Makeda Voletta At Club Camarada!


 Dancing The Mambo In Spanish Harlem!


 A Note On Cultural Fusion

There is much talk about the phenomenon of multi culturalism in the United States today, and those who oppose it view it as an ominous threat to the national identity of the nation.  Some of this fear is based on a long standing misperception of what the USA actually is…and is not.  You can see it most clearly in the signs and slogans of the so-called “Tea Party” movement,” an incoherent social formation composed of an untutored mob fueled by rage, racism and ignorance of the political realities contrived and stoked by professional Republican lobbyists  who call themselves “Freedom Works,” and financed by reactionary corporate plutocrats. 

Their most impressive effort at “Taking our country back” thus far is the Arizona anti-immigration law and the “Birthers,” those racist imbeciles who are trying to convince the American people that Barack Obama’s presidency is illegitimate, because he was not born in the US.  For these crackpots it is a recurrent nightmare every time they see Barack carrying out his constitutional duties as the Chief Executive of our government, and Commander-In-Chief of America’s mighty armed forces.  However, they are anachronisms, because cultural fusion and diversity is a reality in America today.  Nowhere is this truer than in America’s greatest City – New York.  Makeda Voletta, a native New Yorker, is an example of this cultural trend, for she is a true Multi-cultural American.

Although her family is African and native American, she was raised in the crucible of African American culture with no acknowledgement of her native American heritage.  This she would later discover as a result of conducting  research into her family history after she began dancing with Hispanic companies and the Latino’s – who are far more connected to their indio roots – began too inquire about her native American kinships; of which she was cluless but they were sure existed.  Makeda’s intellectual foray into her murky family past has enlightened us all about our American heritage, and made her ever more curious about the diverse strains of humanity that make up the American people. 

Growing up in New York Makeda heard the Afro-Latin music of the Spanish Caribbean, especially it’s most dynamic and influential sound – The Afro-Cuban Son Montuno.  That’s because Makeda is my daughter, and I have been playing conga drums for very near half a century.  Which means that I have been playing all of her life, over twenty years before she was born in fact.   I am crazy about the Son Montuno style, and the Latin/Jazz -New York Salsa styles that it inspired; I introduced Makeda to this music at an early age.

From the outset I identified the music – which is now universally called Salsa – as “Afro-Cuban music.”  This is because when I first heard it performed it was by the black Cuban students attending Florida A&M University, which had a world famous music program, having produced the likes of “Cannonball” and Nat Adderley.  It was clear that the Son was as much an Afro-Cuban  invention as  Jazz is the creation of African Americans – this is why when Mario Bauza and Dizzy Gellespie put their heads together they created Cu-Bop – Dizzy introduced the conga drums into jazz by hiring Chano Pozo – which is the true  father of all “Latin-Jazz.”   I loved the piano and the bass rhythms and I dug the singing – although I had not a clue what the lyrics meant; it was just music, like scat singing, and it was all good – but I was indifferent to the drums. 

Dizzy and James Moody

With Pioneering Afro-Cuban congero Chano Pozo


That’s because I was a rudimental trap drummer and was also studing the drum set, so the Conga drums seemed like crude Tom Toms to me, and I did’t quite know what to make of the Timbales.  But I liked the music a lot.  I began playing a few years later when I was living in Philadelphia and fell in love with a beautiful Puerto Rican Lady who was a dancer, and she introduced me to the conga and bade me play it.  I couldn’t even get a sound out of the skin at first.  A few days later she took me to see the Great Afro-Cuban virtuoso Mongo Santamaria…and my life has never been the same.  I became good friends with Mongo, and a life long devotee of the art of the conga – as a performer and avid fan.



The Dancer Who made Me a Congero


That was in 1962.  By 1966 I was good enough to subsitute for the great Mongo Santa Maria with his magnificent Orchestra.  The gig was at Pep’s Show Bar, a famous Philadelphia  Jazz Club in the Mid twentieth century, and I got to play with the band because Mongo was having his hands treated.   Since I know that the many variations my life has taken – Political activist, History Professor, Boxing Promoter, Journalist, journalism Professor, Congero,  Band Leader – are hard for many readers to believe if they don’t know me; I have provided a picture of that performance below.   And one can see my recent performances on Conga by checking me out on You Tube. 

