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Paoli Mejías: contemporary conguero

Paoli Mejías: contemporary conguero

: Paoli Mejias. Photo by Alex Diaz Photography.

How did Paoli Mejías develop the super-fast hands he shows off in his five-conga solo? “I run two miles every day and then swim a long time,” says the self-taught 42-year-old percussionist, singer and bandleader who grew up in the Rio Piedras, the old university section of San Juan, Puerto Rico, spending much of his teenage years at jam sessions in its streets and beaches. “And I practice a lot, with a metronome to increase my velocity and sound.”

His physical regimen and metronome are perhaps the most mundane items contributing to the skill set of Paoli Mejías, who brings his distinctive sound to Cornish College of the Arts on October 5. He is a man with an irrepressible spirit, innate musicality and indefatigable curiosity, which he’s applied to the creation of an upbeat, original oeuvre.

Inspired as a child by recordings of established congueros such as Patato Valdez and innovative Afro-Caribbean ensembles including the Cuban band Irakere, Mejías bought his first drums at age 12. Although the conga player’s art, based on ancient African Yoruba rhythms, is typically acquired through apprenticeship to a babalu (priest) of the Santería religion, young Paoli took it upon himself to learn the vocabulary of drum rudiments. He was at work with some of Puerto Rico’s best bands even before connecting with Jose Ramirez, a Santería master who instructed him in fine points of the five basic hand strokes that comprise traditional conga technique.

“I’m not religious, though,” Mejías says, “and when there was a push that I join the religion, I went the other way, towards playing jazz. I respect the tradition and the traditional community, but I listened to Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaria,” both of whom brought their Afro-Caribbean heritages to progressive, secular sounds.

“My interest is in music itself,” explains Mejías, “so if I hear something I like and I can incorporate it into what I do, for me that’s okay. We have so much information from the Internet now. I use ideas about hand-drumming that come from Indian and Middle Eastern music. When I went on tour with Eddie Palmieri, I went to cultural performances whenever I could, to hear the music of Venezuela and Colombia. The drum patterns are sometimes different from the Puerto Rican bomba or to Cuban rhythms, but basically similar.”

In addition to touring with the Latin music maestro Palmieri—recently named a 2013 Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts—and many other notable leaders, Mejías has performed at Seattle’s Jazz Alley in 1998 and with his own quintet at the Triple Door in 2005. That ensemble is a jazz band as conceived and directed from behind the several congas he has chosen for their variety of pitch range and colors. Though his hands speed over the drum heads, Mejías is ever-alert to each instrument’s specific tonal characteristics. Differences represent to Mejías the possibility of doing something distinctive, which is his aim in collaborations with artists such as alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon on his most recent album and pianist Jovino Santos Neto, who will join him in concert at Cornish.

“I try to play, every time, new music, music of my own. I write only lyrics,” Paoli is quick to elaborate, “and call on other musicians to compose the music.” He’s proud that his students from the Conservatorio de Musica de Puerto Rico, where he has been artist in residence since 2010, sometimes contribute the melodies and harmonies. “I give my ideas about the rhythms, the feel of the fusion, and I try to do something special with my instrument.”

“My music is very up!” he enthuses. “Sometimes I have a moment that’s more tranquil, but usually it’s happy and energetic. For me, what’s interesting is the psychology involved in sharing energy. I don’t know if we will have a dance floor at Cornish, but I hope so. People dance to my music. Caribbean music is good for dancing. It’s the African influence.”

And Paoli Mejías’ style too.

New York based writer, journalist, and critic Howard Mandel is a senior contributor to Downbeat magazine and president of the Jazz Journalists Association.

Hear the Paoli Mejías Latin Percussion Ensemble
PONCHO Concert Hall, Kerry Hall, Cornish College of the Arts
Friday, October 5, 8 pm.
Tickets available online: $20 general; $15 seniors; $10 students and Cornish alumni.


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