Friday, December 12, 2008

Barry Cox

(Barry, Max, Mark, Photo Credit: Mark Sanders)

Unfortunately for me, I have never had the pleasure of sitting down with Barry in person. I have talked to him over the phone but nothing substantial. I have dealt with him enough to surmise that Barry is one of those rare, "salt of the earth" kind of cats. Usually I am a pretty good judge of character. But wait, thats not what the post is about. Sure, Barry is cool people, but let's dig a little deeper, shall we?

The way I look at things, as far as the NYC rumba scene is concerned there are the players that can play well, and you can count on them being at the rumba, and then there are those that make the rumba happen. Barry and his cohort Max Valdez are the latter. This particular duo has been singing together for quite some time, and as someone once told me, "when Barry and Max are at the rumba, they never let it get boring..." Couple this with the fact that Barry has done extensive research on rumba and music as a whole, while also sharing his findings and documents wholeheartedly, and we have just the kind of guy that we need in this particular scene. I believe (beyond a shadow of a doubt) that if it weren't for guys like Barry Cox, rumba in the city would have given way to street jamming a long time ago.

So I asked Barry a couple of questions about why he does what he does, and here is what the man had to say.

1. Barry you are out of NC, how did you eventually make your way to NY?
uff that's a very long story...not sure i want to go into that one

2. What/whom got you into the whole Afro Caribbean (Afro Cuban) drum scene?

Another long story but...I had grown up listening to hippie rock, like Dylan, the beatles, the stones, hendrix and pink floyd, then I got into the velvet underground and for a long time for me the Ramones were just it. Plus Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Gang of Four, B-52s. That sort of thing. I was also really into Prince and the Time, I saw them on the "1999" tour. But that whole pop scene started to lose steam for me around the mid 80's when I moved to Chicago and started getting into brazilian music, bossa nova mostly, and other stuff what is now called "lounge" or exotica, like martin denny, yma sumac, etc. I was always going to thrift stores and digging up old records, all kinds of stuff, old easy listening stuff, what they now call "world music," basically anything that wasn't rock music. I never got into "salsa" though, never had much appeal for me.

I was living in Wicker Park, which at the time was a pretty rough latino neighborhood, mostly Puerto Rican and some Mexican. One day I was leaving my house and some mexican neighbors were having a party in the front yard and just blaring this amazing music. I stopped and managed in what little Spanish I knew to ask them for a cassette copy of that music. ( I think at first they thought i was going to complain.) Anyway I came back the next day to get the tape, which turned out to be Perez Prado. Well that set me off for many years, he was my idol. I always had kind of a penchant to look into the roots of the music I was listening to, so I got the older recordings of Perez Prado with Beny More and that was when I really seriously started getting into cuban stuff. Beny More just blew me away. ONe of the greatest talents of the 20th century. Then I started getting into son, those Sextetos Cubanos recordings form the 20's and 30's reissued on Arhoolie never left my stereo for years.

At the time I had a girlfriend who was a classical percussionist, and she was also into african drumming but wanted to get more into latin. A friend of hers told us about The Caribbean Music and Dance Programs Summer Workshops started up in the 90's at La ENA by Lisa Maria Salb, Deborah Rubenstein and Melissa Daar (?). So we went on a 2 week trip around 1994, and it changed my life. But I didn't really even get into rumba that much then, I bought a tres on that trip and then moved to Austin Texas, where I started up a septeto called Son Yuma, which caused quite a stir around there, it was very popular. We even went to Santiago and played at the Casa de La Trova there, a real honor. This was a few years before the whole "BVSC" crap. I hated that whole thing.

3. How did you get started singing and how did you and Max meet?

There were a few drummers around Austin I would get together with occasionally, to try to figure stuff out, and I don't know, I just started singing rumbas out of boredom mostly, buncha guys sittin around playing kun-KIN - KIN - kun for few hours and...When I first started listening to rumbas I thought of it mostly as drums, with some singing going on, but then I just started paying more attention to the songs (mostly on the munequitos rumba caliente CD, but also carlos embale "rumbero Mayor" and the Real Rumba compilation on CoraSon), and I just decided that for me the spirit of rumba was really in the songs, the singer and the call and response...

Anyway, I always had kind of a knack for imitation and also for harmony, I think it was all those years of listening to the beatles, I used to be able to sing along with paul's part or John's part pretty easily. I had also taught myself portuguese by singing along with João Gilberto records (many of his records came with lyric sheets), I had always sung in the rock bands I was in and also in Son Yuma, so it was a pretty natural thing. Then when I got a copy of the Orisha/Rumba anthology, I was on my way.

I met Max pretty soon after I moved to NY, in 1999, the muñequitos were in town, and were giving a dance workshop in a space in Williamsburg that Xiomara Rodriguez was using. Her son Michel Sotolongo was playing batá and I started talking to him, he said he had a group that was getting together there, and that I could come to rehearsals if I wanted. And that's where I met Max.

