Michael Spiro in The Power of Rhythm Podcast

Michael Spiro is a ten-time Grammy nominee, and has produced seminal recordings in the Latin Music genre. His performing and recording credits cover an array of internationally known artists: from such pop artists as David Byrne, Carlos Santana, and Charlie Watts, to Latin music icons Eddie Palmieri, Israel Lopez (Cachao), and Richard Egues.

In this episode, I discuss with Mike about the roots of Rumba, the role of drums in spiritual traditions such as Cuban Santería, the path he traveled to become first a conga player and then a priest in that tradition, and the fascinating stories behind the formation of emblematic groups like Los Muñequitos de Matanzas and Afro-Cuba de Matanzas. 

 „ When speaking particularly to the supernatural world, is not about how fast you can play. It’s about learning to play the low drum and speak there. It’s about what you play making one note really count. „

– Michael Spiro

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Transcript of this Episode

REINHARD
He played with Santana and Charlie Watts, he’s a ten-times grammy nominee and he’s a very trusted name in Afro-Cuban music. Today he’s my guest. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Michael Spiro. 

Hi Michael, it’s so great to finally have you here. 

MIKE
It’s very sweet of you to have me. I am honored and very appreciative. 

REINHARD
Let’s right go to it. I’m very curious… When did you touch your first drum and what was this drum? 

MIKE
I was a very late starter. I didn’t start playing music till I was 19. My first drum was the conga drum. But it was sort of a… well not an accident but I’m an American and so logically I would have played drum set. But because I knew I was starting so late – most of my friends that were playing music they started when they were kids – and I thought, “well, by the time I get good enough on drum set to play with people…” It takes 10 years to get really good. So I thought to myself “oh, I’ll play the conga drum so I can get in there faster.” So it was almost like an intentional attempt trying to shortcut something. 

REINHARD
Where did you grow up? In California? 

MIKE
No, I grew up all over the world. My father was an anthropologist and so he was either doing field work or he was changing universities, and so I was one of those kids people always thought I was what here in the United States you call an “army brat.” Where you’re the child of a soldier and they keep moving you around the world but I was the child of a professor. But because he was an anthropologist we were always moving everywhere. So I never really had one place that I would have called home until I left my parents home and became an adult. 

REINHARD
So from the very first conga hit you did till you merged with people like Carlos Santana and Charlie Watts, how did this enormous jump go from here to there?

MIKE
It kind of went like this. Because I grew up on R&B and soul music, that was my roots, not so much rock and roll or anything. I was a Motown, James Brown kind of guy. One of the reasons I chose the conga drum is that I really wanted to be the conga drummer in Aretha Franklin’s band. That would have been my dream come true. So I bought these conga drums and didn’t have any technique, I had no instruction. And back then music was really loud because of rock music. So I played my first gig and for two or three days my hands felt like they’d been run over by a truck and I thought to myself, “this can’t be right, I’ve got to be doing something wrong.” I went to find a teacher, and in that process he gave me some records to take home to listen to of music with the conga drums in it, which of course was folkloric music from Cuba. It was music that when I put it on it didn’t do much for me. To tell you the truth, it sounded like noise, like all this bang, clack, crack, boom, boom… I was like “what in the hell…” But I was fascinated that it seemed like chaos to me except they all started at the same time and they all ended at the same time. So it wasn’t chaos to them. 

And so what happened was that I sort of just kept listening to it to try to figure out what was going on and the more I listened to it the more I started to kind of go “wow, that’s kind of cool” or “wow, listen to what just happened there…” And so I started to learn and explore Cuban music because it seemed to be where the conga drum kind of came from. And slowly but surely then I found out about Salsa (rhythm) and then I realized that to be a good Salsero (salsa player) you had to be a good Rumbero (rumba player). But to be a good Rumbero you had to learn all this folklore, religious music, and that’s kind of how I ended up ruining my life and here I am today, as the result of a ruined life.

