A Master on a Masterwork: Machito's 'Kenya'

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Sanabria 200

Bobby Sanabria's latest record, Big Band Urban Folktales, was recently nominated for the Best Latin Jazz Album Grammy. Courtesy of Tama Drums hide caption

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Songs from 'Kenya'

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Kenya 200

Machito's Kenya features the talents of musical director Mario Bauza, alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and the late conguero Carlos "Patato" Valdes — among many others. Courtesy of Blue Note Records hide caption

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Throughout his childhood and teen years, percussionist Bobby Sanabria was introduced to the masterworks of Latino musicians who would become his musical heroes — among them Tito Puente and bandleader Chico O'Farrill.

Scott Simon last spoke to percussionist Bobby Sanabria in August. The two discussed Sanabria's newest CD, Big Band Urban Folktales — which was just nominated for a Grammy Award — and his diverse musical upbringing in the South Bronx.

Today, Sanabria wants listeners to meet another Afro-Cuban music legend: Francisco Raul Gutierrez Grillo, better known as Machito.

"The Machito Afro-Cubans were the leaders," Sanabria says. "They were the first band to successfully use the complex and rich harmonic style of jazz-arranging technique and also featured great virtuosic jazz improvisers, with authentic Afro-Cuban rhythms that we inherited from West Africa and crystallized into new forms on the island of Cuba."

Machito's music is especially demanding, Sanabria says, because of the interplay of multiple sections: saxophones, trumpets, trombones and a rhythm section amplified by Afro-Cuban percussion. He also notes that Machito's group was the first truly multiracial band.

"This was an example of the great musical and cultural interchange that was happening at the time between the jazz community and the Latino community in New York City, and still exists to this day," Sanabria says.

Sanabria singles out Machito's 1957 album Kenya for both its creation and its impact on Latin music.

"Everything we do has some root with this orchestra," Sanabria says.

Bobby Sanabria's Latin Jazz Hybrid

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Bobby Sanabria surrounded by his drums

Percussionist Bobby Sanabria's new CD reflects the musical diversity of the South Bronx where he grew up. hide caption

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Bobby's Band

Hear cuts from Big Band Urban Folktales

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Growing up in the South Bronx, Bobby Sanabria was exposed to a wide range of music: Latin, Afro-Cuban, blues, jazz, funk, rock. He became a fan of Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, James Brown and Mario Bauzá, among others.

Later, Sanabria performed alongside many of those legendary musicians. Now his name is included in the short list of renowned drummers and percussionists, and he's determined to make sure that the musical mélange of his past continues in the future.

His ensemble, which just released a new CD called Big Band Urban Folktales, brings together musicians from ages 18 to nearly 80. Together they forge a fresh, youthful style with deep respect for the old school.

"I was very fortunate that when I came on the scene, I would ... usually be the youngest person in these ensembles," Sanabria says. "One thing I always have cherished is respect for the history of the music, and respect for elders in the music."

When Sanabria speaks of "the music," he refers to many Afro-Western musical hybrids at once. He demonstrates how a certain rhythmic mantra – the so-called 3-2 clave pattern – is the backbone to Afro-Caribbean music, and underpins styles as diverse as funk or reggaeton.

"My thing has always been to show the commonalities we have," Sanabria says. "We have many more things in common than differences. It's not strange that I'm a big fan of maestro Tito Puente, but I'm also a big fan of Frank Zappa."

A Zappa composition called "The Grand Wazoo" appears on Big Band Urban Folktales. Years after encountering it in college, Sanabria had the tune rearranged for his large Latin jazz ensemble.

"I said to myself, 'I love that song,'" Sanabria says. "'One day I'm going to re-record it, but add the elements that Frank Zappa only hinted at in the original arrangement.' And those are the elements, the rhythmic elements from my culture: Afro-Cuban, Afro-Caribbean culture."

Sanabria pinpoints the roots of his all-encompassing aesthetic in his father, who, he says, listened to anything and everything.

"He used to sit in his La-Z-Boy chair, smoke a cigar, drink some Schaefer beer after he came home from work, and listen to all these different styles of music," Sanabria says.

He also credits Max Salazar, former host of The Musician's Show on New York's WKCR-FM, for exposing him to many Afro-Latin music traditions indigenous to his native city.

Sanabria continues to represent his hometown. In 2006, he was inducted into the Bronx Walk of Fame with a plaque on East 153rd Street.

"Somebody e-mailed me from Canada the other day saying, 'Where's your street sign? I want to steal it,'" Sanabria says.

These days, Sanabria spends much of his time teaching at the Manhattan School of Music and the New School. But on stage, he continues to present his blend of musical traditions with what he calls "aché," or positive energy.

"It's cool, it's intelligent, it's sacred, it's profane, it's all of that and a bag of chips, as we would say in the Bronx," he says.

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