by his iPad Pro and miniature electric grand piano. Dim lamps lit his studio, a cramped room stuffed full of drums, guitars, music stands, headphones, chairs and endless snakes of cables and cords.
“I stick to myself and that’s all I do. I’m my own little sphere of information: my parents, Africa, Cuba, Europe, Spain, all that lives in me. I am self-contained culture. I’ve been all over the world a million times. I love it all. Look, I never wanted to be an ambassador of something. I’m not that. I’m representing survival, you know what I mean? I’m the guy who survived.” He pulled up his jeans to reveal the gunshot scar on his kneecap.
“Who shot you?” we asked.
“Who cares? Look, I got cut in the throat, here.” He showed the pale line across his neck. “So, everything I do needs to be real. You don’t think and play the way I do if you don’t go through that. Falling on the floor and getting up again is what makes you strong.”
A peek around Gumbi’s studio.
Above all, Gumbi is Gumbi: rollicking, high energy, high volume, crackling with an intoxicating life force unique to people who trade in vibrations. Interviewing him feels like popping amphetamines before jumping on a runaway train. He gesticulates, circumnavigates, re-enacts stories while voicing different characters, exclaims, whispers, stands up, sits down, and you don’t get a word in edge-wise. Just when you think I don’t even know what we’re talking about anymore, he brings it back to the point.
Then, you realize you were never lost in the conversation, you were just taking the long way ‘round:
“Look,” he said. “Us, this new experiment, America, we are trying to get it right but it’s not right. We think we got it right, but we don’t. It started off on the wrong foot, that’s why we’re here. I’m a product of the wrong foot. Spanish conquistadors, slavery, Columbus, the lost remnants of the Roman empire, Queen Isabella . . . you have to know this history. The Europeans, why did they have to look for a new way to get to India? So what happens, Mehmed the Conqueror has this country called Turkey. Everybody goes through the Bosphorus. Marco Polo, everybody. So, Constantine blah blah blah, Constantinople, says “This is a Christian city!,” and Mehmed is like “No! We’re a Muslim city.” Years ago! He takes it, closed that shit off. Now nobody can get from Europe to Asia. . . . Queen Isabella said “hey, I need somebody to find the new route,” so the story goes. She finds Cristobal Colon, that’s what we call him, who says we can get there, but we have to go this way, whatever. He gets there, he thinks he’s in India, he doesn’t even know where the hell he’s at. But, the people were pretty, the food was lush, hence the holocaust that ensued. In no time, by the beginning of 1500’s, there were already millions of Africans in the Caribbean. Forget about America. That wasn’t thought of, it was still nothing. We [Afro-Caribbeans] were the experiment! We were the mulatto culture, the mixed culture, we invented that Africa and Europe mix! So, you know, out of that mix comes this music and this culture, because the mix didn’t work [in the USA]. It hasn’t worked here, and it’s never going to work here in America. You know why? When you get the mix of English Europeans and Africans, it don’t work good. It’s like you put a bulldog with another kind of dog, it comes out like this.”
Gumbi distorted his face and contorted his arms.
“It works to make human beings, but it doesn’t work culturally. Cold [climate] people don’t understand hot [climate] people. It’s a different mentality. The Saxons are like “make something of yourself!” But it’s like “what if I want to be a stump? Who cares?” This is the problem we have now. The English at the time had Manifest Destiny, said that the Bible and Jesus said that the new world was made for England and the English way. Everything else was wrong. Slavery was a part of that Manifest Destiny. They were like [to black people], “hey hey hey hey hey, if it wasn’t for us, you’d still be eating zebra! So, come on, give me a hug!” That’s what they say: We taught you how to read, how to write, what more do you want from us?”
Gumbi inched his stool closer. “We’re too scared to say it doesn’t work because to say Manifest Destiny didn’t work is to say Manifest Destiny was a lie, that the whole thing we believe [as Americans] isn’t true. To admit that is to admit human frailty. That’s rough. So what we have in Cuban culture, we learn to live with our contradictions. When we play our drums in the santero ceremony, the deity will come down, and you channel that energy. It could be male or female, so in the 40’s and 50’s, people said it was a gay religion. People said that! Chango [deity of justice, drums and thunder] comes down sometimes as a man, sometimes as a woman. Half tribal, half Muslim. Used to be a man, now singing as a woman. Hello, contradictions! We live it. Here you have to be uniform, these American absolutes. Right/wrong. That’s what gets people clamoring for real freedom: I get they’re screaming for cultural freedom, not money. That’s why [Afro-Cuban sacred culture] is not seen. It doesn’t want to be, right? Americans are hung up on good, bad, evil . . . but there’s a vague line about that. It’s deep! This isn’t a jam session on Treasure Island. It’s Africa. What we’re doing is trying to understand nature and show respect to nature at the same time. Life gives life,” he said. “Life gives life. Ancient people, primitive people do things differently. When you’re making your inya or baba [becoming a priestess or high priest], you have to go to Nigeria. Tell Americans about going to Nigeria! They have this weird concept of Africa or anything African. Forget about black—Pakistanis are black. This is AFRICA. So, it’s complicated. You have to trust people to understand it [the religion] and not go crazy, you understand?”
