Bobby Sanabria's Latin Jazz Hybrid Percussionist Bobby Sanabria grew up in the musical melting pot of the South Bronx in New York City. Now, as the leader of a big band, it's no wonder that his brand of Latin jazz mirrors a panoply of Afro-Western styles from all over the Americas.
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Bobby Sanabria's Latin Jazz Hybrid

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Bobby Sanabria's Latin Jazz Hybrid

Bobby Sanabria's Latin Jazz Hybrid

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Growing up in the South Bronx, Bobby Sanabria listened to and overheard a whole range of music - Latin, Afro-Cuban, blues, jazz, funk, rock. He became a fan of Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, James Brown, Mario Bauza, and many more. But Bobby Sanabria grew up to perform alongside many of those same legendary musicians. And today, his name is included in the short list of renowned drummers and percussionists. He's determined to make sure that the musical melange of his past continues into the future.

His ensemble, which just released a new CD, brings together musicians from ages 18 to nearly 80. Together they bring forth a style that respects both the old school and the young guns.

Bobby Sanabria joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. BOBBY SANABRIA (Percussionist): Oh, thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Take us to school for a moment, if you could, and help us understand some of the relationship between all these different styles.

Mr. SANABRIA: Well, if you go back in time, the relationship as far as the jazz and Afro-Cuban and all Latin American styles is the rhythmic roots that we have in West Africa that were brought during the colonial period to the island, especially of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, all of Central and South America and, of course, the Caribbean city of the United States - New Orleans, Louisiana.

So the unifying factor with all of this stuff is this mantra that we call la clave, which is a series of five attacks that is the mantra of Afro-Cuban music but it's also found in funk, R&B, jazz, et cetera. In its most simple form, it's just this:

(Soundbite of rhythmic clapping)

Mr. SANABRIA: Now, you could hear that in funk…

(Soundbite of rhythmic clapping)

Mr. SANABRIA: (Singing) I said feet won't fail me now. My feet won't fail me now.

New Orleans music, obviously, and of course, styles like mambo…

(Singing) Mambo, mambo, (Foreign language spoken) mambo, mambo.

And, of course, the things that, you know, young people are listening today, like reggaeton, like…

(Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

So my thing has always been to show the commonalities we have. It's not strange that I'm a big fan of Maestro Tito Puente. But I'm also a big fan of Frank Zappa.

SIMON: I'm glad you mention Frank Zappa because I got to tell you. I love your version of "Grand Wazoo."

(Soundbite of song "Grand Wazoo")

Mr. SANABRIA: I used to watch all these great talk shows like "The Johnny Carson Tonight Show," "David Frost Show" when I was a kid, "Mike Douglas," et cetera. And all of them featured jazz orchestras between breaks. I - my hairs would stand on the back of my head. But on the "Dick Abbott Show" one night, Dick Abbott comes on and says, and now, the ugliest man in America. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.

(Soundbite of song "Grand Wazoo")

Mr. SANABRIA: The music was technically challenging but also very, very humorous. I mean, you could tell that these guys were having fun and making fun of popular music in many interesting ways. But you have to really be technically skilled to play it. And then later on in college, I heard the "Grand Wazoo" album. It's kind of sort of a big band album. It's not a full big band but Zappa exploring, using big band textures. And I said to myself, I love that song. One day, I'm going to rerecord it but add the elements that Frank Zappa only hinted at in the original arrangement. And those were the elements, the rhythmic elements from my culture, Afro-Cuban, Afro-Caribbean culture.

(Soundbite of song "Grand Wazoo")

SIMON: We mentioned some of the esteemed names that you played with over the years. What's that like for you, to be standing next to someone that you idolized at one point?

Mr. SANABRIA: Well, it's very gratifying and very humbling at the same time. I was very fortunate that when I came on the scene I would always usually be the youngest person in these ensembles, working with people like Candido, the great Cuban congero, Tito Puente, Mario Bauza, Chico O'Farrell, et cetera, some of the other people that you mentioned.

One thing that I always have charged is respect for the history of the music and respect for elders in the music, something that I feel is lacking today in many ways with the younger generation of players that are coming up right now.

SIMON: You don't think some of the younger players coming up respect the music of where it came from or who made it?

Mr. SANABRIA: If you talk to younger players, their historical knowledge of the music usually ends with the Miles Davis Quintet. And they don't go any farther than that. The things of the past are being relegated to the past. And my thing has always been don't just remember the past but honor it. And I'm very much about that. I mean, we have a piece of music that was, I believe, written in 1928, Buddy Johnson's classic, "Since I Fell For You."

