845. Curaçao “Perculturalist” Pernell Saturnino

Paquito once said to me: “Pernell Saturnino is the greatest f*#%ing percussionist in the world, because you don’t notice when he’s playing. When he stops playing, you notice!”

-Mark Walker [Grammy-award winning percussionist]

… as in Paquito d’Rivera, the Cuban saxophonist/clarinet virtuoso, who shares the record for most Grammy Award wins for Latin Jazz with Chucho Valdés. 5 of Pernell Saturnino’s 16 Grammy-nominated collaborations have won the Grammy (his first came in 1997 for Portraits of Cuba, his most recent in 2011 for Panamericana Suite). If you really want to geek out, here are all of his credits from 1993 – present.

Pernell at a Jazz Festival in Italy.

I had the pleasure of meeting Pernell (50) through his awesome (and stunningly beautiful) wife percussion instrument maker and founder of Tera Percussions, Tatiana Saturnino. Aggressive dogs barking in the background notwithstanding, I could immediately sense that I was in the presence of genuine kindness. Though Pernell has enjoyed a long fruitful career, he sees that there’s much more work for him to do, particularly as it relates to developing Curaçao’s young musicians.

Pernell’s family pioneered our folkloric rhythm (Tambú). He was literally born into it, started playing at 8 years old; mostly Aguinaldo (Venezuelan Christmas folk music). His first instrument was the tambora (Venezuelan drums), then the conga, the chapi (a hoe), the tambú (traditional Curaçao drums), the timbales.  “I’ve always been fascinated by folklore music. I played in [one of Curaçao’s 3] folklore ensembles, Nos Antias, at 18. (I was the baby; the other musicians were 30-40 at the time.) We would perform locally as well as internationally. Back then most hotels and cruises would host live folklore performances. We’d travel 3 times a year to promote Curaçao (funded by the Curaçao Tourism Board). We even played for the Senators in the US Capitol in 1984!”

Pernell particularly enjoys listening to folklore music from other countries (Cuba, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, the Dominican Republic, etc)… but he has “perfected” the art of listening: observing technique, practicing different instruments. Beyond music, Pernell embodies the most awesome of all yu’i Kòrsou: the ruthless open-mind with an innate knack for relating to different cultures (folk music being what people create and pass down through generations, reflecting unique – often raw – cultural beliefs and values)

Pernell teaching a workshop.

(It’s no surprise to me that) Paquito’s base player approached Pernell, a student at Berklee College of Music in the early 90s, when he needed someone to play Peruvian cajón. Pernell had never played the cajón before. And he’s obviously not Peruvian. He borrowed the instrument, took it home, and practiced. “I surprised them. I managed to create authentic Peruvian rhythms… Paquito [already famous at the time] was impressed. That’s how we bonded. (…) My ability to understand and master culturally diverse rhythms has helped me throughout my career. When I play Samba or Bossa Nova, I can convince the audience that I’m Brazilian.”

Grammy awards and world-class international collaborations aside, 2 years ago Pernell decided to move back to Curaçao to do what José “Pepito” Reyes and Fundashon Instituto di Musiko (FIM) did for him many years ago. He teaches 60 students (as young as 6 years old) as part of Percussion Creed School of Percussion and he goes the extra mile to find our young ‘diamonds in the rough’ by auditioning in elementary school (Prins Bernard Fonds has generously agreed to sponsor classes for 6 of them)

Pernell teaching in elementary school.

In Pernell’s ideal Curaçao, music is introduced in elementary school and encouraged at home, “if you start teaching kids at 5-6 years old, it’ll be in their core when they reach a certain age, they’ll continue [to play], go onto conservatories.” In September 2012 Pernell organized a free workshop with the rhythm section of Paquito’s band who was in town to perform at Curacao North Sea Jazz Festival. Students were left inspired and motivated… to practice and perform. Pernell hopes to organize regular workshops hosted by world class musicians. “Have you seen Stomp? That’s an idea. When our Foundation is in place we’ll tackle things in an organized fashion. Eventually start a Samba School, a brass band.”

Pernell performing in Japan with Makoto Ozone, Chick Correa and No Name Horses Band.

Pernell has been and will continue to be a tireless exporter of our culture – particularly by playing the chapi (hoe) on international stages. “Our way of playing is unique and sophisticated… and audiences go wild! Funny thing is: our chapi is ‘made in Austria!’ [I buy mine at Kooyman! – local hardware store] (…) Cubans also play the chapi [to hold rhythm, like the agan], but our chapi is different, we create rhythm, we’ve taken it a step further…”

One of Pernell’s students, percussionist and KiT frontman, Roël Calister, killing it on the chapi at Lincoln Center’s Summer Stage in New York (2012)

It’s unfortunate that we don’t recognize how much [commercial] potential our unique culture has. Take Cuba. Cuba exports culture! People visit from around the world, learn Cuban dance, music, taste their food, dabble in Santería, despite their political situation… it’s their culture that keeps people intrigued. People will pay $10K to become Santera/o…!”

I leave you with Pernell & Friends performing “Ora Dushi” at Curacao North Sea Jazz Festival (2010)… Don’t miss his chapi intro!

About 1000awesomethingsaboutcuracao

I'm Carolina Gomes-Casseres, the creator of 1000 Awesome Things About Curaçao. I live in Manhattan but sometimes miss my first awesome island. Thanks for visiting!


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