On a warm summer evening in Havana, Cuba, a young man stands outside a concert hall talking with some friends. He is ecstatic and he is telling this friends that his life can end now and he will go peacefully because he has seen the great Dizzy Gillespie perform. Performances such as this are a rare thing in Havana and this one has left a very strong impression on the young man. Little did he know at the time that a short four years later, this same young man would get to see his idol play again. Only this time, it would be from behind a drum set while sharing the stage with the legendary performer. This is the remarkable life of Ignacio Berroa.
Ignacio grew up in a very musical family in Havana, Cuba, beginning his musical career by training to become a classical violinist before turning his sights to drumming. He studied at the National School of Arts and later at Havana's National Conservatory. By 1975, Berroa was the most sought-after drummer in Cuba. When he left his homeland to come to New York, he was befriended by Mario Bauza, who introduced him to Gillespie. And the rest, as they say, is history. This has not been an easy journey for this man and for his music.
"When I left Cuba, I did not speak English and the woman who was my wife at the time, she stayed behind as did my oldest son. So I had to learn the language, had to deal with all the personal and political setbacks and problems," says Berroa, "as well as try and learn how to play the music. I had to learn the codes of Jazz."
Most new performers who start out today do not really realize just how easy they have it. Few are asked to surrender entire families in order to follow their individual passions as Berroa did. This is not a one- dimensional personality. He is many-layered, as is his music, which is among the most emotional being played today. As if all the rest that Berroa had to go through to was not enough, he faced a new problem: record labels. Not that they were not thrilled to have him play, they just had a hard time with drummers being band leaders. It was not really done. Back-up guys sure, but band leaders? Well, that is another story all by itself. His savior in that department was another drummer, Buddy Rich. Rich's strong personality and amazing talent made it easier for those that followed, even though "he went through hell in the later years of his life."
"It has been a long a difficult journey that began in 1964, when I first had access to a jazz recording. It was then that my passion for this music was born," he says. This was in the era of the late 1970's, when the Cuban government conspired against the formal playing of jazz, as well as the practice of the Yoruba religion--a religion from where the now worldwide popular and influential Cuban rhythms come from. "We did not have a school where you could learn how to play Afro-Cuban percussion," says Berroa. "Back then, we were strictly taught classical percussion. Young men like me who fell in love with jazz could not practice it openly, and to stay current with American music, we had two U.S radio stations when the weather permitted."
It can be hard to imagine what life must have been like for the new arrival, leaving all that he knew behind, living in a country where he did not know the language or the customs The only thing he was sure of was jazz and his deep abiding love for it. It was his strong desire to not only play it, but to live the American dream--the dream so many of his fellow countrymen had tried to find, some with success, some with failure. "It was a very big step," says Berroa. "It would be like me taking you to China and saying, 'Bye-bye, you live here now.' Imagine how that would feel. In 1980, my English was probably a minus zero, I had no idea what people were saying around me. It was very frustrating. I was very fortunate that Dizzy hired me because being around those guys in his band forced me to learn English, and Dizzy was a very great teacher."
English was not the only thing that Berroa learned from his famous employer, "I learned the whole bill from Dizzy because later on we became friends, very good friends. There are things about his life that I know and very few others do. I was his confidant," says Berroa. "We spent so much time on the road and we just clicked. He knew the kind of person I was. He taught me a lot about a lot of things; the business, the music, how to be humble, how not to be arrogant, and if you will excuse my language, not to take any B.S. from anyone either."
Ignacio Berroa is a man of many layers--musician, educator, having taught at Florida International University, author of two books, Groovin' In Clave and A New Way of Groovin, and is the creator of the instructional video called Mastering The Art of Afro-Cuban Drumming. Not bad for a young man who was at first prepared to meet his maker after a concert in Havana, Cuba, many years ago. We who enjoy music, music that is created in the heart not the head, the kind that carries you along on the undeniable strength of its rhythm and the unfathomable depths of its soul, we are glad God choose not to take Ignacio Berroa up on his offer. Maybe that is a sign that He loves us enough to let us hear from this man and his music for as long as possible. It gives us reason to smile and reason to believe in the power of what real soul music can do.