A White Punk and a Prosthetic Cuban: a meditation on rhythm transmission and self-identification


This is a first-time diary for me- some days ago I commented on some video clips in the comment section of this diary: http://www.dailykos.com/... . I was invited to diary about it, and after steeling my resolve and splashing on a bit of Aqua Velva, I figured why not?

   He was a genius musician, master manipulator, True American Original, and a bitter, cynical man with serious addiction issues and possibly a pedophile. He was my first real drumming teacher. We knew him as Angel Maldonado (from Matanzas, Cuba) when in actuality he was Joe Carver from East Orange, New Jersey. Actually, he was neither- names have been changed to prevent harm to any involved.

   He taught me and a number of other white kids wanting to learn the authentic shit in a frozen northern city during the mid seventies, at a moment in our lives when we wouldn't have known authentic if it bit our collective ass.

  But we were enthusiastic!

  I was drawn (driven?) to music-making while growing up the youngest of my commercial illustrator father's three sons. We fought for his approval and he generally wasn't very available to us, but when he would praise our work, we gloried in it. At drawing, I wasn't bad, but I was incredibly slow and my work tended to be a bit overwrought. When I started showing an aptitude for music it felt like I had stumbled onto something that was mine and mine alone, sound having a directness and immediacy that had escaped me visually. I tried a lot of instruments before coming to the conclusion that conga drums were my voice. I developed very quickly and was gigging in funk bands around the time I graduated high school, and it wasn't long before I had exhausted most of my self-taught tricks. A friend recommended Angel, an older Cuban who lived on the predominantly black north side.

   For the first lesson, he methodically showed me a basic tumbao, mapping where on the drumhead to hit, notating it, and forced me to learn to sing it, or, as he said, "it wouldn't be worth shit". He insisted on seeing me twice a week, and I worked hard for the next couple days. When I came back, I started to say that I'd been practising but he cut me off, berating me for being lazy and irresponsible, which was a bit weird because I hadn't played a note! When I did play his demeanor changed radically, he was shocked. I would guess that his rum-fueled self had mistaken me for one of his other students. He poured me a glass of 151 proof and we entered into a long and chaotic sort of apprenticeship.

   He set about teaching me a ton of rhythms- Afro, Bolero, Guaguancó, Abakwá, various Bembes and some Oríxa rhythms. On top of that, he knew that I worked with the Dumbek (middle-eastern goblet drum), and started me working on rhythms from an Algerian music theory book he had come by. He was a bit of a scholar- spoke Spanish, Arabic, French, Russian and I don't know what else. I felt like I belonged to a special circle of the initiated, privy to deeper levels of Authentic Ethnic Music, in a time before the term World Music  existed. The verbal gymnastics required to tell people what I did were rigorous if not especially effective. Ask almost any hand drummer how he is described by others, and he'll tell you that, often as not: "Oh, he's the guy that plays the bongos!" Doby Gillis and Maynard G. Krebs have dented the collective psyche much more deeply than we may ever know.

   Angel's playing was disciplined, strong, physically demanding and oddly conservative- he never played with any flash or explosivity and when we pressed him to go crazy over a groove he would shut down. I held the prized position of playing the bottom patterns within the group, usually on two drums. When he would let loose, it was because (as he said) everything was happening so correctly that it was finally possible, or, as I often saw, he was too baked to care any more. It could be brilliant or an incredible mess. He always told us to do as he said, not as he did, and he would become physically abusive in a heartbeat. Our hands bore a dense stigmata of callus from playing and practising long and hard. We felt tough and we felt superior to anything else out there and we were naive to core of our being.

   He had a nasty and acerbic wit that was very seductive, so much so that I have come to credit him with teaching me not to emulate anybody at any time. Of course there was nothing generous in that gift- he had a way of being pretty vicious while maintaining a loyal network of students who kept him supplied with everything from drugs to gigs to girls. He seemed to really enjoy taking from you and letting you know it while he was doing it. It sounds rancorous to describe, but at this remove it isn't- what is felt more than anything else is amazement at my own willingness to be taken in by it at the time.

