Catalina Maria Johnson

International radio broadcaster, music curator, cultural journalist

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“Fela’s idea, his formula was incredible! He brought together all those elements in one genre,” exclaims Henry Cole, the extraordinarily talented drummer who is consciously working with Fela Kuti’s afrobeat model and applying it to Puerto Rico’s many musical strands.

For years, Cole has developed renown as a jazz drummer, being a regular collaborator in the projects of fellow Puerto Rican sax luminaries Miguel Zenon, a MacArthur ‘genius’ award grantee and Grammy-awarded David Sanchez. However, in furthering and exploring his own musical vision, Cole became captivated by how Fela Kuti melded in one seamless whole the elements of Nigeria’s folklore with funk and jazz and improvisation.

Bringing together apparently diverse influences is something that may run in the drummer’s blood. On the one hand, his family’s background is both British and Cuban as well as Puerto Rican. Additionally, his family boasts both political and musical luminaries – a grandfather who was the longest running mayor of his hometown, Mayaguez and great uncle Roberto Cole, one of the island’s most renowned bolero composers.

As a musician working hard to make a living, Cole comments, he developed equally versatile skills that would allow him to feel comfortable in the island’s many musical scenes. In addition to the jazz scene, he is well-versed in folkloric music, which emphasizes either African-based traditions such as bomba and plena or the rural melodies and rhythms with string instruments termed jíbaro music. He also participated in rock bands from time to time.

Each of these traditions shared a different musical lesson with him, notes Cole. Folklore, he says, laden with elements of feeling and emotions, carries  “the weight of the the country’s traditions, rife with rhythm and the African influence.” Jazz became a tool for a more cerebral or intellectual understanding of music. Rock bands stimulated a sense of performance that was much more extroverted than jazz, emphasizing playing really hard for an audience and being ready, as he puts it, “to sweat, yell, move, give it your all!”  And even dabbling in electronica made him aware of the benefits of paying attention to sounds and beats.

Unfortunately, says Cole, none of these scenes interacted: “Folklorists wouldn’t go to a disco. Rockers would be bored at a jazz concert. Jazzers wouldn’t go dancing at a salsa concert because no one played complicated cuts.”

Fela Kuti’s approach, he affirms, has helped him find the common ground between all the musics,  creating a sound that emerges organically when they are brought together. He adapted afrobeat to the island, incorporating, for example, instead of singers, the poetry of Mara Pastor and spoken word artist and journalist Hermes Ayala. Of course, the key, says Cole, is not to force the music. It’s a delicate balance of all the influences, he notes, “It’s not a mathematical equation.”

Henry Cole and the Afrobeat Collective will perform at the Mayne Stage Dec. 13 at 8PM.


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