Friday, May 07, 2010

Francisco Aguabella (1925-2010)

Legendary Cuban drummer Francisco Aguabella died today after a battle with cancer. Aguabella was born in the Cuban city of Matanzas on October 10, 1925, the youngest of seven children though only one of two to survive a typhus epidemic. Though neither of his parents were musicians, Francisco began playing music while a child and was drawn to the music that surrounded him in Matanzas. He began to play the sacred batá drums at age twelve, taught by another youngster at the time, the legendary Esteban Vega Bacallao, popularly known as Cha-Chá (1925-2007). According to Raul Fernandez' book From Afro-Cuban Rhythms to Latin Jazz, Aguabella apprenticed on the supporting drums for five years (two on okónkolo, three on itótele) before studying the lead drum of this ensemble. He became known as a fierce and powerful drummer in both sacred and secular contexts, becoming, by his own account, the lead soloist for a local comparsa group at age 16, an accomplishment of which he was very proud. At age eighteen Aguabella was initiated into a local Abakuá potencia (an Afro-Cuban male initiation society). During this time he also became friends with drummer Julito Collazo (1925-2004), who would later become, along with Aguabella, an important source of batá drumming in the United States.

In his early twenties Aguabella worked on docks in Havana and Matanzas while continuing to drum during his free time. Eventually he was asked by influential Havana drummers to join their show troupe in Havana. In Havana, Aguabella also played in various sacred, band, and comparsa groups. In 1953 American dancer Katherine Dunham saw Aguabella perform in a nightclub and requested his services for a show scene in a movie (Mambo, starring Shelley Winters and Anthony Quinn)that was being filmed in Havana. Dunham invited Aguabella to join her company, and he soon accompanied her to Italy, the first of many tours. In addition to drumming, Aguabella had small dance and acting roles in the company's productions.

After touring with Dunham, Aguabella came to the United States at a time when Latin music was mixing with popular jazz. While fellow drummer Collazo settled in New york, Aguabella settled in California, living in Los Angeles and San Francisco for the rest of his life. Aguabella had an impressive career, including recordings, performances, and tours with artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Eddie Palmieri, Cachao, Lalo Schifrin, Cal Tjader, Nancy Wilson, Weather Report, Poncho Sanchez, Bebo Valdes, Carlos Santana, Malo, Three Dog Night, Paul Simon, and the Doors. (According to Francisco, Sinatra would introduce him to audiences as "My Italian conga drummer, Francisco Aguabella.") Aguabella also led his own Latin jazz group, playing concerts and issuing recordings for many years. He also composed music for his and other ensembles, mostly works that took advantage of his extensive drumming knowledge. Importantly, Aguabella was a source of authentic sacred Afro-Cuban music in the United States at a time when few knew the secrets of sacred drumming. Aguabella was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Durfee Foundation's Master Musicians' Fellowship, and was recognized by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. He was the subject of a documentary film by Les Blank titled "Sworn to the Drum." Agubella taught Afro-Cuban music at UCLA from the mid-1990s until 2008.

Aguabella was the strongest, fiercest drummer I have ever seen. I once saw him play a sacred tambor in the 1980s (for Changó, with frighteningly fast, loud, and long sections of drumming), and also at the famed Conga Summit concert in San Francisco. By the time I got to study with him a bit in the mid to late 1990s, he had mellowed considerably from his earlier days, when he had the reputation of being a tough taskmaster. I last saw him in late 2008, when the photos below were taken.

Information above was based on Aguabella's own biography, Raul Fernandez' From Afro-Cuban Rhythm to Latin jazz, and personal communication.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Kevin, for that moving tribute. Francisco was a force of nature. His spirit was indomitable. I will miss him tremendously.

Kevin said...

Thank you for your comment. I searched the web the day Francisco died and could not find an obituary, so I felt like putting something out until some more official obituaries are published.

Anonymous said...

Francisco's obituary came out in the online LA times last night. I think it's coming out in the paper version of the LA times today (Sunday). For those of us who knew him well, your tribute gets to the heart of who he was. Thanks again. --KH