Snowboy, DJ, Mark, Cotgrove, Jazz, Funk, Fusion, Acid, Jazz, UK, Jazz, Dance, Afro, Cuban, conguero, latin
BY JOHN C. TRIPP
Belting out hot and saucy Afro-Cuban and Jazz rhythms has been the sole (or soul) mission of London’s fast-and-furious Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove for nearly two decades. His fierce interpretations of Afro-Latin music have gained him a global reputation for originality and authenticity. And with his 12th album, the aptly titled “New Beginnings” out now, Snowboy and his band, the Latin Section return in top form to keep the latin vibes flowing. Having been out of action as a conguero for nearly a year with an arm injury Snowboy is back with the band’s strongest album yet.
Snowboy’s history is a testamony of how far we’ve come and how things have changed in thirty years. His career stretches back to the ’70s when like many a soulboy of the time, he became immersed in U.K.’s Soul and Funk scene, of which he is still active as a DJ and journalist. Inspired by the legendary D.J’s Chris Hill and Bob Jones, he started as a D.J. when he was 17 years old. The young promoter would hire, monthly, the country’s most legendary black music club, the Goldmine. The Goldmine was voted the U.K’s No. 1 club for 12 years and was Snowboy’s grounding in Jazz, Funk and Soul. After doing 24 of these Wednesday events over the years, he found his collection was getting more biased towards the Latin Fusion that was prominent in the clubs in the late 70’s/early 80’s and Snowboy got interested in making all the ‘exotic’ sounds on these records (particularly by Brazilian percussionist Airto).
So after working a summer season as a pretigious ‘Redcoat’ at a Butlins holiday centre in 1982, with his bonus, the day he returned he went and bought his first set of Congas. After a year of trying to teach himself, Snowboy began lessons studying Afro-Cuban and Brazilian percussion with the U.K’s grandfather of Latin music, Robin Jones, whom he met at a Samba night at Londons WAG Club run by the legendary Jazz Dance D.J. Paul Murphy.
His first single “Bring On the Beat” was released in 1985 but it was the legendary Acid Jazz label that provided Snowboy with a platform for his first album “Ritmo Snowbo” in 1988. Acid Jazz released seven albums by Snowboy, and at the height of the so-called ‘Acid Jazz’ movement in 1993, he hit the U.K. Independent charts with the Latin Jazz album ‘Something’s Coming’, which nestled in the top ten right next to Depeche Mode and The Smiths!
Until recently, Snowboy was recording for the famous U.S. Latin Jazz label Cu-bop (a subsidiary of Ubiquity), and had three critically acclaimed albums with them. With Cu-bop he scored a world-wide club hit in 2000 with a version on Edu Lobo’s classic “Casa Forte” remixed by Joe Clausell. Snowboy is now proudly recording for the Chillifunk label. In 2003 he also had a joint Chillifunk-released single entitled It’s About Time’ with the Interns.
Unlike many of today’s overly polished Latin Jazz recordings , Snowboy’s album’s are non-stop Afro-Cuban jams and catchy Mambos reminiscent of the early works of Eddie and Charlie Palmieri and Tito Puente and show a firm understanding of the latin Jazz forefathers. In fact, Snowboy and the Palmieris are now good friends, sharing the tradition of great latin jazz.
The Latin Section are amongst the finest Latin and Jazz players. Various band members flex their skills as writers and arrangers on “New Beginnings” with vocals by the band’s unique drummer and timbalero Davide Giovannini. Also guesting on vocals on I’ve Got To Learn To Mambo is the legendary English Rhythm and Blues recording artist James Hunter. This a cover version of a big Rhythm and Blues tune from 1955 by Ivory Joe Hunter, and Snowboy’s version is the first single from this album.
Though it is becoming increasingly hard for Snowboy and the Latin Section to tour as a group, as they are all in such demand in their own right, the full power-house band will be joining Snowboy for a European tour with festivals in July and August. Mundovibes’ JC Tripp caught Snowboy (call me Mark), just before the release of “New Beginnings”.
JC Tripp: Hello Snowboy! It’s a pleasure to have this opportunity to talk to you. I guess the jump-off point would be in regards to your new recording. The title pretty much says it all. In what sense is it a “new beginning” for you?