(Soundbite of song "Since I Fell For You")

Ms. CHARENEE WADE (Jazz Performer): (Singing) You made me leave my happy home. You took my love and now you're gone. Since I fell for you.

SIMON: Forgive me for not knowing, but who's singing, Mr. Sanabria?

Mr. SANABRIA: Oh, that's the very lovely and talented Ms. Charenee Wade. She has a master's degree in jazz vocal performance from the Manhattan School of Music, one of the institutions I teach at.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. SANABRIA: And she's born and raised in New York City and has a lot of soul.

SIMON: Mr. Sanabria, can you name a couple of people who, whether they knew they were teaching you or not, you really learned a lot from them?

Mr. SANABRIA: Well, first of all, my father - the musical aesthetic that I have today was rooted in - with my father because he listened to anything and everything. He used to sit in his lazy boy chair, smoke a cigar, drink some Schaefer beer after he came home from work and listen to all these different styles of music. And some - at times, I would ask him, especially like when he would play some James Brown music, and he's listening to "Sex Machine," I'm looking at my father. And, of course…

SIMON: In his lazy boy.

(Soundbite of laughter)


SIMON: "Sex Machine." Yeah.

Mr. SANABRIA: Yeah, right. I'm going - hey, dad, do you like this? He goes, yeah. Why not?

SIMON: As you've noted, you teach at the new school of jazz and contemporary music program in the Manhattan School of Music.

Mr. SANABRIA: Right.

SIMON: Does it take time or passion, energy from your career as a performer to also teach?

Mr. SANABRIA: Yes, it does. I mean, I would be less than honest if I didn't admit to that. And many people have told me, Bobby, you know, you should cut back on your teaching, et cetera, and concentrate more on your performing. And I have done that. But my life would not be complete if I didn't teach. And it's really, really gratifying when you see and hear students that you've worked with, go out there in the real world and really, really shine and make it.

There's a piece called "Detrain(ph)" by a former student of mine, Jeremy Fletcher who is right now a candidate for the doctoral degree in jazz at the Manhattan School of Music. And what he did was, through this piece, he represents a ride on the subway line in New York City that goes from Brooklyn all the way to the Bronx. And it stops right at Yankee Stadium.

(Soundbite of song "Detrain")

SIMON: No Red Sox fans so far, right?

Mr. SANABRIA: No. No. No. But you'll get - you get to that point. I mean, it's really…

SIMON: The train running over the Red Sox fans, yup.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SANABRIA: There you go. There you go. The rush of people getting on the train, arguing, their conversations in the morning on the "Detrain."

(Soundbite of song "Detrain")

Mr. SANABRIA: When your listeners, the out-of-towners, if they come to New York City, I'm sure they're going to want to ride on that train just to get the vibes. Because they say, wow, this piece of music is so funky and hip and I got to get on that train.

SIMON: You have a street named after you in the Bronx?

Mr. SANABRIA: I was inducted into the Bronx Walk of Fame. If you go to East 153rd Street, there's a lamppost there, and my name is probably there amongst all the names of people that have come from this incredible burrow that I am so lucky that I was born and raised there.

It's funny somebody e-mailed me from Canada. You know, they're saying, where is your street signs because I want to steal it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, that's the ultimate compliment in a way.

Mr. SANABRIA: I guess so.

SIMON: Well, point us to another song you'd like us to talk about in this album, if you could.

Mr. SANABRIA: There's a tune on here that really represents what I am about. It's called "El Ache de Sanabria en Moderacion."

(Soundbite of song "El Ache de Sanabria en Moderacion")

Mr. SANABRIA: The word ache literally means positive energy, good luck, the force, so to speak. This concept of ache permeates our being in the world of jazz and Latin American music. So the title really translates into the positive energy of Sanabria in moderation.

SIMON: I hear you in there.

Mr. SANABRIA: Yeah. It's cool. It's intelligent. It's sacred. It's profane. It's all of that in the bag of chips, as we say in the Bronx.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: And I hear the Bronx in there, too.

Mr. SANABRIA: Yeah. Yeah.

SIMON: Mr. Sanabria, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.

Mr. SANABRIA: Thank you.

SIMON: Bobby Sanabria, multi-Grammy nominated drummer and percussionist. His new CD is "Big Band Urban Folktales." And to hear a little bit from the CD, you can come to our Web site,

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

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