Grilled Chicken with Ray Vega

By Julian Gerstin, Ph. D.

Julian is a percussionist specializing in the traditional music of Cuba, Martinique and Ghana. Julian’s base of operations was California and Martinique prior to moving to Vermont in 2006. He has performed and recorded with numerous African groups including Kotoja, and Zulu Spear; Brazilian Samba groups such as Batucada Nana and Batucada do Leste and many others. Julian’s academic credentials include several articles in scholarly publications such as The New Grove of Dictionary of Music, Latin American Music Review, He currently performs with his newly formed Afro-Caribbean jazz band, Zabap and teaches at Clark University and Keene State College.

After the show, about 1 a.m. at Eugene’s house, Ray Vega and drummer Diego Lopez are sitting over plates of Eugene’s grilled chicken–by now, it’s just bones–still talking music. The question is, “What has happened to guaguancó?” which is one of the main varieties of Cuban folkloric drumming. Over the past fifteen or so years a younger generation has radically changed this style, and here’s what puzzles Ray: do they or do they not know the tradition they are changing?

You see, Ray Vega knows the tradition. He really knows it. He’s not afraid to mess with it creatively, but first he knows it. And that’s what his concert, earlier that evening, was all about.

You probably know the story of Latin jazz. Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans migrating to New York City beginning in the 1920s and ’30s. Musicians shuttling back and forth between Havana and San Juan and NYC. Playing for immigrant audiences in East Harlem one night, black dancers in Harlem the next, white clubgoers downtown the next. Calling up their buddies in the islands to come join their bands. Starting to collaborate with African American jazz musicians, tentatively during the swing era, then increasingly after World War II, especially with young beboppers like Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Kenton. Machito and Mario Bauza’s revolutionary merger of Latin dance music and bebop, in the late 1940s.

Meanwhile, headed south instead of north, wealthy North Americans were popping down to Havana for weekends of nightclubbing, gambling and whoring. High society types mingled with the mobsters who ran the clubs, while corrupt, U.S.-backed Cuban officials profited from the action. Rotten social conditions, but wide-open musical opportunities.

Then, in 1959, bam! Castro’s Revolution. 1961, the U.S. embargo of Cuba–which yes, is still in place thanks to fanatic anti-Castroites in Miami, and achieving nothing but punishing the Cuban people. (But that’s another rant.) It was the end of musicians and musical sounds traveling easily back and forth. In the 1960s and ’70s, when I started listening to this music, you couldn’t get recordings from Cuba. The few that were available were like gold: we traded records back and forth, wore out the grooves, memorized licks. The scenes in the U.S. and Cuba drifted apart and, in the main, U.S. jazz musicians continued on the creative trajectory set in the 1940s and ’50s: mostly Cuban-inspired rhythms (sorry, borinqueños!) combined with bebop and post-bop forms and harmonies.

To get back to Ray: this is his tradition. He grew up playing it, and he plays it as well as anyone else in the world. We saw this at the concert from the first song–here, I’ll confess I was too absorbed to take notes, and don’t remember what the first song was, but I remember it was a Latin jazz standard and it was played brilliantly. I fixated immediately on Ray’s fingers. Rarely do you see a trumpet player play so fluidly, dexterously, limpidly. Fingers gliding, dancing over the valves. The first solo starts with little blips, clusters of two or three notes, quick smears, rhythmic punctuations, perfectly placed like Count Basie one-finger piano solos. Gradually he floats into longer bent notes that taste of Miles. And then, suddenly, a blistering virtuoso run into the high register and back down–the Dizzy touch–and Ray opens his eyes, dances away from the mic and breaks into a smile at what he’s just played. Ray is a rotund individual, but he dances. He plays with his whole body, and while all those influences I just mentioned (Miles, Dizzy, etc.) are there, Ray is playing himself and his voice, his music.

This is Ray’s tradition, and it shows in the material. Three Wayne Shorter compositions, post-bop standards. A couple of pieces from the Puerto Rican songbook, less known to Vermont audiences but vitally important. A lovely Hilton Ruíz composition combining these worlds.

