Sep. 08 2006
Bobby Sanabria

Bobby Sanabria

Ascension

TAMA :How did you get started on drums?

Bobby : Well, I was lucky to have grown up during the 1960s and 70s in New York City, in the South Bronx. Specifically in Fort Apache, which unfortunately became the symbol of urban decay. But it really was the hippest place to grow up in, because radio was really hip back in NY in those days. You had a lot of choices in terms of what you could listen to. Jazz was still part of the fabric of life… you could hear it everywhere from cartoons to variety shows. There was always drumming in the summertime in the streets of New York.

And since I’m Puerto Rican, I grew up listening to music from the Caribbean in my household. Cuban music, Puerto Rican music, as well as funk, R&B, and rock. Also the pop music of the day.

I didn’t actually begin playing until high school. I didn’t get my own kit till my mid-teens. But I was in the band in high school. I actually started out with half a kit. My father bought me a tom-tom, a snare drum, a bass drum, and a hi-hat… and with that, you can funk out all day. And then later I saved money, bought another tom, a couple of cymbals. But the first instrument I played was congas, just because of the background I mentioned before.

TAMA : You have a vast and diverse body of recorded work. Which albums in particular do you feel best represent your drumming?

Bobby : My own albums, as a leader. The first album, Bobby Sanabria & Ascension, N.Y.C. Ache! The second was a big band album, which was nominated for a Grammy. (Bobby Sanabria Big Band, Afro-Cuban Dream… Live and In Clave). And my recent quartet album, Bobby Sanabria & Quarteto Ache.

But also I’m very proud of the work I did with Mario Bauza, who is considered the father of Afro-Cuban jazz. I did three albums with him, that are basically considered by the cognoscenti as some of the finest recorded works in the big band Afro-Cuban jazz tradition. They are considered masterpieces by many critics.

There are also a couple of other albums that are a little bit off the radar screen that I did, that I’m really proud of. There’s an album called In the Ear of the Beholder with this Panamian saxophonist Jorge Sylvester. That was just a trio, drums, bass, and alto saxophone. It’s all odd meters, but using Afro-Cuban rhythms, Panamanian rhythms, Puerto Rican rhythms, and Brazilian rhythms.

TAMA : What was it like working with Dizzy Gillespie?

Bobby : It was great. I worked with Dizzy toward the end of his life, so his playing was not to the level that it was when he was younger, but he was still very vibrant, he was still very much experimenting with harmony. A couple of the concerts that we did were in conjunction with Mario Bauza, backing him up. So it was really amazing because Mario was the one that brought Dizzy out into the forefront, and exposed him to Afro-Cuban rhythms back in the 40s.

TAMA : What made you decide to make the switch to Tama?

Bobby : Well, I didn’t make the switch haphazardly. I took a long time to decide… I mean, this was like a 7 or 8-month decision. I checked out all the companies, did my research, and met with a lot of people.

It’s funny, because I do a lot of traveling around and check out various drum stores across the country and the world. And I got to play a Tama kit in Mexico over the summer and that was really the beginning, because when I played the kit, I said “oh my god.” First of all, the finish on the kit was just beautiful; it was a striking blue with a fade (marine blue fade). So the appearance is what first drew me in. But then I played the kit, and was immediately blown away.

I also realized that the company is very innovative in terms of product design and equipment. All the innovations really that have been done in hardware over the years have started in one way or another with Tama.

So I’m really excited about playing Tama drums, especially the bubinga kit. Everything I do from my own cultural standpoint has its roots in West Africa, so I’m really excited about utilizing this bubinga kit because it’s African rosewood.

TAMA : Is that why you chose the bubinga shells over maple or birch?

Bobby : Well, I have a secondary kit that’s maple, so I have two kits. But I really like the bubinga kit, because it has the best of both worlds… the punchy low end of birch, and the warmth of maple, combined with enhanced projection.

TAMA : Can you please talk a little bit about your setup?

