Sunday, November 18, 2012

Henry Cole: Drumming For The Spirits of Mama Africa, The Big Apple, and Borinquen

The cover of Henry Cole's new album

Hello dear Bongohead readers. Today on this crisp, sunny winter’s day I’d like to tell you about a hot young artist I rediscovered recently through my friend, film maker Omar Torres-Kortright. I now realize the guy was bubbling just under my consciousness because I happened to have seen him perform with both Miguel Zenón and David Sánchez in past years at various gigs, but then I lost track of his work and so when I heard through Omar that this musician had a new album out, that it had something to do with afrobeat (one of my favorite types of music), and that I would get to be a part of a music and culture festival that this guy was also a part of, well, I got really excited. I was like – is this the same guy I saw drum with those Puerto Rican jazz cats? Honestly, I didn’t even know the man was Boricua himself, not that it’s a big deal, but just to tell you how little I knew. If you stick with me little, I’ll tell you why this dude is worth knowing, and maybe it will inspire you to check out his work like I did…

The gentleman I’m talking about is Henry Cole (b. 1979, raised in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico), and he’s a young New York-based drummer, percussionist and keyboard player with a lot of talent and great ideas. He’s best known for his work with the Grammy-nominated Miguel Zenón Quartet (having recorded on he albums Awake, Esta Plena, and Alma Adentro), Grammy winner David Sánchez (Cultural Survival), and the all-star quartet “90 Miles” featuring Sánchez, Stefon Harris and Christian Scott. He also made waves with the Edward Simon Trio, where Cole’s innovative and powerful drumming takes center stage, but since 2011, he’s been the center of something different, immersed in a larger orchestra, his Afro-Beat Collective.

But let’s back track a bit before we get into his latest solo joint.

Having studied classical percussion at San Juan’s Conservatorio de Musica de Puerto Rico and both Boston’s Berklee College of Music and the Manhattan School of Music in New York, as well as club work in San Juan (“I was playing rock, salsa, jazz, electronic music, all in the same week. That’s college right there…” says the drummer) and varied gigs in La Gran Manzana, it’s easy to see that Cole’s formal and street musical education has been top notch. In Puerto Rico, Cole worked not only within but also beyond the world of improvised music, with artists such as conga master Giovanni Hidalgo, flutist Dave Valentin, trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez, pianist Danilo Pérez, Branford Marsalis, Luis Marin, William Cepeda’s Afro-Rican Jazz, salsa artists La PVC, and the Latino rock band Vivanativa. In New York and on stages around the world, he’s played with a diverse roster of people, further broadening his horizons: Chris Potter, Adam Rogers, Drew Gress, the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Big Band, Ray Barretto, Orlando “Puntilla” Rios, Papo Vazquez, Perico Sambeat, Paquito D’Rivera, David “Fathead” Newman, Dave Samuels, the contemporary plena group Viento de Agua. Cole’s extensive CV also lists his work with dancer and choreographer Noemí Segarra, which includes the evening-length collaborative piece “De Rumbo De Rumba,” premiered at the Hostos Center for Arts & Culture in early April 2011. Our busy drummer also performs with Cuban-born, LA-based pianist Alfredo Rodríguez, who records for Quincy Jones’ Qwest label. And as if that weren’t enough, as mentioned before, Cole has recorded influential work with Miguel Zenón and David Sánchez — entailing appearances at the Village Vanguard and other world-renowned jazz venues —  and he can be heard on the album Personalities by the Fabian Almazan Trio, as well as Christian X Variations by Soren Moller with Dick Oatts and Kirin Winds, plus El Alquimista by Pete Rodríguez (not the boogaloo artist), and Rocket Science for Dummies by the electro/neo-soul group Astronauts of Antiquity.

