“To me there’s only two kinds of music, good and bad. It doesn’t matter if it’s Latin or pop or jazz. If it’s good, I’m all right with that.”
Milton Cardona, one of the hardest-working drummers in all of music today, has both the ear and, after nearly 35 years on the scene, the discretion to play what’s good and refuse what’s not. He’s played conga and bata – and vocalized – with a gamut of artists that runs from David Byrne, Don Byron, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon, Reinhard Flatischler (Mega Drums), and Jack Bruce to Tito Puente, Papo Vasquez, and Dave Valentin. Cardona also has recorded well over 200 albums.
Cardona lives in the Gun Hill section of the Bronx – a tidy, blue-to-white collar residential area of one- and two-family houses of whites, Latinos, Caribbeans, and an African or two. Cardona lives comfortably, if almost modestly with his family in a two-story house with a small yard. Living room, music listening area, and kitchen make up the open parlor floor. The widest TV screen anyone has ever seen outside a sports bar dominates the living room, indeed, the whole floor. Beneath the screen is a printed sign, proof that the house is accustomed to visitors, with – one would surmise, risking reproof – a fair proportion of them musicians: “Please use our ashtrays, not our floors.” On the walls are framed posters from several of the more memorable shows he’s done and a line-up of just some of his Grammy awards.
Hours melt away as we talk comfortably, with Cardona never straying from his focus – his music. Interruptions come as he admonishes the Cardona’s playful poodle, gives fatherly instructions to his teenage daughter Carmen, and answers innumerable phone calls.
Cardona is a compact man just beginning to show middle age. A thick, drooping black moustache and dense eyebrows define his somber face. His arms are big but not mighty; they speak of one who has mastered rather than beaten his drum.
Milton Cardona has traveled the world, but lived nearly all of his life in the Bronx. His family came up from Mayaguez, Puerto Rico when he was five to settle in the South Bronx. He’s both a prodigy of the New York City schools and a product of the streets. He began to study classical violin in elementary school, but by his early teens, the Afro-Cuban rhythms of the streets had possessed him. Having moved on to acoustic bass in school, while teaching himself timbales at home, Cardona was learning congas and chanting and doo-wop from the street vets by the time he was in junior high school.
Mongo Santamaria is the only conguero Cardona cites as an influence: he was the real deal in those days, since he was from Cuba. But Cardona is quick to maintain that he cut only his baby teeth on Mongo: “When I was coming up, it was Mongo. He’s the one I used to watch and listen to. Until I got a little older and started hearing some other stuff, some stuff from Cuba. Nothing against Mongo, because I have a lot of respect for him, but, his style is not the style that I wanted. I guess that’s part of growing up. First you’re so much into one cat and then you’re going elsewhere and you go to other levels.”
As with most Puerto Rican musicians, in New York especially, Cardona has been infected with the traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms that have pulsed like a heartbeat through the streets, parks, and schoolyards of East Harlem, the South Bronx and other barrios since the mass migrations of Cubans and Puerto Ricans of the ’50s and onward. The rhythms are the scripture of Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion with roots mostly in Yorubaland, Nigeria. Cardona was initiated early on; Santeria is a part of his very fiber.
Upon initiation he made it a point to learn Lukumí, the Yoruba-derived language used in Santeria ritual and chant. “I always said, why should I learn the prayer if I don’t know what it means,” he reasons. “So I got into studying with [Babatunde] Olatunji’s son. I love to rap in Yoruba.” Cardona is frequently called into sessions for his chanting. One can’t help but see Cardona’s attraction first to doo-wop and then to chanting; both are influenced by the African call-and-response choral style.
Last year Cardona performed at a CD release party for Chesky’s The Conga Kings Jazz Descargas. He played percussion, mostly bell, to Giovanni Hidalgo, Candido, and Patato Valdez’s congas. Other artists featured on the album, such as trombonist Jimmy Bosch and trumpeter Chocolate, rounded out an outstanding group. The encore brought back just the congueros and Cardona, chanting. Even after such driving musicianship, the room – the rather anonymous B.B. King’s blues bar – became immediately hushed in deep spirituality.
When the question regarding Santeria’s profound effect presents itself, he responds in technical terms, distinguishing between a “commercial” 6/8 (“what you hear in a lot of recordings nowadays,” even what he’d learned from Mongo) and the 6/8 one learns from going to bembès, or drum-defined Santeria throw-downs.