Grammy-winning Cuban drummer Ignacio Berroa is living the dream.
“I don’t know if you can imagine being from an island in the Caribbean where the political system wouldn’t even allow you to see Dizzie Gillespie or any of my heroes live. Then, suddenly, a year after I arrived in the United States, I am playing with one of the icons of jazz, sitting behind Dizzy Gillespie playing the drums,” he says enthusiastically.
On April 20, 1980, Ignacio Berroa decided to follow his dream to play jazz, making the perilous journey on boats departing the Port of Mariel in the famous Mariel Boatlift. By October of that year, the exodus was stopped, but already the influx of 125,000 Cuban refugees had created an unexpected bonus for America: the explosion of the Latin jazz scene in New York City and beyond.
“For the first time, musicians from Cuba came to live in the United States, having a great impact on jazz and Latin jazz," Berroa says.
Now 64 years old, Berroa will display his musical experience as part of the South Beach Jazz Festival this Saturday, January 6, at the Fillmore Miami Beach.
Today Berroa is recognized as one of jazz's greatest percussionists. Born in Havana in 1953, a few years before the communist revolution, he was always drawn to music. His mom encouraged him to play the violin, like his father, in the strict Russian classical method. He eventually picked up a set of drumsticks and never looked back.
“The musical training was strictly classical. Then I got my hands on a snare drum. I started listening to albums and watched people play drums, so I am a self-taught drummer,” he explains.
His first exposure to jazz was when his dad brought home a Nat King Cole and Glenn Miller Orchestra album. “Nat King Cole made me fall in love with jazz,” Berroa says. And the music lured him to the United States. “Playing jazz was, in the eyes of the Cuban government, promoting the music of the imperialists. You would get in trouble because you were promoting the music of the enemy. That left me to always want to leave the country, because I always wanted to play jazz.”
His mastery of percussion places him among the great musicians who brought their Afro-Cuban style to the States. Dizzy Gillespie once commented how Berroa is the one Latin drummer who knows both worlds — his native Afro-Cuban as well as jazz. Within a year after he immigrated to the States, he was quickly booked into gigs that included Latin jazz luminaries such as McCoy Tyler and Chick Corea. In 1994, Berroa performed as part of Tito Puente’s Golden Men of Latin Jazz Band. In 2002 and 2006, he returned to Cuba to perform.
“When I left, they said I would never make it and I’d end up cleaning streets in New York,” he says proudly.
It is his deep respect for his Afro-Cuban roots that led him to become a teacher. In 1995, he released an instructional video with Warner Bros. called Mastering the Art of Afro-Cuban Drumming and, later, two books: Groovin’ in Clave and A New Way of Groovin'. His engaging character and breadth of experience made him a perfect leader for master classes at universities and music institutions around the world.
“I think it is important for the new generations to learn about the history, to learn about the masters, and to know where everything came from,” Berroa explains. “It is paramount knowing about the traditions and knowing about our predecessors.”
His desire to give back makes him a perfect fit for this weekend's South Beach Jazz Festival. The event is run by David New in tandem with his disability awareness organization, Power Access. Each performance will include a person with a disability.
“What I want people to understand is there are people that are talented and successful and have full lives despite the fact that they may be living with some sort of challenge or disability,” New says. "This is an opportunity for people to see that just because you have a challenge doesn’t mean you cannot be successful.”
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From 7 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Berroa will give a demonstration of the history of Afro-Cuban music. He'll take the crowd through 400 years of music, beginning when the slaves arrived in Cuba. It will be followed at 8 p.m. by his trio performing music from his 2017 release, Straight Ahead From Havana. Joining him will be Martin Bejerano on piano and Josh Allen on bass. Bejerano hails from Miami, where he is jazz piano director at the University of Miami; Allen attended the same school. The performance will present Cuba’s popular music from the pre-Casto Golden Age, including bolero, danzón, and son. It's a unique chance to hear Berroa now, at the height of his career.
Other South Beach Jazz Fest performers include the Branford Marsalis Quartet, the Rachelle Coba Band, Dr. Ed Calle, the Glyn Dryhurst Dixieland Jazz Band, Tac Cohen, Carlos Averhoff Jr., and Carlos Puig. See the full lineup at southbeachjazzfest.com.
Ignacio Berroa's Trio. As part of the South Beach Jazz Festival. Saturday, January 6, in the Gleason Room at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-7300; fillmoremb.com. Tickets cost $28.
South Beach Jazz Festival. Friday, January 5, through Sunday, January 7 at various locations; southbeachjazzfest.com. Tickets cost $28 to $60.