OK, so that was the resume. Ahora mis amigos, let’s get into his new album. This CD leads you on a journey of poetry, in sound and word. As you might have guessed by now, Henry’s a guy who consistently thinks outside the box, evidenced not only by his diverse past experiences, but also by his current activities. Right now as leader of the Afro-Beat Collective, he’s engaged in an exciting fusion of improvised music of Black American Origin (which I’ll call jazz for want of a better word) and funk with the folklore of his homeland, plus spoken word vocals, and of course a healthy dose of afrobeat, a well-known and currently re-popularized dance music (with a conscience) of Nigerian origin that came to prominence in the 1970s and was pioneered by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Tony Allen, Orlando Julius, Ebo Taylor, and others. There are many contemporary groups with the term afrobeat (however you want to spell it) in the band name or bandied about as a description for their sound, and some tend towards the more dance oriented, vocal, and repetitive or commercial end of things, while others are more heavily invested in the jazz end, and so the intricate interplay between heavy percussion and prominent brass seems to leap to the fore (for instance Nomo and Zongo Junction). Henry Cole and the Afro-Beat Collective’s debut album Roots Before Branches tends towards the more improv/jazz end of things, which makes sense, but as mentioned, there is also the Spanish language aspect of the spoken word component (courtesy of Hérmes Ayala) and the use of indigenous Afro-Puerto Rican elements as well. Though it fits in perfectly with the afrobeat sound through a sensitive integration on the part of the arrangements, the undeniable presence of the “barril de bomba” drum and the “panderos de plena” (hand held single-sided skin frame drums), as well as Cole’s adaptation of these rhythms for his drum kit, mark the work as coming from a distinctively Boricuan perspective. Hence the title, “Roots Before Branches”!

In the realm of the ‘branches’ referred to in the title, there is an intriguing use of electronics and dubby sound effects, as well as old-school sounding synths, electric piano and other keyboards that makes me think of vintage funky fusion of the 70s as well as what Fela and his Kalakuta Republic crew was cooking up each night at the Shrine. One thing though that distinguishes Cole’s sound from classic Nigerian afrobeat: there is not really the vocal melodic song structure of Fela Kuti or some of the other Afro-Funk bands of yesterday or today, which is actually refreshing. In a way, I choose to consider Henry’s recording to be another chapter in the Latino-flavored side of afrobeat, carrying on in the trail blazed by Antibalas and Kokolo, two of my all time favorite bands for dancing and thinking. Henry’s now on my radar as being the third corner of this Latino-Afrobeat trinity, and it feels good having him in charge of the angle that completes the trinity. On the CD, Cole employs his friends Miguel Zenón and David Sánchez to great effect, and the collective is augmented by quite a cast: Sean Wayland, Adam Rogers, John Ellis, Soren Moller, Egui Santiago, Rey de Jesús, Roy Guzmán, Bryant Huffman, Billy Carrión Jr., Juan José “Cheito” Quiñones, Willy Rodríguez, Alberto “Beto” Torrens, Luis Rosa “El Chupa”, Obanilu Allende, Adam Rogers, a string trio, and the poet Mara Pastor.

“I imagine Fela’s band with Wayne Shorter or Lee Morgan playing the solos”
—Henry Cole

All in Roots Before Branches is a very satisfying recording, and you can see why Modern Drummer magazine had Cole in an article titled “The Future of Drumming” (January 2006). In that piece, Henry was cited as an outstanding young player to watch by illustrious fellow drummers Alex Acuña, John Riley and Antonio Sánchez. Well, it’s been 6 more years since then, and if Roots Before Branches is any indication, Alex Acuña, John Riley and Antonio Sánchez  were right on the money, compay. I am really looking forward to witnessing ‘the future of drumming’ live in person, as I will be participating in a concert with Henry and his Collective in Chicago (see my earlier post). I know Señor Cole’s gonna be drumming for the collective triangulated spirits of Mama Africa, The Big Apple, and Borinquen. If you can make it, I know you won’t be disappointed. If you can’t, well then please make sure you catch him in New York or on a stage near you in the future — and if you can’t find him there, ask your local talent buyers and booking agents ¿por que? You can check out more about him on his web site ( and get a signed copy of his CD there too, or on Amazon.