Henry Cole’s vision of a 21st century Puerto Rican music

– By Don Macica –

Drummer Henry Cole is well known in the jazz world. The native of Mayagüez, Puerto Rico has recorded and toured with the likes of David Sánchez, Gary Burton and the 90 Miles project, and he is a permanent member of the Miguel Zenón Quartet. He’s lived in New York City for more than a decade, where he’s active in the city’s rich jazz scene, but when he turns his attention to his own projects, he finds inspiration back home on the Island.

His first album as a leader, Roots Before Branches, was a sprawling collection of funk rhythms, spoken word, folkloric percussion and jazz horn lines that all swirled around Cole’s inventive and powerful drumming. The band was called the Afrobeat Collective because of the loose jamming structure inspired by Fela Kuti’s work in the 70s and 80s. Their December 2012 Mayne Stage show in Chicago (it was presented as part of Agúzate’s Afro-Caribbean Improvisational Music Festival) was a concert highlight of that year.

Cole and his band, the 14-piece band Villa Locura, create what Cole calls Interstellar Puerto Rican Funk. “Villa Locura are inspired by my land and the things I miss when I’m away from my roots, away from the coast of Puerto Rico, the feeling of not having to rush and not feeling stress at all, just joy,” says Cole. “At the same time, there is a global influence on the sound, just as African music inspired Cuban and Puerto Rican folkloric music and that in turn became a basis for mambo and son, which then gave rise to Latin jazz and later salsa when it reached New York.”

Cole and I spoke a few weeks ago as he was preparing to release El Diablo, the first single from sessions that he and Villa Locura recorded at New York’s famed Electric Lady Studios. Those sessions produced over a dozen tracks that will eventually be released as an album entitled Simple. Cole gathered an international cast of musicians at Electric Lady, many from the jazz world, but also percussionists from Puerto Rico and Cuba.  Villa Locura, like the Afrobeat Collective, is a large ensemble, and here, too, there is space for the musicians to jam and build the songs together.

El Diablo
was written over 60 years ago by the legendary Puerto Rican songwriter Rafael Hernández, but Cole’s version was inspired by a recording of it found on Ray Barretto’s 1973 Fania album Indestructible, and it features the same lead vocalist from that record, Tito Allen. What Cole has done with Villa Locura is to locate the DNA that both the original Hernández and Barretto recordings share: The folkloric Puerto Rican bomba rhythm, then build the track back up from there.

The result is a churning and very funky track that retains the contours of Barretto’s horn arrangement and Allen’s vocals (which have aged into a rougher but deeply expressive timbre) but sounds almost entirely different due the corp of bomberos laying the foundation, Cole’s inventive use of the drum kit and twin electric guitars that alternately play in and around the melody. It finds time for a sizzling Fender Rhodes solo from Luis Perdomo before the horns come wailing back in. Meanwhile, Allen’s vocal improvisations are the sound of a man having the time of his life.

It’s definitely not salsa.

“My love for Diablo starts with my love for Ray Barretto which comes from studying my idol Giovanni Hidalgo,” says Cole by way of explaining his choice of El Diablo as the first release from Villa Locura. “If you study Ray Barretto, Indestructible is perhaps the first thing you’ll learn. If you play percussion, that timbale solo on (the song) Indestructible and all of Barretto’s conga solos are something that you’ll memorize and imitate. Ray Barretto is a master and Indestructible is his masterpiece.”

When I note that Indestructible and the prime years of Fania were over by the time he was born, Cole schools me on the huge ongoing presence of that music. “If you are connected to Puerto Rican culture and its music, you just can’t avoid Fania… the original Fania is for Latin music what Blue Note label is for jazz. Some music stays new forever. Same thing happens with all of Cortijo’s albums with Ismael Rivera.”

On equal footing with Fania in El Diablo is the 4-person percussion section that drives the tune. Three of them are Puerto Ricans playing bomba (among them is Beto Torrens, who you might recognize from last year’s critically lauded album by ÌFÉ, IIII + IIII) while the rhythmic accents come from a Cuban rumba tradition.

I ask Cole about folkloric traditions where he grew up. “Mayagüez is one of the most important cities of Puerto Rico regarding bomba and plena and at some point all major artists in popular music in Puerto Rico and in New York were from Mayagüez. So my background is very, very rich and powerful. But,” he adds, “when I was a kid I didn’t know that.  I was playing ska and all types of rock and Latin jazz. It was later on while I was in San Juan that I started exposing myself to folklore and I discovered that I have a profound love for it. Then I realized that some of the most important folkloric figures in Mayagüez studied with my family and that some of the younger exponents were even friends of mine!”

I note that Villa Locura and his previous band, the Afrobeat Collective, share many similarities, even some of the same members, so I ask Henry about the difference. “Having ‘afrobeat’ in the name of the group was causing confusion, as many people regarded that word as a style of play, a specific sound and pattern, whereas my intent was one of spirit. While it’s true that I was referencing Fela, I wasn’t copying him, because the Puerto Rican element was very important too. The name Villa Locura immediately takes my music out of the Afrobeat box. Fela is still an influence, but it’s not as obvious now. I’ve brought more of a Puerto Rican identity to the fore, and that identity represents the Mestizo culture that I am a part of: a mix of indigenous, African and European.”

Henry and I turn our discussion to the recording of El Diablo and other songs to still be released from Simple. Specifically, I want to know why he chose Electric Lady Studios, the facility created by Jimi Hendrix in 1970 that has since become one of the legendary recording studios in the entire world. Was Cole looking for the spirit of Hendrix?

“No, that wasn’t it,” says Cole. “Residente was recording there and I was playing on some tracks for his new album. I visited Studio A and the smaller upstairs studio the day before to check out their drums. And I immediately thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is a Temple. This is where I want to record my music!’ I was not going for the brand, the name or even the equipment. I went to see some drums and I just felt the space… It talked to me. I felt the space welcome me.”

Our conversation concludes as Henry needs to head to a rehearsal. He’s back home in Puerto Rico for a Villa Locura show at El Boricua in Rio Piedras, and there are also a couple of things to do to get El Diablo ready for release the day before the show. He’s rolled out something of his own self-designed Kickstarter campaign, hoping that sales of downloads and related merchandise like t-shirts and art prints will bring in money so that the rest of the Simple sessions can be mixed and released as a full-fledged album. The sessions were also filmed for a planned documentary. Henry played a few rough audio mixes for me, so trust me when I say, after hearing El Diablo, you are going to want to hear more.

Downloads can be purchased from villalocura.com, and there are autographed CD copies of Roots Before Branches available for sale as well.  And just think of how cool you’ll look in one of those SIMPLE tank tops this summer!