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In May I had the pleasure of spending a day with one of my ever growing list of ‘cyber friends’ Los Angeles based percussionist Melena Francis who was in Australia touring with pop singer Macy Gray. She is a delightful and charismatic player with whom I felt an affinity from the start. Here is the result of our encounter.

AP:  Melena let’s start by discussing your starting point, I know that you actually played the drum kit before concentrating on the percussion instruments, how did it all develop for you?

MF:  In a sense I basically started really really young, like I knew I loved drums all my life. I was five years old when we moved from Cuba to Los Angeles, and I remember my mum buying some toy instruments, for my brother the drums and for me the guitar. And I always remember that my mum wanted to take pictures of us and I was only interested in taking pictures on the drums, not the guitar. I already had an inclination towards the drums back then.

AP:  Do you have recollections of drummers from Cuba at the time or family members who were involved in musical activity?

MF:  I don’t remember drummers from Cuba but my mum does tell me that next door we had a santera [a practitioner of Santeria the Afro-Cuban religious practices of Lucumi origin], and that I was always there and that they always had toques [in reference to ceremony where drums are played] over there. She thinks that I was surrounded so much by those sounds, that I kept them.

AP:  Now so once your family settled in Los Angeles and you were in your teens you took up the drum kit?

MF:  I started drum set in high school.

AP:  What type of styles were you playing?

MF:  They were my rock’n’roll years. I was developing my John Bonham style.  I was also listening to Terry Bozzio and Billy Cobham. I loved all the drum set  styles, I really didn’t know about the different Latin percussion styles back then.

AP:  How did the percussion side develop?

MF:  The turning point was when I saw Luis Conte playing bata drums [set of three double headed drums used in the rituals of Santeria]. I was playing drum kit and I went to this workshop he was conducting in a music store. And I really loved it. I was so inspired after that.

AP:  So up to that point you had not developed any skills on congas or percussion? 

MF:  No just drum kit.

AP:  So you were developing a career playing drum kit in contemporary bands? 

MF:  Yes I was following that area.

AP:  So when did you change to percussion?

MF:  There was one point in my life when I lived with my grandmother and I couldn’t play drum kit for about eight months and I was going mad, and then I saw an ad for a percussion workshop at the Dick Grove School of Music. It was a beginner course for percussion that went for twelve weeks conducted by Jerry Steinholtz. It was strictly Latin percussion and he covered Cuban and Brazilian styles. I took the class and was able to develop percussion skills. He was teaching congas and started talking about the Cuban tradition, and then of course as it was my background he was telling me things like “you can probably ask your uncle about many of these styles, you are from there you should know.” And then I started asking my mum, my dad. I started pulling out all these records that my dad had. It was all right there, but I didn’t know it.

AP:  When you were growing up were your parents listening to Cuban music, was it in the background in the house?

MF:  Not that much. My mum does enjoy Cuban music but I wouldn’t say she was really playing a lot of it in the house. But when I started looking for it, it was there. After taking that workshop I really started drawing from my background, from my own culture. I started realising that it was in my roots. I started playing congas and then Jerry told me about Luis Conte, that he was Cuban, a good teacher and so I went to see him play and he became a big inspiration, a big influence, I loved it. I started taking lessons with Luis and first it was Latin rhythms on the drum kit, then eventually congas, timbales, then covering lots of areas. I was able to develop these instruments quite fast. I was playing fairly decently after a number of years and started gigging. I started hanging out in clubs, meeting people, sitting in. So people started to know me and your name gets around.

AP:  Where these bands in the Latin scene in LA?

MF:  Yes, one of my most important experiences happened at Miami Spice, a Cuban restaurant and club, where all the great local Latin bands would play at. I started working with Fantuzzi, which was a mixture of soca, calypso, reggae and Latin music. At the same time, I started sitting in with the bands, which was the best experience you could have. I started to sit in with Papo  Conga, who eventually ended up hiring me. He would let me sit in and sometimes he would say “just sit in all night” and he would sing. Then after a while he started hiring me on timbales. I will always remember his support and inspiration.

AP:  So at that time were you also keeping up your drum kit skills as well?

MF:  No that was it. Once I started playing percussion, I would still mess around on the drum kit a little, maybe developed some Latin feel, but all my focus and the energy went towards the percussion.

AP:  Obviously all the drumming background technically helped you in developing these other instruments.

