Sep 21, 2012

Henry Cole and the Afro Beat Collective: Roots Before Branches


 Drummer Henry Cole is at the forefront of a growing wave of jazz innovation and cross-cultural rhythm in the 21st century. With his flexibility, grace and sheer power behind the drum kit, he has proven indispensable to the sound of some of the world’s most acclaimed jazz groups, including the Grammy-nominated Miguel Zenón Quartet (Awake, Esta Plena, Alma Adentro]), Grammy winner David Sánchez (Cultural Survival), the Edward Simon Trio, and the all-star quartet “90 Miles” featuring Sánchez, Stefon Harris and Christian Scott. Henry is also asserting himself as leader of the Afro-Beat Collective, which releases its debut album Roots Before Branches in 2011. Drawing on the raw groove and momentum of Fela Anikulapo Kuti as well as the depth and complexity of modern jazz, Henry strives with the Afro Beat Collective to integrate all his varied influences, including Puerto Rican folklore, funk and R&B, jazz and Afro-Caribbean rhythmic traditions. The San Jose Mercury News praises Henry’s “explosively detailed” playing, and All About Jazz notes his ability to “make instantaneous, organic adjustments at every turn.” In an article for Modern Drummer titled “The Future of Drumming” (January 2006), Henry was cited as an outstanding young player to watch by illustrious fellow drummers Alex Acuña, John Riley and Antonio Sanchez. In a 2009 JazzTimes magazine feature, journalist Fernando Gonzalez explored Henry’s visionary approach, his translation of Puerto Rico’s street-style pandero requinto drumming to the drum set — just one example of Henry’s bridging of traditions and disciplines in the service of a unique individual sound. Born in 1979 and raised in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, Henry relocated to San Juan in 1999 to study classical percussion at the Conservatorio de Musica de Puerto Rico. He began his jazz immersion at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 1998, but soon returned to San Juan, where he became one of the most in-demand and influential jazz drummers on the island. There he gained pivotal, formative experience in the varied music scene of Old San Juan: “It was very small,” Henry recalls, “but it had all styles and genres, so it was easy to go from one to the other and learn from all. I was playing rock, salsa, jazz, electronic music, all in the same week. That’s college right there.” During this time Henry worked extensively within and beyond the world of jazz, with artists such as Giovanni Hidalgo, Dave Valentin, Jerry Gonzalez, Danilo Pérez, Branford Marsalis, Luis Marin, William Cepeda’s Afro-Rican Jazz, salsa artists La PVC, the rock band Vivanativa and many more. Relocating to New York, his current home base, in the fall of 2003, Henry received a scholarship to attend Manhattan School of Music and study with the great John Riley. Since completing his studies, Henry has performed with the likes of 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 and many more. He has toured throughout the U.S. and Europe, Mexico and Central America, Korea and Japan. Besides his influential work with Miguel Zenón and David Sánchez — entailing appearances at the Village Vanguard and other world-renowned jazz venues — Henry can be heard on such fine recordings as Personalities by the Fabian Almazan Trio, Christian X Variations by Soren Moller with Dick Oatts & Kirin Winds, El Alquimista by Pete Rodriguez, and Rocket Science for Dummies by the electro/neo-soul group Astronauts of Antiquity. His work with dancer and choreographer Noemí Segarra includes the evening-length collaborative piece “De Rumbo De Rumba,” premiered at the Hostos Center for Arts & Culture in early April 2011. Henry also performs with Cuban-born, LA-based pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, who records for Quincy Jones’ Qwest label. Henry is also a successful and sought-after educator, often substituting for his mentor John Riley at MSM and at SUNY Purchase College Conservatory of Music. His quartet has also taken part in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “Rhythm Road” (a.k.a. “Jazz Ambassadors”) program, which involves concerts, master classes and lecture-recitals for musicians. In addition, Henry has provided master classes and clinics under the auspices of Carnegie Hall, Marsalis Music and other institutions. He is sponsored by Vic Firth sticks, DW Jazz drums, Latin Percussion (LP) and Zildjian cymbals. On his debut album Roots Before Branches, Henry has assembled musicians on the order of Sean Wayland, Adam Rogers, John Ellis, Miguel Zenón, David Sánchez, Soren Moller, Egui Santiago, Rey de Jesús, Hérmes Ayala, Roy Guzmán and more. Henry’s Afro-Beat Collective pushes the aesthetic of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew in a strong Afro-Caribbean direction, while also melding Fela’s Afrobeat sound with a jazz-rich vocabulary: “I imagine Fela’s band with Wayne Shorter or Lee Morgan playing the solos,” Henry muses. His main goal is to see music as One World, a space beyond styles, reaching out to audiences of all kinds with a message of determination and unity.  



