Banda Iroko is a collaboration between Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen and Nuyorican conguero-vocalist Abraham Rodriguez Jr.
This is Jerusalem meets Loisaida (Lower East Side). Our point of view is that there is nothing better than when someone from one culture fully understands someone from another culture. That’s what happens in both directions with these two artists. They play like brothers, the Caribbean hero twins, separated at birth and reunited in jazz.
At The Blue Note
Banda Iroko plays the Blue Note jazz club in Greenwich Village; Tuesday-Sunday, April 25-30, 2023 at 8 & 10:30pm. From $47. bluenotejazz.com 🇮🇱 🇵🇷
Avishai Cohen is a prolific leader with 20 albums behind him. He is originally from a kibbutz in Northern Israel, with Spanish, Greek and Polish family roots. He was raised in the States and Israel.
Avi studied music at Jerusalem’s Music and Arts Academy and New York’s The New School. That got him playing with Italian American jazz pianist Chick Corea and Panamanian jazz pianist Danilo Perez. That is some pretty good education.
Abraham “Abe” Rodriguez, Jr
Abe has a 40 year background studying and playing with a long list of master drummers and musicians in New York’s Latin scene from the Golden Age of New York salsa to now. Recently that includes the New York Cubans Pedrito Martinez, the world’s 1st call rumbero, and Roman Díaz New York’s other important rumbero.
Rodriguez currently plays with Grupo Folkloric Experimental Nueva Yorquino, the Oyu Oro Afro-Cuban Dance Ensemble, and Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba.
He’s a good singer too, who carries on the doo-wop traditions of the streets of New York.
Like many Latin percussionists, Abe is a Yoruba babalawo (priest). He is Awo, a master of the sacred mysteries, with Orunmila, the orisha of wisdom. He is a student and godson of Afro-Cuban master percussionist Chanilu-Ana.
Abe’s religious background is important because singing, drumming and dancing is how we gather as a family and as a community. It is also how we pray. Abe can take you into the sacred rhythms or into the rumba, which is just a party. But if you are spiritually inclined, you will feel it in Abe’s music.
Afro-Caribbean traditions are a very rich and beautiful way to access the divine which resonates in all of us. We are all celebrating the same One, just with particular names and traditions. The blend of Abrahamic and Yoruba traditions is perfectly natural.
The Language of The Drum
Yoruba is a tonal language. The Yoruba drum mimics the cadence and tones in the language. So the drum is literally talking.
Interestingly, Avi’s bass playing has this same tonal quality. Avi has a singing bass. It’s a perfect harmony with Abe’s drumming. They really are an embodiment of the Caribbean hero twins.
Iroko, The Album
The opening song, “The Healer” sings “Awo mando.” We don’t speak Yoruba, but we think it means “the healer commands.” The refrain goes on “llama la” or “call it.” That’s what we do at the beginning of an Indigenous or African Diaspora dance. We call the divine to open to us, and for the community to open to the divine.
The African Diaspora drum is a healing instrument. If you don’t believe me, sit down right next to the African drum for a session and see what happens. You may or may not cry your head off, but you will probably feel very light and clean afterwards.
The album includes some Latin tunes and some Latin versions of pop tunes. They do a sweet version of “Fly Me To The Moon” famously sung by Frank Sinatra. It turns out the lyrics are not a bad description for an Indigenous Taíno areíto, Cuban rumba or Puerto Rican bomba community gathering around the batey, the sacred dance circle.
“Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars” is accessing the divine. It’s the call. “Fill my heart with song, let me sing forevermore” is the response. “You are all I long for, and worship and adore” is love in all its dimensions. That’s what music and the drum, and singing and dancing, and this album are all about. In any language, it’s just love.
The band’s lineup includes:
- Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez on drums and percussion.
- Yosvany Terry on saxophone and chekere.
- Diego Urcola on trumpet and flugelhorn.
- José Angel on bongos and vocals.
- Virginia Alves on vocals.
“Iroko” being released May 5, 2023, is co-produced by Cohen and Javier Limón.
Given this group’s pedigree, expect some surprise special guests wherever they play.
Latin Grammy-winner Limón is no stranger to Latin music. He is one of the most important flamenco producers. Limón produced a record for Buika that made her a flamenco star with “No Habrá Nadie En El Mundo.”
His production of the Cuban classic “Lagrimas Negras” with Diego El Cigala and Bebo Valdéz, featuring Paquito D’Rivera is our favorite version. He wrote and produced Nella’s debut album which earned her a “Best New Artist” Latin Grammy. Limón has the magic touch.
In Yoruba tradition, Iroko is a spirit who lives at the top of the Iroko tree in West Africa. Its hardwood is much desired. Iroko is one of woods used for the West African djembe drum.
But if you just cut down the tree for nothing, the Iroko will come out and drive you mad. So you better have a good reason and be ready to pray. This is a sacred tree, a tree of life.
These guys are cutting wood, so beware. Listening to “Iroko” will make you want to dance like you’re madly in love.