Turned out we worked near each other, in midtown, and we would get together after work almost every night and walk downtown, practising songs, from 45th street to Houston, where I would get on the train and head back to brooklyn.

This guy Frank Bambara started having a rumba at a place on Rivington called The Saint, Gene Golden was playing there, with him, and Papo Pepin, and Chino was singing, sometimes Manuel El Llanero, sometime Abe Rodriguez, but they didn't have a coro. So max and I started going and doing the coro, then they started letting us sing songs.

4. How important is one's knowledge of the history of the artform (i.e., rumba, etc…)

For me it's essential, but i guess that's just my nature. When I was thirteen and I loved the stones version of "You Got To Move" on the Sticky Fingers album and saw it was by Mississippi Fred McDowell, I ran out and bought a Fred McDowell album. I just like to have that context...especially for people who didn't grow up around it that kind of thing is really important.

(Union Guarachera, Photo Credit: Mark Sanders)

5. How did Union Guarachera start and what players made up the group?

There was a guy who used to live here named Esteban, he was from Argentina, we used to see him at the classes at djoniba, and soon after 9/11 when nobody was going out he somehow got this bar owner in the village to have a rumba there, I think it was on wednesday nights. It was on Macdougal street, called the Wreck Room and it used to be the famous Gaslight. Esteban was trying to get like a group together to play there, so to try and promote it I did some flyers and just made up the name "Unión Guarachera"...but there was a bit of tension, some of the drummers wanted to do all kinds of afro-cuban stuff, like palo and bembe and all that, but me and max just wanted to do rumbas all night.

I feel like a lot of people are into "drumming" in general but aren't really into rumba in particular, so they get bored easily, they want to try out some new rhythm they just learned, or whatever. They don't get used to or develop an appreciation for the rumba repetoire, so they get tired of playing 3/2 after a half an hour. But to me if you can't do that you don't love rumba. I think drummers should know as many songs as possible, even if they don't ever sing, they should still be familiar with the melody and the phrasing of at least the most common rumbas, so they know where to place all these licks they are always learning.

But so anyway Esteban went back to Argentina, I guess the other guys got sick of us just wanting to do rumbas all the time, and so we started bringing drums and people started showing up, mostly from uptown, but also Skip Burney, Alberto Quinto, Mark Sanders. It started to be quite a scene. One night Horacio El Negro Hernández was there ( he didn't play though) then an other night some of the muñequitos stopped by a gig and then it was just wild, but they sold the bar a few weeks later, which was fine with me, it was starting to get out of control...

6. In your opinion is the Central Park scene as important as it might have been 10-15 years ago?

Honestly for me Central Park was kind of a let down. My main knowledge of it had come from Robert Freidman's 1978 article "If you don't play good they take the drum away", which talked a lot about the dynamic of the rumba with respect for the elder and better rumberos, the constant evaluation going on, etc. But by the time I got there 20 years later it seemed that had kind of fallen by the wayside, I guess Giuliani had stopped it for awhile, and by the time it started up again it just sort of became a free for all, and also the singing was very poorly developed, just people doing coro after coro, and mostly santo coros too, not rumba coros. Manuel was good but he was getting older, it just wasn't like it used to be

7. How did you get started with the blog "Vamos a Guarachar", was it just on a whim, or was it something that you wanted to do for some time?

That started up when I realized I kind of had a pretty good collection of not-readily available rumba audio and video recordings, and was thinking maybe other people had some too, and we could all share with each other and expand our collections. The rumba/afrocuban scene had always had a kind of "Deadhead" approach to allowing recordings being made of live performances, with the understanding that they would not be sold but only shared among the community, so I felt like the time had arrived that that could be done via the internet rather than through casettes and VHS. I saw what guys like Loronix and all that sort of "sharity" blogspot crowd had been doing so I wanted to see how it worked with rumba.

Soon after, Patrice Banchereau contacted me from France and he has been a great help and inspiration and has really done a lot to make the blog what it is.

hope that helps...


One last note, Barry wanted me to add the following,

I did want to add something in there though, about Max. He was the guy who really taught me about singing with clave, how to listen for that. And also he was a big help with the cancionero rumbero, he was giving me song lyrics he had learned and I would ask him to help with parts I couldn't figure out or had wrong, we spent hours and hours on that stuff. So he was a huge help to me in lots of ways.
Patrice too, he had found the pdf version before we ever met and he took it to cuba and went over all the lyrics, especially with El Gato, to check them.
If you want to see some videos of Barry and Max in action, click here.


Bongos not Bombs said...

Great post Rafael!

Sentimiento Manana said...

thanks Geordie, you know I've been meaning to check up on you and see how everything's going on that side of town.