There is much to be said about a musician stepping out from his comfort zone as an accomplished and acclaimed sideman to record the music he hears in his head, never forgetting where he came from, but steadfast in focus of where he is going. Henry Cole has rapidly acquired an impressive résumé as a first-call drummer for recording sessions and performance tours. The compilation of all original music on his first release as producer/leader, Roots Before Branches, was inspired by none other than Afrobeat master Fela Kuti, demonstrating that there is a vast uncharted territory left to explore. The introductory refrains from "Aurea V." set the transcendental tone for an album where the melodic solo by saxophonist David Sánchez weaves against tribal drumming building to a turbulent midsection, and then back to a calm ending. Sánchez is featured on three other selections: "To Believe Without Seeing" and "Año 2010," both with poet/lyricist Hermes Ayala's passionate outcry of inner rebellion to outward revolution; and the stellar "No Eres Tu Soy Yo," with its chunking guitar counterbalance oozing genuine Afrobeat essence. As might be expected, there is high intensity drumming—not to overdrive the tempo, but to define the desired acceleration. "Solo Dos Veces," is Cole at his best, pushing the band to a frenetic pace—past an eerie organ, to an idyllic sax solo by John Ellis. "Musica Para Un Sueño," initiates with a Motown soul bass, setting up a banquet of pure electro-funk. Guitarist Adam Rogers wails on the rock-driven "Una Para Isabel," dedicated to Cole's wife and collaborator. These represent different approaches on how to keep exuberance in balance within an album's context. Cole's hometown of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico is honored in "Comienza." For years there has been debate on whether the bomba beat did actually originate from this area; nevertheless, Cole cleverly based this tune, complete with the mandatory call-and-response, on the historical hoyoemula bomba beat. He delves into Spanish formality with "Uncovered Fears," utilizing the vintage voice of poetess Mara Pastor set against a backdrop of classical strings depicting visionary romance. As a brilliant primary release of a promising musician, Roots Before Branches draws deep into Cole's musical foundations and influences, leading to the conclusion that the best is yet to come.  


Henry Cole is a unique musician. A spiritualist first, this aspect of his character informs everything else that follows. Cole’s music has a hypnotic effect on the inner ear, and it strikes deep inside the soul transmitting its powerful electricity to the whole body en route. Then there is that seductive energy that radiates from the skins of his drums, fibrillating at uncountable beats a minute as they are propelled by the magical wand like effect of his sticks as they strike those skins, eyeless, but leaden with the rhythms of heart and soul. In his first effort as leader on a record with a telling title, Roots Before Branches, Cole returns to the heart of his Puerto Rican origins, melding plena and bomba, like a medieval apothecary, with the giant root of all music in spirit—the Afro-centric beat that was so soulfully expressed by Fela Kuti of Nigeria, where Yoruba expression first grew and spread like wildfire throughout the Southern American part of the continent as well as the Caribbean and islands like Puerto Rico. However, Cole’s music is not without a goldmine of melodic content. This he gets from the late classical style of composers such as Bartok, who enriched music with folk forms, and of course, in the world of jazz, or Afro-American music that was first changed by composers such as the great Charles Mingus, who recreated the world of music by imbuing the idiom of blues and jazz with holy rolling spirituality, mixed in with mariachi, cumbia as much as he did with the folksy classicism of Bartok and Khachaturian. Likewise Cole’s music is infused with all that the folk world of Puerto Rico has to offer, mixed in with the world of Afro-American and European music. This is especially exquisitely expressed on two tracks: “Solo dos Veces” and “Uncovered Fear”. The latter piece incorporates masterly arranged strings that set the stage for the dramatic uncertainty in the harmony of a truly well-conceived piece. The deep energy of Henry Cole’s drumming comes from a singular ability to fond the rhythmic center of the music. Creating a wall of rhythm around this pulse, Cole wields a palette of astounding color and hue; these are energetically melded in a swirling motion that captures the very beating heart of the instrument through its variously tuned peripherals—snare, tom toms, bass and tympani’s—and he keeps the colors a mystery by tweaking the keyboards overdubs as he rotates his arms in wide arcs to strike various drums. “Solo” is a classic and it is so visual as to almost capture in moving pictures the energy and movement of his body as it lays siege to the drum set that he has such great command of. With magnificent performances from a large, well-oiled machine of a group, plus guests of the stature of alto saxophonist, Miguel Zenón, tenor giant, David Sánchez and guitarist, Adam Rogers, Henry Cole has left an indelible mark on music with a singularly memorable debut record, so aptly titled as to almost point in the direction in which the master drummer will be headed in the near future. 