MF:  Yes definitely, all the independence studies, rudiments, and all the lessons I had helped me along the way.

AP:  Once you started playing percussion at gigs did you continue studying and researching Latin percussion with different teachers?

MF:  I had lessons with Luis for about two years, after that I went to Cuba and studied with Mario Jauregui who had played with Pablo Roche [legendary master drummer who was also responsible for assisting Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz in his many publications]. That’s when I started learning the bata drumming tradition. 

AP:  How was that in Cuba, were many apprehensive about teaching you the bata and the tradition?

MF:  Yes they were. There is a bit of conflict in that a well, specially being a woman and playing bata. But I feel things have changed. I’ve had some of the best teachers for bata. I had lessons with people that the guys would love to have lessons with, and they have been really good with me. They sit down with you and once they see that you can play, have potential, and that you have the ear to develop and understand the bata drumming, they teach you. Most of them looked at it as musicianship. And they want to teach you because they also want that information to keep going. The masters understand that. So I have been really blessed with that. As far as women issues are concerned they do tell you that women cannot play the fundamento bata [baptized drums for ceremonies which can only be played by people who have gone through a special initiation], but you can play in aberikula bata [unbaptized drums which can be played by anyone]. Things are changing though and people like Mario Jauregui are totally open to teaching women.

AP:  How did you find the openness in terms of using bata drums in other musical contexts, like in Latin jazz groups.

MF:  I found them to be completely open to that type of experimentation and development. I find it a lot stricter in the US that in Cuba. In Cuba it was great. The last time I was in Cuba I had a very good bata teacher Cristobal, he was wonderful and taught me without holding back information. These are artists who are extremely open. Like for example the work that people like Chucho Valdez [pianist, composer and leader of Irakere] are doing by incorporating bata ensembles such as the one that Lazaro Ros runs. A lot of the modern groups like Klimax use bata. There are teachers like Lazaro Pedrozo who runs an ensemble of women at the school and he teaches them like the whole passage played to an orisha [a Lucumi deity] correctly, with all the bits maybe some of the guys out there don’t really know, and they tend to surprise many when they perform, and it is just that Lazaro teaches everything correctly without going into secrecy for some or others, but rather if you really want to play you must play it properly.

AP:  How did you find the climate in terms of female percussionists/musicians in Cuba?

MF:  The difference I experienced in regards to female percussionists and musicians is that for one there were many more women involved there. There is still ‘machismo’ there though, in that they don't mix. I didn't see one instrumentalist in any of the groups unless it was all female. Only recently has Adalberto y Su Son put his daughter on keyboards. The musicianship level is very high though and the women know they have to be very good, competing with the ‘male groups’. Naturally, Cuba is surrounded by music, so as a woman you're going to be very influenced, just the same as the guys. It's the culture. You feel it and hear it every minute. Some great players include Josie who is Chucho's daughter and plays drums with Canela, one of Cuba's all female groups. I also heard Yamila y su Charanga which is the only female group in Havana that plays traditional sones and charangas. Magdelena who is the conga player in the group Anacaona is also very good. In America, I feel there aren't as many women instrumentalists, but you have a little more potential to being hired for musicianship and not gender. 

AP:  So tell me you were in Cuba developing all these wonderful areas such as the bata tradition, what was your next move in terms of developing your professional career in the US?

MF:  Well I was developing the bata as well as congas and timbales, and I was playing with a lot of Latin bands, playing sones and cha cha chas, in the Los Angeles Latin scene. Also with great players like pianist Clare Fischer and saxophonist Justo Almario. 

AP:  So what was your first gig out of that scene, into the touring scene, the pop scene?

MF:  The first tour was with an Afro-Brazilian group during the ‘lambada craze’. The band was called Lula & Afro Brazil which played the styles lambada, afoxe and samba.  We toured Japan for a time. My first big pop gig was with Barry White.

AP:  How did you get that gig?

MF:  I was with a musician’s agency, which was interesting as I was with then for about a year in which they never called me for anything, which was kind of one of the bad things about being a female percussionist. Like in this agency without knowing I was called only when someone asked for a female percussionist. I had signed to try it out because I wanted to break out of the club scene on Los Angeles and was told by a few people to try the agency out. It took a year and they finally called me because Barry White was looking for a female percussionist! They could have called me way before. I worked with him for about two years.

AP:  What was your role in Barry’s group, did you have very specific parts to play?