Laughters

REINHARD
Is there one teacher, mentor, that you would say that has really put you forward a lot? And what was your first time in Cuba?

MIKE
Well I have to say that I feel like I had several mentors, and so with your permission, I feel obligated to name them because I can’t put one more important than the other. My first would be a man here in San Francisco. His name is Marcus Gordon. 

REINHARD
Oh, I know him, yeah! 

MIKE
Well Marcus was my first folkloric teacher. I should say my first teacher was a guy named Kenneth Nash, and I mentioned him because he was a pretty well-known jazz conga player who was not interested in playing non-American music. But his whole concept of rhythm was very advanced. He played with Andy Narell, the steel pan player, and Michael White who was a famous jazz violinist. Kenneth told me, “well, if you want to learn all that non-American stuff you should go see this guy, Marcus Gordon.” So Marcus Gordon was the guy that really introduced me to folkloric music. I need to mention him but he was not like a professional musician, so very few people would know about him. 

My next really important mentor was a man named Francisco Aguabella. 

REINHARD
Okay, a big one! 

MIKE
I did 10 years with Francisco and he’s like my dad. Then I had two other dads. Because of Francisco I went to Cuba for the first time in 1984. And when I was there I met the gentleman that Francisco had grown up with whose name is Cha-Cha, Esteban Vega Bacallao, who was the quinto player for the Muñequitos de Matanzas for many years. And Cha Cha became my second father, if you will, or my third I guess. He was in the city of Matanzas in Cuba. 

And then my last father if you will was a gentleman named Regino Gimenez. Regino was from the city of Habana and he initiated me as a priest into the tradition that I now follow. So I kind of have four: Marcus, Francisco, Cha-Cha and Regino.

REINHARD
That’s a pretty impressive lineup of mentors.

You actually have composed a lot of music and I think our listeners are curious to know how that sounds. So with your permission, let’s play the Maracambique. Is it a mixture of Mozambique and something else? 

MIKE
Yes, and Maracatú. That’s kind of what I’m known for. In the percussion world I’m kind of the guy that has always made the connection of the African diaspora, of the relationship of West African music in Brazil and West African music in Cuba. Not only those two places but primarily. And tried to musically draw the connection that when the Africans came to the new world their music obviously was reconstructed in new ways in the new world, but that there are common threads that run throughout, so that you can go to Bahia in Brazil, and you can go to Matanzas in Cuba, and hear the same song.

So Maracambique is my tribute to carnival music, if you will, the music of carnival from the northeastern part of Brazil, Olinda, and Habana, with the Mozambique.

REINHARD
I’ve been in the carnival in Olinda and have really seen all these Maracatú processions with the bonecas… 

MIKE
That’s wonderful. I am jealous I cannot say the same. I wish I had been there for that. 

REINHARD
Okay. Let’s listen to that.

Maracambique by Mike Spiro sounds.

I think this is a band that you put together yourself, right? 

 

MIKE
Well, all of the percussion I did this together with my student, my protege, he’s my godson. He’s a steel pan player. So we added Trinidad to the Cuba – Brazil thing so this was the tribute to Carnival throughout the Americas. He and I, and one of my grad students, her name is Kristen Olsen, we did all of the percussion except for some of the Maracatú stuff, that I took to my friend Scott Kettner in New York and we recorded him and me together at his place. It’s basically almost all overdubs, overdubs, overdubs and then, obviously, I’m not a horn player so I had to bring horn players in and the singers. Also Scott brought his singers from Brazil who were in New York to sing the background vocals for the Brazilian stuff. 

REINHARD
Wonderful! Salutes to the carnival of the Latin American countries!

Now, before we go deeper into the traditions I have a very personal question which is: what has drums and percussion done for your personal life?

MIKE
Well, that’s like an impossible question to answer because it’s my whole life.

REINHARD
Let me put it that way: what would not be in your life if you would have never met drums?

