How Music Wrote the Lives of the Men of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (aka The Bad Boys of Jazz) are seven brothers from the south side of Chicago.
Ask a member of the seven-piece band Hypnotic Brass Ensemble how they got their name, and you may get a surprise answer.
It started as an acronym for the band’s mission: Helping Young People Notice . . . hypnotic. Notice what, though?
Music. Jazz. Funk. Themselves. The power of young black men channeling the cosmos the way their father taught them.
The band, all sons of famed Chicago jazz musician Phil Cohran (Sun Ra Arkestra, Chaka Khan, The Pharaohs, among others), began their apprenticeships with their dad early in life. Some started as young as four years old, but all had instruments in hand by their sixth birthdays. Cohran, who grounded himself in elevating the arts scene in Chicago and working with community youth, had a sweeping and macro view of humanity’s relationship to music. Cohran wanted to know his place in the cosmos, and he knew music held the answer. He studied all over the world to integrate a sound and teaching technique that connected musicians (and, by extension, their audiences) to the harmonies of the universe.
Jazz musician Kelan Phil Cohran. The honorific “Kelan,” which means “holy scripture,” was given to him by Chinese Muslims while he was visiting China.
He implemented this view in his teaching, and his sons, masters as they are of Afrobeat, R&B, funk, soul, traditional jazz and hip hop, always weave their music back to the over-picture: that their sometimes strange improv instrumental tangents construct a tone link to the nonstop harmonies emerging from planetary electromagnetic fields. They have, as they say, some harmonies that can only be heard in space.
… Now imagine Jupiter speeded up with a funky James Brown drum and horn section:
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble took to the streets of Chicago early in their career where they grew a grassroots fan base and earned a dope reputation purely by word-of-mouth. In time, “helping young people notice” outgrew their neighborhood radius, and HBE realized they were destined for bigger things. Thus, “helping young people notice” became “helping y’all people notice” as HBE began its interplanetary mission as “superheroes of jazz sent to rescue those in distress—and that is the entire musical community of planet Earth,” as they say in the British documentary about HBE and their work with Fela Kuti’s drummer Tony Allen.
These men, these brothers, these direct descendants of musical spiritual master Phil Cohran and veterans of the mean streets of southside Chicago, do not merely play music. They are made of it. They are acutely aware of the role jazz, hip hop, soul, funk, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and the intricate musicality of Asia and Africa contribute to their organic make up. This acute awareness transmits through their musical compositions and has the ability to reach into the soul of the listener.
Such is the way of HBE.
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble performs at The Straz this February, and we are thrilled that they will be holding two school outreach workshops, one at Dunbar Elementary and the other to be determined. It is our privilege and mission to give local young people access to artists like HBE and do our part to “help young people notice” the world is large, diverse and full of incredibly cool people and opportunities to connect themselves to the bigger picture.
The meek and pluck-twangy sidekick to guitar and fiddle didn’t get its propers before Deliverance ruined an entire generation on banjo music and canoe trips to rural Georgia. The lone ambassador of a spectacular and truly (colonial) American history, the banjo is considered by folk musicologists to be the only original American folk instrument. The guitar and violin already existed in their current forms as did Celtic drums, piano and upright (a.k.a. “double”) bass. But the banjo . . . what’s up with that?
Known to Europeans as a banjar, bangie, banshaw, strum strum or merrywang, the banjo originated in the Gambia region of Senegal and traveled with enslaved Africans to the Caribbean, eventually inching north to the Southern plantations of America when enslaved people built their home instruments from local resources—gourds and animals.
An animal hide stretched over a gourd with three or four gut strings, this instrument, called a xalam in Africa, stayed among the enslaved, buoying their spirits and keeping them musically connected to their homeland and to each other, giving them an outlet for personal expression and propping up their dancing in the absence of traditional drums. (Interesting side note: when slavers took the Africans’ drums away out of fear of rebellion, the enslaved took up a practice called “pattin’ juba,” using their hands and feet for intricate clapping and stamping to hold the polyrhythms.)
