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Conga god Daniel Ponce beats his drums with an attitude

Enrique Fernandez
The Miami Herald

MIAMI -- Is Daniel Ponce the world's greatest conga player? I first heard him, a Marielito, as he called himself in the liner notes to his first album, in the early 1980s at an alternative Manhattan venue called Soundscape, where the second big wave of New York Latin jazz was born -- the first was in the '40s.

My beat was salsa and Latin jazz. The big conga drums are the centerpiece of the Afro-Cuban rhythms that propel those genres, and I was hearing some heavy congueros.

Then I heard Daniel -- I call him by his first name because after a while we became friends.

He had attitude. Not the eyes-closed intensity of Ray Barretto or the macho elegance of Mongo Santamaria, to mention two giants of the drums. Instead, he had a nonchalance that contrasted with his amazing virtuosity -- what the Italian Renaissance called sprezzatura: doing something marvelous without looking as if you're even trying.

His playing seemed off-hand. Literally, for he would slap a conga -- no less than five drums surrounded him -- as if he had just remembered there was one way off to one side, an afterthought that was right on target and often hard as an explosion.

His star rose.

Daniel recorded on albums by Laurie Anderson and Mick Jagger. He was picked for the Young Lions of Jazz concert at Lincoln Center. His compositions won the prestigious Cuban-American Cintas Award. He released two albums of his own, which have been re-released this year. He was flown to Japan to teach aspiring congueros.

But Daniel's temperament was as explosive as his drumming. And he had definite ideas about how music should be played. "If what you're doing doesn't click with him, he won't score," says jazz violinist Alfredo Triff, in whose trio Daniel plays. "If it does, then ..." and Triff snaps his fingers.

Triff, who has known Daniel since the 1980s in New York, has always been musically compatible. But Daniel's my-way-or-no-way attitude began shrinking his work possibilities. Work tensions ate at his personal life and what started as a happy marriage, with Daniel being a modern stay-at-home dad during the day, ended.

"These days I avoid conflict, I'm not the same person you knew," the 53-year-old musician says over lunch in Miami Beach, where he now lives. "New York caught me unstable at an emotional level."

In the end, he did what many Cubans have done when things "don't click" up north. He moved to Miami in 1998.

"A climate like ours. A food that's ours. The closest thing to home we can choose is this," he says.

In Miami, Daniel worked on video clips, played at the Miami Jazz Festival, and he started gigging with Triff, first at Books & Books and then at Tinta y Cafe, the artsy lounge on the first floor of the Jose Marti Building on Southwest Eighth Street.

I went to hear him there one night this summer, with the Triff trio. The sprezzatura was there, though with less hauteur. And he still had that same way of making the beats explode both on the drumhead and inside the listener's body.

I have heard the masters: Barretto, Santamaria, Virgilio Marti, Giovanni Hidalgo, Francisco Aguabella, Patato Valdez, Candido -- and Tata Guines on record and Changuito on video. Each was awesome in his own way. But Daniel Ponce is touched by the gods.

"Cuban music for the saints, that's what pays my rent." he tells me. "I play every weekend."

In Cuba he and his percussion ensemble, Los Comandos del Sabor, played only secular, non-religious music, And he's not a Santeria initiate, he says. "When I was one year old, my parents took me to have some ritual performed on me. Since then, even though all my family was into the religion, my interest has been cultural."

Still, he knows all the beats, all the chants. And, like so many Cubans, he respects the religion, the religions. One Sunday afternoon, I followed Ponce to two different rituals.

One was a Santeria event for a man who "has done the saint" -- has been initiated as a "son" of one of the orishas, the Yoruba deities of Santeria (properly known as Regla de Ocha).

The other was Palo Mayombe, a religion known for its fierce intensity.

As in most Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies in Miami, most of the practitioners were white. While the group Daniel plays with, which varies in size from three to five, always with Daniel as the percussion mainstay, is all black.

The first ceremony took place on the back porch of a house in Hialeah. Except for the music, it resembled a Sunday barbecue, reflecting the informal nature of Afro-Cuban religion -- "It's like a party," Daniel said.

He sat behind one conga while Santiago, the group leader, began a chant to which the others responded. Two men played chekeres -- fat gourds covered with beads that rattle when struck and shaken.

As Daniel took off, my body shook involuntarily with the contracompases -- beats struck against the steady rhythm, which, if this had been a social dance would have inspired the couples to improvise steps.

But it was a dance. Folks came and stood in rows in front of the musicians, doing steps and swinging arms from side to side. A 6-year-old was dancing up a storm -- "he's already an initiate," Daniel told me. Finally, the initiate came out, wearing regal finery in red and black, the colors of his orisha, Eleggua, guardian of the crossroads.

Next stop was a Little Havana apartment.

The Palo Mayombe ceremony was for Obatala, whose color is white and whose equivalent saint is Our Lady of Mercy -- it's her feast day in the Catholic calendar. There was an altar in the living room with a big doll dressed in white and plates of offerings around her.

Instrumentation was cajon, literally crates. One group member sat on one and began slapping the side, marking a rhythm, while Daniel sat on a differently shaped crate and started drawing an incredible range of sounds from the wood, some explosive, some gentle, all marvelous.

At the earlier ceremony, a woman had been "mounted by a saint" -- possesed by an orisha. She had whirled around and began to faint when a man in the dancing group held her and took her away -- to be dressed in the colors of the saint that had "mounted" her.

No possessions at the second ceremony. But still, I felt a current run up and down my spine as Daniel slapped the wood. A santero once told me that I was invulnerable to spirit possession. Whew. But I am very vulnerable to aesthetic possession.

There is a language locked inside those drum beats, messages sent to us from the past. The wounded past of Africa and Europe meeting, for the worst of reasons, in my native Cuba, and sending forward to the future, for the best of reasons, chants, stories, incantations that resonate inside our musculature and bone structure and bloodstream with the beating of the drums.

Daniel is the messenger.

("Rumba P'a Gozar," a compilation CD from Daniel Ponce's LPs, "New York Now" (1982) and "Arawe" (1984) has been released this year on the Soundscape label and is available in stores.)

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