Santana’s percussion section has been a consistent thread through the band’s twelve-year existence. The players have changed down through the years, but the percussion sound has always set the standard for rock and roll. When the group burst on the scene in San Francisco in the late ’60s, it was as much the Latin percussion as Carlos Santana’s soaring guitar that endeared them to millions.
The first three Santana albums featured Mike Carrabello on congas, Jose “Chepito” Areas on timbalas, and young drummer Michael Shrieve. Percussionists that have lent a hand in Santana projects since then include Coke Escovedo, Victor Pantoja, Mingo Lewis, Gregg Errico, Buddy Miles, Lenny White, Billy Cobham, Don Alias, Jan Hammer, Tony Smith, Phil Browne, Phil Ford, Jack DeJohnette, Ndugu Leon Chancier, Gaylord Birch, Pete Escovedo, Francisco Aguabella, and present drummer Graham Lear. The current percussion lineup of Armando Peraza (bongos, congas), Raul Rekow (congas) and Orestes Vilato (timbales), combines youthful strength and veteran savvy.
Armando Peraza first appeared with Santana on the 1972 album Caravanserai. Rekow had his debut on I977’s Festival, and Vilato joined in 1980 for Devadip’s jazz departure, The Swing Of Delight. The three performed on Santana’s 1981 smash Zebop, and just completed work on the band’s new record, slated for release in the summer of ’82. Our interview took place in the San Francisco offices of rock mogul Bill Graham, the band’s manager, now producer. “It’s a privilege to come and talk to somebody that has interest in this stuff,” Vilato said. “I feel like one of the jobs we are here to do in life as percussionists, especially as Latin percussionists, is the education. Because as many years as it’s been around, it’s relatively a new instrument. And I don’t blame the people for not understanding some of it. But as long as we talk about it, and provide some education about it, eventually they’ll understand it more and more. And it’ll be just like trumpet or guitar. ” Peraza, Rekow, and Vilato are proud of their musical heritage, as they are proud of their musical chemistry together.
AP: In my country I was always involved in sports; bats, baseballs, this was my trade. I never expected to be a conga player. The brother of a friend of mine used to have a band in Cuba, and they used to call the band Quba Bana. His brother’s name was Alberto Ruis. They used to call Alberto the “loco” Ruis. We used to play baseball together. Then I saw Alberto in the street, and he told me, “I’m looking for a conga player.” I said, “I can play congas.” I went and bought a conga for six dollars, and started to play. At that time, that band was one of the best groups in Cuba, and I started to play conga with them. I played for maybe six or seven months, then I ran into a guy called Patato. He’s playing now with Tito Puente, and he’s played with a lot of people. Patato and I played together, and we were the right combination. That’s how we learned to play congas. I didn’t have a teacher; I taught myself. I was going to different places and playing, that was how I was learning.
RT: Were you with a band when you came to this country?
AP: No. I came into this country together with Mongo Santamaria and a revue. I used to play and dance with a revue and then play in the band. But my first record date was with Machito’s band: a big band with Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich, and the saxophone player was named Flip Phillips. This was my first record date in the United States. Then I left the revue, and was com ing to the West Coast with a blues guitar player named Slim Gaylord. I spent some time in California, then left in 1953. I played a little bit with Dave Brubeck and Cal Tjader around here, then I left this area with the George Shearing Quintet. I stayed a few years with George Shearing, about eleven. Then I played with Stan Kenton, and Wes Montgomery. I was playing with too many people at that time. Then I saw Orestes when I was coming to New York.
RT: How did you get started Raul?
