Armando “Uncle Mafufo”:
Journey of a Creative Artist and Multi-talented Percussionist of Sirocco Band
An interview with Ma*Shuqa Mira Murjan
A beautiful Fall afternoon in Armando and Hanya’s Santa Cruz garden – seated at a hand built table by Armando, we chatted together in this cozy nature’s nook decorated with flowers, artwork and Fall foliage of fruit trees to reminisce and review Armando’s journey in becoming the musical artist that he is today. Carl and I spent a lovely afternoon together with the friends we have known for many years in this dance community - as we enjoyed in Middle Eastern cultural fashion, Persian tea and Hanya’s homegrown dried apricot walnut bread and sampled her homegrown dried persimmons.
Armando was born in the town of Villahermosa on the Southeastern Gulf side of Mexico. Villahermosa is located next to a large river, the Grihalva - the Spanish Conquistadors landed in Vera Cruz just north of Villahermosa- the area was settled by an influx of immigrants. Thus, friends of Armando’s family were Turks, Persians, and Armenians and he grew up with different cultures, food and music. He moved to the U.S. at the age of 5 with his family. At the age of 19 he attended the Art Institute of Chicago. There he met his wife Hanya, (herself a creative artist who has designed the Sirocco CD album covers. Armando asked her to come visit him and listen to his drums –the trap drum set (kit) filled the entire apartment – she was impressed by his music which was part jazz, part be-bop influenced by the music played in the jazz clubs of that time in Chicago. Armando would sneak into the clubs to enjoy the music and was invited to join the bands and play with the professionals. Armando says, “That was a good education listening to and accompanying the bands.” Together Armando and Hanya would go to Greek Town to enjoy exciting, exotic music – which also added to his musical education. And, thus was the beginning of a lifelong partnership of creative art and music together.
In Chicago, Armando made a life transition from creative artist to musician and artist. He would play in the clubs – then find it difficult to get up the next morning to return to the Art Institute for an early morning class. He met many professionals at the “Gate of Horn” nightclub in Chicago. Armando says that “he had the rare opportunity to see, and then learn from a Friday afternoon group called the Para-musical Society – producing sounds on a variety of world instruments, rare and unusual at the time, koto, kora, and sitar – listening to what other musicians were doing – then adding your own musical voice”. Armando says, “The Para-Musical Society and improvisational music is my favorite. We would start with a theme – a song – then take it from there. In this haphazard process – we learned to listen to each other and make music together.” With this early experimental music background, Armando started experimenting and playing with “junkyard findings” creating instruments and playing rhythms.
This true partnership of rhythm gave Armando the insight and expertise to play his doumbek in a fashion that matches the individuality of each dancer’s movements and create the magic of music and dance. Working with dancers – Armando says, “it works well when they are responsive and are “in the zone together” with the musicians. Delilah is an example of a dancer who performs well with Sirocco – able to dance spontaneously and improvise, getting into the zone – and create incredible performances on beaches by the ocean, in bamboo thickets, and by exotic waterfalls.”
When he moved to Santa Cruz in 1970 with Hanya and their young daughter Nina, Armando began playing for belly dance troupes and classes with local teachers in Santa Cruz. Emira – a student of Jamila Salimpour – was teaching in Santa Cruz and asked him to play doumbek for her classes. Back then, belly dancers used very little Arabic music and he was asked to play to Turkish and Armenian music. Then Armando heard a drummer on recordings from Egypt by Aboud Abdel Al – and noticed that the drumming was very different – high tones, maqsun rhythm, and more. He began learning and playing these rhythms and belly dancing in Santa Cruz changed from free form and improvised performance as dancers became familiar with Egyptian music.
Armando has been a percussionist most of his life but when he began playing doumbek there was no instructional material available to him from which to learn. He gathered information about the rhythms from recordings and from seeing live Middle Eastern performances in clubs and cabarets. An inveterate student, he continues to explore and study the instruments and techniques used in various traditional Middle East percussion styles and how they relate to the music.
Sol (Sulyman El Coyote) met Armando at the Dickens Fair in San Francisco – where they shared a booth together in a Persian tea room theme setting. Sol played saz and Armando played the drum. Both being jewelers, they first traded gem stones for their jewelry – opals for turquoise. And thus began their first collaboration both musically and artistically – the genesis of the band Sirocco.
About this time, Armando started working the Renaissance Faires in Southern and Northern California in 1971 as a jewelry craftsman in silver and gold. He and Sol would frequently get together after the Faire closed in the evenings and jam together musically. Armando extended an invitation to Sol to stop by if he was ever in Santa Cruz. And one day Sol’s “chocolate whale” – an old armor plated Warner Bros. equipment truck – pulled up to Armando’s home. They spent hours together playing. Sol played flamenco guitar – but also Turkish and Armenian music and he taught Armando those songs.
