Jazz congas. It’s a phrase that requires a second look — and definitely a listen.
Though a less common instrument in Jazz than saxophone or drum set, congas are nevertheless an important ingredient of a form of music that bears the dubious moniker, “Latin Jazz.”
Latin music, a general term for music that combines African and Latin American rhythms with classical and Jazz harmonies, is often used as a catch-all for everything from Bossa Nova (think “The Girl From Ipanema”) to upbeat lounge music (such as the intro to Sex and the City). Latin music, though hard to define, is so pervasive and so ingrained in our culture that we are exposed to it all the time, from sitcom themes (such as I Love Lucy) to ringtones (like the Radical Party ringer on my Sprint phone).
“I don’t like to say ‘Latin music’ because it’s erroneous. Latin music per se doesn’t exist,” says Jose Rosa.
Rosa, who has played with such greats as Arturo Sandoval and Tito Puente, is a master percussionist from Humacao, Puerto Rico. He began playing percussion at age 5. By age 12, he was performing with the Humacao Symphonic Band, which traveled to Venezuela, New York, Costa Rica, Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic. He studied at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music, the University of Miami and Florida International University, and now resides in Orlando, where he performs, records, teaches and leads several musical groups, including a percussion ensemble and a Latin Jazz band.
In Cincinnati this weekend, Rosa will join an all-star group of “Latin” players for his big show at The Blue Wisp, including Jaime and Sonia Morales, a brother-andsister team who play in local Salsa band Son Del Caribe and are old-time friends of Rosa. Joining them are bassist Bill Jackson and bongo player Chris Velez, both of local Salsa band, Tropicoso. They will be accompanied by a drummer, Anthony Lee, as well as horn players from the new 10-piece “Latin” Jazz band that is opening for them, Poco Loco. The following night, Rosa plays the Southgate House as part of the second annual World Music Fest.
Though Rosa plays all over the world (he was mostrecently in Peru), he says his heart is really in teaching. Besides performing, he also runs a nonprofit organization called Gifted Kids Educational Foundation and serves as a facilitator for a Pearl-sponsored program called The Rhythmic Arts Project, which teaches music and language skills to disabled children and adults. Rosa also coordinates an annual contemporary percussion workshop and he co-writes instructional books.
“I developed my own style,” says the busy musician, “but had many influences from Alex Acuna, Giovanni Hidalgo, Gene Krupa, Elvin Jones, Max Roach and Tito Puente.”
When it comes to “Latin” music, Rosa knows his stuff — just don’t call it “Latin.”
“I like to call it New World Music,” says Rosa. “I think of it like a tree that has several branches: Caribbean Music, South American Music, Central American Music and North American Music.”
Rosa says that many rhythms we might now consider “Latin” were spread during the times of slavery in the New World colonies. Hence, a rhythm that might be called one thing in Puerto Rico might also be played in Uruguay, but under another name. It was the mixing of these African, European and indigenous influences that created what we now refer to as “Latin” music.
Rosa says, “Latin music is nothing but a fusion of music from Spain, France, Portugal and Africa that was developed in the New World.”
Whatever one might call it, it’s infectious. The influence of Cuban rhythms on Jazz in the ’50s spread wildly and gave way to a whole new genre of Jazz, a highly rhythmic, pulsing and upbeat music that was also particularly danceable. Percussion, in this case, the rhythms of Cuba and Puerto Rico especially, played prominently in the music, often executed on congas, bongos and various cowbells and shakers. As opposed to Brazilian-inspired Bossa Nova, another form of “Latin” Jazz that took off during this time period, the Cuban “Latin” Jazz is more assertive, syncopated and up-tempo.
What this translates to when Rosa plays is a whir of motion, a cascade of sound, a dizzying vocabulary of rhythms that call forth hundreds of years of tradition. His hands are a blur of tones, muffs and slaps, his face a mask of intense concentration. Behind him, the bass begins the tumbao, a jagged, syncopated line that anchors the rhythm for the rest of the band. The piano comes in next, layering a montuno, a melodic and rhythmic pattern that gives harmonic definition to the form. Finally, the rest of the band enters with the melody. And before you even realize the name of the tune, you find that you are on the floor dancing.
JOSE ROSA plays with the Cincinnati Latin All-Stars and Poco Loco at The Blue Wispon Friday and at The Southgate House this Saturday.