When you think of Latin percussion, think of Francisco Aguabella. Perhaps the finest Afro-Cuban master percussionist still living, he has become synonymous with his instrument — one of the highest compliments a musician can receive. Indeed, what Carlos Santana is to the guitar, Aguabella is to the conga drum. The conguero‘s long career dates back to the ’50s, and though he never has been afforded rockstar status, he has recorded with some stellar musicians, including Frank Sinatra, Cal Tjader, Hugh Masekela, Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, and Weather Report — as well as both Carlos and Jorge Santana (Aguabella and Jorge were members of the ’70s Latin fusion group Malo, best known for their hit “Suavecito”). However, unlike Carlos Santana, Aguabella’s best days aren’t behind him; if anything, they’re still going on right now.
On Ochimini, the old man again shows why he is considered a legend. It’s scary to think that a musician who has demonstrated so much skill in the past might actually be getting better, but that’s exactly the impression he leaves. His dexterous hands don’t miss a beat (or, for that matter, a backbeat or triplet). Aguabella’s playing is so fast and so smooth, it’s easy to speculate he could handle a traditional rumba number like the title track with his eyes closed. Tradition-minded he might be, but he is versatile enough to stretch out into a James Brown-influenced track like “Funky Cha” or a modern Latin groove like “Nuestra Era.” He also tackles an interesting reworking of the jazz standard “Love for Sale” with aplomb, and demonstrates rhythmically that he’s not too long in the tooth to be “Makin’ Whoopee.”
Backed by a fabulous group of musicians, Aguabella is in classic form on Ochimini. And while the reissue market continues to entrance today’s listeners with where Latin music has been, albums like this remind us that the genre is very much an active one.