Featured Musician - December 2010  

Scott Wardinsky

Name: Scott Wardinsky

Instrument: Conga and multi-percussion.

Early Years/Education: Grew up in Portland and went to an alternative high school called The Willamette Learning Center. When I was eighteen a member of the group Upepo came to my school and brought in a steel drum and set up a row of tuned hub caps. I started playing them and then went out and bought myself a conga drum. Prior to that, I really wanted to take drumming lessons, but it never happened. Some guys came to my catholic school that didn't have a music program and offered to give us lessons, but as soon as we paid them, they left town. I never got back into music again until I was eighteen. [Then] I pursued it with a passion. I learned everything I could here in Portland about congas and Latin percussion right away.

I went to New York to start hanging with Cubans and Puerto Ricans, just to learn. I wasn't playing traps, didn't want to play swing and was not interested in American rhythms. My band in Portland at the time (mid-'70s) was called Felicidades. We took a pilgrimage to New York City and almost got arrested for playing around the corner from The Village Gate. The owner, Art D'Lugoff, came out and saved us by having us play in front of his club, on his stoop. He paid us fifty dollars each and gave us tickets to see Mongo Santamaria who was playing there. I met my best teacher, Steve Barrios, that night. By 1977, I was living and working in New York. I had a good job working for SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals).

When I returned home, I ended up getting a job with a pop band called Slow Train. That was 1979, and we were making $250 to $400 week playing clubs around Portland — and it was steady work. That's more than I make now playing music here! Then Nick Gefroh called me to play conga in his new band, Montuno, which was a strictly Latin group. Financially, it was horrible, but artistically it made me focus on what I really wanted to play. I was continuing my studies back home at Marylhurst College when, in 1985, I got a call from the band Nu Shooz. They were just taking off. We toured and recorded together.

Cuba: In '90 I went to Cuba for the first time. That was a watershed event in my career. There I met this group called Los Munequitos de Matanzas, a rumba group who've been together 55 years. I talked my way onto their first tour, telling them I knew lights and sound. I'm still with them, and this upcoming tour is my sixth. These are national tours in the U.S. (Smithsonian, Symphony Space, etc.). All through the '90s I toured with various Cuban groups. I'd go to Cuba, find a group, come back and set up the tour. I'd work on getting the visas, getting them here, and tour with them. This was like my school. Sometimes I'd play, but sometimes I'd produce. All the tours were part of a cultural exchange, there was always an educational component. We were always teaching at universities. Out of that, I was offered a job teaching Afro-Cuban Music at UCLA in '99.

Cuba has a rich history of African retentions. There's people from the Congo, Nigeria, Cameroon, Benin and Togo that kept their religions, their dances and music. Here in America it evolved differently, a little more convoluted. The drums were taken away, the languages were taken away, and they weren't allowed to practice it. So [people of African origin] picked up banjos, pianos,horns, and translated those African sensibilities onto European instruments, and lost a lot of what they had.

In Cuba they were able to keep all that. They were given little houses called "cabildos," where they were able to reorganize into their own ethnic groups The slaves would get together and practice their music and religion one day a week. The Spanish figured a happy slave was a productive slave. You can go and find religious ceremonies today in Cuba that will probably look a lot like they did two hundred and fifty years ago in Africa. The songs, the rhythms, the dances, the invocations are all the same as when the slaves came there.

I've played a lot of ceremonial stuff in Cuba. There's a set of drums called Bata, it's played for the ceremonies of Santeria (an Afro-Cuban religion that was preserved from the Nigerian religion). I've seen people get possessed by spirits during those ceremonies, stuff that I could never explain. I don't know how that 75-year-old woman that weighed eighty-five pounds picked up that two hundred and fifty pound guy and spun him around, then, drained a bottle of "151" rum and walked out of there like nothing had happened! I can't explain it, but the music was sure swinging, the chorus was rocking and everyone's moving.

Musical Influences: Mongo Santamaria (introduced to the idiom from him, learned by example), Ray Barretto, Nana Vasconcelos, Steve Berrios, Jesus Alfonso (leader of the Los Munequitos), Elvin Jones, and in some ways Coltrane. He taught me about stepping beyond the known, taking a chance. Coltrane embodied that spirit. (Miles Davis didn't, Miles knew where he was going all the time).

Most Satisfying Experience: I'm satisfied just to be able to sit down with like-minded musicians who take the time to listen to each other, accompany each other, support each other and have something to add. A particular instance was in the late '80s early '90s when I was playing with a band called Balafon. We did a gig for Mickey Hart, and all these famous drummer were there, like Olatunji, Billy Cobham, Zakir, etc. We were all leading them out of the lobby of The Sands hotel on the strip in Las Vegas, one hundred and fifty drummers just rocking! We emptied out the whole casino onto the strip and started this huge drum jam, it was like ecstasy. I've had plenty of moments like that.

Favorite Recordings: Cal Tjader "Latin Concert"; "Four and More," Miles Davis; Coltrane "Afro-Blue" and "Transitions"; Astor Piazzola's "Tango Fire"; Los Munequitos de Matanzas's "Vacunao"; The Beatles "Revolver"; Earth, Wind and Fire's "Greatest Hits"; and anything by the groups Los Van Van or Ritmo Oriental.

Discography: I've recorded with Nu Shooz, Tom Grant, Dan Balmer, lots of local people. From '78 to '95, I stayed busy recording in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I've also produced three instructional recordings of Cuban music. Currently, I've got an instructional DVD stuck in post production.

Gigs: I have a trio with bassist Al Criado, Cuban pianist Nelson Morales (a great Latin pianist, not really a jazz player yet) and myself playing two weekends a month at the Benson Hotel in Portland. In December we'll be there on the 4 and the 31. For New Years we're doing something different: the "PDX Latin Jazz All-Stars" (Al Criado, Ramsey Embick, Charlie Doggett, Dave Valdez, Adrian Baxter and myself) will be playing. (Bobby Torres will be in the Mayfair Room that night also.) The Benson is presenting music four night a week, mostly Brazilian and Cuban sounding stuff. I also play with a group called Caliente. It's a salsa band, and you can find us in a new place called the Conga Club, on Alberta and MLK in Portland.

Future Plans: After the group "PDX Latin Jazz All-Stars" plays on 12-31 at the Benson, I'd like to find a space where this five to seven-piece band could play weekly or every other week. I just have to find a venue for them. I think it's a great style of music and I think there's a big audience for it.

Other Comments: When you take a Latin cat and put them in a pop setting, they try and impose a straight-ahead Latin rhythm on that music, and lots of times it doesn't work. What you have to do is try and deconstruct what you know and figure out what fits. Sometimes all you might need is wood block and a triangle. Try and figure out what texture or color is missing, what part of the tonal spectrum is not being represented. As a percussionist that's what you do.

-- by Rita Rega