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A special interview with the legendary Cuban award-winning master drummer, dancer, bandleader, recording artist and educator. Born in Matanzas, on the 9th of August, 1942, Roman Justo Pelladito Hernandez, widely known as Pelladito is one of the most important figures of the Cuban music tradition. He is a founding member of the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba, the national folkloric ensemble of Cuba where he took part as a percussionist and dancer for 32 years. He is also the creator, developer and main professor of the first academic program offered on Cuban percussion at the ISA, the Instituto Superior De Arte, the magnificent college of the arts in Havana.

Pelladito has participated in recording projects with the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba and many other ensembles including Afroamerica which he also directs. He has taken part in soundtrack recordings for films such as 'Los Días Del Agua' and 'Guillespie En La Habana' and was an advisor for the folkloric segments of the film 'La Bella del Alhambra.' He has been a guest of the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional, the national symphony orchestra in works such as 'Yagruma' and 'Homenaje Para Un Rumbero', a work dedicated to his father, the legendary Angel Pelladito Junco, founding member of the famed Los Muñequitos de Matanzas among his many artistic credits.

In 1996 Pelladito was the recipient of the 'Rumbero Del Año', rumba player of the year award by the program 'Mi Salsa' ICRT. He is the founder of PERCUBA, Sociedad De Percusionistas De Cuba, the society of Cuban percussionists and was president of the jury of the 'Festival del Tambor', the annual drum festival. He was awarded a 'Diploma Al Merito Artistico' at ISA in 2002, a diploma of artistic merit for his vast contribution to the art of percussion in Cuba. Pedallito is a member of the UNEAC, Unión Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba, the union of Cuban writers and artists and president of the 'Sub-Secion De Rumberos', the sub-section of rumba players of that particular association. As an educator Pelladito has also conducted classes in Holland, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Mexico and Japan to name a few.

I conducted this interview with Pelladito in Spanish in Havana, Cuba on the morning of the 12th of May, 2014.

AP:  Señor Pelladito thank you so much for your time and opportunity to discuss your remarkable career, could we start by exploring your background? What led you down this artistic pathway?

P: My full name is Roman Justo Pelladito Hernandez. I was born in Matanzas then moved to Havana where everyone has always just called me Pelladito, which is my surname. My father's full name was Angel Pelladito Junco. He was actually more of a percussionist then me. Nowadays I guess I am more renowned then him, as I continue to develop and further promote our surname widely. In Matanzas my father was first of all a bassist, a complete percussionist, could play it all, to the point that on one occasion when he was playing with a popular dance orchestra, as the pianist did not attend and they were going to cancel the engagement, my father said "no, no, no here we don't cancel anything, I will play the piano," excelled there, then went on to the pailas (timbales) and back to the bass. My father could actually play everything.

AP: What period was this?

P: This took place in the early 1950s in Matanzas.

AP: And so your father was extremely active in Matanzas.

P: He was and in all sorts of musical genres. I remember when I was very young I used to go out with my father every 17th of December which is the day we celebrate San Lazaro (Saint Lazarus one of the most revered saints in Cuba which people with syncretic religious faith connect with the orisha or deity Babalu Aye) to perform in all the private homes that were celebrating this special time, these were house parties celebrating this religious holiday. As nearly all the houses in Matanzas celebrated the day of San Lazaro, my father used to start the night before, on the 16th of December he was already going out to play in private homes. He had a septet and I used to join the group playing the tumbadora (conga drum). We used to walk in to a house, play two or three numbers and then go to the next house. We used to play Cuban popular music such as son, as well as sing songs associated with the Yoruba tradition inside the son styles we performed.

AP: And how old were you then?

P: I was 7 years old and playing the tumbadora and my father, as someone who could excel at so many instruments, was playing the tres (Cuban three-double string guitar) in that band.

AP: When did your father commence the development of the now legendary group Los Muñequitos De Matanzas?