It takes a certain level of self-confidence to name your band The Afro Beat Collective, as is the case with Puerto Rican drummer Henry Cole. Bracketing oneself under a particular musical style can be a risky move, one that may deter potential listeners and restrict the directions in which the band can develop, whilst potentially discouraging the musical evolution that is a theme of all great musicians. There is also the fact that the term ‘Afrobeat’ is synonymous with the man who invented, inspired and symbolised the music: Fela Kuti. The name of Cole’s band, whose new album, Roots Before Branches, has just been released, invites inevitable comparisons with the Nigerian king of Afrobeat and creates some lofty expectations to live up to.
For those unfamiliar with Fela and the original Afrobeat sound, it is a style with elements of funk, jazz and rock blended with traditional West African musical rhythms that originated from the popular Highlife music of the Nigerian club scene in the sixties and early seventies. When the young Fela visited the United States he discovered the likes of James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, while also becoming entranced with the revolutionary fervour of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Once back in his home city of Lagos, he fused these elements into his sound and with his band, the Africa 70, invented an explosive new musical form that became massively popular, with highly politicised lyrics attacking the political corruption prevalent in Nigeria at the time or a world order that kept African countries economically strangled while extracting the continent’s abundant natural resources in imperialist ransacking. With up to thirty musicians at a time, the archetypal Afrobeat sound is one of chaotic celebration of African culture laced with a seething fury that surges throughout the music. It is a sound utterly alive and kicking: the expression that ‘music is a weapon’ has never rung truer than with Afrobeat.

Whereas Fela was an undisputed frontman, as a drummer Henry Cole is the foundation and heartbeat of his music rather than the conjurer whose magic interweaves its multiple musical layers. In this sense he has more in common with Africa 70 drummer Tony Allen who has released numerous albums under his own name. Cole’s career began by playing Latin music such as Rumba or Puerto Rican Bomba, before developing an affiliation with jazz whilst studying in the US. His band are not the first to have looked to Fela Kuti and his ilk for inspiration and guidance, but whereas the original Afrobeat musicians came from Nigeria or Ghana, recent years have seen many groups emerge from the cities of North America, a legacy of the growing international recognition and influence of Afrobeat. Henry Cole & The Afrobeat Collective are the latest in a new wave that includes Brooklyn’s Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, The Chicago Afrobeat Project or Afrodizz from Montreal, each representing a continuation of the art begun by Fela Kuti and representative of the genre’s modern day appeal.

So how does Roots Before Branches measure up? As with all Afrobeat, this is an album that draws inspiration from across the spectrum, with aspects of hip hop, electronica, soul, psychedelia and Caribbean music, in addition to the staple ingredients of funk and jazz. Intro track “Aurea V” glides in softly with water effects, soft percussion, and lazy New York City streets sax, before suddenly erupting into swirling jazz-rock. It is a somewhat risky choice for an opener, its initial languid ambience a far cry from the frenetic intensity that characterises classic Afrobeat. The subsequent “Trabájala” punches in on more familiar ground, all grating guitars and demonic organ, with shades of Zappa, and vocalist Hermes Ayala’s growling refrains slashing a militant line through the mix.

The album goes on to dovetail through patterns and rhythms while maintaining a ripe vivacity. The music sounds fresh, a multicoloured range of styles injected with new urges and perceptions, reworked through a fusion of musical forms and some adroit technical ability. “Año 2010″ is a Last Poets-inspired slice of spoken word mastery, with Ayala again on the mic, that flourishes into the excellent instrumental “No Eres Tu, Soy Yo”, whose hedonistic tone rises and falls in exquisite brass-led dexterity, featuring the peerless David Sanchez on sax.

“Comienzo” lays a fat slab of bass over spacey electro to create a sweet harmonic groove, but the album drops off slightly with “Una Para Isábel”, whose overwrought guitar skits around but never really goes anywhere. Things launch back into orbit with the exuberant “Solo Dos Veces”, in which Cole’s percussive talents provide a scintillating platform for the Collective to shine. Experimental strings and poetry are on the menu in “Uncovered Fears”, featuring Mara Pastor, a tune unique in style on the album and a vibe that highlights the inventive vision of Roots Before Branches’ outlook. “Música Para Un Sueño” is pure mind-bending Afro-lounge and is the band’s grand finale on the record, with final track, “Solo”, seeing Henry Cole ripping into his kit in a well-earned indulgence that brings the curtain down on a highly innovative musical project.

Roots Before Branches starts out low-key but constantly evolves to transport the listener through a vast range of styles, emotions and concepts that alternate from the delicate to the breathless. The numerous extended solos and jazz scales may not be to everyone’s taste but this is an album that reworks musical forms and delivers them with a beguiling hook. Is it Afrobeat? Well, the slick production and absence of a lead focal point, a Fela-style ringmaster, means the album lacks the raw vigour that is so prevalent throughout the genre, yet the influence of the seventies kings of West Africa can be heard throughout. Regardless of your taste for the original music, this offers enough dimensions and ideas to make it a compelling journey.



1. Aurea V.
2. Trabajala
 3. To Believe Without Seeing
4. Ano 2010
 5. No Eres Tu, Soy Yo
6. Comienzo
 7. Una Para Isabel
8. Solo Dos Veces
9. Uncovered Fear
10. Musica Para Un Sueno
11. Solo

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