Known to be some of the most gifted musicians in the new world, Africans often played for white communities, introducing them to polyrhythmic music and advanced singing techniques. So, the xalam’s American “banjar” form morphed in the 1800s when white folks fell in love with its sound and capabilities. Although “merrywang,” sadly, didn’t catch on as a popular name, it’s easy to see the short linguistic jump from “banjar” or “bangie” to “banjo.”
Thus, the banjo made a rather rickety bridge—but a bridge nonetheless!—across cultures, with this ungainly instrument as an unlikely taproot for diverse American folkways. The Africans trained others in their traditional “down-picking” style, which formed the basis for how to play American banjo. Anglos restructured the gourd design to a wood frame and added metal strings. Somewhere along the line the all-American fifth “drone” string appeared on this frame design with the frame itself shifting from wood to metal. Early historians credited this addition to Joel Sweeny of North Carolina though more recent study casts that claim into doubt, as longtime banjo maker Jim Hartel notes that African designs of xalams or calabash-style African banjos already included a short string similar to the drone. So, we’re not 100% sure how the string appeared, just that it did when the banjo diffused across the race line to be an instrument for everybody. That addition, however, made the contemporary banjo a uniquely American folk instrument—a circular monument to successful cross-pollination of cultural traditions (it’s unfortunate minstrelsy period notwithstanding).
Banjo maker Jim Hartel and Carolina Chocolate Drops frontwoman and ethnomusicologist Rhiannon Giddens give context and history of the minstrel banjo:
With the new sounds emanating from the open-backed, round body and metal strings, what we now recognize as “frailing” or the “claw-hammer” technique mastered by such banjo superstars as Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs evolved from the down-picking style. Banjo players today pull from both techniques, as evidenced by Newgrass legend Bela Fleck and incredible, Louisiana-based roots-musician Cedric Watson.
All hail the merrywang, a singular sound of our complex and important cultural roots.
The Straz Center official piano tuner Kevin Patterson on what it takes to keep the ivories in the pink.
Our official piano tuner, Kevin Patterson, doing what he does best.
The average home piano needs a tune up about twice a year, but when your livelihood and music critics are on the line, a good concert piano gets its ivories tickled, twisted, polished and pricked before every single performance.
A piano tuner’s life is a good one: flexible hours, nice pay, a cool skill set with a high tool-level. Plus, if you tune pianos for the Straz Center, you occasionally get to rub elbows with some of the greatest pianists working today. At the very least, you’ll be charmed by our ever-entertaining backstage production staff.
Our official piano tuner is Kevin Patterson, and we like him a great deal. So does Rohan De Silva, whom you may know as the Steinway artist who accompanies world-famous violinist Itzhak Perlman. De Silva liked Kevin’s pre-concert work so much that he thanked our humble piano tuner by treating him to lunch.
“It was one of my most memorable experiences at The Straz. I’ve tuned for them twice now, and they also require a technician to check over the piano at intermission. Both times, the audience applauded when I finished the touchup tuning,” Patterson says. So, sometimes there is such a thing as a free lunch, and, later, people at your job will clap for you. Like we said, it’s a good life.
The work itself requires an intricate and fascinating procedure that involves more than twisting tuning pegs to set a certain tension on strings. “The piano is an extremely complicated instrument,” Patterson says. “It needs constant maintenance at the professional level. They have thousands of moving parts, about 230 strings amounting to around 15 to 30 tons of pressure, depending on the piano’s length.”
A full grown African bull elephant weighs around 7 tons. So a piano has two to four full grown male elephants of pressure on the strings. That’s a lot of force on a lot of strings, so tuning can be a delicate, somewhat surgical endeavor.