RR: Well, I was at a rock concert to see Steppenwolf and all these other people. I was about thirteen or fourteen years old, and I saw the Santana Blues Band. And at that time I decided I wanted to play congas. I was so inspired by them. They had a guy playing congas named Marcus Malone. I had always wanted to play trap drums up until then, and never had enough money for a drumset. So most of the time I just spent playing on tabletops and my lap and whatever, just with my hands. And when I saw the congas used with rock and roll, it really inspired me, because I had never seen congas played in the traditional manner. The only congas I had ever seen was Desi Arnaz. (laughter) So when I saw that, I said I’d like to do that. The guy who was playing was not a traditional drummer, but the way it was being used as an integral part of rock and roll music got me going. So I bought a conga drum for thirty dollars from some pawn shop down on Third Street. I went out to Aquatic Park and used to play with all the guys out there, and just jam. I got into a nightclub band when I was fifteen, and by the time I was seventeen the group Malo asked me to join the band. And I joined them. I dropped out of high school and went on the road. And when we got to New York, the keyboard player, Richard Kermode, hipped me to Latin music—you know, Orestes and all these guys. I really started getting into the traditional styles of Latin music. Since then, I’m still trying to learn it.
RT: Were you discovered by Santana from playing in Malo?
RR: Yes, from playing with Carlos’ brother. And when Armando got sick, on. The only way to get a sound out of the thing was to play it hard. So from playing mostly with my arms is, I guess, how I got built up. That skin was so thick; you can’t believe anybody got a sound out of that thing.
RT: Orestes, what’s your background?
OV: I was twelve when I came to this country. I didn’t figure out until then that I had some kind of roots into the music of my country, Cuba. And when I came over here, my father won a set of timbales in a poker game, so he says, “Let’s see what you can do with this.” So I said, ” I bet you I can get a job on it, and you won’t have to give me my weekly allowance.” So he said, they called me and asked me to come and help them on an album. I didn’t know it was to actually play with the band. I said, “Sure, I’d love to.” It turned out to be an audition. It was only Carlos and Tom Coster, and myself and a timbales player named Leo Rosales. They liked the way we played, and asked us to join the band. I’ve been here ever since. Armando joined us a year later, and it’s definitely an honor and a pleasure to be able to play with a true master. It’s going to school.
RT: How did you get huge arms like that? Do you work out?
RR: No, I’ve never lifted weights. I’ve always been into calisthenics, and more gymnastic-type things I guess. I think the bulk of it came from just playing congas, because I never learned how to play real well with my wrists. And I was showing Orestes the skin that I first learned to play “Well, let’s see what happens.” Two weeks later I was working with one of the bands in New York. Then Armando came in and started playing, and that was the beginning. Most of the groups I played with were strictly Latin music, so I became very involved in the traditional and the typical percussion of the Afro-Cuban environment. After that I went with a couple of groups, like Ray Barreto. Then we had a group called Tipica “73, which was a coop; one of the first Latin co-ops that succeeded for a few years. They’re still around. After that, I had my group for four years, Los Kimbos, and recorded for Fania Records. Then it was in ’75 that Carlos actually sent for me to play in a concert and see how I liked the group. Everything was alright, but the reason I didn’t stay was because I was just beginning with my own group, and I was too involved already. We had the uniforms, and then the record dates. And I said, “Well, I have to do one thing at a time.” So when I got tired after four years with the group, finally somehow they got in touch with me again. And I said, “It’s time for me to go to California.” I’ve been with the band about two years.
RT: When you are working on a new tune, or at a recording session, do you talk about how the section is going to play each part?
RR: Yeah, we’ll listen to it, and we’ll each come up with ideas as to what we think will fit. And sometimes Carlos will like it, sometimes he won’t. Carlos comes up with a lot of good ideas himself for the music. The majority of the time, I would say it’s his final word as to what we’re going to do, but we come up with our own ideas. We’ll sit back and listen to the song first, and say, “Why don’t we try this rhythm, or this rhythm?” And I guess what happens a lot of times, is we want to play so much, and we have so many ideas, that although it sounds great to us, percussively, it’s a little bit too much for what the song might require.
OV: We have to simplify it.
RR: It’s too many notes, so we’ll wind up having to simplify it. Because we think very complicated, all these polyrhythms, and it’s such a beautiful thing the way the instruments can fit together and make their own melody. Some people can’t understand it, and appreciate the beauty of it. Some producers will say, “Oh, that’s too much. You gotta play something real simple.” And I guess our biggest job is just learning how to simplify, so it can come across to the people who are making the records.
RT: But you guys are able to work together well? You don’t let egos get in the way?
AP: No, no, no. Because we play to please the people, and we play because we enjoy to play.
RR: That is a problem with a lot of percussionists, where they will complete with each other, and feel threatened by one an other. But with us, we don’t have that problem. We respect each other, and we each have our own little niche.
AP: We have our own individuality. Sometimes he plays something that’s beautiful, sometimes he comes in with something that’s nice. But it’s like anything— we are human beings. You can never have 100%. See, if you play everyday like we play everyday, sometimes you don’t sleep well because you have to get up early in the morning, or these kind of things. Our instruments are very physical instruments, so you have to be in good top condition to play. And sometimes, we have good times; sometimes we are not satisfied. But even if we are not satisfied, we stay doing a decent job.
RT: You said you talk about which rhythms you’ll use on a certain song. Do you mean using set rhythms?
RR: Well, there are so many set, traditional rhythms. There’s mambo, and chacha, rhumba, you could go down the line. Mozambique, bombo . . .
OV: It doesn’t even have to be a set rhythm. It can be a combination of a part of one rhythm and a part of another rhythm, and our own creation.
AP: The biggest problem we have when we want to play with somebody is when the people you play with, and especially the producer, don’t know anything about percussion. You know? They think of a piece of music that’s up in their head. Say he’s listened to a record of somebody from Africa or whatever. He figures that that beat is supposed to be in the piece of music you’re working on. You understand what I mean? You have to realize that every drummer in the world has his own individuality. You hear Buddy Rich? He don’t sound like Louis Bellson. You hear Billy Cobham, he don’t sound like . . . Understand what I mean? If I want to hire Orestes Vilato, that’s because Orestes Vilato wants to sound like Orestes Vilato. I want his contribution to my music.
RR: Because you want that sound.
AP: As soon as I try to change Orestes Vilato to sound like somebody else, he’s not articulating his best, because he has to think like somebody else. This is my point. Or you see Raul, who has his own style to play. What I have to do is get the best out of Raul because he has something to offer. But if you change that person, especially me, if you change the way I play, I can’t articulate it. Because I’m a natural player. I’m not a technical player; a robot. See, when you hire me you hire Armando Peraza. You see, as a guitar player, Santana sounds different than other guitar players. But as soon as Santana tries maybe to sound like somebody else, he has to think like somebody else. Automatically he’s limited. But we hear music, and we try to do the best we can. But also, you have to take into consideration that you’re not working for yourself, you’re working for somebody else. This is the real truth. And then you have to please the person you’re working for.
OV: Before I forget it, the thing about the producers that Armando is mentioning: I feel like even though Latin music has been around a lot of years, and maybe more years than even we Latin people know, in general, producers don’t understand most of the Latin music contributions. Until a few years ago, all Latin music was considered just alike, even if it was Mexican, with mariachi and that, or South American, which is the samba from Brazil. It was all considered the same thing. There was no distinction, like what each kind was. And a producer has to learn all those things to be able to know what type of Latin rhythm or Latin environment he wants for his rock tunes or his jazz tunes or his universal music. So I think it’s not just a guy banging a bongo or conga that’s going to do it. It’s the roots and the basics behind the guy, and the knowledge behind the producer to pick the guy to do it, to do the right stuff.
