Features, Interview

Benjamin Lapidus: Sharing the Music from the Spanish Caribbean World 


Benjamin Lapidus: Sharing the Music from the Spanish Caribbean World 

by Susan Frances

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Latin jazz has nurtured several generations of musicians known to American audiences, from singer, dancer, and actress Carmen Miranda in 1929 to present-day guitarist, composer, and organist Benjamin Lapidus. Most people identify Latin music from the rhythmic dance forms of samba, salsa, mambo, merengue, bossa nova, cha-cha, rhumba, pasodoble, and tango, but Lapidus gives audiences a deeper awareness of Latin music blended with jazz.


What audiences discover in Lapidus’s music is harmonic forms like orisha music, Afrocuban sacred music, rezos or prayers, Ochosi blues, Cuban guaracha, son cubano, changüí, and tumbao or Cuban swing, to name a few. Lapidus opens audiences’ minds to the rich and multi-faceted world of Spanish Caribbean breeds.


Born in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in 1972, Benjamin Lapidus’s parents are first-generation Brooklynites. According to his biography found on his website, “The family moved almost 15 times before returning to New York City when Lapidus was 14.”


He recalls, “My father had a guitar in the house, and I had asked to study guitar at age 8 after I started piano lessons at the age of 6. I was attracted to it simply because it wasn’t a piano, which was what my father, grandmother, and sister played.”


He shares, “I have been composing since my teenage years and never stopped. I became a bandleader to work on my own musical concepts, arrangements, and ideas. It was also an opportunity to improvise more than in the traditional Latin music dance contexts that I had been working in.”


“My first album ¿Quién tiene ritmo? came out in 1998,” he provides, “and I think there are some things that I can’t believe I could pull off and play over the last 25 years and 8 previous albums because it’s hard to keep everything under your fingers all the time. But I think I definitely have my own sound as a guitarist, a tres player, a Warr guitarist (tapping/touchstyle guitar), and as a composer and vocalist.”


Lapidus’s exploration of the various styles of Latin jazz led him to discover various types of instruments to achieve the sound he desired. The Warr guitar is one discovery he continues to use and plays on his 2023 release Blues for Ochún, his ninth recording as a leader.


He explains how his connection to the Warr guitar began, “I started playing the Warr guitar in 2002 after trying it out in Frank Jolliffe’s house in Paterson, New Jersey. Frank had switched from the Chapman stick to Warr guitar, and I liked the way that it played and sounded.”


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“I started playing the Chapman stick in 1988,” he recounts, “after I met Greg Howard when I attended the Young Writers Workshop at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. John D’Earthe taught songwriting, and Greg played Chapman stick on my final recording.”


“The Warr guitar is very different from any other guitar,” he purports, “because it has 6 bass strings (tuned in 5ths) and 6 guitar strings (tuned in fourths) that are tapped. Think Stanley Jordan. Plus, each group of strings is tuned differently. It’s a lot of mental gymnastics.”


Athletic by nature, the Warr guitar is a good fit for Lapidus, who describes himself as “I am an avid runner with 9 marathons under my belt and many other half marathons and shorter races. I actually wrote a few songs on this album, either running or in my car.”


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He gleans about his recording, Blues for Ochún, “The music was motivated quite simply by wanting to document what I’ve been up to for the last decade. I was playing a lot of Chapman stick and Warr guitar, I started playing the Hammond organ, and I wanted to bring both of these instruments into the Spanish Caribbean musical worlds that I am most active in.”


The recording opens with the title track and “3 for Ochún.” Lapidus offers insight into why the two tracks are paired together, making a suite. “‘Blues for Ochún’ and ‘3 for Ochún’ are supposed to be heard as one long track, and that’s how they were recorded. The end of ‘Blues for Ochún’ goes from D minor to C Major, which is where ‘3 for Ochún’ picks up. It’s all one long piece for Ochún using a ritual setting for inspiration.”


Ochún or orisha is a Yoruba ancestor/spirit and the patron saint La Virgin de la Caridad del of Cuba. Lapidus visited the shrine of Ochún in 1997, and 26 years later, he has created a musical offering to celebrate his long relationship with the island, its people, music, and history.


His drummer Mauricio Herrera plays a significant role in the arrangement, whom he commends, “Mauricio is a complete percussionist who plays all hand drums and drum set. He is also a well-known performer of Afrocuban sacred drumming. We had been talking about this for some time and had rehearsed the transitions between each section,”


“On this track,” Lapidus cites about “3 for Ochún” and highlights, “he is heard playing the 3 batá drums by himself all at once, which is a specialty, and also quite challenging since they usually require three performers. Mauricio also plays congas and chekere on this track.”


“The idea behind the arrangement,” he illuminates, “was to mix the organ with orisha music and have the organ lead the rezos (prayers), then Jadele [McPherson] would take over and improvise in the usual manner as if there was no organ.”


Vocalist Jadele McPherson also has a significant role in the suite, as her chanting ruminations enrich the spiritual mist in the atmosphere. Lapidus reveals, “I had seen Jadele McPherson perform live, and we have some mutual friends. I wanted her voice to sing for Ochún because she has an incredible voice and because she is an Afrocuban sacred music singer who is deep in the tradition. I knew that she could really sing anything and that she would be open to what I was trying to do with the music. She is awesome.”


