Francisco Aguabella dies at 84; Afro-Cuban percussionist

Francisco Aguabella plays the conga drums in Hollywood. He was "the master of masters," says Danilo Lozano, an ethnomusicology professor and former bandmate.
(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)
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Francisco Aguabella, an Afro-Cuban percussionist considered a master sacred drummer who also had a wide-ranging career in jazz and salsa, has died. He was 84.

Aguabella died Friday of cancer at his Los Angeles home, said his daughter Menina Givens.

His career “bears testimony to the existence and continuity of a sacred tradition in dancing and music that has been present throughout the development of popular music in the Afro-Cuban style,” UC Irvine professor Raul Fernandez said in his 2006 book “From Afro-Cuban Rhythms to Latin Jazz.”

Aguabella was a sacred drummer of the Santeria religion who left Cuba in the 1950s to work with dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham on the movie “Mambo.” He went on to perform with Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Eddie Palmieri, Carlos Santana, the Doors and many others.


“He was not a man of many words,” said Danilo Lozano, a professor of ethnomusicology at Whittier College and a flutist who played with Aguabella in the group Jazz on the Latin Side All Stars. “He was always teaching us through the drum, through the music.”

“He knew exactly what the music needed to make it special, and he was continually teaching us all about the wealth of musical expression,” said Lozano, who called Aguabella “the master of masters.”

Aguabella was born Oct. 10, 1925, in Matanzas, Cuba. At 12 he started playing the bata, a sacred drum shaped like an hourglass. He moved to Havana in 1947 and eventually started performing at one of the city’s leading nightclubs, playing every form of Afro-Cuban drum, Fernandez wrote. That’s where Dunham saw him. He went with her dance troupe to Italy for the filming and toured extensively with the group, eventually making his way to the United States.

“Almost all the people who learned to play the sacred drums had him as their teacher. He provided great continuity,” Fernandez, a professor in UC Irvine’s Chicano/Latino studies department, said Saturday. “He was the carrier of the tradition.... He was the only person in the U.S. who learned from Cuban masters.”

In 1992, Aguabella received a national heritage fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He also taught at UCLA.

“No one played like him; no one had the stamina,” said bassist Eddie Resto. “He carried on the tradition of Cuba by way of Africa.”


Trombonist Jules Rowell, who played with and wrote music for Aguabella, last performed with him last summer. “It suddenly occurred to me that his playing had a life of its own,” Rowell said Saturday. “Francisco was truly gifted.”

Aguabella was featured in the documentary “Sworn to the Drum,” released in 1995. “He was incredible, a wonderful musician and a great spirit,” filmmaker Les Blank said. “I think he felt honored that we paid him the attention and respect that he deserved.”

In addition to Givens, Aguabella is survived by another daughter, Martica Jenkins; sons Mario and Marco Aguabella; and seven grandchildren. Services will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at Holy Cross Cemetery and Mortuary in Culver City.