Sworn to the Drum

Although Aguabella's reputation among musicians and connoisseurs of Afro-Cuban drumming is legendary, the mainstream recognition that has been bestowed on other Latin jazz musicians had eluded him until just a few years ago, when one of his mid-'70s albums, the Latin-groove-meets-Curtis Mayfield funkified Hitting Hard (just reissued by Cubop) became a collector's item on the underground DJ market.

"To be honest," says Andrew Jervis, vice president of Ubiquity Records and a club DJ himself, "the first time I ever heard about him was when copies of his Hitting Hard album were floating around and exchanging hands for ridiculous amounts of money." Jervis, who subsequently arranged for Aguabella to record for Cubop, wasn't surprised that Hitting Hard had become such a hit. "Especially in England and Japan, there's a fascination for Brazilian and Latin stuff, funk, old soul, and stuff like that, and the album is a cool mix of all those things," he says. "It had all the right ingredients that make people go, 'Yeah, I've got to have that!'"

The initial rediscovery of Aguabella among a younger crowd spurred by Hitting Hard should continue with the release of Agua de Cuba, an album that if anything is an even stronger (and certainly more distinctly Afro-Cuban) showcase for the artist's entrancing rhythms. Jervis, for one, thinks it's only natural that a generation of music listeners weaned on dance music should gravitate toward the Afro-Cuban rhythms employed by Aguabella. "There's a line that draws it all together," he says, talking about the mostly electronic and club music sounds of the larger Ubiquity imprint and the Latin jazz of its Cubop arm. "And Francisco is one of the last living legends who came over in the first place and retaught us all how to think about and play the drums. There's not many people left who hooked up with people like Dizzy Gillespie, and basically came up with these rhythms that people hadn't heard before. It's a shame he's been kind of under the radar a bit compared with everyone else, but I think we're starting to spread the word."

Mainstream success or not, it's doubtful that Aguabella himself will approach his craft any differently, as is clear when he talks about contemporary Cuban music. "What I say is the new generation in Cuba now, they are more progressive with their rhythms," he maintains. "It's more like pop music, or reggae, or funky, or whatever. I like it, but they are different rhythms. I don't play that. I play my rhythms.

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