Also featured on the recording Blues for Ochún is Lapidus’s tweaking of Charlie Parker’s gem “Donna Lee.” He touts about the track, “It’s one of the greatest jazz compositions of all time and a rite of passage for many aspiring musicians. I happened to get into Jaco Pastorius’ version because it was popular when I was a teenager. This was my way of paying homage to Jaco and also playing the piece with tumbao (Cuban swing). Jaco’s amazing version is a duo with Don Alias, and my version is a duo with Mauricio Herrera but with added layers of percussion.”

The recording includes performances by Jorges Bringas on bass, Paul Carlon on flute, tenor and baritone saxophones, Manuel Alejandro Carro on congas, bongo, guagua, quinto, timbales, maracas, campana, and güiro, Ray “Chino” Diaz on conga, güira, and tambora, Willie Martinez on drums, and a bongo solo by Hector Torres on the track “Cachita.” The instruments that Lapidus employs on the recording include tools that are inherent to the Spanish Caribbean culture such as batá, chekere, bongo, campana, cajón, güiro, maracas, congas, monte, guayo, güira, guagua, quinto, timbales, and tambora, giving the listener a genuine ear full of exotic and melodic sounds.


“I loved recording with all of the musicians,” he vows, “and hearing what they each added to the music.”


He also gives special recognition to his engineers and mixers, adding, “I also loved working in the studio with Danny Lapidus (no relation) and Joel Hamburger. It was challenging getting a good even sound with the instrumentation, but once we did, we also changed things up.”


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“Danny was incredible,” he praises, “I can’t recommend him enough to anyone looking to record music. I also enjoyed the personal challenge of playing with different drummers and having to hold down the bass part while I took a solo or played the melody. It only took 33 years from when I started to finally pull it off.”


One hurdle that Lapidus confronted during the recording process was being sidetracked by the pandemic in 2020, as he determines that the most difficult part about the endeavor was “Probably when Covid was at its height. The music was ready to go in 2019, but then studio dates were getting canceled in 2020-2021, so the recording had to be done in 2022.”


Looking back, he muses, “I think I am exposed to a lot of music, but I am always interested in learning new music, history, techniques, etc., so that definitely can come up in songwriting or arranging. I always look to the past as a way to figure out what I am doing now.”


“I have tried a lot of different things,” he asserts, “and have revisited some of them as I move forward. I really don’t listen to my previous albums at all, but I play the music I have written over these 25 years on gigs, and the compositions are still fun to play.”


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He admits, “I really enjoy hearing what other people do with my music, particularly what spaces they explore or approaches they take. Each record is really a document of where you are at that moment in time when it was recorded, and I can always remember where I was, who I was, and what were my personal and musical priorities. The music says all of that to me when I hear it, like time traveling or journaling.”


“This record is no different,” he declares. “There is definite growth and change, new instruments, new music, a couple of old songs with new versions, but the sound, concept, and style is mine, and it has expanded since I started on this path. There is more to learn, write, grow, and definitely more music to make. To me, that’s growth.”


Lapidus not only has nine albums now as a leader to his credit, but he also has the book he authored, New York and the International Sound of Latin Music. He deems, “It started as conversations with my elders, musicians who took the time, both on and off the bandstand, to share their insights, memories, and the history of the music. From there, I just ran with following up with formal interviews, archival research, and transcription analysis.”


“All told,” he surmises, “it took 8 years from start to finish. I learned a ton.”


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He attests. “I learned what the musicians who came to New York City from the Caribbean or those born in the city actually did to study, improve, and reach the top of their craft. They laid it all out for me. This is a huge part of the book, but it also deals with teachers, dancers, instrument builders, arrangers, and so much more. I knew how great so many people were because I had been on the bandstand with them or seen them perform, but I didn’t know everything they had done from the beginning.”


Identifying the roots of Latin, Spanish, Caribbean, and Afro-Cuban jazz blends has given Lapidus a broader view of music and a greater reservoir from which to make music. What Lapidus offers to audiences is Latin styles that are steep in history, though contemporary generations will find the music to be new to their ears. His music opens audiences’ minds to the rich and multi-faceted world of Spanish Caribbean breeds and their bond to the human soul.

About Susan Frances:

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Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in eastern Long Island, I always enjoyed writing and made several contributions to my high school literary magazine, The Lion’s Pen. Influenced by writers of epic novels including Colleen McCullough and James Clavell, I gravitated to creative writing. After graduating from New York University with a BA in Liberal Arts, I tried my hand at conventional jobs but always returned to creative writing. Since 1998, I have been a freelance writer and have over three thousand articles to various e-zines including: Jazz Times, Blogcritics, Yahoo Voices,, Authors and Books (,,,,,, BTS emag,,,, Hybrid Magazine, and In 2013 and 2014, I was a judge in the Orange Rose Writing Competition sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the Romance Writers of America located in Brea, California.

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