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Alex “Apolo” Ayala examines the musical, cultural and biological DNA of his Puerto Rican heritage on the deeply personal Bámbula.
Alex “Apolo” Ayala has established himself as one of the most distinctive and in-demand bassists in the jazz and Latin music communities of New York City. He is particularly well-regarded for his ability to marry modern jazz ideas with Latin-inspired rhythms. His new album as a leader, Bámbula (Truth Revolution), is a remarkable celebration of his ancestors and his Afro-Puerto Rican culture. In fact, you might say that with this record, he offers his original vision of the bomba, Puerto Rico’s oldest and purest musical form. Ayala also celebrates his ancestors and his Afro-Puerto Rican culture, ruminates on identity and race, and pays tribute to his late mother and grandmother. All but one of the tracks on Bámbula are original compositions, as the bassist artfully blends Afro-Caribbean styles with jazz language, making an impactful and impressive musical statement. Ayala recently spoke with JAZZIZ from his home in Brooklyn.
I wanted to begin by asking you about the title Bámbula. I understand it refers to the bomba, one of the most important forms of folk musics from Puerto Rico.Bomba is Puerto Rico’s oldest music form because it arrived with the transatlantic slave trade in the 17th and 18th century. Bámbula is a rhythm in the bomba realm. Bomba is like an umbrella or a tree, and in that tree, there are a lot of rhythms, and bámbula is what you call one of those rhythms, but it’s also a Kikongo word. Kikongo is the language of the Bantu, which is the people from the Congo. And the majority of the ancestors that arrived in Puerto Rico were from the Congo area, and they spoke Kikongo. Bámbula is a word in the Kikongo language that means remembering where you’re from, remembering a place long forgotten.Do you feel that people are still aware of the history of this music in Puerto Rico at large? And what does this music mean to you personally?Puerto Ricans, we are very proud of our culture. But because of the colonial situation that we are in, we were taught forcibly to assimilate, that our culture was not good enough, that we were not up to par with other cultures. And a lot of us had to fight to preserve our culture, our roots, our language, as well. These rhythms are an essential part of our Afro-Puerto Rican heritage. This album, Bámbula, is a celebration of Afro-Puerto Rican culture. It’s a celebration of Puerto Rican culture, but specifically Afro-Puerto Rican culture, and my journey to rediscover and to reach again my roots as an Afro-Puerto Rican man.So, basically, the bomba and bámbula have been around for 400 years.Yeah, 400 to 500 years.Did it continue to evolve in this period of time? And is it evolving still?Compared to plena, which is another Afro-Puerto Rican rhythm, not so much. … Bomba is a component of the Bakongo people, but also from a lot of our ancestors that escaped the slavery from the French islands, from Haiti, from the French Caribbean, like Guadeloupe, Martinique. The traffic was everywhere. And a lot of French-speaking people arrived in Puerto Rico, as well, so a lot of lyrics are in French Creole, mixed with Bakongo, mixed with Spanish. And the rhythms evolved as well during that time.At some point, I don’t know why, it stopped. You have very few musicians and very few people trying to dissect the whole thing and trying to expand it a little more. It has stayed in a pure way, a very traditional pure way, which is beautiful. I love it. But jazz explorations — not only jazz but further explorations of all these rhythms — with different rhythms from around the world, not so much. That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to do this project. I mean, this project is a component of very, very different things for me. But also the richness of these rhythms and the possibilities of these rhythms are endless, and I wanted to explore that also with this album.On this record, would you say that you offer your own vision of the bomba? Because after all, seven of its eight tracks are original compositions.Yes, absolutely.You try to find that balance too, right, between tradition and experimentation?Yes. I want it to be true to myself. And in this album, I mean, you have six rhythms of bomba. Usually, when people hear bomba, they only know one rhythm, which is sicá. But I have six rhythms in this album and variations of the sicá rhythm, three fourths and then five fourths. So, I want to be true to myself, and I’m like, “Man, there’s so much possibilities with these rhythms.” I mean, you have a tune like “Matriarca,” which is a bomba rhythm called cuembé, but you also have a lyrical melody, and so forth. So, I am being true to myself by keeping the rhythms somehow intact, but at the same time, experimenting with them a little bit like playing the rhythms in odd meters and playing the rhythms in a non-traditional way, and mixing these rhythms with other Afro-Caribbean rhythms, as well. All of that is part of who I am, and that’s one of the things that I wanted to express in the album.It sounds like you put some really passionate research into this music and into this project. How much of this research was motivated by your desire to discover your own self, your own identity and your own heritage?That’s a great question because this album is the end result of a long journey that started in 2019, when my dear mother passed away, God rest her wonderful soul. And later, after that, the pandemic hit, and then the civil unrest that happened in the summer of 2020 with the George Floyd