MF:  Yes Jack Perry who was the musical director had very specific ideas for parts that he wanted played.

AP:  Did they have written out parts?

MF:  No, but they had all these parts which were played on the record, even sequenced parts on songs which I had to replace with acoustic sounds. Like for example triangle parts which were originally samples sequenced on the recordings, which I actually had to play live. I loved that gig, the music I really enjoyed, and it was good music to play.

AP:  What happened after those tours?

MF:  Apart from the touring I was also developing some memorable projects in Los Angeles with musicians such as Ramon Banda who is the timbal player with Poncho Sanchez and pianist David Torres. Whenever I was in town I would call them and try and get together.  We would get some gigs in places like La Ve Le and the Baked Potato. This group would also incorporate the late Kenny Kirkland and drummer Jeff Watts, depending on who was available. I have some recordings of that group on my web site. I miss those times. Also when in town I would also do gigs with saxophonist Benny Maupin who is a very serious player and very supportive of young players. He pulls the best out of you. You have to know when to play aggressive and at an instant play your sweetest. He has been a true mentor to me.

AP:  How hard is it for you to come back to Los Angeles after touring and in effect reestablish contacts?

MF:  It is hard, after Barry White I went to Cuba for six months and when I went back to Los Angeles it took me a long time to get going again. People forget you are back in town. I did eventually get a tour of Europe with pianist John Tesh.

AP:  How did you get the Macy Gray gig?

MF:  Through percussionist Marina Bambino who is currently with the Isle Brothers. She ran into Macy in her tour and she recommended me.

AP:  What instruments are you playing on this current tour with Macy Gray?

MF:  A lot of the toys are Rhythm Tech, these include shakers, including the egg shakers, tambourines, a lot of other stuff are personal sounds that I have collected through traveling, you know you pick up all these different things over the years. I also have some Sabian cymbals in my set up and on this current tour here in Australia the congas and timbales we have hired from city to city, which at times has not been an ideal situation. 

AP:  As far as conga players is concerned who did you listening to in the beginning?

MF:  As far as congas, when I started getting really into it I was inspired by Luis Conte, Tata Güines, and the percussion group Los Papines. I had a chance to hang out with Tata when I was in Cuba. I listen to him a lot when I was researching conga styles, through cassettes, videos and whatever I could get hold of. In Cuba I ended up studying a lot with Roberto Vizcaino Guillot who is the percussionist with Chucho Valdez right now. Vizcaino gets into technique, he has a nice touch. He gets into a lot of independence studies, a lot into odd times. He is also into lots of different patterns, and not just the usual ones, melodic ones, long phrases, how to use three, four congas, which is really different. He opens up your mind up into these other areas.

AP:  What do you like on congas at the moment?  Is it the fast technical things?  The melodic patterns?  There are just so many established styles going on at the moment.

MF:  I really like all the fast things that are going on, some are exciting and fun to play, like all the Giovanni and Anga things, I love all that, but I can also really get into what Vizcaino and players like him do. And you can actually use that a lot more of that in the type of gigs that I am involved in like Macy’s, because it calls for a lot of control of melodies and sounds, where one note can mean something. A lot of the younger cats are just into the fast approach. Also in Cuba there is a lot of that happening in the bata scene. Because there is a lot more improvisation going on they also end up going crazy, but some bata ensembles are beginning to sound like a bunch of quinto [high pitch drum that improvises] players at the same time. It is getting too messy. You miss the way the bata drums are meant to line up, you don’t hear the melody. A lot of players end up saying, yes maybe the younger players have this much more dexterity and speed but they are missing the purpose. 

AP:  So what happens after this tour, what are you hoping to develop?

MF:  I really love touring and enjoy working with Macy enormously. The current plan might involve doing a record next January with Macy which might involve this current touring band and also eventually tour that release. In terms of my own name I think that after this tour which finishes in December it might be a lot different as Macy is really current and people are more aware of what is going on here. Her name is up there so strongly, and as I am around I make connections with people and feel that little by little people will get to know me more through this gig. I have been very lucky to play with some great musicians and I think that this is really opened me up and helped me to get to that next level by been around all these great players. I really want to do my own record which will also include going to Cuba and recording with some local musicians there. There are so many great players there and I definitely want to do that. I would like to keep playing, practicing, and basically keep getting better. I would also like to keep studying the bata tradition in Cuba. I really don’t want any of it to stop.

© 2000 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.