To attain the standard concert pitch of “A440” (that’s the pitch A above middle C at 440 hertz), Kevin uses a tuner app on his phone for the first few notes then does the rest by ear, tuning by intervals then playing arpeggios and scales to double and triple-check his work. “It’s not simple mathematics,” Kevin explains about why he doesn’t use a tuner for all of the notes. “Tuned by machine, a ‘perfect’ treble end of a piano sounds flat to the human ear. So, you have to know what you’re doing to find the right pitch.” In other words, there’s an artistry to capturing the tonal context that requires a human ear to tune for other human ears.
Kevin hard at work on stage in Morsani Hall.
Kevin has relative perfect pitch so prefers to tune by ear, which is how he was taught as an apprentice and in his formal Steinway training. His wrench, called a “tuning hammer,” works on the individual string while a “mute strip” or “rubber mute” provides the silencing of the surrounding strings so Kevin can work one string at a time. All in, a solid piano tuning takes about one hour.
But getting a concert piano into tip top shape requires more than tuning. There’s also “voicing” the tone, a low-tech technique of pricking the felt hammer with a needle to relax the fiber. This manipulation of the fibers’ pressure morphs a tinny tone into a warm, strong tone. On the flip side, if a tone is too flat, a drop of a lacquer solution on the felt hardens the fibers to produce a brighter sound.
“It can get detailed,” Kevin laughs. “It’s been said that a pianist is never fully satisfied with the piano condition. But, it’s my goal each time to get the piano as close as possible to its peak level of performance.”
Performing arts adaptations of one of America’s most grisly and haunting murder stories
Portrait of Lizzie Borden, circa 1889.
The facts are simple.
On Aug. 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were found dead in their Falls River, Mass., home from multiple hatchet wounds. Police found no sign of a struggle, no convincing murder weapon, no bloody clothes on any possible suspect—even the one tried for the murders, Andrew’s younger daughter Lizzie.
Lizzie’s case stood as the 19th century’s version of the O.J. Simpson trial, feeding the public’s imagination and raising countless speculations about motives, what really happened and a friend’s testimony stating she saw Lizzie burning a “paint-stained” dress three days after the murders. Even though the jury acquitted her, Lizzie Borden galvanized into a horror legend guilty of the crime, spending the rest of her life as a social outcast and ghosting into history as an axe-wielding, Victorian psychopath who continues to provide fertile ground for storytellers of all artistic genres.
Colleen Cherry plays Lizzie Borden in Jobsite Theater’s rock musical production of LIZZIE (photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.).
Lizzie Borden’s legend, staged at The Straz this month by Jobsite Theater as the killer rock musical LIZZIE, features one of the latest stabs at adapting this gruesome, fascinating episode for the stage. LIZZIE features an all-female “riot-grrrl” band with Lizzie and Co. belting out musical metal as they perform a rock concert version of the events from Lizzie’s point of view. LIZZIE runs in the Jaeb Theater from Oct. 12-Nov. 6.
Left: The Boston Ballet’s 1972 production of Fall River Legend (photo: King Douglas). Right: American Ballet Theatre’s Fall River Legend, 2007 (photo: Lois Greenfield).
But before this current version, ballet choreographer extraordinaire Agnes deMille took a whack at capturing the complex social and emotional subtext surrounding Lizzie’s life. Her dance version, which ends in a guilty verdict, examined Lizzie’s relationship with the local priest, her complicated feelings toward her father and stepmother and the role of the small-town mindset. DeMille’s invention, premiered by American Ballet Theatre to a cinematic score by Morton Gould in 1954, arrived as an instant classic called Fall River Legend. The piece entered the repertory of other major ballet powerhouses including Dance Theatre of Harlem and Paris Opera Ballet.
