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Bobby Sanabria: Latin Jazz's West African Roots

Latin percussionist, composer and bandleader Bobby Sanabria — whose most recent album, Big Band Urban Folktales, is the winner of a Jazz Journalists Association award for best Latin jazz album of 2008 — has long been exposed to a diverse range of music, from Latin and Afro-Cuban to blues, jazz, funk and rock.

The Grammy-nominated artist says that those musical genres all share roots to the sound and soul of West Africa. Latin music would not exist without bongos, congas or timbales — all are percussion instruments, and all have roots in Africa. Likewise, there wouldn't be Latin music without other African influences, such as syncopation.

"The principal thing that we inherited from West Africa," Sanabria says, "is this concept of many rhythms happening simultaneously [by] many musicians — polyrhythms. That initiates also what we call polymeters: many meters at the same time. We inherited that from West Africa, and it's been transferred to all of the music that we listen to today, from rock 'n' roll, funk, hip-hop, jazz."

One of the first artists to bring these influences into the American mainstream was Desi Arnaz.

"Desi Arnaz kind of gets short shrift sometimes, especially in the Hispanic community, because he's looked at only as an entertainer," Sanabria says. "But he was very much in touch with his Afro-Cuban roots, in terms of the culture. When you hear the song 'Babalu Aye,' mainstream America was probably laughing it up, going 'Babalu!' Little did they know that they were being exposed to this incredibly deep West African culture we inherited in the Caribbean."

Sanabria says the conversational call-and-response sections found in Latin and jazz music — such as in Tito Puente's folky, Yoruba-inspired song "Obatala Yeza" and the bembe rhythms of Santana's "Incident at Neshabur" — also took elements from Africa.

"The music in its root form," he says, "is utilized to communicate with sacred deities and take you to the beyond, to the spiritual world. In the secular world, when we're on the bandstand, we're trying to get the same type of energy happening — and, if it's dance orchestra, transmit that to the dancers."

Latin music, he says, has become mainstream in the jazz community because of the recent influx of young musicians from Latin American countries coming to universities to study jazz. Sanabria says that when he was a student at Berklee College of Music in 1975, he was one of the only Puerto Ricans at the school. Now, he says, the majority of the students attending Berklee are from Latin America.

"They're the dominant force there," Sanabria says. "In many ways, Latin jazz is the real, true representation of the jazz tradition, because it has all of these elements on equal levels: the rhythmic roots of West Africa, complex arranging techniques and the virtuosic improvisational qualities that are found in the jazz musician. So the music has come full circle."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 9, 2009 at 10:59 AM CST
In the interview, we say "[Desi Arnaz] developed the three-camera technique that we use today to film television shows." Actually, Arnaz hired cinematographer Karl Freund, who perfected the three-camera technique for capturing live performances.