P: That took place in 1952. On the first record the group was called Grupo Guaguanco Matancero and had a song whichbecame a hit called 'Los Muñequitos' (the little dolls). What happened was that there was at the time a newspaper called El Pais which had a very popular comic cartoon strip page for kids called 'Los Muñequitos'. As the song became popular, everyone started calling the group 'Los Muñequitos', and so they ended up changing the name of the group to Los Muñequitos de Matanzas.

AP: And what was your father's role in the group?

P: He played the quinto drum (in rumba styles, the highest pitched conga drum and also the solo or improvising drum). He also created a new sound in that group by adding to the rumba guaguanco (traditionally performed with drums and voices only) the tres, which he did in a song called 'Omele'. Later on a song called 'Maria La Nieve' my father created yet another new sound by combining the quinto with the cajon (wooden box), quintiando (soloing, improvising) on the two instruments. From then on that style of solo instrumentation commenced and it is a common practice nowadays. My father continued playing with Los Muñequitos de Matanzas until he passed away at the age of 65. During his time with Los Muñequitos de Matanzas he also continued to play bass in diverse groups and orchestras.

AP: And so you grew up in an incredibly rich musical environment.

Oh yes, the first things that surrounded me were the traditional sounds of folkloric music and as I used to go out and play with my father also the sounds of Cuban popular music, in that environment I was always learning.

AP: When did you relocate to Havana?

P: I arrived in Havana exactly on the 28th of January of 1956. I was 14 years old and I arrived with one of my brothers Gerardo, who was 16 years old at the time and also a percussionist. We moved to Havana as we were eager to live in this city and become musicians. I first worked as a shoemaker in an establishment that an uncle, brother of my mother, was running. And so in those days prior to the triumph of the revolution we worked in the shoe store during the day and played at night. When the revolution triumphed, we commenced to dedicate ourselves solely to music. We started to work in a group that played Yoruba music in a weekly live to air program on Radio Cadena Habana on Sunday nights. Around that period a well known musicologist and composer by the name of Argeliers Leon had the idea of developing an artistic company that would showcase all sorts of styles as found in the Cuban musical spectrum, by presenting an array of groups at the Teatro Nacional (National Theatre). There was a son group, a group of musica campesina (peasant music), a Yoruba ensemble, an Abakua ensemble, a Bantu ensemble and that is where I worked, specifically in the group of Bantu music. This continued until I took part as a founding member of the development of the now famous Conjunto Folklorico Nacional, which took place in 1962.

AP: The Conjunto Folklorico Nacional is renowned around the world, how many founding members were involved in this extremely important development?

P: Well we met with all the various groups that had been performing at the Teatro Nacional, we discussed the idea of a national folkloric ensemble that would showcase a wide range of elements and it's place in society. All the various groups we had going stopped at that moment and we started various trials to see who exactly would be able to take part in this new national folkloric ensemble. We had 460 approved individuals that took part in the initial developmental trials. It was obvious that we couldn't have a company containing that many members and so we had to reduce the personnel to around 48 individuals. As part of that group my brother Gerardo and myself were approved as members. And that is where we started the noble work of developing this special national ensemble, which was fully supported by the Cuban Ministry of Culture. They were involved in creating and directing the various activities and funding them. Works were commissioned and developed, a few classic cultural areas were targeted for this, the Yoruba, the Bantu and the rumba and comparsa. So we started to develop these works along with techniques for the development of dancers and percussionists who were the components of this brand new company. By around 1963 this ensemble had developed its trademark brand. On the 8th of April of 1964 we departed on our first international tour. We traveled to Europe on a tour which was government backed, we spent six months touring. This special ensemble continues to this day, its members being employed by the government. I worked with the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional until 1992, when I left to develop my own ensemble Afroamerica.

AP: What was your vision for the ensemble Afroamerica?

