Chano Pozo, the Afro Latino who transformed jazz

Chano Pozo, the Afro Latino who transformed jazz
Fecha de publicación: 
12 October 2023
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Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month without including Afro Latinos is a discriminatory tendency many have made since this month was initially declared in 1968, so let’s take this opportunity to highlight a great Afro Cuban who was influential in the transformation of jazz: Luciano Pozo, better known as Chano Pozo.

Luciano “Chano” Pozo González was an Afro Cuban visionary who popularized the trio of son, rumba, and jazz. His younger sister, Petrona Pozo, has said that Chano was born on January 7, 1915, in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. After his initial start on 33rd Street, he grew up in the África Solar neighborhood. “This is where he spent his saddest time: He went through his greatest misery [living in extreme poverty]. He was here with his older brother and his partners Armando el Mono and Francisco el Africano.” 

This is also the neighborhood where Chano began touring the streets with the comparsas, or musical groups. And it was here that Chano was initiated into the African spirituality-based Abakuá Secret Society of the Muñanga foundation. Chano became an extraordinary Abakuá conguero and learned all the Abakuá rhythms, from the tambor obiapá to bonko enchemillá––variants that he would incorporate into his beautifully flowery conga solos during his magnificent performances.

The Cuban musician Pedro Sánchez said this about his friendship with Chano: “When we met––those were years of misery and unemployment. Chano didn’t have a steady job. He sold newspapers, shined shoes, did whatever came his way until Rita Montaner managed to place him at RHC Cadena Azul as a cigarette pack delivery boy. Chano, of course, was not content with that. When the radio station’s orchestra would start playing, he’d pick up a drum and play along with all the music being performed, no matter what the rhythm was. That was his professional beginning, we would say, and he had such a good connection with the station’s orchestra that any day he did not go to the radio station, they would send for him.

“Later he created, in the same RHC, the Azul group. He had previously tried out to be part of Casino de la Playa but was prevented from joining that orchestra because he was Black, and we Blacks were not allowed access to the exclusive centers.”

Cubop: Afro Cuban jazz

The historic meeting between African American trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo took place in New York in 1947. According to Gillespie, “When Chano arrived in the United States, I had my own orchestra, but the problem was that I could not find a good drummer, so I went to find Mario Bauza, who has been my musical godfather, the one who had even gotten me a spot in Cab Calloway’s band—the best in New York…I asked Mario, who was an authority on Afro Cuban music, if he knew any really good drummers. ‘I have a guy for you,’ he replied, ‘but he doesn’t speak English.’ That’s how I took Chano Pozo and I never regretted it.” 

On December 22, 1947, Chano and Dizzy performed together at New York’s Town Hall theater, playing the Afro Cuban drums suite; “Manteca” and “Tin Tin Deo” were some of the well-known songs performed on that unforgettable night.

Gillespie added: “Chano changed the taste of music in the United States, and I am glad to have had something to do with that phenomenon. Chano was the decisive factor in introducing and integrating Afro Cuban music into American jazz.”

Gillespie acknowledged that he and Pozo “brought Cuban music to the United States and were part of the reason for its expansion. No musician has had a greater influence—perhaps Pérez Prado, but the influence of Chano surpassed even him. Although he didn’t speak English, we understood each other immediately through our African ancestry, and I was with him until the day he died. His music lives on.”

From Chano to Benny

Fernando Ortiz, the scholar of Afro Cuban life, wrote an article in tribute to Chano Pozo, noting that, “[t]he impact of Chano Pozo’s music was so tremendous that at one of his concerts, a woman had to be taken away after she’d burst into tears and fainted. We think, without knowing the exact reason, that the rapturous rhythms of the drummer took her to a hypnotic ecstasy, as happens when the saints rise during a bembé religious ceremony.”

The Afro Cuban drummer, abakuá, and santero would die at a bar at 111th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York, on the eve of the day of the orisha Changó, god of thunder and music. On December 3, 1948, this son of Changó was sad and alone in New York. “It was still two hours before midnight when Chano entered the El Rio Bar. After greeting his friends, he went to the jukebox, for he had found a way to greet his orisha. Chano Pozo could not imagine that minutes later, he would be taken out of that place wrapped in two red tablecloths and with seven bullets in his chest.” His death supposedly was the result of an old score with a local bookie/marijuana dealer.

Chano’s story is not that of Machito or of Miguelito Valdés, each of whom brought distinctive Cuban rhythms to the United States. Chano had a direct influence on American music.

To close this brief profile of Chano Pozo, let’s allow Fernando Ortiz to express it with his fine pen: “Chano’s ancestors spoke through his drums, but so did all of Cuba.”

After the death of Chano Pozo, the great rhythm drummer Benny Moré wrote a song that refers to his condition as a drummer. In “Rumberos de ayer,” he said:

“What a feeling it gives me

“Oh, Chano…Chano Pozo has died

“Without Chano, I don’t want to dance

“May God rest your soul!”

Chano left us with extraordinary Afro Cuban compositions such as “Ariñañara,” “Zarabanda,” “Tin Tin Deo,” “Blem Blem Blem,” “Manteca,” and “Nagüe.” In Chano’s repertoire, African music was always present.


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