   He made negativity shine like a dark jewel, describing Dave Brubeck's Take Five as "sounding like somebody trying to teach a bunch of one-legged people to conga". He could say something unkind about almost anything, and there were maybe five or six things in the world that might escape his censure: Beautiful women, Heineken beer, a record by Panalal Ghosh, a Berber protest song and whatever drug was taking the edge off. Those, and Polyrhythm. His sense of it was awe-inspiring, and his ability to get our small ensemble of three or four people and a half-dozen drums to sound like a river moving through a jungle was magical at the very least. I use his musical techniques to this day in my own teaching and playing. Hearing the way that he could hocket patterns in 5/8 against 5/4 while adding in a two-beat backbeat with 6/8, you might be able to see his characterization of Take Five as having some kind of foundation.

   He lived rather hard. After getting kicked out of his place on the north side for allegedly sexually abusing his girlfriend's daughter, he moved to a dingy apartment on the south side of town. He was reached by shouting up from the street, a call he answered maybe half of the time. At almost any time he'd be hanging out with a couple of junko partners in a state of having scored, getting ready to score, or wishing they could score. Doing focused and concentrated work in that environment was a challenge at best. When there was an actual paying gig like a Renaissance Fair there was at least a brief opportunity to do what we did before copious beer/wine/reefer/sunlight rendered him comatose. It was worth it for a while, not a very long one.

   My life started having a very different set of foci when my mother was diagnosed with cancer throughout too much of her body to pinpoint an origin. She moved back in with my philandering father who died of heart failure while on vacation with two girlfriends. Her miraculous improvements did an immediate about-face, and both my parents died within eight months of each other. Angel and his bunch had little to say to me- I had already been seeing less and less of them, heading in another direction without having decided to do so. I also had been working with a punk/funk band that was getting enormously popular and successful, getting ready to move to New York. I took what inheritance I had and used it as my safety net for the city. I moved on to a very different and instant adulthood. I saw the best minds of my generation yata yata yata while seeing some of the second-best minds of my generation actually build without destroying. I found teachers who were kind and compassionate by nature, professional to the gills with nary a bone to pick with anyone. It was a revelation.

   There was another revelation that came about some 7-8 years later, when i got a phone call from Bill, one of the youngest and most needy/vulnerable members of our little circle. Angel had died, of cirrhosis of the liver, he had been rooming with Bill. Bill was upset because not only had Angel died, but Angel Maldonado was not Angel Maldonado of Matanzas but Joe Carver from East Orange, New Jersey. We all had been that taken in, yes that taken in.

   To the extent that I can, I've wrapped my brain around it, lord knows it's only been thirty years. What has been interesting for me aside from the psychological smorgasbord aspect of the whole thing (an ongoing investigation to be sure), is still the musical stuff. Angel/Joe referred to a lot of great folkloric music and musicians as "that street shit" and developed something very different out of Afro-Cuban source material. I started suspecting this when I would sit with Cuban teachers at the Boy's Harbor School in Spanish Harlem: when i would demo a technique or a sticking learned from Angel it would be wholly unfamiliar to them, alien, not native to the genre. They said it like it was a bad thing. If what I had been learning wasn't the authentic shit, then what was it? It has taken a bit of doing to unravel that mystery.

   For me the takeaway has been a reckoning of the instrument being ultimately a medium of expression. For many of my ilk, there will always be a six year-old in Havana, Istanbul or Tehran who can play circles around you at what they do best. For those of us not of a particular culture who wish that we were something other is kind of a misdirection of energy for the sake of some kind of acceptance from outside. Nice work if you can get it, I'm not sure how it pays.

   For my own sake, I have had to learn to maintain a very firm set of boundaries around genres and what is or is not authentic. I believe that what is authentic is what you recognize as true within yourself and are willing to share with a friend or an audience. Period. If it includes something out of your enormous and ever-growing pool of influences, all the better. All human work builds upon what humans built before and is in some way derivative, and it will change and continue to change. Musical history and evolution is nothing if not a constant erosion and morphing of familiar forms, a tweaking of traditions sometimes met with extreme resistance. Young musicians today have access to an incredible bulk of educational opportunities on YouTube alone, and they are using it to get the message they once would have needed to hire sometimes messy messengers to bring.

   Working with Angel was excruciatingly difficult and immensely rewarding, I have not meant to disparage the man- he did a pretty good job of that when among us. Still, I would consider him a genius. The sorting out of the useful from the toxic still left me with an embarrassing wealth of knowledge and skill that I never experienced in another teacher. I was careful after my time with him to avoid getting sucked into any teacher's personal vortex. As one musician once described to me how he played what he called The Guru Game: "I'll kiss is feet, but I will never kiss his ass."

   The work never stops, the influence has already gone beyond me, and the beat goes on and on and on.