The boring real-life outcome of Lizzie’s innocent verdict also provided a problem for another adaptation 11 years later when City Opera of New York transcribed the tale to the optimal form for murdering psychopaths: opera. Jack Beeson’s titular opera was conducted by none other than Maestro Anton Coppola, who later became the inaugural artistic director of the Straz Center’s Opera Tampa. In Beeson’s version, the plot centers around Lizzie’s psychological abuse by her father and stepmother, casting Lizzie as a tragic figure with little choice of escape except by removing the forces of unpleasantness. In short, administering the 81 whacks reported in the jump-rope rhyme. (“Lizzie Borden took an axe/Gave her mother 40 whacks/When she saw what she had done/Gave her father 41.”) To be historically accurate, 19 whacks befell Abby, who was her stepmom, with 11 landing upon Mr. Borden, both numbers that make catchy rhyming next to impossible. As usual, the facts disrupt the dramatic potential. However, Beeson’s sharp-edged psychological interpretation was no hatchet job. The critics and audiences loved the opera, and Maestro Coppola was lauded for his command of the challenging score.
Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie Borden in a scene from the made for TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden, 1975.
Television and movies revisit the story, mining the details for new ways to cut and wrap film adaptations that keep audiences titillated by Lizzie’s mysterious and misunderstood personality. Goth lovely Christina Ricci killed the role in Lifetime’s TV movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, inspiring a Lifetime mini-series about Lizzie’s life after the trial. In a creepy turn of events, Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched) portrayed the Fall River spinster in ABC’s 1975 airing of The Legend of Lizzie Borden. Later, a genealogist discovered Montgomery was Borden’s sixth cousin. Talk in Tinseltown today suggests a new feature film is in the works starring Chloe Sevigny (Boys Don’t Cry, Big Love) with the trying-to-get-past-Twilight superstar Kristen Stewart as Lizzie’s maid, Bridget Sullivan.
Although it’s a bloody mess trying to understand why the public remains so morbidly fascinated with the Borden story on stage and screen, this fact remains: Lizzie performs well with acts.
Carole King, one of the greatest American songwriters of the 20th century, started with a piano melody. As the song took shape, she added layers, eventually adding lyrics — first with her then-husband Gerry Goffin and eventually on her own. Tapestry, her seminal 1971 solo album, remained on the Billboard charts for six years, top in record sales until a little album titled Thriller toppled her reign.
Although many great songwriters came before King and many will follow, there seems to be no set way to write a song. Some writers start with a beat, others a melody, still others hear a hook or obsess over a lyric that arrives unceremoniously while the songwriter takes a shower. The songwriting process seems to be a bit of a zen undertaking: all roads are one road. Writing a hit song, however, is a road much less traveled. Even seasoned songwriters are never sure if their work will produce a hit or miss. Guy Chambers, the current British hit-maker for acts like Bryan Adams and Robbie Williams, averages one hit song for every 47 he pens.
The good news for workaday folks interested in writing their own songs is that a decent song, or even a fantastic song, doesn’t need to be a hit. Inversely, scoring a hit doesn’t mean the song is that great. Perhaps some of the best songwriting happens in bedrooms, in train stations and on the job, performed on porches, neighborhood corners and tiny spaces with makeshift instruments.
In general, humans need to make music, and there are a few basic songwriting tools: knowing the parts of a song, structure, chord progressions, lyrics and melody. If remembering all the basics proves too much, stick with the songwriting standby: “don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”
Generally, songs consist of intro, verses, chorus, bridge and outro. The intro grabs the listener’s attention for the song’s story, which unfolds in the verses. Verses often rhyme (although they don’t have to) and create a rhythmic pattern for the listener. The chorus is — as evidenced by the songwriting standby — arguably the most important part of the song. A chorus should be sing-a-long-able, catchy, memorable and convey the main message of the song. Often, the great karaoke fails occur because we think we know a song, but we actually only remember the chorus — that’s how powerful it is. The bridge provides the song’s contrast and the outro leads the listener to a sense of closure, perhaps with subtle melodic changes or repetition.
