Milton Cardona, Keeper of New York Salsa’s Beat, Dies at 69
Milton Cardona, a Puerto Rican percussionist who was a mainstay of New York salsa, a studio musician on hundreds of albums and a Santeria priest who introduced sacred traditional rhythms to secular audiences, died on Sept. 19 in the Bronx. He was 69.
The cause was heart failure, said his wife, Bruni.
In Latin bands and at recording sessions led by David Byrne, Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock and many others, Mr. Cardona primarily played conga drums — generally not as a flashy soloist but as the kinetic foundation and spark of a percussion section. He was an authoritative advocate for some of Latin music’s deepest traditions; he was also a vital, innovative participant in many ambitious fusions.
Mr. Cardona worked with the trombonist and bandleader Willie Colón on and off through four decades and was a member of the singer Hector Lavoe’s band from 1974 to 1987. He also recorded two albums as a leader and led the Santeria group Eya Aranla.
Mr. Cardona was a santero, a priest of Santeria, the Afro-Caribbean religion rooted in the Yoruba culture of West Africa. Santeria invokes a pantheon of African deities with rhythms and songs that have filtered into the popular music of Latin America and the world. Mr. Cardona studied the Yoruba language to understand the traditional prayers he was singing. “I always said, ‘Why should I learn the prayer if I don’t know what it means?’ ” he explained in an interview with Drum magazine.
The rhythms of Santeria are traditionally played on batá drums, a family of three hand drums. Mr. Cardona brought the batá and its rhythms out of Santeria ceremonies and into secular contexts. After he played batá on Mr. Colón’s 1973 album “Lo Mato,” the sound spread through 1970s salsa.
Mr. Cardona released the first studio recording of a bembé, a complete Santeria ceremony, in 1986 on the American Clave label. He also played drums and sang in Paul Simon’s 1998 Broadway musical, “The Capeman,” which was infused with elements of Santeria. In an email, Mr. Simon wrote, “I had already researched the melodies before I met Milton, but he brought them to life.”
Milton Cardona was born on Nov. 21, 1944, in Mayagüez, P.R., and moved with his family to the South Bronx when he was 5 years old. He studied violin and bass, but the music of the South Bronx, including street-corner Latin jams, led him toward percussion. He worked as a studio bassist and percussionist in the 1960s before joining Mr. Colón’s band.
Mr. Colón’s singers included Mr. Lavoe and later Rubén Blades. When Mr. Lavoe began leading his own band in 1974, Mr. Cardona joined him, while he continued to record with Mr. Colón and others.
“Milton was an authority on the proper execution and the history of the drums,” Mr. Colón wrote on his Facebook page. “But that did not get in the way of him being progressive and an innovator.”
Mr. Cardona formed Eya Aranla — the name means “drums and chants” in Yoruba — to perform the music of Santeria ceremonies in public. Kip Hanrahan, a producer and songwriter whose albums sought a far-reaching cross-cultural fusion, recorded Eya Aranla performing a full Santeria ceremony and released it on his American Clave label as “Bembé,” an album with the crisp detail of a pop studio recording.
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“I remember Milton telling me he had to ask each deity for the permission to record and present the particular rhythms owned by, or partially defining, those deities to the secular outside world,” Mr. Hanrahan wrote in an email.
In 1999 American Clave released Mr. Cardona’s other solo album, “Cambucha,” which mingled Santeria music with rumba, jazz, doo-wop and more. The album’s title was also the nickname of Mr. Cardona’s daughter, Carmen; she survives him, as do his wife; two sons, Milton Jr. and Sergio; his sister, Milagros Cardona; and two grandchildren.
In the ’80s and ’90s Mr. Cardona worked with Mr. Byrne, appearing on his albums “Rei Momo” and “Uh-Oh.” In the early ’90s, he made a pair of jazz-fusion albums with an oud player from Lebanon, Rabih Abou-Khalil. He also had long-running associations with jazz musicians like the flutist Dave Valentin and the clarinetist and saxophonist Don Byron, and he worked with the celebrated Latin bandleader Tito Puente on albums including Mr. Puente’s 2000 collaboration with the pianist Eddie Palmieri, “Masterpiece/Obra Maestra,” which won the Grammy Award for best salsa album.
“I look at my instrument as wood and skin,” Mr. Cardona said in a 1991 interview. “They both have life, they both have a soul.”
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