Luciano "Chano" Pozo Gonzalez was born on January 17, 1915 in the Verdado neighborhood of Havana, Pozo grew up in poverty. He lost his mother at age 8 and moved to the tough tenement of El Africa in the barrio Pueblo Nuevo. He loved to sing, dance and play his drum and was quite young when he performed in the comparsas (carnival troupes) around Havana. He eventually led the elegantly dressed Los Dandys from barrio BelĂ©n and garnered major notoriety penning songs that ushered in the conga dance rage of the early 1940s. He was much talked about and elevated the energy of the orchestras, rumbas and carnival comparsas (troupes) that he played with.
by josh kun
BEFORE CUBAN CONGA legend Chano Pozo died in 1948, he belonged to two worlds. The descendant of West African slaves brought to Cuba in the 18th century to harvest the island's sugar crop, Pozo grew up in a communal apartment complex that had once been a slave quarter. He practiced the Yoruba religion, was schooled in LucumĂ* chants, and was a member of a secret brotherhood of Abakua, the Cuban "leopard society" founded to preserve the values and beliefs of Africans from Cameroon and Nigeria. He also saw himself in ShangĂł, the Yoruban god of thunder who draped himself in red robes and appeared to his disciples by dancing on their heads as two bolts of lightening. Pozo waved a red handkerchief over his drum and, once his songs started to bring in some money, paraded around his poor Havana neighborhood in a red satin robe â ShangĂł gone barrio fabulous.
Pozo's other world was '40s bebop New York City, where he took off his shirt on the stage of the Rumba Matinee club, greased his chest and arms with oil, and chanted and drummed his way into the history of jazz. Though he was not the first Afro-Cuban to think about the merger of Cuban rhythms and bebop improvisation, he was the first to give it a compositional future, finding a way to really put Cuba into Dizzy Gillespie and George Russell's "Cubana Be, Cubana Bop" and to help create bebop standards synonymous with urban African America that were structured around LucumĂ* chants that Pozo grew up singing.
As Jordi Pujol tells us in his liner notes to Chano Pozo: El Tambor de Cuba (Tumbao Cuban Classics), when Pozo died, both of his worlds had an explanation. New York said he had been shot by someone he had beaten up over a batch of bad pot. Havana said he was being punished for disobeying ShangĂł by never being formally initiated into SanterĂ*a (the Afro-Cuban mix of Yoruba with New World Christianity) before he left the island for New York. New York may have had the body and some witnesses, but Havana had the real proof: Pozo died just as the festivity of ShangĂł was about to begin.
In her 1982 poem for Pozo, "I See Chano Pozo," Jayne Cortez called Pozo a "connector of two worlds," the Atlantic island link between African tradition in Cuba and the New World modernity forced by the slave trade that would turn the 2/4 rhythms of the Afro-Cuban conga drum into the 4/4 Afro-American drums of bop. The drum had all the stories wrapped into its skin. Chano used his hands to release them, to turn them from dried flesh and silence into living rhythm and pounded memory. "You go see the slave castles, you go see the massacres," Cortez wrote. "You go conjurate, you go mediate, you go to the cemetery of drums, return and tell us about it."
As you can hear throughout the three CDs that make up Chano Pozo: El Tambor de Cuba â which at long last make available nearly everything Pozo touched from his early Cuban orquesta recordings in 1939 up through his 1947-48 New York "cubop" sessions with Gillespie, Milt Jackson, and James Moody â Pozo went, returned, and didn't just tell us about what he saw but turned it into songs that would keep the dead alive by giving them new identities year after year. They emerged in the Havana street comparsas, or carnival bands, that Pozo reigned over in the '30s when blacks weren't allowed to play Cuban dance halls. They emerged in the Orquesta Casino de la Playa with Miguelito ValdĂ©s singing the foundational Pozo rumbas "Blen, Blen, Blen" and "AriĂ±aĂ±ara." They emerged when Pozo led his own groups and orchestras in the '40s. And they emerged in Carnegie Hall, where Pozo sat in the front row of the bandstand in his gray suit and black tie next to Gillespie, pulsing through Charlie Parker's "Relaxin' at Camarillo."
No matter what musical conversations he was invited into, Pozo (to riff on a famous Gillespie remark) was always speaking African. Unlike compatriots ValdĂ©s and Desi Arnaz, whose lighter skin helped them reach commercial success on Broadway and in popular orchestras, there was no mistaking Pozo's blackness and no mistaking his intent to put the African past and the Afro-Cuban present in the face of American jazz. "Chano's concept came from Africa," Russell is quoted as saying in the box's notes. "When I heard it, it sounded on fire to me."
In the Abakua society, the symbol for the coming of death is a tree with wilted branches hanging down from its leaves. The trunk of the tree extends down into a root that is a perfect quartered circle. It looks like the face of a drum, the circle that caps the conga and contains the rhythms that connect one world to another.