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Music Notes: Carlos Eguis, a different drummer

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Carlos Eguis knows the powers of Afro-Cuban music. For 25 years he has played drums at santeria rituals, both in Cuba and Chicago. And his playing has helped inspire some things he can't explain.

"I know there's something there," he says. "I've seen things that have made me respect. But I'm not a religious person. I consider myself a professional musician."

Eguis, who came from Cuba in 1980, is one of the few musicians in the city who plays authentic Afro-Cuban percussion. While the Cuban rhythms imported to the U.S. after the 1959 revolution have been watered down over the years, in Cuba they changed little.

In fact, new styles of playing, like the songo, were developed, styles that, because of the U.S. embargo, few Americans have ever had the chance to hear. As a result, Eguis is in high demand as a performer, not only at religious ceremonies and nightclubs but also at cultural museums.

"Afro-Cuban rhythms are the most difficult rhythms to play. They are very complex and very fast," says Eguis. "Many people find them too hard to dance to."

The showcase of a Cuban percussionist's skill is the descarga, an improvisation based on the different Afro-Cuban rhythms--the rumba, the palo, the bata, the guaguanco.

Unlike jazz, which has a strong European influence, Cuban music has retained many of the original African rhythms and employs a variety of congas--the tumba, the tresdos, and the quinto. Bongos, guiros, and maracas are also frequently used.

Eguis specializes in the quinto. The largest and most difficult of the congas, the quinto has a wide range of pitches and has been likened to a piano.

"They say you can't learn to play the quinto," says Eguis, whose skill on the instrument has earned him the nickname "Carlos Quinto." "They say it's something you have to be born with."

Eguis learned the drums as a kid growing up in a Havana barrio. He always liked percussion and would bang on cardboard boxes around the house.

"An old man named Gregorio taught me to play. He used to play professionally at religious ceremonies," Eguis recalls. "I ran errands for him and never charged him. So he taught me the drums in return."

Carlos's apprenticeship lasted three years. By the time he was a teenager, he was playing in Havana's renowned Carnaval as part of his barrio's rhythm group, La Comparsa Jardinera.

"We started at eight at night and played until six the next morning. You danced while you played and all the time the drums were banging up against your kidney. The next day you'd urinate blood."

In a country famous for its percussionists, La Comparsa Jardinera was perhaps Cuba's best-known rhythm band. They were a favorite of General Batista, who had them perform at street inaugurations; and Celia Cruz, the most popular Cuban singer, recorded a song about them.

After the revolution, Eguis began to play on radio and television, and for government parades.

"After Fidel took over, things changed. You played for different departments of the government. Instead of walking, you rode on floats. Before, everything would stop for Carnaval, but under Fidel the festivals were scheduled so they wouldn't interfere with production."

Under the new Communist system, musicians were paid according to a set scale, and no more.

"For those without aspirations, Fidel's system was better. You were guaranteed a salary. But if you had aspirations then it wasn't so good. You made the same all the time. That's why so many musicians left."

Eguis was one of some 40 to 50 percussionists who left the island on the Mariel boat lift in 1980.

Once here, he stayed at the Fort McCoy Detention Center in Wisconsin. There, things didn't look good. You needed a sponsor to get out, and, with the negative publicity surrounding the newcomers, they were hard to come by.

Carlos was resigned to a long stay. If he ever got out, he thought, he would become a decorative painter, a trade he had practiced in Cuba. "I was 43 years old. And I wasn't sure I wanted to work the odd hours of a musician."

Then one day Carlos saw a sign posted at the camp advertising for musicians. He applied, was given an instrument, and joined a Cuban band. They played on the camp's radio station. Eventually, a nightclub owner from Madison heard them and became their sponsor.

Most of the percussionists who came on the 1980 boat lift settled in New York or Miami, where they helped trigger a renaissance of Cuban music. Eguis is one of the few who settled in Chicago.

In the U.S., Eguis has learned to play music from around the world. His repertoire includes 20 different types of music, which he performs on instruments he has collected from Africa and throughout Latin America.

"I was impressed at how many kinds of music you have to learn to play in this country," he says. "I'm doing fine now. I'm teaching and playing at museums, so I'm a musician without having to put up with a musician's hours. I'm making more money playing than I ever made in Cuba. I'm a lucky dog."

Carlos Eguis will perform at the DuSable Museum of African American History at 740 E. 56th Place (947-0600) during its Carnaval Festival Saturday, August 22, between 1 and 7 PM. On Sunday sometime between 3 and 6 PM he will give a demonstration of Caribbean rhythms with Conjunto Bembe as part of Carifest at the ETA Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. (752-3955). Both events are free of charge.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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