Pla’s Elephant in a China Shop

By Irina Echarry, photos: Caridad

Pla with Maraca and Cesar Lopez

HAVANA TIMES, May 29 – Enrique Pla is a man of few words but of a very musical ear.  Since he was just a kid, he picked up on the melodies produced from his sister’s piano, and very soon earned the nickname “little drummer boy,” because he would improvise on that instrument for hours on end. He invented his own unique drum to begin his journey through the world of music, that of Cuban percussion.

After stints with different bands in his home province of Santa Clara, he made it into the Cuban Modern Music group and the National Symphonic Orchestra. Later when the band Irakare was founded, Pla was the drummer, with the rich polyrhythmic sound of Cuban percussion instrumentation and mixed it with sonorities typical of jazz and rock.  Along with other percussionists in the group, he made the batá and arará drums give a new expression to Latin jazz.

To celebrate his 60 years of life, Havana’s Museum of Music decided to pay him homage inviting several of his fellow musicians and friends to a birthday party.

With the title “Percussion or Nothing,” a photo exhibit was organized in which pictures of Enrique are shown along with outstanding figures of Cuban and international jazz, luminaries of the stature of Arturo Sandoval, Ivan Lynn, Paquito de Rivera, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Cesar Lopez and Ernan Lopez-Nusa.

Enrique Pla, top left, with the Irakere band at Ronnie Scott’s in London

Photos with the group Irakere include those of a performance at Ronnie Scott’s in London, shots with Horacio (“el negro”) Hernandez and Robbie Ameen in Times Square, and their performance at the Cuba-USA “Havana Jam,” a concert-encounter held in March 1979.

Guests at the museum could also appreciate Enrique Pla live, as he played drums with Cesar Lopez, who also offered a mini concert with his group Havana Ensemble and several soloists who joined in – such as Maraca with his flute, pianists Abel Calderon and Emilio Morales, and singer Sory.  Love songs, free jazz, a danzón and a bossa nova were heard, and – since it was a birthday – the musicians did a jazzed up version of Felicidades (Happy Birthday).

In the atmosphere of camaraderie that jazz emanates, musicologist and museum director Jesus Gomez Cairo presented Enrique with a portrait by Pedro Pablo Oliva, a native of Pinar del Río province who had walked the streets of Havana with him in their student days.

As Cesar Lopez highlighted, “It is an honor to give this concert for Pla. When I joined Irakere I was 19, and Enrique took me under his wing as if I were his son, on the tours and here as well.  We established a relationship of affection, paternal, one of respect.”

Pla with Pla

During his well-deserved tribute, when referring to Irakere, Enrique noted, “The drum is an aggressive instrument; it’s like an elephant in a china shop, that’s why I made an effort to play it acoustically and with restraint.”

Along with the group, he was the winner of a Grammy (1979) and nominated for that award on two other occasions (1980 and 1998), as well as the winner of the Egrem Silver Record (1979) and the Gold Congo from Colombia (1995). He has shared the stage with giants Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Max Roach, and in Cuba is part of the Ernan Trio and occasionally accompanies Yasek Manzano and Emilio Morales.

Congratulations to the “little drummer boy,” who with his drums and energy has shown how to combine the most dissimilar genres in jazz and Cuban music in their widest spectra.

Click on the thumbnails to see all the photos in this gallery