Sol was with the belly dancer Farideh and together they performed gigs in the Santa Cruz and San Jose area in California; at the Catalyst. – the Riverside – The Blue Nile – Hugo’s Armenian – India Joze – and at Hadi’s – Hassan’s – Serop’s Castle Pizza - playing Turkish, Armenian, Persian – each one with different styling depending upon the venue. I first met Armando when we performed together with Sol and dancer John ‘The Sheik’ Compton at Serop’s Castle Pizza, the first Silicon Valley restaurant to feature belly dancing. At about the same time Sirocco and John’s troupe Koscadas performed for the private pre-opening and again at the opening of the first King Tutankhamen Exhibition in 1979 at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco. During the summer season, Armando would play drums to Armenian music – with Ishmael and Paul Ohanesian – at the Armenian Church picnics in the San Francisco (CA) Bay area.
Dancer Farideh Balk moved to Vancouver, Canada and invited Armando and Sol to join her in a performance at the Queen Elizabeth Playhouse in Vancouver with another Persian dancer Sharlyn – it was one of those special venues to remember with stage hands setting up quality sound and lighting. After this, Farideh, Sharyln, Armando and Sol played throughout the Northwest and Canada in Greek cafes, in an East Indian Ugandan restaurant, and Turkish cafés. Enjoying great times playing with the local musicians and dancers, Armando recalls the day they stopped playing the Northwest and Canada – when Mt. Saint Helens volcano exploded. They traveled through the volcanic ash of the eruption to Spokane, WA for a gig. The ash killed their “old orange pumpkin van” and thus ended their travels for a while.
At Serop’s Castle Pizza in Sunnyvale, CA – Sirocco played for a fiery and energetic dancer named Delilah who was passing through on her way to Seattle. The music and her dancing connected with Sirocco and so – Sol and Armando played many Seattle-area gigs with Delilah. Armando recalls Delilah asking them if they wanted to accompany her to Maui, HI and play for 40 belly dancers – they didn’t say ‘no’. And so began a long history of playing music for dancers at Delilah’s bi-annual dance retreats in Maui – playing on the beach near the surf, at waterfalls and sacred pools, and in the midst of tropical gardens at a beautiful retreat center - for almost 15 years.
Sirocco continued to play for Delilah, and Armando taught drum workshops during a six week East Coast tour with Delilah and Sirocco starting from Syracuse, New York to Miami, Florida that featured dance workshops and shows. Later they experienced a whirlwind tour of Japan with Delilah – it was a treat to see and play for the Japanese dancers that Armando comments “were extraordinarily talented and beautiful”. He recalls a memorable experience, “It was a last evening hafla when each dancer, after performing with Sirocco, came to sit beside Armando and Sol. Surrounding them while they played, the dancers then wept when it was time for us (Sirocco) to depart.”
Armando has a wide range of musical experience beyond Sirocco and Middle Eastern (ME) music. He began working with Dayan Kai and with the Juan Sanchez Ensemble – traveling to the Northern USA, and Canada. Armando is also a singer and with the Latin quintet Dulce, he recorded the CD ’Algo Dulce’ with singer Melinda Velasco and her cuatro player partner Daniel Torres. Armando performed Tunisian style music with Moez M’Rabat and the group Nuba. He took part in small Latin bands that have come and gone and some still going, Los Tigres del Ritmo, Los Shleppos Tipicos, Gitano, Tipica 36, Los Amigitos, and Don McCaslin’s Warmth.
Currently, Armando is playing Egyptian urban music and classical Arabic compositions with a band now named “Orient’al” – which until 9/11 had been named “The Holy Terror” – with ney musician Michael Gruber and oudist Ganapati. Armando is happy staying close to home in Santa Cruz – working with Jannelle, Crystal, Sahar and other belly dancers to provide rhythm accompaniment for dance classes and enjoying his new grandchild Amelia, who doubtless will be a dancer or possibly a drummer.
Armando and Hanya traveled to Puerto Rico recently and enjoyed Puerto Rico music, another of his musical interests. He says, “There are two folkloric styles, bomba and plena, and the more well known salsa music. Salsa singers are the poets of Puerto Rican music.” Armando relates to this music and is incorporating some of the styling into his musical repertoire.
Simultaneous to his involvement in the world of Middle Eastern music and dance, Armando created fine works of art and sold his jewelry, paintings, and painted gourds in a San Francisco gallery, then later had one man shows of his work at an art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he still shows at the Windsor-Betts Gallery.
Armando comments on his reasons to play
“After spending time developing as a ME drummer, at first I was flashy and a “hot dog” as many beginners are. Then I discovered the music that ME audiences like to listen to. I got into learning the classic pieces and rhythms and styles of playing (method). The pieces don’t change that much since the music is set and composed for a symphonic orchestra.
At the same time I was listening to Ahmed Adawaya, Metkal Ganawai, Kamis el Henkish and others from Mohammad Ali Street; I also listened to the traditional folk musicians- M. Fadl. I noticed that they were improvising and the rhythms and treatment of the music seemed to be all taxim- and I was very attracted to this aspect. I found the sound and texture of traditional ME music was fascinating - and totally different from the classical.