My goal with this ensemble was develop a group that would present an array of styles. I didn't want to start a group that would specialise in a particular folkloric style, I wanted to develop this versatile group and worked hard in developing this idea. I must say I was very successful in achieving this objective. One of the beautiful and special points that came out of this accomplishment is the fact that I was able to reach this with a special group that incorporated four women and myself as the director of the ensemble. These four women were my colleagues at the Escuela De Superacion Profesional, a professional development college we were all teaching at, they were musicologists, graduated from the ISA, the Instituto Superior De Artes, Cuba's renowned college of the arts. These individuals had no background or knowledge as percussionists. They were teachers of solfege, of musicology, of music theory, basically had no connection in terms of actually playing percussion instruments. As I taught percussion classes at the college and had to impart performance exams I was the only one qualified to do those tasks, no one had that type of percussion knowledge. I was teaching both popular and folkloric styles and basically was the only one at that school qualified to examine a variety of styles. And so I offered to teach the various teachers an array of percussion instruments and styles. They were extremely interested. When we reach a point where they had dominance of a few diverse styles and had knowledge of a few instruments, I approached a few of these individuals and asked them whether they were prepared to take part in an ensemble that I was developing. At that point, the school we were all teaching at was also moving further out to another location and although we were all invited to continue in the new location, I wasn't that keen to do that and as the others I had trained were not either, I decided that that was a good opportunity to concentrate purely on the development of Afroamerica, this was in 1992.

AP: What were the next steps you had to take in terms of getting Afroamerica into the musical landscape?

In order to develop it further I approached a company called Empresa de Comercializacion de la Musica y Espectaculos Ignacio Piñeiro, an institution dedicated to the development and promotion of traditional Afro-Cuban music. They did a professional evaluation of the ensemble and it's potential and since 1994, Afroamerica has been part of the roster of artists of that company. Meanwhile I was also continuing my role as a professor at ISA, but soon after I also step down from that position to concentrate solely on developing my ensemble Afroamerica further. Since the formation days the group has also expanded and now we have a bass player as well as a tres player, as now Afroamerica is also playing what I see as a fusion style, for example Cuban popular music such as son and bolero mixed with African genres.

AP: And since then Afroamerica has had much success, congratulations. How do you organise tours? What type of support do you have available?

P: The way it works in Cuba is those interested in my ensemble approach me and then negotiate with the Ministry of Culture for a particular performance and/or tour. If I know there is particular interest I can also approach the ministry directly myself to discuss a particular possibility. Since those early days Afroamerica has toured extensively, we have performed internationally as well in China, Russia, Switzerland, England, Italy, among many other places.

AP: In terms of recording albums, how are your projects supported?

P: In Havana we have many recording studios, like Egrem and Abdala. There are many ensembles that have a hard time recording their projects due to the high costs of recording. Now, due to the interests of the Cuban Ministry of Culture in the creative arts, they continue to support the development of new works and in way act as a record company which publishes material on a regular basis. They also take care of the overall promotion of a record. They give the artists an amount of promotional copies and then also seek possible international releases for the record. If a particular record does well and there is a lot of demand, they keep manufacturing, promoting and selling that particular release.

AP: I believe you have a new album coming soon?

P: Yes, I have just recorded a brand new cd, still to be released to be titled 'Asi Somos' ('This Is How We Are'). I gave the record this particular name precisely because it shows all the areas Cuba represents, in regards to the percussion styles and the musical styles. The album is also a great representation of my group Afroamerica.

AP: In terms of your noble work developing and cementing Cuban percussion studies at the ISA, the Instituto Superior De Artes, how did you achieve that? How did that develop?

