Multi-percussionist and Grammy winner Raphael Cruz was born on May 27th, 1947, in the Dominican Republic, in the town of Villa Vasque, located in the northeastern province of Monte Cristi. His parents arrived there from Cuba, later settling in Santiago de los Caballeros. While he was still very young, they moved to the capital city of Santo Domingo, where he initiated his grade school education in the “Escuela Chile”.
Young Raphael had always been drawn to music, so when the opportunity came along, he joined the school’s marching band, initially playing the snare drum, then the bass drum and finally mastering the xylophone. From there he graduated to the “Colegio Don Bosco”, where he continued his musical studies. He also played in that school’s marching band, while studying both theory and solfeggio, acquiring the necessary reading skills and technique that were needed in order to become a classical musician. By the time he graduated Don Bosco he had also mastered orchestral percussion. Although this curriculum did not usually include drum set studies, he mastered that instrument as well. Raphael was quite proficient on all of the percussion instruments, but it was his interest in hand drums that began taking him down a different road.
During the so-called “British Invasion” Raphael submerged himself deep into the waters of popular American music. He was particularly fond of rock ‘n’ roll. Eventually he formed his own group, which he called “Los X 6”. It turned out to be an invaluable learning experience for him. This band was greatly influenced by iconic American rock and pop artists like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Beach Boys, Chubby Checker and even Bill Haley & the Comets.
They played at numerous social events, and were even featured regularly on Dominican television, via “Teenager’s Matinee,” a show that aired every Sunday. The group kept getting tighter, until they had memorized just about every rock & roll tune known to mankind. They were the official “house band” for this very popular show, which ran consecutively for a number of years.
By 1964 American popular music had crossed over into the mainstream. Raphael was quite aware of this, as were most young people in the Dominican Republic. The American influence was evident in his choice of music. There was a certain type of assimilation that was typical throughout the Caribbean. Rock was the new sensation on the island, but exposure to the “typical” sound of Dominican music had also shaped his musical expression, along with an awareness of the ever-popular Cuban dance forms, namely mambo, guajira, bembe and cha cha cha.
Drummer and timbalero Carmelo Garcia was one of many musicians who left their mark on the emerging music scene in Santo Domingo, influencing just about everyone. Raphael soon became friends with Garcia, who passed on much of his own knowledge, introducing Raphael to the rudiments of Afro-Dominican music, including the rustic salve and palo rhythms, as well as the folkloric music of Haiti. Raphael learned all about the sacred religious music, with its roots in the Congo region of central-west Africa. During his adolescent years, much of this music had been alien to Raphael, but as he matured he grew closer to these popular strains. Under Garcia’s tutelage he began to understand and appreciate the significance of the folkloric traditions.
During his formative years in Santo Domingo, Raphael was exposed to a lot of great Cuban music as well. At home, his parents listened to all the great Cuban soneros and guaracheros, such as Arsenio Rodriguez, Trio Matamoros, Vicentico Valdes, Rolando La Serie, Beny More and Duo Los Compadres. He was fortunate enough to have heard such visiting Cuban artists as Mongo Santamaria, Los Munequitos, La Lupe, Olga Guillot and Miguelito Valdes, as well as the Puerto Rican bands, which visited regularly, such as Cortijo y su Combo, and later on El Gran Combo.
Cuban radio was very influential at that time, but there were also quite a few local public radio stations that featured various forms of Caribbean music, as well as the music of Brazil, the U.S. and Latin America. Like most caribenos, Raphael was enamored with the beautiful melodies of Antonio Jobim, Vincius de Moraes and Joao Gilberto. The exciting samba schools, the carnival ensembles and the jazz tinged bossa nova of Stan Getz and other North American musicians all contributed to his new awareness. Yet it was the heavily orchestrated sound of big band mambo that moved him closer to traditional jazz, and eventually to Latin jazz.
His first real jazz gig was with pianist Jorge Taveras, who was leading a trio at the time. Taveras was a very popular jazzman, and Raphael would learn much from his as well. Through assimilation, Raphael Cruz began to venture into an experimental wall of sound, incorporating everything he heard into his own pop/rock ensemble.
While still in the Dominican Republic, Raphael formed part of a trio with Orly Vazquez and Francisco Tirado, two Puerto Rican musicians who needed a drummer for a local engagement in Santo Domingo. They immediately clicked, playing what was then known as â€œacid rock.â€ Raphael returned with them to Puerto Rico, where he lived for ten years, expanding his musical awareness as he learned the African-based rhythmic patterns of that island.
Shortly after his arrival, the trio played in nearby St. Thomas at The Pirates Spot. From there they got an offer to travel to Mexico City, where they played in the famous Red Zone, a bohemian corner of aristocratic roots, something similar to New York’s Greenwich Village. The trio was called Kaleidoscope. In Mexico City Orly was replaced by Dominican guitarist Hector Gutierrez. They subsequently went on to play in Veracruz, as well as other Mexican cities. While in Mexico, they recorded an album for the prestigious Orfeon label. That album, which was made over forty years ago, is now being reissued in Germany.
After settling in Puerto Rico, Raphael became the consummate all-around percussionist, thereby assuring himself a steady flow of work. He performed with such luminaries as Lucecita Benitez, Julio Angel, Danny Rivera and Alberto Carrion, all of who were influenced by American rock music. They each also embraced the traditional jibaro style, plus a ‘tropicalized’ version of the nueva trova, a movement in Cuban music that emerged around 1967, which was related to the ‘nueva canciÃ³n’ of Latin America, especially Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
Simultaneously, names like Coltrane, Parker, Gillespie and Monk had became household words among the up and coming musicians. Raphael mingled feely with the in-crowd, which dug these contemporary sounds. He began collecting vinyl albums, which he purchased at a local record store that catered to the islandâ€™s jazz set. It was all coming to him second hand. But at least he was getting his first taste of hip jazz.
