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Manolo Badrena exploded on to the world music scene with his remarkable percussion and vocal work on the outstanding 1977 release by Weather Report 'Heavy Weather' (CBS Columbia CK 34418). Since then he has work with an enormous array of artists covering a wide range of styles including jazz, latin and rock. I had a chance to spend a little time with him while in Australia touring with the Zawinul Syndicate. Here is the result of our encounter.

AP: So Manolo let’s talk about your background, you were born in Puerto Rico, when did you move to the US?

MB: Yes I was born in Puerto Rico and went back and forth between the island and the USA for some time before moving to New York and eventually to Los Angeles in 1976. I went to Los Angeles with Lee Pastora, a great percussionist from Nicaragua.  I was a fan of his work and met him while he was playing with the Don Ellis Orchestra.

AP: When did you start playing percussion?

MB: In Puerto Rico my first studies consisted of keyboards, then picked up the guitar, and eventually the drum kit. The percussion thing was always there, more of the traditional styles you played on the streets, the rumbas (informal gatherings featuring drumming and singing) outside that everyone enjoyed so much.

AP: So you grew up listening to traditional Puerto Rican bomba and plena?

MB: Yes I did listen to a lot of Puerto Rican music, artists such as Cortijo, Canario and Modesto Cepeda, as well as to the styles coming out of the other islands around including Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

AP: With the drum kit did you have formal lessons?

MB: Yes I studied in Puerto Rico and went through the rudiments, stick control and rhythms associated with the drum kit. At that time I remember also attending regular drum clinics by players such as Walfredo Reyes Sr, who used to live in Puerto Rico and Joe Morello.

AP: As far as percussion playing is concerned what were your influences then and what inspires you nowadays?

MB: I grew up in Puerto Rico and apart from the traditional things that were everywhere I also listen to lots of different things. Because my mother was a dancer she used to listen to anything from Buddy Rich to traditional Indian music. My father used to work abroad a lot and he used to bring records from all the different places he visited. From this kind of background I made a point of studying as many things as I could, and this keeps on developing for me. For example just now we toured Italy and I learned to play real tarantella [southern Italian style in 6/8] on tambourine. The technique is quite unique and extremely hard to master, it has been an incredible experience for me. This is also the great thing about percussion as well. If you are interested you will never stop learning, it keeps you young. I know many people that they just stay in their own little world, but for me that is just not on.

AP: What do you think of the new era of players like Giovanni Hidalgo who have taken the technical repertoire of the conga drum to a new level

MB: What Giovanni and others are doing is very good for the instrument, although I must say I am much more inclined towards the Miguel 'Anga' Diaz approach. It is also based on many notes but incorporates a more flowing melodic approach to conga playing. I really like 'Anga' for that, he still got the melodies happening. You know it is also a generation thing. I remember guitarist Steve Kahn teaching some students at a seminar and to conclude they all had to present some original compositions. Well all the younger guys had melodies that were flying past full of notes and the older ones had more open and slower things. 

AP: Have you done much bata [double-headed drums associated with Afro-Cuban religious music] playing?

MB: I know about the bata but I personally figured that if you are not in Nigeria or Cuba, you can’t do it properly. I have a problem when I hear people who live in the city of New York calling themselves the 'Afro Cuban' this or that, because we are living in New York City, not in Cuba. I know some parts, I know how to play and I know some chants which I learned by listening and sitting in various settings.  So you can learn the style, but people over the shekerere live it. I also know a little about the Brazilian religious chants from Bahia, and have performed some with certain players, but then I live on the road and it makes it hard to follow this up properly.

AP: What about the style you incorporate live, that of playing stick and hand?

MB: I always feel quite comfortable with this approach, as it is basically stuff that I have learned from my personal research of many cultures. You will find this in many styles from Uruguay, to Ghana, to Haiti. As I get older I keep developing and incorporating other styles and techniques I might come across. The approach in performance is fairly improvised.

AP: What congas are you currently playing?

MB: I am sponsored by Meinl. The company is doing great things in the USA and throughout Europe. My friend Luis Conte is also with Meinl and they do look after us. The congas are constructed from this amazing wood, they don’t crack and have a great sound. Apart from that the company has a big catalogue of instruments which I really like. 

AP: So back to 1976, how did that Weather Report gig come about?

MB: While working in Los Angeles I heard that they were auditioning players for the new Weather Report and as I knew Alex Acuña from my days in Puerto Rico I decided to front up and was hired on the spot. It’s incredible but Weather Report was the first band I ever played percussion with, and that album Heavy Weather (CBS Columbia CK 34418) was the first record I ever did!

AP: That’s amazing Manolo.  The Heavy Weather album, and your playing on that particular album influenced players (myself included) right around the world. So tell me what happened after the album and tour with Weather Report?

