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Remembering Francisco Aguabella, Late Giant Of Afro-Cuban Conga

Francisco Aguabella was 84 when he died May 7, 2010. Orestes Matacena hide caption

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Orestes Matacena

Last week we lost another Cuban music pioneer. Percussionist Francisco Aguabella died of cancer May 7 at his home in Los Angeles.

Aguabella was one of a handful of Cuban congueros who made their way to the U.S. in the years after World War II and introduced authentic Afro-Cuban drumming stateside. During over five decades in music, he played on salsa, jazz, pop and rock albums with virtually every well-known name in each genre.

Here's the shortlist of his resume:


I skipped the spaces in between names to make room for them all.

Unlike his contemporaries Mongo Santamaria, Armando Peraza and Candido Camero — who were from Havana — Aguabella was from Mantanzas Province. It was there that he received his first lessons on bata drums, the hourglass-shaped instruments used in the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion. He eventually became one of the few drummers celebrated by Santeria practitioners as a master of the intricate rhythms that make up ceremonial drumming.

Aguabella made his way to the U.S. by way of a gig with American choreographer Katherine Durham. From the late '50s on, he never stopped gigging and doing studio work.

My own discovery of Aguabella's name is from the Mongo Santamaria compilation called Afro Roots, a late '50s session that has become a Desert Island Disc of many fans of Afro Cuban drumming.

I first saw him perform with Eddie Palmieri in the early '80s in Berkeley, Calif. Here is a video of him with Palmieri about 10 years later.

What still stands out in my mind was his have-to-see-it-to-believe-it upper body strength. Playing congas is a physically demanding task. A player's arms, not to mention hands, can take a beating if things like posture, breathing, arm and hand positioning are not correct. And you're not really beating the drums; you're drawing the sound out with a series of hand positions combined with hitting and slapping the drum head to make it resonate just the way you want it.

Francisco Aguabella could make the drums resonate above a full big band or even guitar amplifiers. Filmmaker Les Blank captured Aguabella's technique and his influence on music in his 1985 film Sworn to the Drum: Francisco Aguabella.

Here is a clip of Francisco Aguabella's Latin jazz group playing at Steamers in Fullerton, Calif. in August 2008.

Mongo, Armando, Candido, Francisco. Just before Francisco passed, Armando Peraza wrote a birthday message to Candido on the Yahoo! Latin jazz listserv. It lends an emotional insight into the small group of lifelong friends — friends who happen to be the world's foremost Afro Cuban percussionists.

Give my best to Candido. Wow ... I still remember when he, Mongo and I were young guys in Havana and Francisco Aguabella over in Matanzas.

All four of us had regular gigs by day and were ripping it up, playing our tambores at the nightclubs all night long. By day, Mongo was a mailman, Candido worked at the super mercado and I sold fruits/veg's and had a loan shark business on the side with my cousin. And anyone wondering where Francisco attained his physical strength and endurance, he worked as a longshoreman and would be lifting 300lb sacks all day long, alongside the stoic sindicato de Abacua, who controlled the waterfront at that time.

Feliz Cumpleanos Candido. Hermano, we're old as dirt but we've still got our sound.


With Francisco Aguabella's passing, that fraternity just got smaller.