Attuned to the Heartbeat – A Discussion with Chembo Corniel

Chembo 4

Palm, wrist or fingertips, Chembo Corniel places love upon the conga drums, leading his band – his “Friends” – into a rhythmic soul dance. A classic Latin song like “Oye! Como Va?” is light with air and space, yet full of tonal intricacies that pass around the stage. As he launches into “Manteca” the band comes alive. Chembo’s cellular command of syncopation and beat propels the urgency. He never overstates an idea. He caresses it skillfully, pumping the volume to raise the excitement or backing off to segue to the next phrase. His band is brilliant and paints a scene with dynamic music that is a call to action. If your feet aren’t dancing, your heart is.

When you were a child were you always intrigued by life’s soundtrack? Cars, trains, the crowds?

Well, being born in New York City and raised in Brooklyn, I have experienced many sounds and movements that I have picked up rhythmically. Still to this day I pick up the rhythms of life. The diverse ethnicity that surrounds us here I apply to my drumming; it’s a way of life wherever I go. 

What would you say is the most important body part in playing percussion- the wrist, the ear or the heart?

The whole body is a rhythm machine. In playing percussion you would need imagination and creativity to transmit from your mind and soul through your hands to produce rhythms. 

What is interesting to you about the different tonal qualities of drums, congas, cymbals and other tools of the trade?

You would need the proper technique in order to produce the different tonal qualities of any percussive instrument, whether it be with your hand or using sticks, etc. Like in any profession there is a correct way to properly attack or go about to produce proper results. With knowing the correct hand movements and patterns you can achieve this, along with many years of practice. 

Favorite accessory in your kit?

My conga drums (tumbadoras). 

Favorite venue?

I like performing at jazz festivals, because of the enormous energy I receive from the crowds. I get to feed it right back. 

What did it feel like the first time as a band director in a public performance?  

I was nervous because I was always known as a sideman for so many years and now to come out as a leader of my own group, I didn’t want to fail or make any mistakes. I know that I made the right decision as soon as I saw the reactions of not only the public but also my peers.   

What is the key element in conducting?

I’m fortunate to surround myself with some of the best musicians on the scene today. Besides conducting I depend on my musical director to make sure everyone is on the same page. If anyone has an issue with the music or any other matter we will resolve it right away in order to give our best performance.

When did you form your quintet?

April, 2002 .

Who are the personnel and what does each one bring to the table?

The personnel in my current band are “young lions” in the Latin Jazz/jazz genre, recently graduating from music conservatories around New York, Puerto Rico and Cuba. They ALL bring fresh energies, ideas and modern styles on the approach of this music that helps my group achieve a distinct sound and identity.

Hery Paz: tenor sax / flute, Darwin Noguera: piano; Ian Stewart: electric bass; Joel E. Mateo: drums; and myself Chembo Corniel on percussion. 

Love that bass slap in “Manteca.” What do you like about that song?

I like this song because the composer of this tune was Chano Pozo along with Dizzy Gillespie, the fathers of Latin Jazz. Chano Pozo was a conga player from Cuba who came to New York in the mid 1940’s and joined Dizzy’s band. He had also composed “Tin Tin Deo,” “Blen Blen, Blen” any many other tunes.

Talk about writing for “Land of the Descendants.”

My parents migrated from Puerto Rico to New York in the early 1950’s. As a child I used to hear music from Puerto Rico at home, also being raised in New York I grew up listening to Tito Puente, Machito, Ray Baretto, The Beatles, Motown Sound, Sergio Mendes Brazil 66, Herb Albert, oldies, rock & roll, Elvis, etc. I used these rhythms from my heritage and surroundings to incorporate into my music and reflect my diverse influences.   

Your favorite track on that and why?

They are all my favorite! But if I would have to pick one from this album it would be “Transparent Souls.” I composed this tune along with Frank Fontaine in honor of my father Wilson Corniel, Sr. who had passed away in June, 2015. My father now joins my mother in the heavens; they are Transparent Souls.

You almost vocalize when you are playing. Why?

Lol! Yes, I’m kind of humming or singing the rhythms or melodies that I’m playing at the time; it helps me keep the flow and imagination. 

Best tip for the beginning percussion player?

As a beginner you must be able to love what you’re doing and practice. You also should make reading music part of your learning experience. Try to learn other instruments that relate to your craft (bass, piano, etc.). Listen to all styles of music so that you can become a well-rounded percussionist. Most of all, study and practice! 

Favorite country where you have performed?

Israel, Morocco, Istanbul, Spain and Italy. 

Place you’ve always wanted to perform that you have not yet?


Most memorable collaboration?

It was when I was very honored to have Mr. Grady Tate record vocals “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?” on my 2007 CD “For The Rest Of Your Life.” 

How did you end 2017?

We just finished performing at some jazz festivals: “A Place For Jazz” in Schenectady NY, a concert at Tufts University in Boston; the Spring Lake Jazz Festival in Maryland; the Children’s Jazz Series in NJ for WBGO RADIO; the 10th Annual Latin Jazz & Salsa Festival in Richmond, VA.

Plans for your quintet in 2018?

I am planning to go back to the studio in the spring to work on my next CD with my quintet. We will be performing at the Hartford Jazz Festival in CT, and we also have an ongoing gig every Tuesday at The Nuyorican Poet’s Café in New York City.

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Chembo Corniel.

© Debbie Burke 2017

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