Meanwhile the band backs Ray up with a delicious blend of groove and grace. I realize it’s a very quiet band, nobody pounding away at anything, everything in the pocket. Yet the audience is bobbing its collective head and tapping its collective feet. Apart from the young pianist Zaccai Curtis, this is an extremely experienced band, and they groove hard without seeming to try. Andy Elau’s bass lines are deep and sonorous and effortlessly rhythmic. Diego Lopez’s drumset parts are crisply precise. And Wilson “Chembo” Corniel–well, I’m a conga player, and about five measures after Chembo starts playing in the first song, I’m thinking, “I just want to go home and practice.” I have to hold myself onto my chair. This is one way I measure greatness.

You probably don’t often get a conga player’s view, so let me try to explain. Conga players watch each other’s hands. To get different sounds out of the drum, you put your hand in different striking positions, and your hand has to be fairly firm. But if in addition you tighten your wrist or forearm or upper arm, you’re going to freeze up your muscles and tire yourself out. Plus, you want to raise your arm as little as necessary between strokes. Going higher means you’ll be louder, but it also slows you down and tires you out. So you want the perfect combination of hand position, wrist and arm smoothness, and volume without excess motion. With Chembo, he’s barely moving yet you hear every note.

It’s not just that. The standard conga set up is a main drum between your legs and a second drum to your right. Your right hand creates melodies between the two drums. Chembo’s added a third drum to his left. This isn’t too unusual, but most players who do it just use the third drum for passing notes with the left hand, which doesn’t require extra technique. Chembo is playing melodies equally with left and right. He plays the standard melodies on alternate sides, and invents new ideas you couldn’t play on just one side. I imagine that most audience members are simply hearing this as unusually melodic, which indeed it is. As a conga player, I’m hearing it as technically sick. I want to go home and practice.

Oh, but that’s not all. Chembo’s solos (Ray gives him plenty of solo space) are models of dramatic development. A few vibrant notes, deliciously bursting in unexpected places. Brief pauses. Another surprise, then another. Then a slightly longer phrase, still wackily syncopated. Another pause, and then a thunderous run of impossibly fast notes, hands blurring from one drum to another. This way of patiently building a solo reminds me of Ray’s style. It’s also reminiscent of the all-time great conguero Mongo Santamaria, a master of the approach. Like Ray, Chembo knows his music history.

I’m slighting the other musicians, Zaccai and Andy and Diego, but you can read about pianists and bassists anytime, and even drumset players. Sorry, guys. All of them are great. They work together as a team. They’ve played together a long time. Even the young one, Zaccai. You see, Ray is an educator, and he’s mentored Zaccai since childhood. Ray teaches at UVM in Burlington, and he taught in NYC before moving to our state. He not only knows the tradition, he shares it enthusiastically. Between several of the songs, there are engaging and funny explanations and stories. Ray’s known all the greats, so his explanations are more personal than academic. At Eugene’s house at 1 a.m., Ray would still be going on in this vein. But before that, back at the concert, he’s making people feel like they’re part of things.

Which brings me to the final number, where I actually am part of things. This is because I had the good fortune to accompany Ray a couple years ago when he was a guest artist at a summer camp, and because Ray is a friendly guy who remembers people. He calls me and Eugene to the stage for a descarga (jam). Now, during the past year Brattleboro has been graced with a new percussionist, William Rodriguez, a former instructor at the music conservatory in Santiago de Cuba, his home town. William’s got chops like you would not believe. (If you’re familiar with the Cuban music education system, you know what I’m talking about.) I happen to know William is in the audience, so I whisper to Ray, “There’s someone else you should call up.” And, friendly guy that Ray is, he does.

Now we’ve got three conga players and three drums, and that pretty much means we’re going to play guaguancó. Remember guaguancó from the 1 a.m. table? It’s a fiery, complex rhythm with two support parts and one lead drum. Chembo and I give the lead drum to William, who takes off on a ridiculous solo. My part consists of, basically, one note per bar, but I’ve got to put it in exactly the right spot every time. Do you want to know what kind of lofty, creative thought is in my mind in a situation like this? “Don’t fuck up.”

I don’t fuck up. William is brilliant. Chembo is happy. We head to Eugene’s. Talk. Laughter. Chicken. And at last home, sleep. Next day: write blog post.

Okay, I’ve written it. Please, may I go practice now?