The band in this picture is one of the greatest Latin Jazz Orchestras ever!  If you look to my far right( the readers left) you will see great Hubert Laws – the greatest flautist of the twentieth century.  Hubert was more versitile on woodwinds and reeds than Wynton Marsalis is on the trumpets and cornet – and that’s saying a hell of a lot, considering the fact that Wynton is the greatest trumpet virtuoso on record!  Hubert also played the tenor saxophone in the band and he was as soulful as his gifted brother Ronnie Laws.  The guy standing right next to me, to Hubert’s left,  is Bobby Capers; the younger brother of the great pianist and Professor Of Music, Valarie Capers. 

Which means that, like the Laws family – Bobby also came from a musically gifted clan.  Valarie’s genuis as an instrumentalist is all the more impressive because she is blind.   Marty Scheller is on trumpet and he was also the band’s principal arranger and Music Director.  Rogers Grant, who was also Afro-American, was the pianist; the great Dominican showman and virtuoso Timbalero Carmello Garcia rocked the Timbales as he executed dramatic dance steps, and the Mexican bassist Victor Venego held down the bottom as the pulse of the band. 

Thus Makeda grew up in a household where Afro-Cuban music was played as often as Rhythm&Blues or Jazz.  As a trained dancer – she began the formal study of classical ballet at the world renowned Dance Theater Of Harlem at Five years old and studied for nearly ten years – she naturally noticed all dance oriented music.   Acutely aware of the brazen racism against black ballerina’s, I introduced Makeda to modern black dance; taking her to see “Cityscapes, ” a modern black ballet performed by the Garth Fagan Dance company with music by Wynton Marsalis and his Orchestra.  That opened up her mind to possibilities outside of classical ballet; and as she was always a big fan of Afro-American vernacular dance, it didn’t take long before she began to be infected by the bewitching rhythms of the conga, timbales and clave! 

 Makeda, like her father before her, soon fell under the spell of this magical Afro-Latin sound…and the pictures below document the result of the kind of cross-cultural fusion that can happen when we approach each other’s culture with respect, and are willing to do the necissary study that will allow an outsider to participate fully in the experience – to speak the cultural language without accent.   The Mambo,  aka Salsa, is a dynamic, elegant, romantic, passionate mating ritual that allows women to be sexy with class, and men to be macho and graceful at the same time – like a bullfighter without the danger. 

Here, the worse fate a male can encounter is to prove uninteresting to your partner, since the man controls the dance.  It is the last living dance tradition in America where men and women truly dance together as partners, and Latin clubs are surely the last dance venue where you can actually dance to a live band on the stand!  Viva La Musica!!

Note: This dance, when properly executed, is improvisational; with the steps choreographed in the moment.  The stiffs on “Dancing With The Stars,” who pass off those awkward, mechanical, esthetic atrocities, as the Mambo – often without even using authentic music – should take note.  For in their cultural arrogance they are profaning a grand dance tradition.   This is the real deal…this is how it’s done by it’s authors, and only they can set the standard of authenticity and excellence.  On this night, in club Camarada, a Puerto Rican night club in Spanish Harlem, Miguel and Makeda tore the dance floor up!  If you listen carefully to the video clip at the end of this photo-essay, you can hear the salutations of approval from the crowd.  I just happend to have my camera and started taking pictures.  The whole thing happened on the spur of the moment…and they were magic moments.  (For maximum viewing effect of this essay, expand your screen  to 150%.


Playing Mongo’s Congas

In My Master’s Chair!



On The Clave!


Twirling On A Dime!


 Creating Geometric Complexities

In And Around the Beat!


Moving In Sync

Like Swiss Clockworks 


An Afro-Latin Pas de Deux!


 Workin It!


 Matching Each Other Step For Step!


 Without Skipping A Beat!


 Miguel Is Masterful!


Directing The Dance Of Magic!


 Dancing With Dad On His 67th Birthday!


Makeda’s First Tutor In The Art Of Mambo


Below are three video links:  The first is of the Chappotin Allstars, an Afro-Cuban cojunto performing A Descarga.

The second video is of Makeda and Miguel dancing

The third is of Myself dancing with a partner on the 4th of July.


Double click to see the Chappotin Allstars

Double click to see Miguel and Makeda Dance

Double Click and Watch Poppi Dance the Mambo!

El Chocolate Dances to Zon Del Barrio

Live in Central Park July 4, 1010

 Old School Mambo Moves!




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

August 24, 2010

* Photographs and Text by: Playthell Benjamin

*Except for the picture of Dizzy and Chano and the picture he appears in.

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