Snowboy: Well, there’s many new beginnings because I wasn’t playing percussion for most of last year because of a wrist injury. I have osteoarthritis in my left wrist. And the hospital that did the test said that they didn’t feel there was anything they could do and as far as they were concerned that was it for my playing really. So, I saw some really kind of heavy-duty specialists in London and so I got to the bottom of the problem. I’m back to playing about 80% now, there are still a few things I can’t get back to doing.
It’s more to do with Brazilian percussion than Afro-Cuban percussion. I can’t really play pandera (a large Brazilian tambourine ed.) anymore, I can’t grip itproperly because where the arthritis it doesn’t allow me to grip it for too long. So, the fact is I’m back playing and I was very pleased that I was able to record the album and I was very pleased with my playing on it. So, that was a new beginning, so I’m back playing again. Also, I’ve got a new baby.
JC: Well, congratulations.
SB: Thank you. She’s only five months old and she’s beautiful. Also, a new record label, a new manager, a new publishing deal. So, there’s many reasons for it to be new beginnings, really.
JC: I had listened to your music here in the States through Ubiquity and I had great respect for all of your releases with them. And, you’ve really continued and upped the ante with “New Beginnings”. You always seem to grasp a certain energy. What is your primary objective with the music in terms of the energy?
SB: That’s a good point. I don’t quite know why and I guess as I get older it’s going to have to slow down. But, I didn’t come into this scene through the salsa scene. I wasn’t inspired to play percussion through listening to salsa records or Brazilian records. When I first started going to nightclubs in the 70s it was very common to hear next to the disco and the boogie stuff, the more up-front DJs would play jazz-funk stuff. And some of the more adventurous DJs started to play jazz-fusion tracks that were similar tempos to the jazz-funk things they were playing. And through that other DJs started being more and more adventurous with the jazz. And I found when I started going to clubs I was going to those clubs that were playing that kind of thing. And so I found that being an avid record buyer I found that my collection was swinging much more towards the latin jazz kinds of things. And particularly Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Airto Moreira and Poncho Sanchez.
So, that kind of stuff was getting played next to disco, soul, funk and boogie. So, it was a very good scene to grow up in. Of course, people would choose different records to play to that kind of crowd rather than what would be played to a salsa audience. So, I guess with my albums I’ve never really made an album conscientiously for the couples dancing. Although a few of the tracks I’ve made have been picked up in the salsa scene like off the last album Para Puente with “Los Rumberos de la Habana y Matanzas”. I know that did very well in New York at least.
So, really I discovered latin music through jazz rather than the other way around. And, in fact, I don’t know whether it’s going to happen but my plan for the next album is to do an album just in tribute to Coltrane. Although, apparently I’ve been beaten to it. I think there was a latin jazz album last year that was released in America of a tribute to Coltrane’s stuff but I think there’s room for two on the shelf.
JC: You did another tribute, to Tito Puente on the “Para Puente” CD. You just mentioned him, he must have been a pretty major influence.
SB: There’s no one like him and there never will be anyone like him. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book on Tito Puente, but it’s just staggering when you read his life story. He’s been everything from a tap dancer to stage dancing and a kick drummer. He studied orchestral arrangements at university and he just came up through the right era really. He’s just been there, he’s been at the top all the way through till he died and he still had that kind of fire in him. He just had that fire and I’m glad he never lost it. He was not having huge selling albums but it was almost like he was making records that he wanted to make, rather than worrying about what the market is for his albums. He knew his music was dance music, but as far as I’m concerned within Afro-Latin music I don’t think anyone ever made records as good as Tito. I think it was Tito Puente and perhaps the Palmieri brothers and then there’s everyone else after that. That’s my personal opinion, but I just hold those people above any other artist and musician, really.
JC: Well, another interesting thing about Tito is that he worked with La India, and did some crossover house music.
SB: He certainly did. I think he always kept young in his mind. He was always interested to see what was happening with club music, so that was very healthy.
JC: Getting into “New Beginnings” you Davide Giovanni on a number of tracks as vocalist. Can you give us some background on his involvement?
SB: He’s the drummer and timbalero in my band and he’s the lead singer in my band as well. Davide grew up in Trieste in Northern Italy. And he belonged to a group there that were interested in Afro-Cuban folkloric music and they used to spend as much as three months of every year in Cuba, just in schooling there or living with people to teach them things. So Davide moved to the U.K. about 14 years ago hoping to get more work as a drummer. I don’t know whether he was hoping to get more work in the pop scene or the rock scene or latin or whatever but I think that he felt that the U.K. was where the work was going to be. And it’s funny really because I still don’t think he’s as appreciated as he should be. A lot of the drum magazines don’t even know he exists and one day when they get a chance to see him they’re just going to be blown away. I think he’s one of the most innovative Latin kit drummers I’ve ever heard. You can just hear everything in there and everything is in its place and he doesn’t copy anyone else, he’s just got his own style.
