Drummer Ignites SoBe Jazz Festival

Ignacio Berroa Leads Trio In Some Of Fabulous Standards

Mike Nastus

On Saturday night, Grammy-nominated percussionist, and Cuban jazz legend, Ignacio Berroa took to the stage of the Gleason Room at the Fillmore as part of the Second South Beach Jazz Festival.

This year's Jazz Festival began Friday night, and beyond just showcasing world-renowned jazz musicians like Berroa, the festival’s goal was to raise awareness for those with disabilities.

For David New, the festival’s founder, the goal is not simply altruistic, but is intensely personal. Sixteen years ago New blind, deaf, and paralyzed from the waist due to a rare disease. Doctors told him that his condition was terminal, and he would never walk again, however, he did not listen to their prognosis and has since regained his ability to hear and walk, although he never regained his sight.

Ignacio Berroa.


Ignacio Berroa.

Although a different type of adversity, Berroa has had his share of struggle. He was part of the 125,000 Cubans who made the perilous journey to Key West in 1980 during the now famous Mariel Boatlift. He made the voyage so that he could pursue his dream of playing jazz music, something that became increasingly more difficult after the Communist Revolution in Cuba. Castro’s communist regime felt that jazz was a representation of the imperialism of the United States and so anyone that was found to be promoting it or playing was subject to harsh punishment.

Since arriving in the United States, Berroa has played with distinguished musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, Tito Puente, and Jaco Pastorius just to name a few. He has been nominated for two Grammys, and has made it part of his mission to educate people on Afro Cuban and Jazz music. His instructional video "Mastering the Art of Afro–Cuban Drumming," as well as his books "Groovin’ in Clave" and "A New Way of Groovin’ " display his passion for the subjects.

Given Berroa desire to not just entertain but to educate as well, the concert started unlike many others, with an hour-long lecture entitled "Afro-Cuban Jazz and Beyond." The lecture went through 400 years of musical history, starting when slaves were first brought to Cuba, all the way up to present day. Berroa masterfully and thoughtfully engaged the diverse crowd (which represented just about every age demographic), educating them on the roots of what we now call Jazz.

Ignacio Berroa.


Ignacio Berroa.

After the lecture the other members of the Ignacio Berroa Trio, Martin Bejerano on piano and Josh Allen on bass, joined Berroa on stage. The trio played a small intimate set of selections from their new album "Straight Ahead From Havana," as well as their favorite jazz standards.

The trio played four songs from their new album, which is a collection of 10 traditional Cubans melodies. The stand out song from these selections was “Nuestra Vidas.” The song was the only ballad played, and Berroa used brushes on his snare drum, which created a sound reminiscent of the crackling of an old radio. The brushes were also used in the studio version of the song, but during the live performance they added another layer that seemed to fit well with the overall history lesson that the crowd was receiving.

The trio also performed Thelonious Monk's "Evidence," a chance for Berjeran and Allen to display their musical prowess. Each took a turn to solo -- Berjano's piano directed the song through its ups and downs, and Allen's bass drove the song forward, ever keeping it in time.

The last song of the night was Dizzy Gillespie “Groovin’ High”, which held special reverence because Jan. 6 happened to be the 25th anniversary of Gillespie death. The song started with a wall of sound coming from the Berroa's drum set and didn’t let up until the last note of his crash cymbal faded. The performance of “Groovin’ High” captured why he is such a revered jazz drummer, as his four-way independence was among the best I have ever seen. All of his limbs were focused on different parts of the drum set, all playing at different times, yet in perfect syncopation. This feat is something that takes years to learn and even longer to master, and Berroa is truly among the best in world.

At the conclusion of the set he rose from his drum set to a standing ovation and wished for the continued success of the South Beach Jazz Festival. He left the crowd with one final thought saying, “We hope to be back again to perform… and hopefully we’ll see you all at the 2035 Jazz Fest.” We hope for the same. This was the second year for the festival. Branford Marsalis kicked off the event Friday night in a sold out show at the Colony Theater.

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