MB: I basically stayed in Los Angeles for a few years and slowly became part of the studio scene thanks to players such as percussionist Paulinho Da Costa who introduced me to some producers and writers. I worked a lot with Gino Vanelli and also with Herb Albert who at the time was also head of A&M Records. He ended up producing my first solo record which came out in 1979 and featured my compositions [Manolo A&M SP4783]. 

AP: Tell me about your music, listening to your solo album release is a wonderful experience, you hear strong compositions, great performances from first class players, and also some great combinations of rhythms and instruments

MB: Yes my music is a mix of all kinds of things. In terms of my solo record I don’t like to use the phrase 'ahead of time', but I must say not too many people were releasing material like that in 1979. The record was good I just felt that unfortunately it didn’t get much support from the record company. Sadly this is something that happens often when dealing with large companies.

AP: So your record was out and you were developing your career in Los Angeles

MB: Yes, and I was working with many wonderful artists at the time including Joni Mitchell, Airto Moreira, George Duke, Michel Colombier as well as with the film composer Henry Mancini. I stayed In Los Angeles until the end of 1979 and then decided to move to New York. I love Los Angeles but for the percussion scene I feel that New York is a lot more inspiring. Even the guys in Los Angeles always tell me that you end up loosing the fire in Los Angeles, there is a lot more rock’n’roll, you can make money, but in New York there are always so many influences at hand from people arriving from all over the world, that you can still see and hear some great things in New York.

AP: Did you move to New York to play with someone in particular?

MB: No, I actually just went there to live with my cousin. Soon after though I did some small gigs with pianist Eubie Blake, then worked with the Brecker Brothers for a while, and with pianists Ahmad Jamal and Eliane Elias. During this period I also started working with guitarist Steve Kahn and slowly I started to get into the New York scene. I ended up working in studios a lot. I also worked with artists in the pop/rock field such as Talking Heads and Blondie and an instrumental group which was quite popular at the time Spyro Gyra. I even joined the band for a few years when they were touring a lot. I still work with them but now is more of a seasonal thing where they might do four weeks in Las Vegas then take a break. I do similar things with other artists such as Michael Franks who tend to work in that scene every now and then.

AP: New York is also the home of the salsa scene, I remember reading somewhere that you were not that excited by that scene

MB: You know I have very strong views about that. I saw an old video by Los Muñequitos de Matanzas [legendary Afro-Cuban percussion and vocal group], where they were discussing their influences and they were saying "we were workers in the construction and we used to get together in the garage which is where we made up our own rhythms, our own things” and so when I think in terms of the New York salsa scene I find they are locked in so many old fashioned things, that the scene is just not progressing. There was an article in the New York Times recently that addressed this point by stating that unless they open the Cuban market — which will then offer new and exciting things — it will just go down. I mean the scene in Cuba keeps on evolving. There are bands in there like Habana Abierta which is a type of Nirvana with bata drums. There are some great rap groups, and that is the Cuban scene. Than there is stuff in Brazil, in Uruguay, throughout Latin America. When I went to your country [Chile] there were some new things happening there which I found exciting. One of the things I found refreshing in Cuba is that the groups there might play the clave beat [five note rhythm which is the backbone of all Afro-Cuban styles], but they are making new patterns around it. The other thing is that whatever new fad comes out of Cuba the New York salsa scene will copy it, but often far too late. Like now they are playing songo, but that was around in the 1960s in Cuba! 

AP: Could you tell me about your current work with the Zawinul Syndicate

MB: I have been working with Joe for about four years and took part in the live record [World Tour ESC 03656-2]. It is a demanding gig that doesn’t suit everybody. Joe is an amazing artist who is always striving further. He has very strong views as far as the direction of the band and he conducts the band’s every move. He composes music which is very structured but at the same time with a lot of free areas around it where the band is able to improvise. The hard thing is that he is also thinking so fast ahead that at times catches the band off guard. We have been working quite a lot lately but are about to take a break in which time we will record a new album in his recording studio in Los Angeles. 

AP: What are some of your future plans?

MB: Well basically to keep working with the Zawinul Syndicate as I have been really enjoying my time with Joe. We come from such diverse places but we get along so well musically. I am also developing a duet with a Brazilian percussionist who lives in New York City by the name of Cafe. We have a repertoire of almost ten songs and a great rapport. You know with many percussionists you end up doing similar things and basically get in each other’s way, but with Cafe everything works out beautifully. We just never clash. I have also been developing new projects in my home studio and am currently working on my personal web site. One of then problems I face is getting enough time, as the world of percussion is just so demanding and you just never stop learning.

© Alex Pertout.
All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior written permission from the author. This article was first published in Drumscene magazine.

© Alex Pertout. All Rights Reserved.