MIKE
Nothing about my life would be what it has been or what it is today without drums. I probably would have become a professor of sociology or political science or something like that.

I’m a child of academics and I probably would have pursued that also for political reasons. I’m pretty left kind of guy and would have gone into the academy to try to move social justice forward. But I mean everything about my life is because of the drum. I mean that sounds very cliched, I know that, and it can also sound a little dramatic. I don’t mean it that way. It’s just what’s true. 

REINHARD
I go even a little deeper. Do you find some human qualities you can build with your drumming? Like resilience, like calmness…Is there something you can point towards?

MIKE
I became a conga player quote on quote by accident. But I’m kind of the old school, the skin on skin, the hand hitting on a drum rather than a stick. There’s something very tactile about that and there’s something very emotionally fulfilling. Maybe it’s the opposite of peaceful.  

It’s like really being able to play an instrument with effort, physical effort, rather than pressing a little key down…I’m not trying to minimize the value of a piano or a flute or whatever, but here’s a hand and “go.” And there’s something very fulfilling about that act, at least for me. 

REINHARD
Very clear. Thank you for going so deep with me. I really want to get this out of you. So let me ask another question. You could say the Latin American, especially Cuban rhythms, and I would also say Afro-Brazilians, come from the tradition of Ifa, African Tradition of Ifa. 

So when you learn conga you kind of always have to go to the batá rhythms and if you’re in the batá rhythms you have the Santería. I think it’s a good opportunity to let people know, who have never heard this word, what intelligent system that is. What an Orisha is and how this is all structured. 

MIKE
Yes, I think that that is a true statement except with one small caveat, which is the Yoruba who brought Ifa or “Ifism“, if you will, and the batá drums to Cuba, they were the last of the main African groups to be brought as slaves to Cuba. But before them, and in much actual larger numbers, were the Congolese and the Bantu people and their music also is critical to an understanding of the conga drum along with the Carabali, with the Abacuá in Cuba. So I do believe that almost every rhythm that you can find in Cuban music you can find it in batá drumming but you can also find roots and parts of it in the other African systems that were brought to Cuba. I would just put it with that one little caveat, that that is not the only system. 

But yes, my own life experience was that in order to be a Salsero, I discovered that I had to be a Rumbero. And in order to be a Rumbero I discovered that I had to be a batá player and that’s what then led me to my whole life’s path. 

REINHARD
When I first saw batás, it was in Cuba in 76. I have something for you here. Let’s play this right now. This is from 1976 and it’s in Santiago de Cuba.

Street recording of Carnival in Santiago de Cuba 1976 sounds

MIKE
That’s your recording? 

REINHARD
Yes!

MIKE
And is that “Los Hoyos?” Do you remember which group that was? 

REINHARD
No I don’t. It was too long ago. I was really new to everything and as I told you, that was the first time I saw these three drums, the Iya, Okonkolo and Itotele. Three people and six skins. I said, “How can they play these rhythms? It’s so crazy.” 

MIKE
How did you end up in Santiago de Cuba in 1976? 

REINHARD
There was a group of musicians, actually from San Francisco, that was allowed to go into Cuba. So we had a special permission to do that and we were there for more than three weeks. It was the very beginning, when it was very different. It was not open to anything but it was very original. 

MIKE
Well, when I went in 1984 my first time it wasn’t really open then either. As you know the 1980s were the most interesting time to be traveling underground between the United States and Cuba.

REINHARD
We can clearly see that the batás are connected to Santería, right? 

MIKE
Yes, of course. 

REINHARD
How would you explain what Santería is to someone that never heard about it? 

MIKE
The first thing is that the word itself is complicated. People say the word Santería and there are some issues with that. To the people who don’t know the word Santería, it is a name that people use to refer to the religion in Cuba that was brought there by the Yoruba people from Southwestern Nigeria. And then you say well, Santería sounds like a Spanish word, what does that have to do with Yoruba culture?

