My brother and I were not to afraid to make the jump to the United States. We had visited Disney World at Orlando the year before and had an idea of what to expect from “los Americanos”. They didn’t particularly seem as warm as Puerto Ricans were or as publicly joyous, but they weren’t absolutely scary. They just seemed to keep to themselves and that was fine for me, as long as they didn’t give us trouble. Their weird language was still mostly a mystery to us, with all the tonal bends (Spanish was such a direct language, in comparison), but we were confident the basic English we had learned at the Montessori would help us (not quite!).
We spent a week packing our belongings into boxes and sent it out with a moving company (which later, we found out, ended up losing my brother’s totally red bicycle…only my blue one arrived). The day of the flight to the United States, we began the long journey to our new, unknown home. We arrived at night at an airport and had to wait for hours to pick up my dad’s aging Datsun wagon. Once we had it, we headed out to our home, which was located 3:30 away from that airport. Late at night, we arrived in a mysterious neighborhood…a series of apartment complexes, three stories tall. The air was chilly and had a smell of different vegetation and tress…definitely not the tropical smells.
My first years in the United States were filled with the usual “migrant” growing pains. Getting adjusted to a new culture, learning a new language, getting accustomed to snow (oh yes, the love affair with it ended after 1 or 2 years of having to go out and walk in its cold embrace). Thankfully, my parent had made a decision to move us to a town whose public schools were excellent. I had read later that the public schools there compared with private schools in other places. The town where we lived was a college town, with various universities and colleges (3 of them Ivy-League) in the surrounding area. Many of the children that went to the same schools with us were the children of professors and teachers in the area and their parents were adamant supporters of education. Property taxes were high and they were glad to pay them.
While we endeavored to make the shift to an American education, my mother and father began new projects. Working as a social worker, my mother had become enamored with the idea of finishing her Master’s Degree. While she was successful, those two stressful years had taken a relationship-toll on my parents. She had become very irritated and stressed during those years and my father had begun to lose his love for my mother. It wasn’t obvious, but the signs were there. My father had attempted to join up with some local bands in the area, but he was unimpressed with the quality of the musicianship and with the pay. After working with San Juan’s best and backing major Latin American artists, he wasn’t about to start performing with “bar bands” again. He found a job as a music teacher at a local school (a position he STILL holds…throughout the years, he’s been highly recognized for his contributions to the education of mostly poor Latino students in his district). He began two musical projects, one a guitar duo with another excellent Berklee College of Music graduate and a 9 piece Latin band, using many of the arrangements he had brought from his Puerto Rico days. Both projects, in time, became pretty successful. They certainly helped to pay the bills. The duo became a trio project (my brother and I, in time, would later join it, when we were older). The first album was a huge success in Puerto Rico, with major spots on the newspapers, TV, and radio shows of the island. He even did an interview with “La Condesa” (now, “La Comay”, a popular puppet show who comments on the gossip on the island). My brother and I loved this, as it meant that ever summer, we’d spend our school vacations in Puerto Rico, while my father promoted his work.
The success of the first album led to the production of a series that would, at last count, add up to 14 albums, emphasizing different themes: classical music, Latin dance band songs, children’s albums, and of course, the original guitar/flute/percussion quartet that started the series. Naturally, my brother and I couldn’t escape this upbringing or the musical interest that it developed. Before I had left Puerto Rico, I had begun to tap away at drum pads, using old college-level drum instructional books that my father had. When the time came, I auditioned for the school band at my elementary school and the director noticed that my reading and performing skills were far more advanced than children at the elementary age. I was given the lead snare drum part. I would spend my entire schooling career playing in both the high school wind ensembles and jazz combo groups, honing my skills in classical percussion and popular drumset. My brother did not bloom until later, but inspired by the work of several latin-jazz flute players, he took up flute performance and has developed into a versatile flute player, even having a solo record of his own.
In school, we were expected to learn white peoples’ music. But, at night, our lives were mostly governed by the need to accompany my father to his performing events. By 9 years of age, my dad had me performing as the “bongocero” of the group (the bongo player). It is here where I meet my first afro-cuban percussion mentor; an Afro-Puerto Rican man from Carolina Puerto Rico. He was a very dark-skinned man, very tall (had once played for the Puerto Rican national olympic basketball team), and with hands that, once they made impact with the skins of the conga drums, resonated with loud slaps. I’ll call him “Mr. Carolina”. While looking for area musicians, my dad was recommended “Mr. Carolina” as an excellent percussionist for his Latin dance band project. I’m not sure if Mr. Carolina was totally excited with the prospect of working with a 9 year old by his side, but he made the best of it. He quickly would grab the bongos and cowbell from my hands and say, “no no no, ASI!” Every lesson with him on how to properly play the instruments was a stern admonition. “Estas cruzao!!!” was a favorite refrain of his, which meant I was on the wrong side of the clave and out of rhythm. “no no, así no!” Mr. Carolina was not the most tactful person in real life or on the stage. He had a booming voice and a street rumbero’s impatient personality. And he always had these weird, multi-colored bead necklaces on….somehow I could feel that he was unusual. But, he knew his stuff. He had performed with some of the best in Puerto Rico, playing in rumba groups, bomba ensembles, and had it not been for an unfortunate virus that made him sick, he would have been a performing member in Puerto Rico’s seminal percussion-fusion group, Batacumbele. But, as you can imagine (if you know about Batacumbele), he was friends and performed regularly with Puerto Rico’s best percussionists. An ugly incident involving an abusive police officer forced him to have to come to the United States to avoid problems on the island…to my benefit!
In time, I learned to be a proficient bongocero. The years of performing experience throughout my high school years wedded together with my self-taught drumset technique at school. Using instructional books and my experiences on various stages, I began to fuse together Latin music chops on drumset, and around that time, my father had encouraged me to take up the electric bass (mostly because he couldn’t count on dependable electric bass players who understood Latin music genres).
Mr. Carolina became a full-scale mentor…my father would drop me off at his music store where I would spend some hours jamming with Mr. Carolina and his son (a very proficient conga player). I’d either grab the bongos, timbales, or bring my father’s old Ibanez white bass and pluck the basic swing patterns I knew (at the time, I was not that good of a bass player, but later, I’d take it up very seriously and became as proficient a bass player as I was a percussionist/drummer). The jam sessions were heavy duty classes…without knowing it, I was getting “la calle” (the street education) that you could only get through experience with afro-cuban-puertorican percussion performers. Whether it was bomba, plena, guaguanco, mozambique, songo…you name it, if it was performed on congas/bongos/timbales/drums, we did it. Once the rehearsals ended, while packing up the equipment, I’d notice this trio of weird, hourglass-glass shaped drums on a stand in the corner. I couldn’t reach at them because of all the equipment in the way, but I could just reach one of them. I started to bang a bongo pattern on it. “No no no….come over here…those are not for playing…that’s for other stuff…come this way”. The urgency in his voice was all that I needed to stop. Mr. Carolina was 6’5” tall….whatever he said, I did. That would be the end of that….but, the mystery of why I couldn’t play those drums would remain with me throughout my college years and adulthood.
Next part, I’ll detail my college years and how I reconnected with those weird drums.
Awó Ogbe Ate