Yes. We got there, the long way ‘round. “So, how does that come out when you play?” we asked.
“It doesn’t. It’s just who I am.” Gumbi jumped up and sat at one of the four congas in his set. “So what happens is, when I sit down,” he pattered out a set of beats, “I feel every African that died come right through my hand. You have to live this [culture] or you’re never gonna get it. Learn to live with the contradiction of it all. We had to survive. It’s a culture of survival, we had to make friends with the culture of our captivity from 400 years ago, and something beautiful happened from something ugly.”
Gumbi represents survival, the mix of cultures that created the extraordinary rhythms of music and dance that melted together on the Caribbean islands into a new, distinct, spiritual and powerful culture. This colonial alchemy, in Gumbi’s philosophy, provides a rather large lens into the social history of race relations and humanity. The profit of learning to live with contradictions, he told us time and again, is important now, in this terrible year for racial violence in America.
“I tell my Black American friends, you were born tribal, they made you believe in Jesus, kicked your ass, not one hundred years later, you’re in church like ‘Oh, Jesus! Lord!’ This is what I love about Santeria. We give it the face, the stories, that come from the jungle. But that’s so we can understand something we don’t understand. That’s all it is,” he said. “I think the Bible is the same way, but here they take it literally. That’s a problem. In America, [immigrants] can pretend to forget who they are. But Black people can’t do that. You know why? Because they’re black. Their skin color don’t let them. ‘Hi, I’m American!.’ ‘No, you’re black FIRST. That means you were a slave.’ They put you down three notches so you can’t stay equal-equal. People say to me ‘why are you always talking about that skin color, you could pass for kinda white.’ I say, ‘No, I can’t.’ It’s a funny thing. A sad thing. But we live with that contradiction. Black people came with all the advantages spiritually. But they lose the advantages with money and education. They start not feeling useful. I’m saddened by what I see in the world, but I get it. People have to get mad. These things [interpersonal violence] don’t happen in a vacuum.”
Drum set in Gumbi’s studio.
Gumbi’s name, bestowed on him by Harvey, a classmate at Nokomis Elementary, happened after the family moved from the South Bronx to Long Island, when Gumbi’s dad was relocated for his job building O-rings for the Apollo space crafts. (“We didn’t come here to be stupid. In 1969, we watched the lunar landing and were so happy because we knew my dad’s O-rings were somewhere on that rocket.”) Gumbi’s birth name, Gamaliel, proved too difficult to pronounce for his new neighborhood, and Harvey christened him “Gumby! Like the cartoon character!”
“But, when I came home, and my friends would call me up, my mom would be like ‘Goombi? Who the hell is Goombi?’ She couldn’t make the face you have to make to say Gumby. So, I became Gumbi [pronounced GOOM-bee]. Gumbi is a cultural translation.”
Much like the man himself. He became one of the first Cuban musicians to incorporate Black gospel riffs into Cuban music (“This collision of African cultures! Even though I didn’t believe in the dogma, I loved the energy of the church. I couldn’t go to a black church without crying!”) which he demonstrated on his electric baby grand piano, marching out an exquisite blend of Sunday-revival chord progressions and salsa beats.
“There’s this one thing, this driving thing,” he told us, musing about common spiritual threads across the church, Moroccan gnawa music, Indian mystical chants and James Brown. “It’s all . . . this thing like your heart. This one note everybody is looking for. Once you find it you’ll live forever because you’ve found the vibration that works. Even if you die tomorrow. You heart does this thing with melody, plays this rhythm, and when you focus on it, you either love it or you get scared of it! This is a reminder that you’re alive. This consciousness is a beautiful thing. We have a sense of who we are with that note.”
Conga drums in Gumbi’s studio.
IV: The Lesson, Part 2
In three hours with Gumbi, we’d learned the secret of Cuban culture (“it’s about erect penises”), the location of santero ceremonies in Tampa (“all over, but it’s really Afro-Cuban, and it’s going to stay that way, you know what I mean”), his own personal secret (“I’m speaking as a fortunate man, so I may be a little full of shit”), the secret to making it in America (“I created my own life, but I’m never gonna tell you that bootstrap shit. I got here by standing on the shoulders of the people before me. So, you gotta find your own shoulders to stand on—and don’t forget you’re standing on them. And don’t hurt them when you’re standing on them!”), and the real reason why people don’t like Donald Trump (“he hasn’t lived through shit”) and his nickname for Al Di Meola (“The Queen of England”).
Oh, and we also learned the secret of the universe:
Life gives life. BOOM BOOM.