I developed my skills as an Egyptian classical player, and what I love most is the heat of the moment when everyone is part of the music and dance - the audience and the room is sharing the experience. This is the most important drive in the music I play. I find that my main interest as a ME drummer is to pay absolute attention to what the dancer is doing, providing her a magic carpet of rhythm to dance on. This is probably the most important thing I want to get across. I’m honored to be able to play and that people listen to what I do. I appreciate the cultural heritage of ME music but with the greatest respect, I feel it is a living legacy that can evolve, at least in my own music, and I want to continue expanding my own contribution to this great music and cultural legacy. I thank these players of Middle Eastern music/percussion who were great influences on me: the late George Dubai and Hamza el Din, Jallaladin Takesh, Salah Takesh, Shaharam Tafik, Sulyman Feldthouse, Souhail Kaspar, Reda Darwish, and Kamis el Henkish.” says Armando.
Some of the special performances he recalls include: Spectra and Young Audiences; UCSC: Stevenson College, Crown College, College Five, College Eight, Oaks College, Performing Arts; Barn Theatre stage performance of “Zincali”, tracing the musical and dance bridge from ancient Egypt to Flamenco in Spain; DeYoung Museum San Francisco, concert with troupe Koskadas; King Tutankhamen Exhibit music for private showing for Museum Trustees and sponsors; Tutankhamen Exhibition, music for opening of the exhibit; Queen Elizabeth Playhouse (Vancouver, B.C., Canada); UCLA, Concert, Ancient Persian dance (Los Angeles, CA); University of British Columbia; Anthropological Museum, lecture/concert; Kansas City Museum concert; La Huerga Music Festival Big Sur, CA; Cabrillo Music Festival 1996-1999 (Santa Cruz, CA); Cairo Carnivale teacher/performer (Los Angeles, CA); Cowell Theatre (Santa Cruz, CA);. music for Suhaila Salimpour Fort Mason (San Francisco, CA); music for Fatchance Belly Dance Fort Mason (San Francisco, CA); and the Baroque Festival with Linda Berman-Hall, Sirocco and Ishmael in Santa Cruz (CA).
A fabulous musician, renowned teacher and composer, Armando demystifies belly dance rhythms with style and panache as he reveals the possibilities of rhythm as a focal point in music. His classes are therapeutic, tuning body, mind and the group dynamic. He is teacher, composer, performer, entertainer and an exciting, innovative powerhouse player.
As a teacher Armando has conducted many drum and rhythm workshops, seminars and private sessions over the years across the United States, Canada, Mexico and Japan. Drum workshops: his first was for Jamila Salimpour’s students in 1974 (Berkeley, CA), then Balkan Camp (Mendocino CA), Sweets Mill (Fresno CA), Lark in the Morning (Mendocino, CA), resident teacher biannually 1991- 2004 at Visionary Dance Retreat (Maui, HA), Rakkasah Festivals (Richmond, CA and Vallejo, CA), Desert Dance Festival (San Jose, CA), Tatseena's Festival (San Leandro, CA.) to name a few.
Recording is another great joy. In his home studio, with Hanya as videographer, Armando recorded instructional material and music including Basic Rhythms for Arabic Drum DVD, Riqs and Defs DVD, 25 Essential Rhythms CD, Zills and Drums CD; Sirocco Volumes I, II, and III music for Tribal and Cabaret style including the enduring classic Country Dance; Drumsongs for Dancers; Skinstories; Tribal Tales; Zig n Zag; Nuba – Tunisian/Mediterranean music, and Dulce – Latin songs and music for dancing. Cinco is the newest solo percussion and instrumental CD. Plus numerous collaborations with other bands and artists on their recordings.
New CD “Cinco” - 17 pieces focused on dancers.
Armando has just been placing the finishing touches on his new CD entitled ‘Cinco.’ The new recording has 17 pieces composed for dancers. These are original works and multi-tracked playing with santur, ney, bass, tambourine, tuba, bell, machete, tabla beledi, tar, mizwig, cane horn, bendir, and gongs. Tribal style dancers will love this CD because of the edgy and unique rhythmic pieces. Cinco is a collection of unique original compositions that mirrors the life, learning, and performing experience of this great, multi-talented and creative musician and artist – Armando – known affectionately in the dance and Middle Eastern music community as “Uncle Mafufo”.
(End of Interview Article)
You can hear samples of ‘Cinco’ on Armando’s website www.unclemafufo.com
Ma*Shuqa Mira Murjan (Los Gatos, CA www.MaShuqa.com) has been acquainted with Armando “Uncle Mafufo” Fojaco and performing together with him since 1976. Ma*Shuqa studied doumbeq with Uncle Mafufo, who has also taught several drum workshops at Ma*Shuqa’s studio in Los Gatos, CA. We’d love to hear your comments and stories about your special performances to music by Sirocco. You can send messages about your dance experiences directly to him – at www.unclemafufo.com and share your stories with MaShuqa@MaShuqa.com www.MaShuqa.com
Armando “Uncle Mafufo”: