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In New Afro-Cuban Music, Ancient Tradition Meets Future Shock

Michele Rosewoman (bottom right) is joined by batá percussionists in performance with her New Yor-Uba Ensemble in 2013.
Tom Ehrlich
Courtesy of the artist
Michele Rosewoman (bottom right) is joined by batá percussionists in performance with her New Yor-Uba Ensemble in 2013.

In Henry Dumas' short story "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" three "afro-horns" have been forged from a rare metal found only in Africa and South America. One rests in a European museum; a second one is believed to be somewhere on the west coast of Mexico among a tribe of Indians; and a third is owned by Probe, a jazz musician. When Probe finally plays the afro-horn in public, the sound is devastatingly powerful.

The drummer Francisco Mora-Catlett was working with Sun Ra, the iconic Afro-Futurist keyboardist and conceptualist, when he discovered the story. "I was impressed by the surrealistic ways in which he explained things and by the subtleties that were going on," Mora-Catlett says.

Around the same time, pianist Michele Rosewoman was getting involved in two different musical communities. While growing up in Oakland, Calif., she studied jazz with pianist Ed Kelly in the early '70s, and befriended many members of St. Louis' Black Artists' Group and its Chicago-based kindred-spirit organization, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. At the same time, she was studying Afro-Cuban and Haitian percussion.

"I was in parallel worlds that didn't meet," she says. "In my case, I was in a jazz world that was concerned about expanding a tradition, and I was in a world that was about learning and maintaining a tradition."

Independently, both Mora-Catlett and Rosewoman made the separate worlds of their imaginations meet by starting their own large ensembles. Mora-Catlett gathered the first edition of his AfroHORN ensemble in the early '80s in Detroit, featuring future leaders such as saxophonist James Carter and bassist Rodney Whitaker. In New York, Rosewoman convened musicians like saxophonist John Stubblefield and conductor Butch Morris to execute her New Yor-Uba ensemble. There were certainly precursors to their visions — the Cuban fusion band Irakere, some of pianist Eddie Palmieri's LPs — but Mora-Catlett and Rosewoman's respective bands took the art of blending Afro-Cuban folklore and avant-garde jazz to new heights.

It took another 30 years before either band recorded its fantastical cross-cultural experiments. But earlier this month, Michele Rosewoman issued the two-disc New Yor-Uba: 30 Years — A Musical Celebration of Cuba in America. The week before, Francisco Mora-Catlett put out his second AfroHORN disc, Rare Metal (following up on last year's debut). Both ancient and futuristic, their respective embraces of rarely explored traditions and innovative improvisation result in two of the most otherworldly Latin jazz discs of the year.

Hear The Music

Michele Rosewoman

"Where Water Meets Sky [Donde Agua Resuelve El Cielo]"

From 'New Yor-Uba: A Musical Celebration of Cuba In America'


"Salina Ago"

From 'Rare Metal'

Folkloric Axis

The late percussionist Orlando "Puntilla" Rios was the main Afro-Cuban folkloric guiding light for Rosewoman and New Yor-Uba. Rios was a fellow experimentalist, and tried out new ways to play folkloric Afro-Cuban music.

"When he came [to New York from Cuba in the 1980s], there weren't too many people which he could work with at the level that he wanted," Rosewoman says. "I'm talking about ceremonies and his own presentations, which were often purely folkloric. He was so open — he added marimbas playing melodies, which were usually sung. He did experimental things, but kept the essence of the folkloric intact."

Rios performed with Rosewoman's New Yor-Uba debut performance 30 years ago at New York City's Joseph Papp's Public Theatre. She says that she built that repertoire around Rios' presence. "With hearing him in my head," she says, "I picked the keys and the songs that seemed closest to his heart."

Unlike AfroHORN, New Yor-Uba is rooted in batá rhythms, sacred to African Yoruba culture. These mesmerizing patterns are played mostly on the batá, a double-headed drum shaped like an hourglass. Each of Rosewoman's compositions honors one of the Yoruban Orishas — spiritual deities that represent a manifestation of God.

"These traditions are very particular," she says. "You really don't take certain liberties ever with the rhythms or the sequence of songs. If you took the drums and vocals on this disc and set them in a Yoruban ceremony, they would be completely correct."

Francisco Mora-Catlett (bottom left) leads AfroHORN, his working band.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Francisco Mora-Catlett (bottom left) leads AfroHORN, his working band.

To anchor AfroHORN in Afro-Cuban folklore, Mora-Catlett also relied heavily on a Cuban percussionist. Roman Díaz appears on both Rare Metal and New Yor-Uba.

"Roman is Cuban; I'm Mexican/African-American," Mora-Catlett says. "So when we retain our identities, the music becomes something else. I had Roman take care of Afro-Cuban folklore; I took care of African-American folklore."