P: There was a particular gentleman, a great classical master musician by the name of Carlos Fariñas. Through the work I was developing with the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional we crossed paths. We were working on a piece that was going to be performed in Russia with the symphony orchestra there, a collaboration between our Conjunto Folklorico Nacional and the orchestra. Prior to leaving Cuba a recording session with an orchestra and the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional took place in order to develop the work. I was in charge of the percussion section and I was playing the bombo. Fariñas was conducting and he said to me that the rhythmic structure of the piece was based on the conga style (a Cuban carnival style), I was very aware of what we were rehearsing with the percussion ensemble. He was conducting and told me that after a four-four bar we were to enter. We obviously had very diverse ideas on how this was going to work. As the instruments entered at diverse times he couldn’t somehow understand it. We tried and tried to no avail, meanwhile he was getting quite agitated and somehow we couldn't get this to work. It was decided that he would rewrite some of the parts and we would play those in Russia. What transpired though is that he eventually could not make the trip and so we played the concert without him. Upon our return I learned that Fariñas was still wondering about the events that took place during those rehearsals. I met with him and explained to him that what he really needed us to play in that piece was actually the conga oriental, a particular style where all the instruments come in together. At this point came his realisation of his lack of knowledge of Cuban styles. He then asked me whether I was interested in teaching classes at the ISA concentrating specifically on Cuban percussion styles. My first students were the percussion teachers at the ISA and all the members of the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional. Soon after we developed one of his works titled ‘Yagruma’ a beautiful piece written for the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional together with a folkloric ensemble that I directed. This ensemble had an array of musicians who could perform traditional styles. This was a striking piece which combined well the orchestral side and folkloric styles, it was a unique development in repertoire. This continued association also gave me the opportunity to develop a program of study in Cuban percussion styles at the ISA, making this a serious part of the music studies at ISA. And so in 1986 I wrote and established the first Cuban percussion studies program at the ISA.

AP: In terms of the close association of religion in Afro-Cuban musical culture, what role has that connection played in your development?

P: I was born as part of a religious family. When I opened my eyes, in my house everyone was religious. Now that doesn't mean that in a house where everyone is connected with religion, everyone has to be religious, but I was and I was lucky to have had the desire and support to follow that pathway. And that pathway was there for me all along. It opened my horizon and my desires to take part. It helped me to arrive at who I am today. I used to go to Abakua celebrations to dance and play, we used to have gatherings of children that attended many religious celebrations. By the time I arrived in Havana, I was already knowledgeable in all that area. Now as a member of the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional the religious side was reaffirmed even more as we played all the styles associated with religious practices. It was a constant flow. And we were evaluating and reaffirming all these understandings and our knowledge of all these styles.

AP: To have become a respected consecrated babalao (priest of Ifa) is yet another amazing facet of your illustrious and wide-ranging career.

P: The first thing I did was to make ocha (initiation of a Santero), from there started the necessity to be able to arrive at becoming a babalao. This is arrived at by your oricha (your guardian deity) who lets you know that this world is not yours, your world is this other one and you will need to pass into it. After twenty years of my ocha initiation I passed into that. This is not a pathway for everyone, it is for the one that feels a need to find that road. One may take this pathway because one has the necessity to take it, it is a calling, but others may take it for personal interests, for example for work purposes, to make a living. What I did was not for personal interests. I engage in this type of work when someone approaches me for a specific reason, I do not go out looking for this type of work.

AP: As someone sincerely interested in the performance of Afro-Cuban religious songs and chants, as well as in the practice of developing original arrangements for this repertoire, I wonder how a respected practitioner such as yourself may see this form of musical practice?

P: Well I look at it from a cultural point of view. The books are everywhere, the songs have been published and people are able to learn the material. There is no reason for anyone to be offended or feel that it is not correct. Now around us human beings there are some people that are extremely fanatical and for example at a determined time I could be showing you the shape of plate and a cup and someone would be feeling that I am giving away certain secret knowledge. Well I don't feel that I am doing that. If a particular individual has a basic necessity for learning, I have to teach them. When I first started teaching at ISA, I taught classes of Cuban percussion that needed to include an array of instruments like bongo, bata, shekere and a wide range of genres. Now some of the musicians in the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional started to criticise me. They were saying "how can you give away all these styles and knowledge to these people who in the main are white, they are exploiting you." And I had to say to them that no one was exploiting me, that as a teacher it was my duty to impart knowledge, that I needed to fulfill this duty properly. As time went by new courses in folkloric dance were created and developed at ISA and the first people that were connected with delivering the classes were the dancers from the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional who were the knowledgeable practitioners and the ones that had formerly criticised me. And so I had to ask "well, is it ok now? What happened? And they basically said "well, life changes," so now that they were at ISA teaching it all had changed. In reality no one should ever get upset, it is not correct.

