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By Sofia Verzbolovskis
If you get a chance to see Max Pollak perform, prepare yourself to leave the venue thoroughly bewitched. As a dancer and percussionist, Pollak blurs the distinction between dance and music by creating solid, percussive sounds and patterns with man's given instrument: the body. Using his tap shoes as drum sticks and a wooden floor as his drum, Pollak creates a complex, foot-stamping, rhythmic dialogue like none you've ever seen.
Tap Dancing. Body Slapping. Vocalization. These make up RumbaTap, a concept created and developed by Pollak over the past fifteen years. It all started in 1991 when Pollak, a native from Austria, came to study at the New School University's Jazz Program in New York. While taking a class with Afro-Latin jazz percussionist Bobby Sanabria, Max discovered the world of Afro-Cuban music. "It really changed my life. It was an ensemble, but he also gave us a lot of historical information." The class included videos and recordings of traditional ensembles like Los Muñequitos de Matanza and Clave Y Guaganco. This gave Max an understanding of what Afro-Cuban music really meant and, hypnotized by the sounds of the instruments and its traditional rhythmic patterns, Pollak immediately knew that he wanted to recreate them with his feet. "I went up to Bobby and told him that I wanted to tap dance to this music. He looked at me very seriously, and asked: Do you want to tap dance to Cuban music? Or do you want to tap dance Cuban music? Sanabria then grabbed the claves, and told him: "You'll have to learn how to dance and play these at the same time." Pollak grasped that what Sanabria was really telling him was that unless he had the coordination to handle the complex, multi-rhythmic beats of Afro-Cuban music, it would be impossible to "play" them as a tap dancer.
For several years, Pollak immersed himself in the realm of Afro-Cuban music. He studied every aspect of it from its instruments and rhythms, to its dance and traditions. Once he mastered the ability to play in clave, Pollak took it to stage at the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe. There, he had another life-defining moment when he met and performed with Los Muñequitos de Matanza. His growing friendship with them led him to Cuba in 1998, where he continued to delve further into this music. And at one of the final performances at the university in Havana, Max recalls, "they were doing a rumba. I took out my tap shoes, jumped out, and started tap-dancing to the music. Suddenly people realized that what I was doing connected perfectly with what they were playing." This marked the beginning of RumbaTap.
RumbaTap is heavily influenced by Afro-Cuban sounds and rhythms. But, where do these sounds come from? For Pollak, the Santeria religion is key to understanding Afro-Cuban culture and music. "All the music coming out of Cuba is so strong, because all of it traces its roots back to this spiritual music of Africa." Inspired by the music's spiritual depth, Pollak not only shares his experiences while performing, but he also lets people in on where this power and energy come from. Whether he is backed by the saxophones taking the role of Santeria's batá drums or performing solo while vocalizing Yoruba chants, Pollak creates a deep level of communication and interaction with the audience. With his RumbaTap ensemble, including six tap dancers, a saxophone trio, marimba and vocalists, he has performed a literal translation of a Mongo Santamaria timbales solo, praised Santeria Orishas, and superimposed the bomba groove with the Shim-Sham, an old tap dance routine. With each piece demonstrating great fluidity of sound and showcasing perfect (almost inconceivable) cohesiveness, timing, and rhythm, he creates an earthy, raw concept that contains "grit, smells of reality, and power."
RumbaTap is not just a polyrhythmic explosion of Afro-Cuban sounds. As Max points out, "It is an understanding between peoples, between cultures." Indeed, his concept is based on Afro-Cuban music, but by mixing it with rhythms and beats from Bulgaria, Greece, Austria, or New Orleans, Pollak attempts to open one's imagination and spark an urge for inquisitiveness. "I want to show people things that they might have not thought about before and that they might want to go investigate on their own. By doing that, I hope that they go visit places that they wouldn't otherwise visit, whether it's in their head, on the internet, or physically." Without a doubt, Pollak is cooking a new dish: taking elements from different parts of the world, weaving them, and creating an energy that is meant to be shared.
Watch this video of Pollak and pianist Bruno Böhmer Camacho performing the Colombian classical song by Angel Maria Camacho.
Read other Global Music Corner stories.