A Q&A with Rebel Tumbao’s Jose Clausell

Originally led by Matt Jenson (keys) and Jose Clausell (multi-percussionist), Rebel Tumbao can trace their origins back to 2002 when the duo met during a jazz camp that Clausell was teaching along with Eddie Palmieri at Goddard College in Vermont. As the story goes, Jenson was there to get lessons from his idol Palmieri. And it eventually lead to Jenson asking Clausell if the multi-percussionist would be interested in joining him on a particularly focused music project – a project focused on employing elements of roots reggae, Cuban son, a genre popularized in the 1930s that employed elements of Spanish cancion, Spanish guitar and African percussion, soul music, gospel and African folk music. In some way, their sound reminds me a little bit of Henry Cole and the Afrobeat Collective‘s Roots Before Branches in the sense that both groups have a sound that speaks across the African Diaspora. 

Their forthcoming self-titeld debut album is comprised of covers of John Coltrane, Bob Marley as well as several original compositions written by Jensen further continues the tradition of conscious, protest music. Lyrically, their material dreams of a world peace, love and equality, free from sexism, racism, poverty and greed. Interestingly, they manage to balance that difficult tightrope of being serious yet ebullient, and of being political without sounding as though you were preaching. And much like Bob Marley, one of the band’s major influences, the material manages to talk about revolution, hope and the simple pleasures of love. Indeed, what it suggests is that revolutionaries are often deeply motivated by love – love of their fellow man. 

I recently spoke with the absolutely charming and forthrightJose Clausell about how he got into music; his influences; how he met co-founded Matt Jensen and the band’s origins; the difficult economics of writing, recording, performing and touring in a large collective of musicians – after all, economic realities naturally influence art and are of a concern to every musician; and he offers some profound and very earnest advice to musicians trying to make a name for themselves – advice that artists of alls stripes should consider. 

Check it out below. 



WRH: How did you get into music and when did you know it was your calling?

Jose Clausell: I can honestly say that music got into me from inside the womb.  I think that people born with an innate ability to drum are those who were conscious of their mother’s heartbeat and hooked on it: I was one of those fortunate souls!  

All roads lead to my Mother. She was an extraordinary woman who had an operatic voice and a passion for collecting and listening to eclectic music that was above and beyond other mortals. She was brought to the United States from Boriken (Puerto Rico) at a young age by some missionaries who saw something special about her. They asked my Grandmother if they could take her back to the US, to educate her and give her a better life.  Strange as it may seem, she landed in Miami, with a nice family of Jewish faith who were culturally hip and in some way or another involved with the Miami Vaudeville scene. How that happened, remains a mystery until this day, fate is the only answer I could come up with. However, they instilled in her the “American dream” thing and exposed her to classical music, swing music, Cuban music and Vaudeville culture. Coming up in that environment, she developed s strong desire to live in the cultural Mecca of the world-NYC.  She moved to the upper west side in the late forties with my three older brothers and their father. This is when she started to collect music and immerse herself deeply into the melting pot of live music. When that marriage failed, she met my father, who was a merchant marine and they moved to Park Slope Brooklyn which at the time was predominately Irish and Italian neighborhood that had a reasonable mix of other ethnicities as well.  This is where my seven other siblings and I were born and raised.  We all came from the hospital to an amazing musical wonderland, were music was sacred. She nurtured us with popular music that spanned the globe, the classic movies (especially the musicals) and variety shows. 

My brother, who was a drummer, formed a rock band in 1967, a basement band so to speak, that played the music of Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Grand Funk, Santana and the music of other bands of the era. The band would play block parties and they were Killer. This is when I discovered that I wanted to be a drummer/musician.  I built my first drum set from one gallon paint cans, refrigerator shelves and sheet metal for cymbals.  My brother Joe (Dj/producer) and I would be in the back yard mimicking my brother’s band. 

WRH: Who are your influences?

JC: That’s a very, very long list.  In fact, most of my biggest influences and inspirations are not drummers/percussionist. They span a wide variety of instrumentalist, vocalist, composers and arrangers from a multitude of genres.  I love the trumpet, acoustic guitar, piano, voice and the cello as much as I do drums, so imagine how deep that river runs!  However, to be more on point with the question, my mother is first and foremost, my brother the drummer.  For the drums, primarily, it’s John Bonham, Ian Paice, keith Moon, Elvin Jones, Jack Dejohnette and countless others.  

Percussion: Tito Puente, Chepito Areas, Nicky Marrero, Tata Guiness, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barretto, Tommy lopez, “Little” Ray Romero, Yeyito Iglesias, Milton Cardona, Manny Oquendo, Orestes Cardona, Johnny Rodriguez, Papo Pepin and countless others.

WRH: What are you listening to right now?

JC: At this moment, while I’m writing? Bela Bartok’s “Die 6 Streichquartette" by the Emerson String Quartet….  its killer!!!

WRH: How did you meet your bandmates and collaborators? How did you come about the band’s name?

JC: The band’s name and concept for the project came from my partner Matt Jenson.  We met in Vermont, back in 2002, when I was teaching a week of Jazz camp at Goddard College with Eddie Palmieri. He went there to study with his “Latin” piano idol (Eddie) and to ask me if I would join forces in putting together his idea of creating an organic synthesis from roots reggae and Cuban Son.  At first, it was quite amusing, and I asked myself: where is this tall, blonde and lanky cat (from New Hampshire to boot) coming from? I mean, we’re talking two hell of a funky kind of musics here! (Laughter). However, there was something in the air and I felt the cosmic forces conspiring throughout our conversation, so I went with it. He sure turned out to be an amazing composer and pianist with a lot of soul in his playing, which is extraordinary for a country boy from NH (laughter). Although Matt’s no longer physically with the group we move forward with his spirit and his artistic contributions.

WRH: How would you describe your sound?

JC: Earthy, soulful, groovy and honest

WRH: Rebel Tumbao consists of a very large collective of folks with 11 members, if I’m not mistaken – and that’s the live band! When I saw you play at the Summerstage Preview Showcase at the Highline Ballroom back in January, I thought of the Funk Ark’s Will Rast admitting in an interview that with a large collective of musicians it was difficult to actually earn money. In fact, it makes it much more likely for people in such a setup to have side projects, and even full-time jobs. How do you manage songwriting and touring around everyone’s schedule?  

JC: Well, due to economics, we cut the band down to ten (laughter).  The recording has not been released as of yet, we’re working tirelessly behind the scenes to make it happen.  We are a family comprised of seasoned veterans and talented young lion’s, some have day jobs and others make their living solely from music. I’m quite certain that when the time comes, everyone involved will jump on the band wagon because of the level of commitment they have shown to this point.  Furthermore, they love the music and believe in the mission that coincides with it. The real challenge is breaking into the festival, theater and university circuit, where it’s economically feasible for us to earn some bread and bring our message to the masses. These kind of artistic outlets, for the most part, are comfortable with booking big names and legends, so it’s difficult… u dig? Lucky for us, we have three very special people in our corner that have a whole lot of love for what we’re doing and have given and continue to give us their support. I’m talking about our manager,Ina Ditke, label head, Joe Claussell (my brother) and producer and consummate music man, Brian Bacchus. They are three heavy weights that are loved and highly respected in this industry.

WRH: Your album possesses a sound that would be difficult for many to easily pigeonhole as it employs elements of jazz, salsa, con, reggae and others. In many ways I’m reminded of Henry Cole and the Afrobeat Collective’s Roots Before Branches – in the sense that both albums make a connection across the African Diaspora. In the case of Rebel Tumbao, was this intentional? What has been the response to your sound?

 JC: The last thing I want is for anyone to define, or as you said, “pigeonhole” our artistic offering.  Music, when created and expressed through the vibrations of the earth, spirit and cosmic forces, is meant to be felt, not analyzed and categorized.  Our (musical) objective is simple: put a smile in your heart, and entice your soul to dance. I would rather want to know how one feels about music as opposed to what they think.  Music rooted in the African diaspora, is for the most part rhythmic and spiritual, the cerebral should be far removed…. u dig?

I have not listened to Henry Cole’s recording (, I will make it a point to do so) I bet it’s killing though- he’s an amazing musician that plays from an earthy perspective as well.  

The only intention set forth, was Matt’s initial idea of merging the clavé with the one drop.  All of the sonic elements in this recording ( Roots, Son, Blues, Gospel, funk and Jazz)  as you know ,are deeply rooted in Africa. Besides, I have Congo and west African DNA; the connection was there from the beginning… u dig?

The response to this recording has been great from both industry and public folks alike, especially from those who took an uninterrupted  listen . Keeping it real, there were a few who just didn’t get it.  Also, we got a lot of commentary on our phenomenal singer, Toussaint Yeshua, the mix, the lyrics and the collective soul and groove of the band.

WRH: On the album you have a song which deftly meshes Bob Marley’s “Exodus” and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” (two of my favorite songs at that!). How did that come about?

