How the rhythms came to be

Afro-Cuban drumming legend Ignacio Berroa straddles two musical worlds. 

By Sasha Barish ‘20

Growing up in 1950s Cuba, Ignacio Berroa was 11 when he started studying music at the National School of Arts. After attending Havana’s National Conservatory, he started his career playing exclusively Latin music and became known as one of the best Afro-Cuban drummers of his generation. When he went to New York in 1980, though, working with jazzmen such as Dizzy Gillespie, Berroa found the work he really wanted to do; playing with the greats of both Afro-Cuban music and jazz, he has been a part of two musical worlds and learned about their intersections.

Berroa will be in residence for a Learning From Performers presentation and performance at 4 p.m. Oct. 20 at Harvard’s Holden Chapel. The event is free and open to the public. 

Ignacio Berroa [right] and Dizzy Gillespie in 1989. Courtesy
Throughout his career, Berroa found himself in opposition to many misconceptions about Northern and Central American music genres. “Being a Latino, being an Afro-Cuban guy, I come to the United States and play with the greatest jazz musicians in the world,” said Berroa. “It hasn’t been easy, because people have the frame of mind that to be a jazz musician you have to be American, and when you are a Cuban guy you should play just Cuban music.”

Ignacio Berroa
Berroa has broken these stereotypes calmly. When asked if he had any advice for young musicians, he said simply: “Nothing comes easy. Perseverance. That’s what takes you to success.”

He also said that both musicians and audiences know surprisingly little about how modern Cuban music came to be, and don’t realize that Cuban music and American jazz have influenced each other significantly. “I’m trying to educate,” he said, referring to his Harvard event. “I’m going to show people the development of Afro-Cuban music from the arrival of the slaves up to now, and how the rhythms really came to be.” 


Support for Ignacio Berroa's visit to Harvard provided by the Bernard H. and Mildred Kayden Artist in Residence Fund through Learning From Performers, a program of the Office for the Arts at Harvard.