This story was originally published in the March 2017 Princeton Echo.
If you happen to be in downtown Princeton some nights at Mediterra Restaurant or at Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street, you might catch an ensemble that includes keyboard, guitar, congas, and vocals playing the contagious dance music made famous by the Cuban sounds of Buena Vista Social Club.
But in whatever corner of the room you hear the Afro-Latin music take a closer look: Beyond the frenzy of the dance floor, one member of the ensemble stands out — blonde, blue-eyed, and much younger looking than the others. That’s Nicholas Cosaboom, a 20-year-old conga player.
“It can be pretty intimidating being the youngest guy on the gig, especially if you’re trying to make a good first impression, but I just do my best to roll with it and always have a positive attitude,” says Cosaboom. “The fact that I’m young coupled with the fact that I don’t really look like I have any Latin roots definitely gives some older musicians reasons to doubt me.”
Whether playing to a packed dance club or a downtown Princeton restaurant like Mediterra filled with gregarious patrons, Cosaboom’s approach is the same: Arrive early, set up, stretch, focus on the music, and in no time guests are out of their seats and dancing to the delirium of the music.
“When I’m performing the best of me shines through. I become more relaxed, more joyous. That’s what art does. It brings you closer to who you really are,” he says. “I believe that music is a healer. Some of the happiest people that I know are people who have the most music in their lives,” he adds.
Performing in a restaurant setting is nothing new for Cosaboom; in fact, it is part of his DNA. He grew up with the cacophony, rhythm, and caffeinated chatter of Small World Coffee, which is co-owned by his parents, Jessica Durrie and Brant Cosaboom. For many, the cafe, located half a block from the main gates of Princeton University, is the heartbeat and pulse of Princeton. “It’s always been a fabric of my life,” says Cosaboom.
Sitting in the bustling coffee shop on a recent Saturday afternoon, Cosaboom admits, “I’m totally biased, but this is one of the best places in downtown Princeton. It’s a total hub for art and culture and full of good energy.”
His first introduction to hand percussion was at the age of nine or ten listening to the music of Krishna Das, an acclaimed vocalist known for his performance of kirtan, Hindu devotional music. He also got to know Daniel Johnson, a Philadelphia-based tabla player whose credits include performing with jazz legend Badal Roys “Dharma Jazz,” Grammy winner Paul Winter Consort, kirtan artists like Girish, and Suzin Green. Johnson teaches tabla in the Philadelphia/Princeton area.
As luck would have it, Cosaboom’s stepdad has a boyhood friend who was teaching hand percussion in the Princeton area. “If I hadn’t met Sebastian Guerrero, I don’t think that I would have fallen in love with the instrument,” Cosaboom says. “Sebastian was a major influence on my development as a musician and taught me a variety of instruments. He was my musical guru for a solid six years. Not only was he giving me weekly lessons, but he would also take me to gigs in New York City, where I was able to sit in with older, established musicians.” These days, Guerrero, who has toured and recorded with the likes of Boy George and Cyndi Lauper, is playing percussion in the Broadway hit show “On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan.”
Early on, Cosaboom recalls, neither of his parents pressured him to practice. “I’m sure it really irked them that I didn’t practice regularly, since they were paying for my lessons and my instruments,” he says. “My parents have always been extremely supportive of me and let me do my thing.”
One day, however, he realized how much practice pays off. He was 15, playing the conga, when he paused and thought, “Wow, that sounded really cool.” It was also the breakthrough he needed to push him further into his music. From then on he started to listen to Afro-Latin music, paying close attention to the percussion instruments and developing an appreciation of how the percussion fit the overall song.
It was also about the same time that he discovered timba music, which was a total revelation in his musical development. Timba, which incorporates elements of hip hop and funk with Afro-Cuban folkloric rhythms, is the most popular dance music in Cuba. Cosaboom calls it “some of the most hardcore, infectious, danceable music ever.” To get a sense of timba, he recommends listening to the music of Los Van Van, Elio Reve, and the Pedrito Martinez Group.
Coasboom admits he is still very much getting the hang of all that’s involved in becoming a serious musician — practicing regularly, playing with other musicians, and acquiring the skills needed to play professionally.
Now almost 21, Cosaboom feels he has made great strides in achieving his ultimate dream: living in New York City, hanging out with other musicians, and getting paid to play his music. There was one obstacle in his way, however: learning to speak Spanish in order to be taken seriously and to communicate, especially with Cuban musicians.
With the help of his Princeton High School Spanish teacher, Cosaboom took a gap year and spent several months in Lima, Peru — a mecca for Afro-Latin music and Afro-Caribbean folklorica. There he was able to immerse himself in the language and volunteered in a school in one of Lima’s poorest districts, teaching percussion to elementary schoolers.
Most recently, he spent a semester in Cuba. For Cosaboom — a student at New York University — that turned into another life-changing experience culturally, emotionally, and spiritually. From traditional folkloric repertoire to rumba to Latin jazz to timba and salsa he got to hear it all. “I was deeply inspired by the artistry and the stage presence of every musician I encountered. More than that, I was impressed by how ingrained the music is into Cuban daily life and culture, and how spirited the people are,” he says.
If he had the opportunity to meet any musician, Cosaboom says — without blinking an eye — it would be the Havana-born, New York-based percussionist Pedrito Martinez. “I would pick his brain on why he plays the way he does, and the kinds of challenges he’s had to face building a career playing Cuban dance music. I would also like to tell him how much he has had an influence on me.”
While he has been fortunate to have mentors guide his way, Cosaboom says family plays a major role in his life, especially his younger sister, Emma, whom he calls his best friend. “I don’t know how big an inspiration I’ve been on her,” he says of his sister, a freshman at UMass Amherst, “but she’s hugely important to me.”
When you see Cosaboom at Small World Coffee, you can be sure he’s drinking his cup of Joe sans leche. And like his coffee, when it comes to his playing he keeps it old school and you can be certain he’s maintaining the upbeat on the conga as he keeps on grooving.
Nick Cosaboom, Mediterra Restaurant and Taverna, 29 Hulfish Street, Princeton. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m.
Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Saturdays starting at 8:30 p.m.