No congas at midnight? Something is wrong!

When Bobby Sanabria was growing up in the South Bronx in the Sixties,. if you didn’t hear conga drums in the parks and basketball courts at midnight…something was wrong.

GRANT’S TOMB, NYC — Bobby Sanabria grew up with music in his blood. “I grew up in the South Bronx during a time period in the Sixties when you heard the sound of conga drums all the time in the park playing Cuban Rhumba; you’d hear it at 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock at night, at midnight,” Bobby told me. “You’d be hearing it in the park, in the basketball courts… In fact, if you didn’t hear that, people would call up the police and say: ‘Hey, something’s wrong, I don’t hear conga drums like usual, like normal.’

So, today, Bobby is stunned when young black and Puerto Ricans kids don’t know the names of the giants of their own musical heritage.

Duke Ellington

“It really is sad when a sixteen-year-old kid who is African American tells me they don’t know who Duke Ellington is or if they happen to be Puerto Rican and they say, ‘Ah, who’s Tito Puente?’ There’s something wrong with that,” Bobby said.

“One of the things I’ve talked about is making jazz part of the history curriculum of every public school student,” Bobby said. “When they get to the fifth grade and learn about the Louisiana Purchase and all that, they gotta learn about jazz, which is America’s greatest art form.

“I’m putting it out there publicly. I’m very serious about that. I would love to talk to members of Congress to make that happen,” he said. “This music was born from the African American experience, but there is the Afro-Caribbean experience and there is also European experience, etc., etc.”

Tito Puente

Bobby himself is one of the legends kids should know about, especially Puerto Rican kids in his native South Bronx where his Puerto Rican parents raised him. He is a seven-time Grammy-nominee as a leader and is an incredible musical talent. He is a drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger, conductor, producer, educator, and documentary film maker.

His 2018 monumental Latin jazz reworking of the entire score of West Side Story, West Side Story Reimagined, was a 2019 Grammy Nominee for Best Latin Jazz Album and was named the Jazz Journalists Association’s 2019 Record of the Year.

Bobby’s exciting, upbeat music has two goals: Entertain and educate.

Bobby Sanabria on the drums with his Multiverse Orchestra at Grant’s Tomb concert. (John Wilpers photo)

“What we’re trying to do to is really convert people to the religion of jazz — America’s greatest art form—particularly the young people,” Bobby said. “I want to make it accessible but not dumb it down. I don’t want the audience to feel left out or alienated — because jazz people DO tend to be snobs! I am the opposite; I want to bring in more fans.”

Bobby’s music is not only accessible, it’s downright fun and infectious. The crowd at Grant’s Tomb was up and on their feet dancing before the first song was a few bars old.

With 19 pieces in Bobby’s band, it’s hard for his Multiverse Band not to be exciting. There are, however, a lot of bands that don’t have the vitality and vibrancy of Bobby’s band. Some jazz bands can be technically and musically exquisite, but they lack passion. Not Bobby Sanabria’s bands. They explode with passion.

Bobby Sanabria on the drums at Grant’s Tomb (John Wilpers photo)

“I’m Puerto Rican and my father was into jazz and Brazilian music and folk music,” Bobby said. “He was my best teacher. He exposed me to all sorts of music and taught me to respect other cultures. He’d say, even if you don’t like it, listen to it, and see if you can draw something from it.
“I first started playing congas in the park at 12 or 13,” he said. “I was influenced by people like Buddy Rich, and I saw great drummers on TV who influenced me more than Ringo. What excited me was the drummer, especially in a big band.”

Bobby takes great pride in his instrument and his music, and wants to influence other musicians, especially young ones. For example, at Grant’s Tomb, he noticed some kids in the audience. “I saw a lot of young people in the audience, and so I said I’m going to do something to really wow them on a virtuosic level, something they could relate to, so I used the double pedals, something that Louie Bellson developed first but their reference point is, oh, they see rock drummers doing that and heavy metal bands, so I took that direction,” he said.

“This is not music just for adults,” Bobby said. “It is sophisticated, but it is also visceral.”

A conga player in Bobby Sanabria’s Multiverse Orchestra (John Wilpers photo)

Bobby is a big name in NYC’s music circles and beyond. He is a multiple Grammy nominee, and has performed with a Who’s Who of jazz and Latin stars, including Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Paquito D’Rivera, Charles McPherson, Mongo Santamaría, Ray Barretto, Marco Rizo, Arturo Sandoval, Roswell Rudd, Chico O’Farrill, Candido, Yomo Toro, Francisco Aguabella, Larry Harlow, Henry Threadgill, and the Godfather of Afro-Cuban Jazz, Mario Bauzá!

Jazz Times critic Bill Milkowski wrote: ”Bobby Sanabria is equally adept at the swinging big band sounds of drummers Buddy Rich and Louis Bellson along with another boyhood hero, fusion pioneer Billy Cobham and timbale titan Tito Puente.”

Bobby is a force on and off the stage.

And wouldn’t it be cool if his dream came true and schools really did start teaching jazz history courses in fifth grade? I’d go back!

Bobby Sanabria, his mother, and GlobalRhythmns author, John Wilpers

Learn more about Bobby, listen to his music, and watch him perform:


West 122nd St & Riverside Dr.
New York, NY 10027, USA (map)


Since 1964, JazzMobile has delivered jazz concerts in NYC every summer. At Grant’s Tomb, in cooperation with the National Park Service, they offer concerts July and August and early September, on Wednesdays at Grant’s Tomb Park and on Fridays at Marcus Garvey Park.

Admission is free. I’d encourage you to get there early to get a seat near the band, and to bring a chair with you.

Contact Jazzmobile directly for information on performers and weather cancellations:
Phone: (212) 866-3616

Jazzmobile is the oldest not-for-profit arts organization created just for jazz. This jazz outreach organization presents, promotes, propagates and preserves jazz, America`s Classical Music, through education and performance programs.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Ed says:

    I also Grew up where Bobby lived not far from his playground .. South Bronx .. I also heard the drums call me out.. Sincerely i became a musician later on… But my roots were from the streets… Am a band leader now look me up. Kool Element Jazz Project.. Youtube


    1. John Wilpers says:

      Hey, Ed! Thanks for the comment! I went to YouTube and watched your 2019 videos! LOVE the sound!! Next time I’m in NYC, I’ll get in touch with you and perhaps I could catch a show and do an interview and a video with you!


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