murder. Then my grandmother also passed away after that. So, it’s been a reflection and a culmination of a long process for me.There was a lot of discussion about race in the summer of 2020 in the United States. But also in the Latino community, that subject of race has always been very touchy. A lot of people don’t talk about it, specifically in Puerto Rico. There was an indoctrination. We are mixed. Puerto Ricans are a product of three races: the Spanish, the indigenous Taino, and the African. In Puerto Rico, there’s also been a racial awakening, meaning that, “No, we are Afro-Puerto Ricans. We are Puerto Ricans of African descent or mostly African descent, and we are reclaiming our roots and we are reclaiming our heritage.”That was an important component of this album, but also the personal side of the album, which is a homage to my mother and my grandmother, as well, and all the trauma that I went through during that time. The triggering part of this album was that I took two DNA tests, those swab DNA tests. I took one generic one, but then I took what is called the African DNA, which just measures directly your African DNA. And the result was 99.6 percent or 99.8 percent, something like that, from the Tikar people in Cameroon. So, I was like, “Wow.” That was a shock and a revelation for me, meaning that, “Yeah, at some point during this 500 years, you are the descendant of a Tikar woman that arrived in Puerto Rico from Cameroon.” And that was a triggering point for me to sit down and write this music, reclaiming my culture, reclaiming my heritage, but also as a tribute to my mother and my grandmother.Did you draw strength from your discovery about your own self?Yes. I woke up every day and I sat down and I worked on this music. And every tune has a purpose, every tune has a meaning, and every tune has a story behind it. I did that for, I don’t know, maybe a month. I finished all the tunes in maybe a month. After that, it was just a matter of putting everything together.When did you first pick up the bass and what drew you to the instrument?It’s funny. I grew up in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. Here in the United States, they call it “the projects.” I’m the oldest of three kids from a single mom. Growing up in the projects, it’s a rough neighborhood, rough environment. After I graduated from elementary school, my mother wanted me to attend a better school, if you will. So, she arranged this mini tour around the city in San Juan. “You’re going to apply for this school that they specialize in math, and you’re going to apply to this other school that’s going to specialize in virtual arts,” and so on and so forth. “This school, you’re going to specialize in sports.”No school will accept me. But then my mother had a friend that knew the director of a music school in Puerto Rico, so they arranged for me to take a late admission test at this school two weeks after the semester started. And I went there and didn’t pass the test. According to the test, I have no musical abilities. But then my mother explained the situation to the director of the school. “This kid, he comes from this rough neighborhood. We believe that he has a future. Would you accept him still?” And the director said, “Yes, yes, of course. No problem.” And that’s why I started in music.I wanted to play percussion. Because they ask you, “What instrument would you like to play?” I was like, “Well, percussion, I guess. Right?” But percussion was already full because everybody wants to play the drums in Puerto Rico. So, the only two instruments left were the tuba and the double bass. And I saw the tuba, I was like, “Yeah, that’s a wind instrument. I don’t really feel like blowing no instrument.“It doesn’t look like a very attractive instrument.Yeah, I mean, it’s a beautiful instrument, but I didn’t know anything about music or musical instruments at the time. Only drums. The double bass was still huge, but it seemed more approachable. And that’s how I started in the instrument. I was 11 years old.What do you think would’ve happened if you hadn’t encountered music early in your life? Do you ever think about that?The other day, my wife asked me that same question and I told her, “I don’t know.” I mean, the other thing that I could have done is sports. Combat sports like boxing or mixed martial arts, getting punched in the face for a paycheck. But other than that, I told her, “I don’t know. I have no idea.” And that scared me a little bit.Your compositional skills are well showcased on this latest album. Is that the starting point for you? Do you always begin with the bass line or do you have any other entry point?I was thinking about this the other day, and I think that there are various approaches to composition or producing an album. Some musicians, they either have a deadline or, “I’m just going to write music. I’m just going to use this, I’m going to use that. I’m going to use all these elements that I’ve learned, and I’m just going to write tunes for the sake of writing tunes, or experimenting with the harmony or rhythms or whatever.” I don’t have that approach. If I am going to sit down and I am going to write the composition or produce an album, it has to have a purpose. It has to have a meaning.That’s why up until this point, from eight almost nine years since I moved to New York, I didn’t write anything. I didn’t make any albums, even though people were asking me, “When is your album coming out?” I was like, “No. It’s not the time,” because honestly I had no purpose. There was nothing that was calling me to sit down and write the tunes that had a story for me. I am not the type of musician that