Obed Sicarri (Photograph by Alex Kornienko)

Percussionary Measures – Interview with musician Obed Succari

There is much talk about the “new” Detroit; about individual contributions and collective ambitions. This city has become a place that is welcoming to anyone with anything that contributes to its progress. When discussing the ever-growing vibrancy of our city-center, two words come up often: Music and Culture. It’s enough to make one re-access the importance of the city’s music culture to it’s future and wonder what role cultural music or “World” music has to play in it all. Detroit is experiencing an expat boom not seen since the dawn of the auto industry. A city’s diversity can be measured by the food and music readily available to its inhabitants, from its inhabitants. Our World music (and food) scene is robust. Does that say something about us, about life here? If so, are we doing what we can to ensure the message is being heard- especially by those abroad who may be considering a move here? The best part about living in an international city is having international experiences without having to leave town. The Detroiter sat down with Obed Succari, a Panamanian percussionist who relocated here a decade ago. Instantly, I realized one of the greatest boost to the quality of life expatriates bring- aside from the music and food… is the conversation. Oh the joy of listening to someone tell you their story of where they’re from, where they’ve been and what all they have done and are hoping to do.


Obed Sicarri (Photograph by Alex Kornienko)

Obed Sicarri (Photograph by Alex Kornienko)




Detroiter: Where are you originally from?

Obed: Bocas del Toro Republic of Panama .

Detroiter: Is that where you started playing the drums first?

Obed: No, I flew to Panama City …I always liked drumming. I remember once, I went to a parade and I was on my dad’s shoulder and I heard the bass drum of a marching band. That really impressed me because it was such a force and it made me tremble from feet to head. And I got curious and began playing on this little green stool that I had when I was kid. Then when I was around nine, if I am not mistaken, I moved to La Loceria neighborhood and there were good congueros there- really, really good musicians in general. That’s where I got my first conga and I started playing there. I played all day at the beginning and after that I was very serious.
I’ve always been lucky to be able to buy LPs (now CDs) and go to concerts. So every time an exceptional percussionist came to Panama , I knew what they musically did recently and pretty much in the past. So I did everything I could to meet him in airports or hotels and I was kind of a crazy, crazy guy…

Detroiter: Passionate…

Obed: Yeah very passionate… I met a lot of great musicians like that. I asked them what did you do on the song 3 on side b of your latest album? Most of the time they’d look at me very surprised… then they started to show me the hand movements beating on the table or at the drum (if they stay long enough in the city.) I gained a lot of knowledge that way.

I also have to thank Ruben Blades, he’s a world famous singer from Panama . He was based in New York and he used to bring a lot of New York musicians to Panama . I got classes from Eddie Montalvo. Also I have to thank Danilo Perez, big time, he introduced me to Giovanni Hildago, the most complete conguero ever. I got classes with him- people call him “Mañenguito”. The Giovanni experience was great because he’s the top of the top. I still got his tape, I’m still learning from it.

Detroiter: So you learned from the greats…

Obed: Yeah. Fortunate to learn from Tata Guines and many others…Then around ’89, I started my own band.

Detroiter: What was the name of the band?

Obed: GrupObed. A good friend of mine, Juan Kometakos, owned a grill place, El Carbon Rojo, and he let me play and that’s how I started playing professionally with my own band in the late 80′s. After that, I continued playing in numerous local bands and Cuban bands where I developed my skills and knowledge with their traditional rhythms, such as abacua, guajira, chachacha, mambo, danzon, pilon, sucusucu, son, guaguanco, songo… The shows were like “Tropicana style”. Then I traveled and came here.

Detroiter: What made you move to Detroit ?

Obed: I was visiting my mother and shortly I was fortunate enough to play in the International Detroit Jazz Festival in 2002. Took me quite a bit to find some good musicians. I started trying to put bands together but they started moving to New York and Miami . Then I was doing really good in mortgages and my music really slowed down. After the industry collapsed in 2008, I started going back to music and I joined a steel drum band and continued developing my band PanaMO.

Detroiter: What is your impression of Detroit ’s musical landscape?

Obed: There is a lot of talent. Plus there are quite a few great free concerts that enable you to hear excellent music and see extraordinaire musicians. On the downside, the payment is very low from Detroit bars and restaurants. I used to make $125.00 a night as a band leader during the late 80s in a so called “third world country”. Frequently here, they offer me less than I used to make 25 years ago! You can’t blame it on the bad economy because before 2008, it wasn’t that bad.

Detroiter: Is there a vibrant “World Music” scene in this area?
Obed: I do not know if it is vibrant or not, but I know that you have as a neighbor the city of Dearborn with a lot direct middle eastern musical contribution on regular basis, there are quite a few Mexican and Puerto Ricans musicians among other large communities that I have contact with. For example in my band I have musicians from Mexico (second generation), Russia-Armenia, Canada, and Puerto Rico. There is a great musical expression by everyone in the band resulting in a great sound!. Even more there are a few world categories on the Detroit Music Awards.

Detroiter: As a percussionist, do you play by feel or do you follow a set pattern?

Obed: Ideally as a percussionist, I participate in a conversation with the other musicians especially if I’m playing with excellent players. Sometimes the tune requires a set pattern but most of the time, I try to do it with a little tasty twist. I believe that you cannot be a good drummer without feeling. Without feeling, you might as well play with a machine.

Detroiter: What do think is particularly special about percussion?

Obed: Well I think it’s particularly special because people relate to the percussion because it’s like the heartbeat you hear when you’re in your mother’s womb and the percussion brings them back to that safe and comfortable place. I can see it in their smiles, their whistles and shouts coming from deep inside or just tapping in a bar or restaurant on the table very peacefully. That tri-connection is fantastic!

Detroiter: How would you describe your sound and has Detroit had any impact on it??

Obed: Strong and soft, like my personality. Particularly on tumbadoras. I like the main beat on my conga very hard mazacote/tumbao and a warm, mellow, low tone with melody on my three low drums. I can not say that Detroit had any impact on that because it was developed when I came here, but if I stay here longer for sure it will change somehow. One thing I never want to do is get old in music. I try to learn more things and grow more. Some musicians just stay in one era. There are people who love cool jazz, or be-bop and they just play that all the time.

Detroiter: Do you have a favorite style of Latin music? Flamenco? Bossanova? Afro-Cuban, etc???

Obed: I have many favorite Latin music styles such as Panamanian Tamborito and all the international well known styles that you mention.

Detroiter: Who are some of your musical inspirations?

Obed: Some musical inspirations are Tata Guines, Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barreto, Giovany Hidaldo, Candido Camero, Carlos Patato Valdes, Changuito, and many more. In my country, I grew up listening to music from many Detroit greats such as Aretha Franklin, Madonna, Milton Jackson, Diana Ross, the Motown music movement, etc. I had the privilege to play with Motown great, Martha Reeves.

Detroiter: What do you hope to contribute to the city’s musical scene?

Obed: I hope to develop the hand drum culture, especially in the kids who are willing to learn. Particularly now that, unbelievably, there’s no music program in the public schools. I think ignorance is the biggest enemy that we have to battle.