David Grimm (CFA’76) on how Cuban rhythm saved his soul| From First Person | By David Grimm
David Grimm (CFA’76)
January 2005 was a gray month in a long string of gray months, and as February approached, it seemed that some of the gray was seeping into my soul. I’d been lucky in life: for forty years I made a good living as a musician, but increasingly I felt the pleasure of making music fading in the crush of midlife responsibilities and the sameness of every day.
When I played my first jobs as a teenaged drummer, I loved everything about the experience: the energy of the crowd, the way the drums glistened under the stage lights, and the primal power of the rhythm speaking through my hands. But something happened, and four decades later, I found myself sneaking glimpses at my watch out of the corner of my eye. How many notes do I have to play until I get to leave?
I decided to try a radical cure. I’d heard that some American musicians were traveling to Havana to study Afro-Cuban drumming, and I wondered what a trip like that — straight to the source of the rhythm — would do for me. My work status allowed me to travel under a general professional license, so just a month after my impulsive decision, I found myself walking the streets of Havana, which can feel like being teleported to the 1960s. Vintage automobiles and decaying architecture form the backdrop of a vibrant culture, driven by the steady pulse of Afro-Cuban rhythm. Havana is a pot with a tight lid over a very hot flame.
The National School of Music sits on the grounds of a prerevolutionary country club in Playa, Havana. Legend has it that Meyer Lansky and Al Capone were charter members, and I’d seen an iconic photo of Che Guevara playing golf there, circa 1960. As I walked across the campus for the first time, the tropical sunlight was dazzling, and the sounds of complex rhythms drifted across the old golf course. The source of this music turned out to be a group of high-school-age Cubans playing instruments that most Americans would have long since tossed in the trash. To turn on the lights in their hurricane-battered practice rooms the students had to touch two bare wires together, but their musicianship was jaw-dropping. Watching them play reminded me of the way I felt as a young player. I began to remember something important: playing music is a privilege.
I discovered that my private instructor at the school would be Enrique Pla, the legendary drummer from the Latin jazz group Irakere. Like other Cuban-trained musicians, Enrique is a master of the dizzying intricacies of Afro-Cuban rhythm.
One of the unique and challenging characteristics of this style of music is a five-note rhythmic pattern known as clave (klah-vay), which is derived from the trance-inducing religious music of the Yoruba people of West Africa. After a few days in Havana, I started to hear clave everywhere. Workers on passing trucks tapped their machetes in clave. On the street, I heard the rhythm in the phrasing of Cuban speech. After a while, it started to seem that even the small island dogs barked in clave.
On some days, I had private lessons at Enrique’s home studio, surrounded by photos of the other musicians who had trekked to Havana to study with him. When I showed him a “Cuban” drum pattern I’d learned in the United States, he looked at me with sympathy. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But that is wrong.” When a rhythm became too difficult for me to notate, he would sing the pattern back to me. “Remember,” he said, “this is music, not a schematic.”
In the mornings, I watched life unfold outside my window. Entire families roared by on vintage Soviet-era motorcycles. An old woman herded her goats up the sidewalk. I had no car, no cell phone, and no computer. I walked the streets of Havana and soaked it all in. People here had so little in the way of material things, but they were seriously engaged in living. It touched me deeply. For the first time in a long time, I relaxed — and I remembered how great it is to be a musician.