Francisco Aguabella, Cuban MasterPercussionist, Dies at 84

The New York Times reports on the death of Francisco Aguabella.

Francisco Aguabella, a Cuban-born master percussionist whose impeccable rhythmic sense and drive enriched the recordings and live performances of jazz, salsa and pop artists for five decades, died on May 7 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 84.

The cause was cancer, said his daughter Menina Givens.

Mr. Aguabella’s main instrument was the conga drum, on which he showed remarkable versatility. Of the scores of recordings on which he played, Paul Simon’s 1990 album “The Rhythm of the Saints” is probably the most celebrated. But he proved to be equally comfortable playing with Frank SInatra at Caesars Palace or with the Dizzy Gillespie and Machito band at jazz festivals.

Born in the Matanzas province, Mr. Aguabella received instruction as a child in playing the sacred double-headed batá drum, often used in Santeria ceremonies. He moved to Havana in the late 1940s and worked in clubs there until the mid-1950s, when the American choreographer Katherine Dunham, who incorporated Caribbean rhythms in her work, brought him into her troupe and took him on tour to Italy, where he played on the soundtrack for the film “Mambo,” starring Helley Winters.

After that, Mr. Aguabella’s services were in great demand in a variety of settings and styles. Arriving in New York, he promptly recorded with the Latin music stars Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaría and toured with Pérez Prado and Rosemary Clooney. He spent much of the 1960s as a member of Peggy Lee’s band, but also did studio work with Ray Charles, Benny Carter, Nancy Wilson, Dinah Shore and others.

By the 1970s Mr. Aguabella was also much sought after, for both recording sessions and live shows, by rock and fusion groups looking to beef up their rhythm sections. Carlos Santana and Weather Report were the best known of the artists with whom he worked during that period, but early in that decade he even played on tracks by the Doors and Three Dog Night.

Mr. Aguabella began to slow his pace in the 1980s and eventually formed his own group and began to teach Afro-Cuban percussion at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In 1992 the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him one of its National Heritage fellowships, meant to honor outstanding folk and traditional artists. In 1995 he was the subject of the documentary “Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella,” made by Les Blank, who called him “a virtual Rosetta stone of African culture.”

Mr. Aguabella is survived by two daughters, Ms. Givens and Martica Jenkins; two sons, Marco and Mario Aguabella; and seven grandchildren.

The report appeared at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s