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 that person (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 with 10,000 other on boats departing the Port of Mariel – the famous Mariel Boat-lift. 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 come to live in the United States, having a great impact on jazz and Latin jazz,’ describes Berroa. Now 65, he will showcase his musical experience as part of the South Beach Jazz Festival on January 6 at the Fillmore Miami Beach.
Ignacio Berraro is recognized as one of the great jazz 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,” explains Berroa. 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 said. 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,” describe Berroa. “That left me to always want to leave the country because I always wanted to play jazz.”
His mastery of percussion puts him amongst the greats of what is referred to as the new wave of Cuban musicians, bringing their Afro-Cuban style, including Paquito D’Rivera and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. 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 emigrated to the US, he was quickly booked into gigs that included Latin jazz luminaries such as McCoy Tyler and Chick Corea. In 1994, he performed as part of Tito Puente’s Golden Men of Latin Jazz band. In 2002 and 2006 he returned to Cuba to perform, he considers himself a hero, a winner. “When I left, they said I would never make it, and I’d end up cleaning streets in New York,” he says with a chuckle.
It is his deep respect for his Afro-Cuban roots that led him to be a teacher. In 1995, he released an instructional video with Warner Brothers 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 espouses. “It is paramount, knowing about the traditions and knowing about our predecessors.”
His desire to give back makes him a perfect fit for the South Beach Jazz Festival. The event is run by David New in tandem with his disability awareness organization, Power Access. Each performance will feature a person of disability. “What I want people to understand is, that 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,” says New. “This is an opportunity for people to see that just because you have a challenge doesn’t mean you cannot be successful.”
Ignacio Berroa will give a demonstration of the history of Afro-Cuban music from 7-8 pm, taking the crowd through 400 years of music, starting when the slaves first arrived to Cuba. It will be followed at 8pm by his trio performing music from his 2017 release, “Straight Ahead from Havana,” Joining Berroa in the trio are Martin Bejerano on piano and Josh Allen on bass. Bejerano hails from Miami, where he is piano jazz director at the University of Miami, Allen attended the same school. The performance will feature Cuba’s popular music from the pre-Casto ‘Golden Age,’ including bolero, danzón and son. Reinterpreting these musical styles as straight-ahead jazz – a chance to hear Ignacio at the height of his career.
Photo by Niall Macaulay