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

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

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

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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We spoke to Bobby Sanabria in August about his latest CD "Big Band Urban Folktales," which, by the way, has just been nominated for a Grammy. Bobby grew up in the south of Bronx, listening to everything from funk to rock to Afro-Cuban sounds including the masterworks of men who would become his musical heroes, including Tito Puente and Chico O'Farrill.

Today, Bobby Sanabria wants us to meet another Latin legend.

(Soundbite of song "Tin Tin Deo")

SIMON: Francisco Raul Gutierrez Grillo, better known as Machito.

(Soundbite of song "Tin Tin Deo")

SIMON: This is "Tin Tin Deo" from the album "Kenya" of Machito with his band, The Afro-Cubans.

Bobby Sanabria joins us from our studios in New York. Bobby, thanks very much for being back with us.

Mr. BOBBY SANABRIA (Musician, "Big Band Urban Folktales"): Well, it's a pleasure to be here, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: And congratulations on your Grammy nomination, by the way.

Mr. SANABRIA: Thank you. Thank you. And congratulations to all of my musicians, who without them, we wouldn't have gotten it.

SIMON: We mentioned we're listening to "Tin Tin Deo." It certainly has the signatures of Afro-Cuban jazz, the syncopated Latin rhythms, the lone jazz trumpeter, and the rest of the horn section comes in. What was different about Machito's arrangement from the other dance bands of that era?

Mr. SANABRIA: The Machito Afro-Cubans were the leaders. They were the first band to successfully wed 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 like mambo, Cha-cha-cha, (unintelligible), et cetera, et cetera.

SIMON: How did Machito's sound influenced players like Eddie Palmieri and Willie Colon who becomes big international soul system?

Mr. SANABRIA: Well, they were the standard barrier. There was no other band like it at that time. We can trace that all of the modern innovations in terms of modernism in the music to the Machito Afro-Cubans.

SIMON: Help us understand how you arrange a piece of music like this, why it's so demanding.

Mr. SANABRIA: Well, first of all, you have a saxophone section, you have a trombone section, you have a trumpet section and then you have a rhythm section that's amplified. The standard rhythm section for jazz would be acoustic bass, piano and drums, but then you have congas and bongo and timbales added into the mix so you have this battery of percussion and these three horn sections. So you really have to know your craft in terms of the writing.

(Soundbite of song "Tin Tin Deo")

SIMON: He was born in Havana, as I understand it, early 1900s, the son of a cigar manufacturer. He was a professional musician, really, in his teenage years and then he emigrated to the U.S. in 1937. And three years later, he debuted with his own band at the Park Plaza Ballroom.

Mr. SANABRIA: That's right, on the 110 Street in Fifth Avenue. That's like our Mecca in the world of Latino music. The great thing about this band is it was truly the first multiracial band. And for that, besides Machito, the great front man of the orchestra and the vocalist, we have to thank Mario Bauza, who was the musical director and conceives in this band fussing jazz-arranging techniques…

SIMON: Machito's brother-in-law, too, wasn't it?

Mr. SANABRIA: Exactly.

SIMON: Let's listen to another clip if we could. Fasten your seatbelt. We're going to hear the track "Frenzy."

(Soundbite of song "Frenzy")

SIMON: What's Cannonball Adderley are they doing on this album? How did he get to Machito?

Mr. SANABRIA: Well, once the orchestra was seen and heard by the jazz public in the '40s, every jazz musician have note wanted to perform and hopefully record with the orchestra. So people like Buddy Rich, Charlie Parker, and in this case, Cannonball Adderley played with the orchestra and recorded with it.

(Soundbite of song "Frenzy")

SIMON: What kind of creative relationship did he and Machito have?

Mr. SANABRIA: Well, when musicians get together from different realms, they invariably create something new. The music that was produced on this album came from several sources. First, Mario Bauza and pianist Rene Hernandez; A.K. Salim who had worked with Dizzy Gillespie big band writing for them; Mr. Ray Santos, the great arranger and composer who's also in the saxophone section on this recording. So, this was an example of the great cultural and musical interchange that was happening at the time between the jazz community and the Latino community in New York City, and still exists until this day.

SIMON: Now, tell us what's happening with the rhythms here because it's notably faster than anything else on the album.

Mr. SANABRIA: Right well this is - in Cuban music, it's what we call a rumba arietta(ph), an open rumba. And this is a style of rhythm that's basically to feature the virtuosity of the drummers. And on here, the conga soloist is the great Carlos "Patato" Valdes who just recently passed away.

(Soundbite of song "Frenzy")

Mr. SANABRIA: My favorite track on this album is "Blues Ala Machito," which features the great trumpet solo work of Mr. Joe Newman, who was with the Count Basie Orchestra. Imagine Count Basie Orchestra - the musicians coming to the mambo palace of the day, the Palladium Ballroom on West 53rd Street. They have just taken a break from playing that bird language on broadway. And Mario Balsamm which was on West 52nd in Broadway, and Mario Bauza and Machito thought of inviting the guys up on stage and you say, well, now wonder what it's going to sound like. Well, it would sound something like this.

(Soundbite of song "Blues Ala Machito")

SIMON: Now, I hear the swing. There's a Latin percussion lying underneath, but it's more subtle.

Mr. SANABRIA: That's right. And if you have Cha-cha-cha going on underneath and that kind of swing phrasing on top. Very, very hard to do, but they pulled it up beautifully, and then these bebop horn lines with this modern harmonica going on underneath with the saxophones while the trumpets and trombones are punching against it, very hip, very swinging, and very funky, and very soulful.

SIMON: What do you hear today, Bobby, that might lead you to every now and then say, boy, that traces back to Machito?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SANABRIA: My own music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SANABRIA: I mean, everything that we do is - has some root with this orchestra. I mean, it's amazing that people that came from this orchestra. Doc Cheatham, although he's known by the jazz community, but Doc Cheatham - although he is known many years played in this orchestra. Many of the great soloists like (unintelligible), like Patato, like Joe Newman, like Curtis Fuller. These people all had something to do with the Machito Afro-Cubans. And of course, the greatest person that has come from this orchestra was the incredible maestro Tito Puente.

SIMON: Bobby, always a pleasure to talk to you.

Mr. SANABRIA: Same here, Scott. Thank you for the opportunity and thanks to your audience for listening.

SIMON: Bobby Sanabria. His new CD "Big Band Urban Folktales" has just been nominated for a Grammy. Bobby also teaches at the Manhattan School of Music and the new school in New York City.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: To hear our first interview with Bobby Sanabria and to discover more great Afro-Latino music, you can come to our new music Web site

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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