Well the notion is that when the Africans got to the “new world” they hid their religion, when they could, in Catholic countries colonized by Catholics using the saints to hide the worship of their deities because the orb of theology is much like Greek or Roman mythology. There’s an almighty being and then there are many deities underneath. So Zeus is the big God but then underneath Zeus is Aphrodite and so forth all the Greek Gods. 

So in Yoruba culture, Olodumare is the main God and then underneath him there’s a whole number of other gods. And the notion was that the Africans could match their deities with Catholic Saints and then sort of hide from the Spaniards that they were worshiping. 

I don’t happen to believe that, to be honest with you. But that’s a whole other discussion maybe not for a music time.

The notion then is that there was some sort of syncretism between Yoruba faith, or Ifism, Ifa, and Catholic tradition. So Santería becomes the word that says, well it’s an African faith but it has all these other components and in particular the Catholic component of Saints. 

This is probably not the place for it but I have issues with a lot of that. 

I think that there are times where, yes the Yoruba religion in Cuba manifests in some Christian Catholic way but most of us would say that we practice “Regla de Ocha”, the rule of Ocha, the rule of the Orisha, because we don’t necessarily think that we’re that Catholic in what we do. Is that a fair way to put that? 

REINHARD
Yes! I’m always seeking for the listeners who have never heard this and they would ask, well how are the batá drums or how are drums at all connected to Orishas? 

MIKE
In Cuba! I want to say that because if we go all the way back to Nigeria, then it gets complicated. And then we need five hours instead of one hour. 

The batá drums, which are double-headed drums played in sets of three, they’re hourglass shaped and each drummer puts the drum on their lap. You sort of play sideways because they’re double-headed. 

Every Orisha, every deity in this tradition, in this religion, has his or her own, not only songs but specific rhythms. There are many many of them. This is a lifelong study. This is not something you learn in a week, it’s something you learn in decades. Each of these rhythms is specific. There are rhythms that are generic if you will that get played for all of the different Orishas. But every Orisha has his or her own specific rhythm. Those rhythms are played both what we call “seco”, meaning dry, like dry wine, just the rhythms and then with singing. They’re used to accompany singing and dance. The music is a critical part to worship much like gospel church in the United States. You can’t go to a baptist church in the United States and have a service on Sunday without the choir. The music is integral to the worship. So although there are many many ceremonies in this tradition that do not involve the drums, there are very few that I can think of that do not involve music at some point. It might just be singing without the drumming accompaniment but song, drumming and dance are an integral. This religion doesn’t exist without those three components.

REINHARD
Because people will get very curious about how that sounds, I suggest that I play one thing I recorded together with Milton Cardona. It’s just pure Santería also.

Olua by MegraDrums sounds

MIKE
When did you record that? 

REINHARD
That was 1990.

MIKE
In New York? 

REINHARD
No this was on the MegaDrums tour. 

MIKE
Wow, fabulous. Who’s playing with him? I’m curious…

REINHARD
I was playing the itotele, a student of mine was playing okonkolo and he of course was playing the Iya. This was before I made Santo. So I would really appreciate if you want to share with us how your way into Santería was. 

MIKE
Well my way was pretty simple. The first time I ever heard batá drums I didn’t even know what they were and I went “that’s me.” I didn’t even know what it was. I was like literally, that sounds very cliched, love at first sight. I just went “whatever that is, that’s what I want to do with my life.”

And so back then in the United States at any rate, this was in the 1970s, so the only Cubans really in the United States at the time that knew batá drumming were the man I mentioned before, Francisco Aguabella, and the man who became my godfather in Ifa, Julito Collazo. And they wouldn’t teach anybody. It was a secret. Like there was nobody teaching batá drums. So Marcus Gordon, who I mentioned was kind of my first dad in all this, he had been studying batá in New York and had gone to Cuba. He was the man who brought batá drumming to the San Francisco Bay area and he had become my teacher for many years before that, but of other stuff like Rumba and Bembé and so forth. So when I was in graduate school in Seattle, Washington, in 1980, he contacted me and said that he was going to start teaching batá drums if I wanted to come back to the bay area to study. And so I did, but the deal was that he wouldn’t teach unless you did your initial initiation to get your “elekes”. Elekes are like sacred necklaces that you receive as your initial initiation into this tradition. 

