Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Around 11am on Monday morning, I arrived at the Hilton Hotel for Al Di Meola’s press conference only to find out that it was canceled. That evening, I attended a performance by Al Di Meola, the legendary jazz-fusion guitarist. Fortunately, thanks to my press pass, I was able to spend some time backstage before the beginning on the show. I did (very briefly) meet Mr. Di Meola, but, more interestingly, I was able to have a long chat with Gumbi Ortiz, Al Di Meola’s longtime percussionist.

Gumbi (pronounced “Goom-bee”) is a really funny and warm individual: although he is a celebrated and internationally famous percussionist, in no way did he give off an air of pretentiousness. After I explained the dynamic of my research fellowship, we had some really compelling conversations about drums and spirituality. As he was talking a mile-a-minute (and we were covering so many different angles of the topic), there is no way I can transcribe everything we discussed.

One of the more interesting parts of our conversation was when we were talking about spirituality in jazz music. Gumbi contended that jazz drumming is, “more revolutionary than evolutionary.” That is to say, unlike other genres of music, such as gospel, jazz does have any direct connection to “spirituality,” as in a formalized religious institution.
In terms of my project, he commented how important it is for me to have this exposure to the different genres of music around the world. Gumbi really helped me appreciate the fact that the Mawazine Festival takes places in Africa – the cradle of all music. Simply put, it is just really amazing to think of the festival in that context. It was a really wild, memorable experience just to be able to chat about my journeys this year with one of the finest percussionists in the world.

Gumbi, a Cuban-American born in the South Bronx, recommended that while in Cuba, I make sure to check out the “bata”– a form of drumming that fuses Cuban and Nigerian beats. He also said I couldn’t miss attending a santeria ceremony; to see how the music is used in the ritual sacrifices.

Moving on…

The performance was at the Mohammed V Theatre in central Rabat. It is a standard theatre, red-plush seats and all – nothing extraordinary. More importantly, the acoustics were excellent. Not surprisingly, the show was completely sold out. The audience gave the band a huge reception at the start of the show – Mr. Di Meola commented that it was truly a “heartfelt” gesture.

“Al Di Meola and World Symphony” consists of Mr. Di Meola on acoustic guitar, a second acoustic guitar player from Greece, an accordion player from Italy and Gumbi on hand percussion (darbuka and cajon). The darbuka is a North African hand drum; basically, it is identical to a djembe, with the exception that it is not made out of wood. The cajon is exactly what its name (in Spanish) indicts: it is a wooden box, and is commonly used in flamenco and Cuban music.

Because this was an acoustic show, most of the numbers were rather soothing. That being said, often in the middle of a “lighter” song, Mr. Di Meola would burst out with light speed riff – remember, he is most famous for being one of the fastest guitar pickers of all time. Surely, Mr. Di Meola has an unprecedented level of technical skill.

Unfortunately for me, overall, there was minimal percussion during the show; nonetheless, there were several times when Gumbi provided a prevalent beat.

For the encore, the group played “Mediterranean Sundance,” one of the tracks off of the 1977 album Elegant Gypsy. They performed for just under two hours in total.

Officially, cameras were not allowed – not even for the “press.” I was able to get a few shots and one short video in, so enjoy!

The great Gumbi Ortiz and myself.

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