Afro-Cuban Percussionists Don’t Miss a Beat

Whether it’s kids who listen to hip hop, adults enamored with Jazz and everybody in between addicted to Rock ‘n Roll, we rarely give credit to the true origins of our musical affinities. Africans who came to Cuba brought along their drumming traditions, says Afro-Cuban percussionist Nanette Garcia of Yorktown , and out of Conga rhythms such as the Rumba evolved much of the music we love today. Fortunately, she didn’t have to travel so far to bring this journey to the fans of her music and the students she teaches.

“I was born and raised in the south Bronx ,” she says, and Conga was an integral part of our everyday lives as Puerto Rican Americans, she adds.

In turn, she received a three year scholarship to study Opera at Turtle Bay in Manhattan and later earned a masters degree in Modern Music but she credits her expertise to a less formal apprenticeship. What really counts, she says, I studied many years with two master Afro-Cuban Percussionists – Frankie Malabe and Felipe Garcia Villamil.

Along the way, she met Maurice Minichino and the transatlantic synergy that Africans probably could have never envisioned two hundred years ago would add a third continent and a completely different musical discipline. “He’s classically trained in piano,” she says of her Italian born husband, who came to America to study conducting at Julliard.

First meeting in 1981, his interest in Jazz meant their collaboration to come didn’t have to miss much of a beat for their vastly different musical baselines to meld. “We’ve been composing together for 30 years,” she says.

The duo’s most recent CD exemplifies exactly that in a tribute to Mr. Malabe, who taught the Conga to children in Spanish Harlem. What we did was take his style one step further by integrating Afro-Cuban rhythms in a contemporary classical context, she says of “Alchemy.”

As for the students who come by to their home based studio, a similar musical diversification is also the aim. They are looking to enhance their musical background because the rhythms are very complex and everything jumps out of Afro-Cuban percussion.

And Maurice and Nannette’s students are far from the first to see it that way. Dizzy Gillespie and other early big name American Jazz acts went to Cuba to study the rhythm because it’s a very rich musical culture, she says.

On the other end of the learning curve, the couple uses percussion as a tool to teach foreign language to preschoolers. We bring all sorts of percussion instruments and through playing, movement, chanting and singing, we teach Italian, Spanish and American Sign Language, she says of their Talk ‘n Drum program.

They also make a social movement of it – so to speak – at their home studio. With a network of musicians and artists, who come by periodically to jam and commiserate, she says, “It’s sort of a salon type thing.”

Otherwise, you could get a pretty good sense of this on February 26th as their Conga band, Skin Against Metal will appear at the Bean Runner Cafe in Peekskill . Latin, Rock, Jazz and Classical, she says, it strings together so many different genres that people aren’t sure what to call it.

Either way, as Brenden Tacon and Uly Milan round out the Skins , she’s sure of one thing. “You’ll never be bored and it will always be something different,” she concludes.

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