JC: He’s definitely got a strong presence on the recording.
SB: Davide and also my bongosero Dave Pattman, they both really know the whole Santeria thing inside out, back to front. They both play to a ridiculous standard and know hundreds and hundreds of songs literally. So, that element to my band is very important and I’m glad they give that to me because I wouldn’t have the knowledge to be able to do that. I have the references for it but you have to spend ridiculous amounts of hours every day, really to get to that kind of standard just playing that.
JC: And you also have other roles: you’re the band leader and you’re an active DJ still. How do those all work together?
SB: They work well. I’ve actually been DJing longer than I’ve been a musician. I’ve been a DJ since 1979 and took up percussion in 1982. And I found that different times of the year and over the years, just different phases in my life, sometimes I’m busier as a musician and sometimes I’m busier as a DJ. And, last year if it hadn’t been for my DJing I would have had to get some help because I couldn’t make a living as a musician, just because of my arm injury. I’m more diverse musically as a DJ, because I write for a hip hop magazine over here which does some stuff on funk as well.
JC: Is that “Big Daddy”?
SB: Yeah, it’s now called “Grand Slam”, they changed their title. So, within those funk circles those people know me. They probably don’t even know that I’ve made any latin records they just know me for the funk side of things. It’s not often that I will do a club session DJing, where I would play latin all night. I certainly mix it up between latin and funk, jazz, soul. I think there’s a link and I just try and find that link between all of that music when I’m DJing.
JC: It’s a segmented thing, you rarely find a venue where people can appreciate a variety of music. Just being in New York, there may be a few places like Nell’s that people go for that. But if it’s a hardcore salsa crowd they’re just going to want to hear salsa.
SB: That’s right. I think it’s easier to some kind of salsa or latin jazz stuff, it’s easier these days, certainly in Europe, because whereas it’s totally natural in the U.S. because you’ve had salsa there forever. Obviously, in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, etc. Of course, we had this kind of salsa explosion about 10 years ago in Europe and all these dance classes and stuff. So, the average person on the street seems to have gone to a salsa class at some point or another. So it’s not so hard to play one or two of those records these days, just to an average crowd, as it would have been 10 years ago where as soon as they heard a Spanish vocal they clear the floor. But these days people have had a taste of it in the salsa clubs. Certainly over here, it’s the kind of thing that people might go their local bar after work and there’s a salsa dance class there. So, the secretaries and the office girls go down there and maybe some guys from the factory might go there just thinking that there’s load of women there. I think the average person on the street has heard a little bit of salsa at some point or another these days.
JC: Would you say it’s because there’s more latin culture in London or is it just an opening up of ears?
SB: I just think it’s down to the salsa dance explosion more than anything. The only thing that bothers me about the salsa explosion, not just in the U.K., is that a lot of the people that would go to salsa classes are the same kind that would go to line dancing class years before. People that like to do organized dancing and like to routines. They may do it once a week and not even think about the music until the following week when they go back to their class.
JC: It kind of degrades the music then, or it doesn’t necessarily elevate it.
SB: I’ve heard some shocking music played in some salsa dance classes. My God, how could they even dare dance to this? But there’s a very big Spanish speaking community in London particularly. There’s a lot of Colombians in London and there’s a very big Brazilian population as well.
JC: My wife is Colombian and I have spent a fair amount of time in Medellín. What surprised me is that salsa is not the most popular music, it’s vallenato. There’s an incredible diversity of music in that country.
SB: Oh, right, incredible. It seems to me sometimes in a lot of the latin American countries a lot of the people aren’t interested in their own folkloric music.
SB: People say that to me about Puerto Rico. But a lot of the youth just want to hear hip hop.
JC: Or reggaeton.
SB: Reggaeton, that’s really popular now isn’t it. But vallenato, I really love that stuff it’s really wild.
JC: Yeah, it’s basically country music now but it started on the coast.