Bobby : Well, I usually use a 16x20 kick (sometimes a 16x18), 8x10 and 9x12 tom toms, and 14x14 and 16x16 floor toms. I like to have at least 2” difference in size between the toms.  As for snares, I use a 5.5x14 maple snare with my Starclassic Maples, and will be using a 5.5x14 bubinga with my new Starclassic Bubinga kit. I may also be getting a smaller snare drum, like a 10” or 12”, for certain hip-hop things, and as a secondary snare.

TAMA : A lot of drummers nowadays prefer to mount their toms on separate stands, independent of the bass drum. Why do you prefer to keep your rack toms mounted directly off the kick?

Bobby : Well, it’s just convenience. I’ve tried that kind of setup in the past, mounting the rack toms off the cymbal stands, and it’s just easier to set up for me this way. I understand the logic behind it, with letting the drums float, but with the star-cast mounts, I don’t feel like there’s any loss of resonance. And with the new sliding tom mount that Tama has, I’m able to position the toms wherever I want them.

I guess I’m a traditionalist in that sense, with the floor toms too… I like the floor toms to be independent, not attached to anything, just on the legs. And since Tama has those rubber tips for the legs, I don’t feel that there’s a loss of resonance there either. But that’s just a personal preference.

TAMA : You play with a wide variety of artists, spanning across music genres such as jazz, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, hard bop, and funk. Do you tailor your kit/setup to each particular gig? Are you able to use the same drums in various settings?

Bobby : Well, when I used to play more funk-oriented things, or more groove-based music,  where the time is mainly coming from the bass drum, snare, and hi-hat, I would use a birch kit because of the low-end funkiness and more focus on the notes. And with jazz, where the time is coming mostly from the hi-hat and the cymbals, I would use a maple kit. 

But now, with the bubinga kit, I’m able to cover all of the bases very comfortably. And of course, with all the heads that are available, it’s possible to achieve to a lot of different sounds from the same drums, just by switching heads or changing the tuning.

TAMA : How do you like your drums tuned?

Bobby : Well, I hate the bass drum to be muffled. I don’t like putting a pillow inside or anything like that. If anything, I’ll just use some small dampening device around the edge of the head, or maybe just an extra plied head on the batter side, but that’s about it.

For the snare, I crank it up pretty high, because I want it to be able to simulate a timbale. It’s a combination of a timbale and a snare. With the toms, because my background is in Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Brazilian music, I look at them almost as extra hand drums. So I keep them pretty open, with the bottom heads just slightly higher in pitch than the batter heads.

TAMA : In addition to the extensive performing, recording, and composing that you are involved with, you also maintain an active teaching schedule as an educator with the New School University and the Manhattan School of Music. What keeps you motivated to continue teaching, even when you are so busy as a player?

Bobby : Well I think anybody that’s active as a player will say that teaching is one way of giving back to the community and also preserving the legacy of whatever tradition that you’re involved with. In my case, at the New School University Jazz and Contemporary music program and at the Manhattan School of Music, I teach two of the only truly authentic Afro-Cuban jazz orchestras in the country. These are full big bands, with five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, and a full rhythm section including drum set, congas, bongo, timbales, and other percussion. For me, it’s my way of preserving this incredible tradition that was born here in the United States.

TAMA : What are some of the projects you have coming up?

Bobby : I’m working on a new documentary called “From Mambo to Hip Hop – Music and Survival in the South Bronx,” which covers the 1940s through the 1970s, with the birth of hip hop in the South Bronx. This documentary is being produced by an organization called City Lore, and will be broadcast on PBS around October or November of this year.

I will also be heading into the studio again soon doing another solo album, which will feature me in a lot of different situations. My previous three albums were all done with one specific group, from the octet Ascension, to the 19-piece big band, to the quartet on the third album. But my newest project will not feature just one group, but a variety of setups, including trio, quartet, sextet, etc. The unifying factor will be me as a leader, composing, arranging, and playing multiple percussion.

TAMA : Which artists have inspired or influenced you the most?

Bobby : Tito Puente, because he was a total musician… composer, arranger, master percussionist, band leader. Billy Cobham was a very big influence on me. Also Art Blakey. Harvey Mason, who I believe is a Tama endorser as well. I’m really happy about that, because Harvey is one of my heroes. He is the epitome of class, style, and elegance, and that’s what he does on the drums.