Interview: Rumba master Wallace Hill


Superb, veteran percussionist Wallace Hill is getting it together for Rumba Colombia Workshops: Thursdays After Work. It’s a monthlong foray into one of Colombia’s most beloved rumba stylings. At 5:30 p.m. every Thursday from May 8-29, you can experience rumba to a tee at Minneapolis’s Drums and Art courtesy of Hill, a Twin Cities legend in the world of Afro-Caribbean music. You get to listen to and try your own hand at rumba, and to watch rare footage of rumba sessions in Havana, Cuba.

Wallace Hill’s most visible recent undertaking is the Latin Jazz ensemble Joto. That’s Hill—a premier bass guitarist—and four guys who moonlight with Joto when they’re not busy as R&B superstars Mint Condition: Stokley Williams (drums), Lawrence Waddell (keys), and Jeff Allen (sax). The band started up a few years ago and, for a while, held court at suave Latin jazz nightclub Babalu, treating mesmerized crowds to the strains of Juan Luis Guerra’s “Para Ti,” Kenny Kirkland’s “Dienda,” Chick Corea’s “Spain,” Thelonius Monk’s “Round Midnight,” and such. They’ve been meaning to get around to doing an album and, if the ever-in-demand Mint Condition ever comes off tour long enough, Hill hopes it can happen this year.

Everybody knows you’re Stokley’s mentor. What about your own mentors?
During my preteen years, I was groomed by Ifram Odok of Abeokuta, Nigeria. Mr. Odok, in the import-export business, was one of the first West African traders in New York City. As an apprentice I was mentored in aged and contemporary African art, sculpture, woven cloths, box drums, spices, and Yoruba bead work.

Who are your playing influences?
Since the age of five I’ve been groomed on contemporary classical jazz. Growing up on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx, one of my earliest influences was West African music via Ladgi Camara of Les Ballets Africains. Ladgi was one of the first Africans to bring Les Ballets Africains to the United States. On the other end on Freeman Street and Southern Boulevard was Cubano, a black Cuban—no one actually knew his real name—who taught me Afro-Caribbean music, folkloric and band style. My education was rounded by the Motley All-City and State Orchestra and Chorus.

“African musical traditions are tools of social coherence, continuity, ritual, and renewal.”

How did Joto come together?
Initially, Stokely and I formed a percussion duo, using electronic music for base line and chorus. We both programmed songs and did performances at various Twin Cities venues. When Larry was added, we became a trio. Then Jeffery became a part of the group, and finally we found a bass player: Serge. We felt the chemistry instantly.

Your music is artistic expression, but for you it is also a cultural statement. Would you say something about that?
My goal is to honor traditions: knowing and sharing what traditional forms mean and how they relate to the history of music, dance, and rituals. African musical traditions are tools of social coherence, continuity, ritual, and renewal. The playing and dancing of the rhythms, the interaction of the players, the ritual retelling of myth and ancestral story, all contribute to the creation of community and are central to the way I work.

What’s next for you?
I continue to spend time with masters, with teachers, learning new ways of approaching my art—both traditionally and in a contemporary way. I learn from my mentors—their stories, experiences and techniques—and at this point in my career, I serve as a mentor to others. I feel honored to make these techniques available to my community.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.