As a teenager, Michael Spiro had his mind set on one day playing congas with James Brown -- until his teacher gave him a recording of folkloric Afro-Cuban music. The young conguero was initially baffled by the layers upon layers of intricately syncopated rhythm.
"I didn't understand it," recalls the now-fifty-year-old San Bruno-based musician. "I didn't like it. I couldn't even find a beat, but everybody started at the same time and ended at the same time, so they must have known where the beat was. It's like good Scotch: my first taste may not have done it for me, but pretty soon it took over my life."
Spiro has been in the thick of the Bay Area's Latin music scene now for over two decades, with Orquesta Batachanga, Conjunto Cespedes, Mark Levine, Wayne Wallace, and numerous others, and he's played with Viva Brasil and other Brazilian bands. The crowning achievement of his career, Spiro feels, is a CD titled Bata Ketu on which he and his former student, San Diego-based percussionist Mark Lamson, both juxtapose and combine Cuban and Brazilian folkloric rhythms and songs -- with help from a cast that includes Brazilian singer-percussionist Jorge Alabe and Oakland-based Cuban vocalist Bobi Cespedes. Alabe, who speaks Portuguese, often sang in Spanish, and Cespedes, who speaks Spanish, sometimes sang in Portuguese. Spiro and Lamson spent three years in Bay Area, Southern California, and Rio de Janeiro studios recording the disc, which was issued by Bembe Records in 1996.
The impetus for the project was Spiro's realization that, despite language and geographic differences, there are profound similarities between rhythms found in Cuba and Brazil, and that they can be traced directly to the Yoruba people of West Africa. "For me, it wasn't a forced kind of attempt to do something with these two musics as much as it was a really obvious thing," he says. "There had been anthropologists that had made connections between Brazil, Haiti, and Cuba -- the African diaspora, obviously -- but musically, nobody had ever made them."
While the CD was created largely through overdubbing, Spiro and Lamson brought Bata Ketu to real life as a work-in-progress at Berkeley's La Peña Cultural Center in 1998. This Saturday at 8 pm. at Alice Arts Center (1428 Alice Street, Oakland), they and La Peña are presenting an expanded version with a truly international cast of 21 drummers, singers, and dancers. Regino Jimenez is coming from Havana, fellow percussionist Boca Rum from Rio, and dancer Jose Francisco Barroso from New York City. Jorge Alabe, who is featured on the disc, is traveling from New Orleans, where he now lives. Bobi Cespedes is currently on tour with Mickey Hart, but her parts are being sung by Sonyalis Cordon, who's flying in from Miami.
For Spiro, the most satisfying aspect of this unique cultural exchange has been the spontaneous interaction that developed between the Cubans and Brazilians. "Mark and I watched them take our idea and make connections and become friends and get creatively excited that these things actually fit. We just sort of sat back and watched these masters compare ritual, song, dance, drum, prayer, language. That's the most exciting part."
Tickets are $20. Phone 510-849-2568 or go to www.lapena.org
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