just writes for the sake of writing. So, when I sat down to write all these tunes, I had a purpose, I had a story, I had a meaning. Everything has a meaning behind it.That was my approach to this album, but also in general. I have my electric bass, I sit down, just fishing for melodies. “What melody catches my ear? Oh, this is nice.” And then I write the melody. It’s like, “Huh, OK. This is all going to be focused on bomba, so what rhythms of bomba can I use?” I have to listen to a whole bunch of rhythms. And also a lot of rehearsing with Nelson Mateo Gonzalez, the percussionist on the album. So, it was an exploration of rhythms but also, composition-wise, it was just a melody and the rhythm, and myself bridging both the melody and the rhythm.So expression is really important to you to the point where you don’t rush into any project.Yeah, unless I have a deadline or I have a commission. The other day, Antonio Hart, the saxophonist that I play with, he asked me, “Can you bring a couple of tunes for a show that we have?” I was like, “Yeah, sure. No problem.” If I have to do that? Yes, of course, I will sit down and I’ll just write something. But when it comes to my own project, my own expression of myself? No, it has to have a purpose, a story, something behind it. For the sake of writing something, unless it’s something commissioned, no. I don’t do that.You certainly assembled an excellent cast of players on this record, including saxophonist Ivan Renta. Can you tell us about your collaboration with him and the role he plays on Bámbula?After the music was done and all the shorts were in my computer, that was the next step, “All right, who’s going to play this music?” So, I started thinking, “OK, I would like somebody that knows the rhythms, that is familiar with these rhythms and can improvise within the language of the rhythms, but also in the language of jazz.” In other words, a bilingual musician. And that word, bilingual, that’s how I identify myself as a bass player. I’m bilingual. I can play both my music — Afro-Caribbean music, Latin music — and also jazz. So, that word, bilingual, was important to me. When I was thinking about the musicians on this album, they have to have that quality.So, Ivan, he’s been playing his whole life Afro-Caribbean music with a lot of people, but also he plays a lot of Afro-Puerto Rican music with Los Pieneros de La 21, which is the premier group of Afro-Puerto Rican culture in New York City. He’s been playing with that band for a long time. He has a vast knowledge of the jazz language, as well, so he was the first option that came to mind because I know that he can play both languages. And that was very important to me.Mateo [Gonzalez], he is the best Afro-Puerto Rican percussionist in this city, in my humble opinion. I mean, his knowledge is just amazing and the way he plays, the energy that he radiates, it’s the best. He was born and raised in the bomba and plena tradition. He was literally raised in the drum, so he was also a great option. But I told him, “I’m trying to pull you into the jazz world a little bit more,” because he’s got 1,000 percent the full coordination, but when it comes to the intercommunication of jazz and the openness and the freedom of the jazz possibilities, I wanted to pull him more into that side. “Be free. Just listen to what’s going on and just be free. Intercommunicate with us. Don’t just constrict yourself and don’t hold yourself into just playing the pattern in the drum.”It’s been a wonderful process for him and for all of us. The first drummer that I had in mind was a friend of mine called Joel Mateo, a great drummer. But Joel, thank God, is very, very busy. So, I was like, “Well, I’m going to have to go in another direction.” So, Fernando [García] actually has his own project going on from the longest time, it’s called Guasabara, and it’s also an exploration of bomba and jazz. I was watching a couple of videos and just talking to him, and just one session that we did, I was like, “Man, this is the guy,” because he understands and he can apply perfectly the bomba rhythm. Take that from the bomba barrel into the drum set. He can translate those rhythms into the drum set, and put those rhythms into the drum set. It was a perfect match for us. And we just kept rehearsing, kept rehearsing, kept exploring, did a couple of gigs, a couple of presentations, before going into the studio. And that’s how it happened.I wanted to ask you about the one track here that is not an original. It’s an arrangement of a classic song called “Las Caras Lindas” (“The Beautiful Faces”). Why did you decide to pick this particular song?This tune is a well-known song that was sung by an iconic Afro-Puerto Rican singer called Ismael Rivera, or Maelo Rivera. He was a salsa singer that was very popular in the ’50s and the ’60s and the ’70s, and this is one of his most famous songs. I picked it because it’s one of those unofficial hymns to the beauty of the Afro-Puerto Rican people, Afro-Puerto Rican culture. The lyrics and the interpretation just speak to my heart every single time I hear it. And it’s a celebration of the beauty of our culture, of our black Puerto Rican people. For me, it was a no-brainer. I said to myself, “I am not going to have any covers in this album except for this one song,” because the significance and the message behind it.There’s a famous tune called “Black Gold” in the African-American songbook. This tune is like a version of that message. It was very important for me to have it in the album, but if I’m going to have it in the record, I have to really dissect, and I have to sit down and do something with it. - Matt Micucci