AP: In terms of hand drumming, how do you see the development of conga drum technique in the last few decades?

P: In percussion through the new generation, a new system of study has been created. In my opinion though what has taken place is that that new system of studies has been based on velocity and displacement. The problem for me is you lose the concept of the music that is actually played and I say that because it is not centered on the rhythm that is actually being played, it is superficially played on top. It is a situation that actually I have been discussing widely, as I feel that this is actually degenerating the music as such. I am a little tired of telling people, discussing it, this has taken the playing part away from the style, as you hear it in popular music. Now in folkloric music something similar has been developing, for example in the rumba style. Its traditional setting has a particular format with the way the various parts connect and are performed. This new style has been developed called guarapachangeo. It contains the tumbadora parts, the cajones and bata drums, the guagua, the claves, the campana and the shekere. Well, that was not the format of the traditional rumba. If you take away the lyrics, the song and only listen to the music played, you cannot tell me that it is a rumba. It is not the rumba. For me it is a fusion of what it used to be but it is not real rumba. What really worries me is that for the new generation, or lets say for individuals visiting Cuba to research Cuban music, that what needs to be presented first is the traditional setting and sound. And then develop it right through until it reaches something like the guarapachangeo, which is the latest style developed. The entire development needs to be understood properly. If I just play you guarapachangeo, you will leave Cuba with a distorted idea of the real tradition. I feel that my role is to teach the correct parts in the traditional sense first.

AP: in regards to styles what is your opinion on the term salsa? It's place in Cuba and the fact that it has become a popular term internationally?

P: If we look at the development in Cuba, the son style then went into the guaracha and eventually into what is called salsa. And there is a reason for that title. The salsa is nothing else but a cooking ingredient, the ‘sauce’. Why did they start calling this music salsa in the US? To take away the style and the name associated with Cuba, it was basically the Cuban son. And there was a necessity from their part not to acknowledge the Cuban roots. This musical style was not created in the US, all they did was basically change the name of a Cuban musical style. The term is now accepted in Cuba, but here that music called salsa was nothing new, because it had the roots of the Cuban son, it was here already, they did nothing new, it wasn't as if they had come up with a new rhythm as such, if that would have been the case, then it was acceptable, but that is not what occurred. Here in Cuba the term salsa is rarely used, very little. We say we are going to play a cha cha cha or a danzon, or a son, we never say we are going to play salsa.

AP: How do you see trends in popular rhythmic styles?

Well we’ve had decades of styles, right now the new trends such as reggaeton have replaced nearly all of them, but it is not the reggaeton that is responsible for this replacement of styles, we are the ones responsible for these changes, as human beings and as directors or band leaders of the diverse establishments. In Cuba a variety of styles have always existed, all types of music from here as well as foreign sounds, for example the merengue from the Dominican Republic, styles from Brazil, the plena from Puerto Rico, Mexican music, jazz, all these sounds are prevalent in Cuba and have developed roots, they are here, but they have never overtaken our traditional music, everything has worked at the same time.

AP: To conclude I wanted to ask you about aspirations, what would you like to achieve in the future?

P: As far as my work is concerned, the Cuban government supports my artistic work as well as the work of my ensemble Afroamerica. What I am currently involved in is exactly what I would like to continue to follow and further develop. I can tell you sincerely that I feel realised, complete. I am recognised in Cuba, I am also recognised and respected internationally. One of my greatest accomplishments is to have had the wonderful opportunity to strengthen my father's surname. I achieved a lot of the things that he did not get to, as he died at a young age, before his time as we say here in Cuba. There are many Pelladitos, but in this type of artistic endeavors, my brother and I are the most well known.

Hotel Plaza, Havana, Cuba - May 2014

© 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.