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April 30, 2018IM -
Percussionist Aldo Mazza of Local 406 (Montreal, PQ) is an Italian-born Canadian educator specializing in Cuban rhythms and music. With his wife, violinist Jolán Kovács, he founded KoSA Academy in Montreal. The educational program offers master classes in classical music, jazz, and rock, but stretches beyond North America to Europe, South America, and Asia. Of Cuba’s musical tradition, Mazza likes to say, “We’re not dealing with one music—a small island—we’re dealing with a musical continent.”
Mazza’s hybrid approach to teaching combines Cuba’s rich music with lyrical traditions of African, Spanish, and European percussion and rhythms. Along with music clinics and concerts, the academy hosts international workshops. Participants come from all walks of life and musical persuasions—students and professionals alike. Faculty includes virtuosos like Walfredo Reyes of Local 47, and Yves Cypihot, Eugenio Roberto “Kiko” Osorio, and Harold Faustin of Local 406, among others.
As a drummer, Mazza cut his chops in rock bands before studying classical percussion and jazz performance at McGill University. Graduate studies in ethnomusicology at l’Université de Montréal and attending international festivals, he says, opened his eyes. He found himself attracted to Cuban music and began to rigorously explore its language and vocabulary, the political and historical currents that shaped its traditions, and how music was infused into the culture. He found his true niche as an educator and ambassador for Cuban music.
Citing a few examples, Mazza explains that rumba and cha-cha-chá have different histories as do danzón and son. Influenced by African and Haitian rhythms, Spanish flamenco, Andalusian folk music, and European contra dance, Cuban music is a confluence of rhythms, dance, and ritual. “It’s the cha-cha-chá, mambo, and Mozambique—but there are Chinese and European lineages. When slaves were freed, they went to the eastern side of the province near Santiago, where rumba was developed. The conga, which is high-life music, almost Brazilian, is different from son, the root of so many Cuban dance rhythms. A huge repertoire of rhythms were invented in Cuba.”
Mazza, who until age nine lived in Italy, says his interest in percussion rhythms as a common language is a direct result of his early experiences. In Calabria, where he was born, contemporary drumming, funk and jazz, for instance, always incorporate traditional and cultural roots. The question is “How is the younger generation making it hybrid?” Likewise, he says, “Our Cuban trips and music camps are musical, historical, cultural—a deeper experience.”
Cuban rhythms have been absorbed into other cultures, filtered through other traditions, especially in the US, Mazza says. For example, Mozambique is played differently in Cuba than in the US.
Mazza started KoSA Cuba Festival Camp and Fiesta del Tambor (Havana Rhythm and Dance Festival) 17 years ago and has since established clinics and events in China, New York City, and Italy. Moving beyond music camp, it has become an immersive cultural experience. Several times a year, the week-long clinic brings students and veteran musicians together with top Cuban artists, for a program that encompasses visits to museums, religious ceremonies, interaction with Cuban musicians, jam sessions, and nightly concerts.
In recent years, KoSA Cuba has recruited top musicians to give master classes to Cuban students, like Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), who composed the score for the award-winning film Birdman and Rascal Flatts drummer Jim Riley of Local 257 (Nashville, TN). “It’s a good way to build a bridge,” Mazza says, adding, “In fact, Jim [Riley] was taking classes, too. He said, ‘Do you mind if I sit in a class—you know, we all have a lot to learn.’”
One of the most important components of the academy is the enlistment of elder-statesmen musicians from different traditions, who teach and pass down what they know. “It would be like Beethoven teaching classical composition. A lot of the people learning these rhythms and music are getting to the level where they can compete with Cuban musicians, which is a pretty high bar,” says Mazza.
In 2004, Mazza and KoSA moved the workshops to Matanzas and Havana, where they began a collaboration with Giraldo Piloto to help establish Cuba’s La Fiesta del Tambor in honor of Piloto’s uncle, Guillermo Barreto, one of Cuba’s most celebrated drummers.
KoSA also sponsors a national competition in which winners in five categories are awarded a Cuban percussion instrument. Through its nonprofit foundation, KoSA raises funds to help Cuban students acquire instruments not otherwise available.
In 2017, Mazza published an instructional book and DVD, Cuban Rhythms for Percussion and Drumset: The Essentials. He says, “Students are given a white canvas—beginning a discussion of the divergent traditions and the significance of how they relate to each other to make a more complete experience. Not calling things Afro-Cuban or Latin-Cuban, but accurately identifying rhythms on Cuban instruments.”
If musicians want to play Cuban music, according to Mazza, they all need to learn these rhythms. “In Cuba, that’s the way it is.” It’s about enlightening musicians and correcting myths. “Like Hollywood appropriating mambo with Desi Arnaz,” Mazza says. “We try to correct that.”
Mazza, who has worked with John Cage and Philip Glass, performs with the percussion quartet, Répercussion, which has been active for more than 40 years. The first Western percussion group to play in Beijing, they used to do 150 shows a year, but now perform exclusively for special events and festivals.
In 2015, Joachim Horsley, a composer and pianist based in Los Angeles, called Mazza. He wanted to write an authentic piece blending classical and Cuban music—a hybrid approach that Mazza fosters—and wanted to learn to play the instruments. Mazza recalls telling him, “‘I’ll become your conscience. It’s important that you keep the integrity of the music and not create some Hollywood mishmash.’ He did it right.” The result was Beethoven in Havana. Horsley and Mazza went on tour in Italy and France, culminating in a performance at Paris’s Folies Bergère.
Mazza is a featured guest artist with leading symphony orchestras, and can be regularly heard on television and radio broadcasts worldwide. Still, Mazza says, “There’s so much more to do. When I hear about schools closing down their programs I always say—repeating what I’ve heard in my travels—‘A village without music is a dead place.’”