And so kind of one thing just led to another in that sense that the music is what called me, and then the more I started to play and study the music, the more the theological aspects of it called me. And so again, when you ask me what my life would be without drums, I mean, I’ve been a priest now… I was initiated as a priest in 1998, so that’s 23 years. And I’ve been playing initiated as a sacred batá player in 1982, so that’s 40 years. And I have two sets of “fundamental”, meaning sacred drums. One from Habana, one from Matanzas, meaning without the drum my life… I mean it completely became my life.

REINHARD
Beautiful! You composed actually a lot of music around Orishas, like Osain.

MIKE
Yes.

REINHARD
That is the Orisha of the mountains and the plants. I think we have Osain also in Candomblé. Candomblé being the equivalent to Santería in Brazil… If you agree with that.

MIKE
Absolutely I do.

REINHARD
I just want to play a little bit of this wonderful composition fo yours, Osain. Let’s listen to that. 

Osain by Michael Spiro sounds


Where did you record this, in Brazil? 

MIKE
This was recorded both here in the bay area… The name of the project is Bata Ketu. It was intentionally. Ketu is the drumming style of Candomblé. And batá of course from Santería. My co-artist name is Mark Lamson and we did almost all of the Cuban stuff, all the percussion and the vocals here in the bay area and then the background singing, the Brazilian vocals, all of them, were done in Rio de Janeiro.

My friend and running partner, and so forth my mentor in Brazilian music, his name is Jorge Alabê, he sang lead and he found people from his Terrero, from his Candomblé House, to sing the background vocals. 

REINHARD
Michael, isn’t that amazing like you have three batás in Santería and you have three atabaques in Candomblé. In both traditions the lead drum is the deep drum. The rum and the iyá.

MIKE
Yes, exactly. And I think that that’s the thing that Americans are not used to. It’s learning to play the low drum and speak there. Rather we always think of the speaking voice being the soprano or the flute or the trumpet. So we have to change our aesthetic and learn how to make one note really count. Because you can’t play 32nd notes on a low drum because it won’t speak. 

So you have to really then understand that speaking particularly to the supernatural world, you have to learn how to do that. It’s not about speed and how fast you can play. It’s what to play. 

REINHARD
Absolutely. But in rumba when we go to that, is not the quinto the lead drum, in a way?

MIKE
Yes, which is why then you would say that rumba is one of the first cases then of creole music. That’s one of the ways you can know it’s not African music. Is that rumba? It has to be creole music, Cuban music because now the lead voice is the high voice.

REINHARD
By the way, congratulations to this project of Rumba en Cazuela. I saw the little trailer of it. It’s fantastic! When will the whole film be out? 

MIKE
I made a movie of my godmother, my “madrina”, and her entire sort of rumba family singing and playing all of the old rumbas from a hundred years ago that gave rise to the rumbas of today. 

It’s called “Los Bandos” and at the moment if you go to congamasterclass.uscreen.io, which is a teaching website that I’ve had for many years with my buddy Jesus Diaz, and click on the videos you can see this video. I’m not quite yet ready to just put it on YouTube for free because I’m trying to generate enough income to give them some money. I’m trying to actually put money in their pocket. 

It’s a performance documentary. Yes, I made it, so I’m completely biased but I think it’s awesome. The playing is fabulous, the singing is fabulous and they tell their story about where this music came from and how they’re moving it forward in their town of Matanzas. 