“Funk” was in also the tropical air and it was penetrating the old vanguard. It was this point that Raphael formed his first band, Raices, in 1976, with fellow islanders Monchi Sifre, Roberto “Pura” Cazar, Carlos Melendez and Amaury Lopez, all of whom were swimming the same musical currents as Raphael. Shortly after their first gig together Raices was off to Miami to record at Criteria Studios for Brian Epstein’s Nemperor Records. Raices’ executive producer was Nat Weiss, the lawyer for the Beatles. Things were looking good for them.
After the Raices album Raphael decided to stay in New York where he worked the metropolitan club-circuit for about three years. As a group, Raices did not last very long. But within a relatively short period of time they did manage to get booked in all the top clubs in New York, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut. In 1977 they opened at the Dr. Pepper Jazz Festival in Central Park for the great Miles Davis, and garnered some rave reviews from the New York press.
Raphael went on to become a studio musician, working for the all the major labels, such as Warner Bros., Arista, CBS and a host of others. He toured with the likes of Stanley Turrentine, Herbie Mann, Dr. John, Carly Simon, Bette Midler and of course The Crusaders, who kept him busy all year round. He didnâ€™t tour exclusively, because studio work was quite lucrative at the time. Raphael was privileged to have recorded some great music alongside the likes of Steve Gadd, Jack DeJohnette, Ray Barretto and Ralph MacDonald. On stage he was featured with such notables as Mongo SantamarÃa, George Benson, Paquito D’Rivera, Herbie Mann, McCoy Tyner, Bette Midler, Flora Purim and Chaka Khan. He also managed to work a few of the Broadway shows before returning once again to Puerto Rico, where he formed a quintet along with Ender Dueno, and Eddie “Guagua” Rivera.
During his second stay on the island Raphael received a call from percussionist Mark Sanders in New Orleans, asking him if he wanted to work with Sanders’ band Caliente. He immediately accepted. That decision led to his leaving the island permanently. He relocated to the birthplace of jazz where he lived for about four years performing in the company of such notables as Dr. John and the renowned pianist Ellis Marsalis. Raphael was maturing in an environment that was exposing him to the best musical traditions and practices of that historical city. His first gig in the Crescent City was with the Neville Brothers at the 1984 World’s Fair.
Finding himself in a very privileged position, he absorbed the music that had by now become such an integral part of his life. Harry Connick, Jr. was Raphael’s pianist during that period, whenever he led a Latin jazz group in New Orleans. The group played locally in all the clubs in the city and would prove to be the prototype for the band that he now fronts. This was the group that more or less established Raphael in New Orleans. He felt comfortable there. But at the same time he was still searching for a particular sound that kept spinning around in his mind. Three years later Raphael returned to New York City and began to seek out the musicians who would eventually make his new sound a reality.
During the 1980s, an era that was actually quite grim for Latin-flavored jazz, Raphael nearly dropped out of the scene. But thanks to an incredible resurgence in this type of music he began appearing regularly in clubs, theaters and concert halls, headlining in such venues as Town Hall, CBGB’s Gallery, The Blue Note, Birdland, The Zinc Bar, New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, and many other venues that catered to jazz and related forms.
He traveled abroad, often fronting a quintet made up of a who’s who in jazz, and surfaced again in New York at the tail end of the 1990s. Returning to the studio in 1998, he organized a group of excellent young musicians, recording his first date as a leader. The result was the very creative “A Mano,” which was released a year later. It was labor of love for all involved. The entire CD was recorded in one 14-hour session, with minimal overdubs. Memorable versions of “Stella By Starlight,” “Night and Day,” “Body and Soul,” and “Footprints” were recorded. Even Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” got the Raphael Cruz treatment.
Throughout the next decade, an extraordinary amount of jazz hit the New York area. Yet Latin jazz remained marginalized. Raphael Cruz was definitely on his way. It was truly satisfying to have had such an institution out there. His second production, “Bebop Timba,” won him the prestigious Grammy award for musical excellence in 2004. It won the coveted prize for the “Best Latin Jazz Recording.” It is rich in beauty, nuance, controlled passion and unadulterated rhythm.
His most recent endeavor; “Time Travel,” is equally satisfying and includes quite an impressive guest list of stars: Sonny Fortune, Claudio Roditi, Dave Valentin, Raleph Vowen, Danilo Aviles, Stefan Held, Manuel Valera, Sergio Brandau, Pablo Vergara, Greg Murphy, Roman Diaz, Giovanni Valladares, Diego Lopez, Alexis Zayas, Victor Prieto, with special appearances by vocalists Pedro Martinez, David Oquendo and Chico Alvarez. This high-end production was handled by Raphael and Luis Damian Guell, who recorded and mastered all of
Raphael’s albums. Starting with “Bebop Timba,” Guell had a more direct hand in the way the music was recorded. The result has been sheer magic.
Mr. Cruz currently resides with his family in North Bergen, NJ, and is a very active member of the arts community in the Hudson County area, often touring outside the area as well. To most of his friends and colleagues however, he is simply known as “Raffi.” His work as an innovative leader and producer is not yet finished. More projects are on the horizon. Meanwhile he continues to perform with his group and can be heard regularly in Asbury Park’s favorite jazz spot, Moonstruck. To his credit he has surrounded himself with a crew of equally adept musicians such as Ariel de La Portilla, Enrique Henaine, Manuel Valera and Diego Lopez, who form the nucleus of his working unit. Collectively they conjure up feelings that are refined and deep, hot and sensual.