With intro and outro as bookends, a writer can toy with the structure of the verses, chorus and bridge — or if there is even a need for a chorus or bridge (“Amazing Grace” has neither, and it has done all right as a song even though no one knows much past the first verse.) The chord progressions inspire a “feel” for the song that contributes to the melody, which carries the lyrics. Understanding simple structures helps new or blocked songwriters get their ideas moving. But remember: much like the Pirate’s Code, these aren’t rules, really, more like guidelines. Many songs include a pre-chorus, a short lead-in to the chorus like in “My Girl” when they sing “I guess you’d say … ” or in Katy Perry’s hit “Firework,” when she sings “You just gotta ignite/the light/and let/it shine … ” Songs may also contain refrains, variations on verses, choruses and melodies, providing, somewhere, a “hook,” or the catchiest part of the song (often the chorus or somewhere in the chorus — Adele’s “hello from the other side” in her crazy big hit “Hello.”)
Happy writing. For inspiration, check out the handy Songwriting 101 chart above or get to know some of the latest greatest singer-songwriters showcased in our Club Jaeb series.
The Patel Conservatory Gears Up for Another School Year
There’s no such thing as summer break for the faculty and staff of the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory. We spend the summer months steeped in a camps, classes, workshops, performances and pre-professional productions like this year’s impressive mounting of an almost full-scale Les Miserables. So, we have just enough time to clean the mirrors and sweep the floors before we welcome our next season’s spate of students when the official school year starts Monday, Aug. 29.
While other school years start with a backpack full of composition notebooks, the Conservatory school year starts with small duffel bags stuffed with leotards, hairpins, dance shoes, make-up kits, music, reeds, valve oil and water bottles. No matter what class you’re taking, everybody needs a reusable water bottle. Our students also need plenty of traditional school supplies: paper for notes, pencils and three-ring binders.
In case any of our incoming students forgot what they’ll need for dance, theater or music class, we asked the tireless faculty to let us publish the must-haves for your first day of school.
So, scan these handy checklists to make sure you’re prepared for another exciting year of friends, rehearsals, creative challenges and unforgettable moments.
Appropriate dance attire*
Appropriate dance footwear*
Personal hairbrush and hair spray (boys and girls)
Personal bobby pins, hair net (to match your hair color), hair ties (girls)
Performance make-up (refer to handbook for make-up suggestions)
*See your specific class information sheet
Did you sign up for ballet? Or tap? How about jazz? Maybe Flamenco? There’s a shoe for that.
You can never have too many bobby pins. Ever.
Our handbook has lots of helpful hair and make-up suggestions to get you show-ready.
THEATER AND MUSICAL THEATER
Performer bag (small duffel or backpack)
Folder or binder for sheet music & script storage
Scrap paper for notes
School appropriate movement/gym clothes
Jazz shoes or sneakers
Water bottle (healthy snack for classes/rehearsals longer than 2 hrs.)
Recording device (phone or tablet)
Personal hairbrush/comb & hair ties
Make-up kit for productions
A highlighter will make marking your script much easier.
Make sure you are dressed ready to move.
Bring your make-up kit for dress rehearsals and performances.
Black, 3 ring binder (preferably with a matte finish that does not reflect light on stage)
Water bottle, especially for singers
Extra paper for notes
Extra reeds for woodwind players
Valve oil for brass players
Rosin for string players
New set of strings
Scale and arpeggio sheets
Make sure your concert attire is clean and ready to go
A black, 3-ring binder keeps all of your sheet music neat and tear-free.
Extra strings, rosin and a pencil are very important to have in your string instrument case.
The one day you don’t have your book is the one day your teacher will ask you to take it out and use it in class.
For life-long learners in the adult classes, you can find similar information on the Straz Center website.
If the notion of arpeggio sheets, jazz shoes or two hour rehearsals get you as excited as it does us, know that it’s never too late to sign up for Patel Conservatory classes for yourself or your family and friends. View classes and register here.
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.
“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: