Bobby Sanabria: Latin Jazz's West African Roots Latin music would not exist without bongos, congas or timbales — all percussion instruments, all with roots in Africa. Likewise, there wouldn't be Latin music without other African influences, such as syncopation. Latin percussionist, composer and bandleader Bobby Sanabria gives a primer on the close roots that Latin and jazz music share with the sound and soul of West Africa.

Bobby Sanabria: Latin Jazz's West African Roots

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Latin music would not exist without bongos, congas, timbales, all percussion instruments and all with roots in Africa. You couldn't have Latin music without other African influences, too, like syncopation. So, we're now going to go back to Africa to learn a little more about how that continent's sound and soul worked its way into Latin music. Our guide is the soulful. Grammy nominated percussionist and band leader Bobby Sanabria, who joins us from New York. Bobby, thank you so much for being back with us.

Mr. BOBBY SANABRIA (Latin Percussionist): Thank you so much, Scott. Always a pleasure.

SIMON: What are the major ingredients of the traditional African ensemble song that worked its way through into jazz and Latin jazz?

Mr. SANABRIA: Well, the principal things that we inherited from West Africa is this concept of many rhythms simultaneously happening - in the parlance of musicians, polyrhythms- many rhythms. That initiates also what we call polymeters, many meters at the same time. We've inherited that from West Africa, and it's been transferred to all of the musics that we listen to today, from rock 'n' roll, funk, hip-hop, jazz.

SIMON: You could argue, or at least let me suggest that America - mainstream America's earliest exposure to Latin music was "I Love Lucy," Desi Arnaz and his orchestra.

Mr. SANABRIA: Desi Arnaz kind of gets short shrift sometimes, especially in the Hispanic community, because he's looked at only as an entertainer. But he was a very shrewd businessman. He developed the three-camera technique that we used today to film television shows. POSTBROADCAST CORRECTION: Arnaz hired cinematographer Karl Freund, who perfected the three-camera technique for capturing live performances. And he was very much in touch with his Afro-Cuban roots in terms of the culture. Like when you hear the song "Babalu Aye," that's actually a song that was written in praise of Babalu Aye, the Yoruba deity from Nigeria of pestilence, and the deity that takes care of the sick. So, while mainstream America was probably laughing it up, they were going Babalu etc., little did they know that they were being exposed to this incredibly deep, West African culture that we inherited in the Caribbean.

(Soundbite of song "Babalu Aye")

Mr. DESI ARNAZ: (Singing) Babalu aye Babalu aye Ta empezando lo velorio Que le hacemo a Babalu Dame diez y siete velas Pa ponerle en cruz. Dame un cabo de tabaco mayenye Y un jarrito de aguardiente, Dame un poco de dinero mayenye Pa' que me de la suerte.

Mr. SANABRIA: Originally, it was recorded and made famous in Cuba by Miguelito Valdez in the late 1930s, but Desi Arnaz's version of it became the more mainstream-known version with U.S. audiences.

SIMON: And it is a - if I may - inconvenient truth to note that these musical influences trace back to slavery.

Mr. SANABRIA: That's right, but because of this incredible culture being brought to the Caribbean, we have the different styles of music that we so love today.

SIMON: We have another song, by Tito Puente - we've talked about before with you on the show - and this is "Obatala Yeza."

(Soundbite of song "Obatala Yeza")

Mr. SANABRIA: This is more pure, rootsy Yoruba music. The Yoruba word, this mighty nation from Nigeria. Obatala, he's the creator of life on Earth, also the deity that is the patron of Maestro Tito Puente, who was involved in Santeria, the redefining of this West African-rooted religion known as Lucumi. And Obatala, parenthetically, is also the deity of creativity. So, in many ways, you could say he's the patron of the jazz musician.

SIMON: So, the call and response that we can hear in traditional Latin music, whether it's focused from the Caribbean or for that matter, American slave chants, is that also what we here in jazz when, let's say, there's a sax and trumpet going back and forth?

Mr. SANABRIA: Sure. Well, basically, it's a conversation. In music in its root form - is utilized to communicate with sacred deities and take you to the beyond, to the spiritual world. In the secular world, when we're on the bandstand, we're trying to get that same type of energy happening on the bandstand, and if it's dance orchestra, trying to transmit that to the dancers.

SIMON: One last song is by rock guitarist Carlos Santana. This one is called "Incident at Neshabur."

(Soundbite of song "Incident at Neshabur")

Mr. SANABRIA: This one particular rhythm is known as bembe. The word bembe means feast or celebration. So, it's a celebratory rhythm. All of the elements are thrown in there now. We have bluesy-style organ, electric base, etce., and the percussion is vamped up, way up front and of course, the genius of Maestro Carlos Santana. So, it just goes to show you how the drum, as we say in Spanish, as tambor llama, "the drum calls."

SIMON: Hey, Bobby, What's ahead in - what do you see is being ahead in Latin jazz this year?

Mr. SANABRIA: What's happening is the music is becoming more mainstreamed as far as the jazz community is concerned. That's because so many young musicians from various Latin American countries have been coming to university-level institutions to study jazz over the last - I would say 20 to 30 years. I was a young student at the Berkeley College of Music in 1975. I was the only Puerto Rican there at the school. Now, the majority of the students at the school, I've been told, are from Latin America. They're the dominant force there. So, the big bands that I teach at the New School University and Manhattan School of Music deal specifically with Afro-Cuban jazz. And in many ways, Latin jazz is the real, true representation of the jazz tradition because it has all of these elements on equal levels - the rhythmic roots from West Africa, complex arranging techniques and the virtuosic improvisational qualities that are found in the jazz musician. And of course, anybody knows anything about the history of jazz knows that New Orleans, where jazz was born, is the northernmost Caribbean city of the United States. So, the music has come full circle.

(Soundbite of song "Incident at Neshabur")

SIMON: Bobby Sanabria, percussionist, composer, band leader. His most recent album is "Big Band Urban Folk Tales," which is the winner of the Jazz Journalists Association Award for the best band jazz album of 2008. Thank you so much, Bobby.

Mr. SANABRIA: Thank you.

SIMON: Talk to you soon.

Mr. SANABRIA: See you on the radio.

SIMON: And to hear Bobby explain the rhythm of the classic Latin jazz Afro groove, visit

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