I think if you like rumba and you like Cuban music you will love this and I hate to charge you 3.99, but I’m trying to put money in their pocket. Especially now because of the pandemic, Cubans are suffering terribly. They don’t have food, they don’t have medicine and they can’t leave the house because they’re in quarantine. So in addition to great music if you’d like to help some folks out it would be awesome.

REINHARD
I absolutely invite every of our listeners to do that. I just saw the little clip. I’m certainly checking out the whole thing today. I’m so curious. It’s beautiful footage in Cuba. It doesn’t get more original than this if you really want to know Matanzas. It’s all shot in Matanzas? 

MIKE
Yes. It’s completely that. Because what happened in Matanzas is a hundred years ago they started to have they social clubs that on new year’s eve would go out and sing Rumbas. On the way here in the United States, I don’t know about Europe, but in the U.S we have this thing called Christmas Caroling, from the way back, when you’d go out on Christmas eve and you’d go from house to house singing Christmas songs. 

Well, they would go from house to house on new year’s eve singing Rumba. And when you got to Reinhard’s house he would meet you with the bottle of rum and everybody has a shot. And then we would sing Rumba for Reinhard and then he would leave his house, join us, and we go off to the next house. Well, all of those rumbas are what then gave rise to the groups that people today would know about: Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, AfroCuba de Matanzas, etc. The root of all that music goes back to what they called themselves then Los Bandos. They would eat, then they would go out to the street to sing and they would come back and eat some more. Now it’s new year’s day and then you go home and fall asleep.

REINHARD
Well Michael thank you so much for doing this project. It’s fantastic because there’s nothing like that really out, and Matanzas is really the capital of rumba, I would say. And so you made this beautiful thing. 

If you had any money right now, just not worried about it, what would you do? What would be the project you would like to do most if you had no question about money? 

MIKE
If I had no question about money I would probably want to do the Osain track that you played, the Bata Ketu, which is my first project that really mixed and matched and demonstrated Cuban and Brazil. The whole record is a folkloric record meaning it’s just percussion and singing. I think if I had unlimited budget I would keep that same concept but I would try to merge it with popular music. By popular music I don’t mean hip hop or reggaeton or any of that crap. But real full band you know. 

Tower power. It would take us from the past into the present. Brazil and Cuba back and forth. Samba meets timba, meets rumba, meets etc. That of course would take an enormous amount of money which is certainly not within my budget. Let’s put it that way. 

REINHARD
Thank you so much for coming on my show today. It’s a real pleasure. You’ve given us so much information really. Let’s pray for all the people basically on the world right now. Specially for the people who are like in Cuba or in Brazil as well. I mean, I’m three times every year in Brazil and they’re also suffering a lot. 

Again thank you very much for coming.

MIKE
Absolutely my pleasure. What a wonderful opportunity to get to meet you, and separate from this I hope we will continue our communication because I think you and I have a lot to continue to share back and forth. 

REINHARD
Absolutely. Where are you based right now? 

MIKE
I’m based in San Francisco. For over a decade I taught, I was a professor at a University in the United States called Indiana University but I retired from that and now I’m here in the San Francisco Bay area kind of waiting for life to hopefully return to some…

REINHARD
Yes. We all hope for that really. Mike, all the best for your life. It was such a pleasure to meet you. This was beyond belief. I knew that we’d get some in-depth information but it was beyond my expectations, for sure. 

You listeners, if you like our discussion, leave a comment. If you have some questions write them there and I’ll try to get back to you. And if I can’t answer it I’ll write it to Michael and he will answer it.

MIKE
Yes, absolutely everybody, don’t be shy. We’re all here in the world right now together trying to survive. More than happy to connect with people, it’s totally my pleasure Reinhard. Thank you so much for the opportunity, I’m very grateful. 

REINHARD
Absolutely. And for you listeners, have a great time and keep on groovin’.

 

Please leave a comment below, and let me know what you think!
I’m curious about your sharings, thoughts and feedback.

Thanks, Reinhard

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