But Mora-Catlett didn't adhere as closely to Afro-Cuban folkloric rhythms as Rosewoman. He loosened some of them up to incorporate the "freedom swing" sensations that he learned from Sun Ra and his other significant mentor — drummer and composer Max Roach. On Rare Metal, he explicitly honors only two Orishas in favor of paying tribute to other significant guiding lights such as Roach ("5 x Max") and poet Jayne Cortez (an arrangement of her text "Make Ifa").

"This disc is a compound to my experience," he says. "I didn't try to utilize the batá. A long time ago, I learned the concept of 'artistic projection,' where you don't have to necessarily utilize materials as they are, but you can refer to them as points of departure in order to create texture or color without losing the identity."

Common Traditions

Both artists are careful to link Afro-Cuban folklore to African-American jazz traditions. Rosewoman's new disc features such renegades as alto saxophonist Oliver Lake, tuba player Howard Johnson and trumpeter Freddie Hendrix. Mora-Catlett's Rare Metal showcases such modern experimentalists as tenor saxophonist Salim Washington, soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome, and pianist Aruán Ortiz.

During the early conception of New Yor-Uba, Rosewoman recognized the common ground between jazz and Afro-Cuban music.

"In jazz, as soon as we got to basic chord structure — the I-III-V-VII — we get rid of the one as quickly as we can," she says. "The bass player got it, or you can leave it open to the imagination. There's no reason to overstate anything. Regarding rhythm, you get off the one on the beat. We lean toward the two and four. You get off of everything that's obvious to obscure what's there, so there's more room for color and the imagination.

"That's the nature of both musics," Rosewoman adds. "I've noticed in both traditions, especially in jazz, historically as too many people get on whatever bandwagon, the innovators try to shed the crowd by developing a new idiom. It's the same in Cuba."

Mora-Catlett notes that jazz artists and Afro-Cuban musicians both ground their works in tradition while simultaneously reinventing it.

"We are all subject to follow certain traditions," he says. "And within those traditions, the musicians sort of maintain their positions at the front of the collective human experience. It's up to the musicians to define what's coming up."

No matter how dissonant the harmonies or restive the improvisations, both albums exude a funkiness that would make George Clinton proud. For Rosewoman, who grew up listening to as much funk and R&B as she did jazz and Latin music, groove is just a natural part of her music.

"I've always allowed what I loved to be a part of everything that I do," she says. "To me, batá is the original funk, among other African traditions. Batá is unbelievably funky, or it can swing so hard that you can barely stand it. Both the essence and concept of swing and funk are all in that tradition."

Mora-Catlett echoes the dance imperative. "One of the things that I love about the traditions of Afro-Cuban music and African-American music — especially New Orleans music — is that it all comes together and it grounds you," he says. "You have to dance, which is a part of those traditions, as well. There's no other way about it."

A Long Time Coming

Though Rosewoman's New Yor-Uba dates back to the early '80s, this year is the first time she's recorded with the group. (She's certainly made other spectacular albums between then and now, particularly with her Quintessence ensemble.) Part of Rosewoman's hesitation came from her respect of the sacred nature of the batá, which certainly wasn't heard much on the greater U.S. musical landscape in the early '80s.

"Batá was really underground — and still is to some extent, because it's not out there for everybody," she says. "There are a whole lot of aspects of it that's kept 'in the room.' Every word, every rhythm to those songs is addressing God and the deities. So it's really isn't for the common man."

Mora-Catlett says that the early incarnation of AfroHorn in Detroit didn't resonate. It wasn't until he relocated to New York that he got inspired to reconvene the group with new personnel. Still, it wasn't until 2012 that his AfroHORN combo released its debut disc, Afro Horn MX.

Between now and the original gestations of New Yor-Uba and AfroHORN, many critically acclaimed recordings have utilized batá drums outside the usual Afro-Cuban framework — including Herbie Hancock's 1983 hit "Rockit" and Kip Hanrahan's 1983 cult classic Conjure. Other artists have infused a modern jazz perspective into Afro-Cuban folklore, including American alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, Canadian soprano saxophonist/flutist Jane Bunnett and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa.

The new discs from Rosewoman and Mora-Catlett arrive after these landmarks, but the bandleaders aren't done pushing the concept. Mora-Catlett says he's still trying to construct his AfroHORN concept to be worthy of Sun Ra's Arkestra. Rosewoman says she's finding deeper integrations between forward-thinking jazz and varying folkloric traditions.

"'Where Water Meets Sky' is my newest composition for the group," she says. "And when people listen to that song, they'll hear specifically another level of composition and integration of the idioms. Music has given me my every next step."

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John Murph