SB: I’ve got an affinity with that because my first professional work was with playing with a Tex Mex artist from San Antonio called Flaco Jiménez. So, for about three years whenever he came to Europe I would do all of his European dates on percussion. You’d never dream of using a percussionist in San Antonio or certainly that part of Texas, but the guy who booked him also booked the musicians and he envisaged a percussionist in it. So, it was good for me because Flaco played on my second single back in ’86. And I’ve always got great memories of those days because of playing with Flaco. I loved it so much because of the accordian playing.
JC: In your career span there have been so many genres and movements. How do you feel about things in looking back in terms of the evolution and the changes?
SB: It’s funny because at the moment in this country there’s no kind of scene that I fit comfortably into. It’s got to the point where I just have to keep doing my thing. I think it’s going to be a while for my music to evolve into another style. I think it does it album by album, there’s no kind of perceivable difference from one album and the one before it. I just want the songs to get stronger and the musicians obviously their playing gets better all of the time, the song writing hopefully gets better. And we do more live gigs so hopefully that reflects in the albums.
A lot of the people who have been around in different club cultures over the years seem to have heard of me. So, a lot of different scenes check out my albums even if they wouldn’t necessarily play them in their clubs. And I’ve had all kinds of people, from drum and bass DJs to house artists or whatever. I’ve met most of the main people from all the different scenes and they all know of me or have heard my music at some point or have seen me live or even own one of my records, which is always quite amazing really.
JC: Would you say that you are bridging the divide between, say, classic Afro-Latin music and a jazz-dance sensibility?
SB: Definitely. I think my music is as much jazz-dance as it is Afro-Latin certainly. You know, sometimes people will say what about your music, do you think it’s different than other bands?’ I don’t think my music is different than any other latin-jazz group, although if it is it’s because I come from a different background really. As I said I haven’t come into it from the salsa scene.
JC: This is somewhat of a touchy issue, the whole legitimacy thing. Well here’s this English speaking guy’. As a conguero do you ever have people giving you a hard time about that?
SB: No, the only time I encountered it was when I was with Ubiquity because you get one or two reviews where people would pick up on that. All of that kind inverse racism in critical circles really makes me sick, you know? It’s now a small world. I’ll tell you this much, all through the 80s, when there’s was an embargo in the states with Cuba Irakere used to spend three months a year in London. They used to play Ronnie Scott’s twice a year, for three months every year. So, they would do workshops, give lessons. And Los Muñequitos de Matanzas came every single year. Los Papines, all of these people. We never missed out on that stuff, there was so much knowledge flowing around because people were just coming over and spending so long and giving lessons and having workshops. So I don’t think where you’re coming from has anything to do with it anymore, you know? You’ve only got to look at the Japanese salsa band, La Orquesta de la Luz. Their lead singer Nora has a fantastic voice, she sang it perfectly, but she couldn’t speak a word of Spanish, she didn’t understand what the hell it was. And yet for a few years they were possibly one of the biggest salsa bands in the world. An incredible band, I must say.
It’s weird to feel that you have to kind of justify yourself to do something that you love and that other people obviously like enough to want you to record it. And people like it enough to go and buy your records. And then you get some of these people saying how dare you, you’re not even latino’.
And I think the nicest thing of all is that I’ve become very, very good friends over the last five or six years with a Yale University professor, Robert Farris Thompson, one of the world’s most respected authorities on Afro-Cuban art history and music. Whenever there’s any new movement that’s Afro related he goes there he was the first person to document bossa nova. He’s in his 70s, he speaks Yoruban fluently and his books are the bibles of that music and yet for some reason he really really goes mad about my music. He’s gone out of his way to be friends with my family and at one point there was a club I was doing in London and he flew over monthly, so it was 12 in the year and he managed to make it to eleven of those. It was a Sunday night, he used to get there on Saturday evening, sleep, go to the club on Sunday and then he’d leave for the airport at 5 o’clock Monday morning.
JC: He’s pretty devoted!
SB: Yes. He said that he was getting bored of the same old thing in latin music and my music got him inspired again. I find that absolutely incredible that he would feel that way about my music.
JC: That’s a great testament of what you’re doing, really.
SB: Yes. He just finished a book about what is black about the tango, he actually found the black link in tango. And his next book is a history of mambo and the last chapter is just about me, which is just amazing to me.
JC: Well, you’ve been incredibly prolific and have developed a unique style.
SB: Well, people really love my music and that’s the best reason for doing it in the first place. It’s my career and I can’t do it any better than I’m doing at the moment.