JC: That idea was suggested to Matt, by his friend and guitarist Cyril Lance, who recorded on the track as well. When I was presented with the idea, I immediately thought it was brilliant, for so many reasons.  For one, the two compositions go hand in hand, rhythmically, harmonically and melodically. Secondly, they’re classic compositions (one about love and the other about freedom) that fall in line with each other and the humanitarian side of our existence. Moreover, they were both spiritual, mystical, conscious and beautifully minded artist hat touched people and us deeply. Their music must be carried on by artists who are inspired and authentic in their interpretations of any given theme- NO gimmicks allowed!  Since our recording, I have often thought of what a collaboration between the two would have given the world. These Kat’s were really in their own dimension. 

WRH: The material on the new album manages to balance that difficult tightrope of being serious yet ebullient, and of being political without sounding as though you were preaching. And much like Bob Marley, the material manages to talk about revolution and the simple pleasures of love. How do you manage such a difficult balance? How difficult has that been? 

JC: Well to be quite honest, there really wasn’t that much to balance. The songs “Masters of Greed,” “The Story,” “Rebel Music” and “Muse” are songs of protest against the practices of government, corporations, politicians and the status quo.  None of these entities serve in the best interest of the people. We’re rattling the cage and calling them out on the humanshit they’ve created- and continue to perpetuate, when it’s clear that our beautiful planet is in serious peril. Evidently, preaching doesn’t apply because It’s our (and everyone else’s) right to get up in the face of it and our duty to make them accountable.  Masters of Greed is a great example of the aforementioned.  If anything, “The Story” is where the balancing act took place. The first half of the composition is letting the credit card companies, financial institutions and the corporations have it, on their unscrupulous practices. The second half is an appeal to the people to wake up from habitual consuming and free themselves from the ball and chain of debt. I wrote the Spanish lyrics in a way that removes us from judgment and criticism.  Here are the lyrics translated so you can dig where we are coming from.

The song starts off with a character that is fed up with working just to pay his credit bills and decides he’s going to live off of the grid.

Who me? I’m going to go live on a mountain, grow my own food and raise my own chickens, I had enough, I don’t want any more credit… No! 

Then the second half after the English verses goes something like this: 

The alarm went off already, the moment has come for you to wake up and I don’t want any conflict. 

It’s your conscious talking to you once again, you didn’t listen to me before you got in this mess and now you’re regretful

Because of your lack of will power, you fell into their trap, now you’re an addicted consumer.

I recommend that you make an appointment at the Betty Ford clinic, to see if they can help you kick your habit.

You spent your time dreaming, over spending and showing off, and now you have to pawn all of your material possessions 

Working like a slave to pay off your credit cards, a sum very difficult to reach. Listen, cut up those cards already!

We are rebels and vehemently oppose those in authority who do not act in the best interest of the planet and humankind. However, it’s of the utmost importance that we all work from love and understanding.  The wrong doers and so called enemies are our brothers and sisters in humanity. It’s vital to understand that no one is born with a greed, anger, hate or selfish gene, no such thing.  People are conditioned that way by their guardians, life circumstances, forces outside of their environment and so forth.  In the case of people of power, they indoctrinate their children with ideals, opinions and beliefs necessary to maintain control.  Our thing is to be in their face with love in our hearts and inspire others to help change the way the world is structured. 

WRH: How do you know when you have a finished song? 

JC: In my mind a song is never really finished.  In fact, from a studio perspective, as in my case, there’s always something you feel or hear in your head after the final mix and master.  However, live performance allows you the freedom to incorporate those thoughts and feelings -and to change things harmonically and rhythmically as well.  For example, I for some reason always get the bulk of my muses and inspiration when I’m riding through the subway system. So, when I get to our rehearsal we work it out and in the process some other members might feel something off of the augment, if it works we throw it into the mix.

WRH: What advice would you give to artists like yourself who are trying to make a name for themselves?

JC: Wow, this question involves so many different aspects into this semi-independent music world we are living in today.  Trying to make it, when you do not have industry support or sufficient personal finances, get ready to climb some mountains and swim some oceans. However, nothing is going to jump off if the music, musicianship and collective performance are not good or greater-because at the beginning and end of it all, we are here to create and perform. 

That being said, be humble and open. Stand on fertile ground and develop an authentic musical dialogue and sound that’s true to you and appealing to an audience. Promoters love when you have a baad ass band that can connect with an audience too. Align yourself with people in and out of the industry who have integrity, are wise, knowledgeable, experienced and believe wholeheartedly in what you’re expressing artistically. Learn the do’s and don’ts of producing, marketing and promoting your music from these very people and other sources. Then there’s is social media, where no one size fits all and trends are constantly changing, keep your ear to the pavement: a savvy fourteen year old would be the perfect person to handle this task (laughter). Believe, keep it real and never give up- “A Quitter never wins and A Winner Never quits!