His struggles to play the music that turned his head and his heart, began in Cuba as a youth born into a musical family. “My father played violin in Charanga Orquestras like Fajardo and America Fifty-five,” Ignacio went on to explain. “I grew up listening to my father play with America Fifty-five on the radio. Then one day he played two albums he had borrowed, Nat “King” Cole and Glenn Miller, it was like an electric shock to my head. I knew this was what I wanted to play.”
Ignacio studied violin and later classical percussion at the National School of Arts in Havana. His training did not include the Bata or drumming forms from The Santerian Religion’s Toques de Santo, as it is now being taught in the conservatories in Havana, because in 1964 the communist government was opposed to any religious practice. The school also frowned on young Ignacio’s love of popular music. It was this and his poor marks in math and science, which resulted in his expulsion from the School of Arts despite his exemplary marks in music. It should however noted, that such luminaries as trombonist Juan Pablo Torres, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, Irakere’s drummer Enrique Pla and the great pianist Emiliano Salvador also suffered the same fate.
So Ignacio taught himself the trap drums and in the presence of his friends from The National Conservatory he developed a repertoire of standards by listening to the recordings of Art Blakey and Miles Davis. After a stint in the military he earned a spot with Cuba’s foremost jazz group led by Felipe Dulzaides from 1972 to 1975. “We used to play in this club in Varadero Beach, one of the most strikingly beautiful spots on the planet,” Ignacio pointed out. “It was also far away enough from the capital to attract negative attention from the government for our efforts in jazz. Among the alumni of this group could be found drummer Changuito of Los Van Van, bassist Carlos Del Puerto and vibist Armando Romeu Jr., whose father’s prodigious contributions in the areas of conducting, arranging and composing caused many to look upon him as the Duke Ellington of jazz in Cuba.
Ignacio then found himself involved in Groupo de Experimentation Sonora del ICAIC (Institute of Cinematography). “Through that group which included Emiliano Salvador and the work I did in TV and radio I was playing a different score everyday. It is a valuable experience I feel every drummer should go through. Because as a drummer you should be able to play behind Carmen McRae, Gilberto Gil, Mick Jagger or McCoy Tyner. It’s what drumming is about. Whatever is unique about you will come out in your tone and attack. In the same way that Herbie Hancock or McCoy Tyner’s style is as recognizable as a signature.
During this time I achieved a certain degree of fame as a drummer because I was recording everyday in the only studio in Havana. Among the recordings were sessions with Orquestra Cubana de Musica Moderna, from which the group Irakere sprang, which was originally conducted by Armando Romeu. The cats in Irakere would have liked to perform jazz but were forced to camouflage there musical desire to play jazz with percussion, in order to stay and receive the support they did in Cuba.”
Besides the lack of press, which is universal in the jazz world, another reason many of Cuba’s jazz musicians are unknown, is that they never left their island homeland. There was no need to. Before Castro, there was a surfeit of talent as well as numerous venues. There was no need to go “cross-town” to Miami to express yourself or see musicians like Stan Getz, Tommy Dorsey’s Big Band with Buddy Rich, Nat King Cole or Sarah Vaughn, who made regular visits to Havana.
After the blockade the Cuban jazz musicians only lifeline was through Willis Conovers broadcasts on The Voice Of America and the broadcasts of China Valles on station WMTI in Miami. It was then (1980) that Ignacio Berroa, Paquito D’Rivera and about 120,000 others made their way to Miami and points north.
“I arrived in New York and found it was musically beyond anything I could have imagined. I could listen to jazz twenty-four hours a day on the radio. And the music in the clubs! Since I didn’t own a calling card like Paquito D’Rivera or Arturo Sandoval, whose membership in Irakere I didn’t share, I was forced to make my own way musically. I did however join a group with conguero Daniel Ponce and Paquito where we explored the new forms of Latin music. This was the first group to bring the songo rhythms popularized by Los Van Van to North America. It was however through a recommendation from Mario Bauza that Chico Farrell hire me for a gig that I really started to get known around town. I thought it was a simple session for a Michelob ad, until someone pointed out to me that those guys playing over there included all the heavies in town like Urbie Green, Jon Faddis etc.. So the word got out, there was this hot drummer in town from Berklee (which I never attended), who didn’t speak English but could read anything you put in front of him.
This then led to a regular gig with The Salsa Refugees with Andy and Jerry Gonsalves, Hilton Ruiz, Steve Turre and Mario Rivera. One day while we were rehearsing Mario Rivera called Mario Bauza to come by and take a look at me. Mario Bauza then called Dizzy and said there is this drummer you ought to check he can play the music of Cuba both worlds. Six months Dizzy called Mario Bauza and asked for that Cuban drummer. When I got the call from Mario I thought it was a joke. But through Andy who helped me through that initial period I ended up at the gig with his brother Jerry as my translator. In 1981 when Dizzy fired his drummer he called Mario to look for that Cuban drummer and I got the job.”
So began Ignacio Berroa’s decade with Dizzy. An exceptionally lengthy stay to hang in with the master, who pointed out the special nature of their relationship once by saying, “Ignacio, do you know how many drummers I’ve fired?” Ignacio took away many valuable lessons from Dizzy in refining the art form he had grown to love in Cuba. But among his most lasting were his memories of the great warmth of the man.
These personal attributes along with the skills and the history Ignacio brought with him, are also what drew his current comrade in arms Danilo Perez, a Gillespie alumni to him, as he pointed out.
“ He is a very rare person. He’s tough. He does not give friendship to you till he sees something in who you are and what you do. Then there is nothing he won’t give you or do to support you. Ignacio is like a latin Roy Haynes. He has been a part of the transformation of jazz and Latin music from 1980 with Paquito to the music artists David Sanchez and myself are exploring now. We both share a love of Brazilian music and seeing the dedication that Ignacio has brought to his study of that and all forms of music is a constant source of inspiration. Whether he is playing at a clinic or a stadium he gives his all, he never just fills in space.”
Ignacio best summed up his approach when we talked about how to get the real feel of Brazilian music which we both love.
“When I wanted to learn about Brazilian music I bought all the albums I could. Then I went and saw this drummer Portinho, who was playing with Paquito, play hundreds of times. I hung out with Brazilian cats and ate the food they ate and listened to the cadence of their vocalists as well as the way they talk. I’m hoping that the kind of music I’m creating now with Danilo will inspire the jazz musicians of this country to take this kind of approach to Latin music and create a revolutionary crossbreeding that will take the music somewhere else.”