AP: Twenty five or thirty years ago, there was this director with his band, named Chano Pozo, who played jazz. And I went to Chano Pozo to play jazz with the group. They used to say, “Well, conga drum can’t fit in a jazz group.” Eventually we incorporated our rhythms into the jazz ingredient, because jazz started to be in evolution. Already jazz lost the authenticity. The authenticity of jazz began to disappear because a lot of people started to play in 5/4. It’s not traditional in jazz. People started to play in 7/4. It’s not traditional to play in 7/4, because real jazz music, the rhythm and blues phrasing, is in 4/4 time. Well, they started to be very intellectual musically, and played all these uncommercial rhythms. Jazz was carried by cultures all over the world, to make jazz what you call “progressive” jazz. It’s like right now you see where the people are split into funk music, and you start to realize that it’s coming from the samba. Samba is the main ingredient of funk music. And they have an element of the Caribbean musical phrasing. Only thing is it’s been interpreted for the black people in this country. Because all these rhythms have been drifting into the United States. The black peo ple have started to listen to this kind of thing. When I was here a few years ago, black persons never played conga drums, because the black American was not related with the conga. They started to be related with the conga in the ’50s; that’s really when they started the movement. In black America their only traditional music was the blues, and they didn’t want to know nothing about conga because they would consider that thing primitive. It was coming—me, Chano Pozo, Mongo, and all these people—the infiltration started to come. People sometimes say to you,’ ‘This is a funk conga.” No, there’s no such thing as a funk conga. You see the music, and you try to create something around the music. It’s like some people will explain to you bombo. In bombo, these two little bongos have a rule like the trap drums. See, you start to really know the instrument. You play bombo and you play bolero, and they have a completely different beat. And you play something that we call somontuno, and that has a different approach. Drummers must make a concession to the way it’s supposed to be played. But today, everybody plays anything and they say, “I’m a bongo player. I’m a conga player,” but they play anything. And the producer says it’s okay; what has been heard is alright. The instrument loses the rule; the disciplinary approach of the instrument. It disappears. To play rock and roll is different. To play jazz is different. But you have rules. In my instrument, the rules have started to disappear right now, because everybody play anything.
RR: It’s funny. Armando was explaining how it took jazz musicians a while to be able to accept the Latin percussion. It’s funny to me because, what are the roots of jazz? They say Jelly Roll Morton was one of the innovators of jazz, and he was a firm believer of voodoo in New Orleans. And the music that he listened to was the same type of thing that we play, that we’ve studied. I’m not saying voodoo in particular, but the style of drumming, and the way there’s a call and answer between chants. And that’s basically what jazz is set up on. It’s like a free-form improvisation thing, but one person will say something, state a question, and another person will state the answer. In the United States, the black people were not really allowed to practice their roots, and so they played different instruments because they weren’t allowed to play the congas. They put their feelings into trumpets, saxophones, trap drums, and after a while, they lost their roots. They said, “Well, that’s too primitive.” It took them a while to accept the fact that it all fits together. Music is universal. It can all fit together if you work at it.
RT: Santana is such a percussion-oriented band, it would seem that you would find a producer who understands percussion.
OV: Of course, that’s why I think it was a wise choice that Bill (Graham) produced the last album. Bill has been into Latin music for a lot of years. He’s got such a record collection that he’s probably more into Latin backgrounds than anyone I know in this business. I think it is a good combination.
RR: What he did was allow us to have a little bit more input as far as the rhythm is concerned. Up till now we haven’t found a producer who knows 100% exactly what he wants us to do, or can appreciate what we come up with. So Bill was like a mediator. He was in the middle, saying, “What ideas do you guys have?” We’d come up with an idea and he’d fight for that, because he knew that we had enough knowledge between the three of us that it’s got to be something creative.
AP: That we would at least come out with something. Also, you have to take into consideration the characteristics of Santana’s band. What has made Santana’s band different from the other bands?
RR: The percussion.
RT: In the Santana band then, the percussion is more of a lead instrument.
RR: It’s an integral part, as opposed to decoration.
AP: Well, I wouldn’t say “lead,” but at least you’re willing to equalize, and it’s very nice.
RR: It’s an integral part. A lot of bands will have a percussionist just to have a percussionist; just because it may look good. But here it is a part of the music. It’s not really the lead.
AP: And also, Santana gives you a place to play in the concerts. He lets you express yourself, moreso than any other band. He lets everybody play, especially when we play a concert. The keyboard has his solo, the bass has his solo, the drummer has his solo, Orestes has his solo, I have my solo, Raul has a solo. We have a chance to play on the stage. Sometimes when we are re cording, he disagrees with something. What can you do? It’s his band, you know.
RR: Everybody has different ideas, differ ent concepts.
RT: How important is it to listen to each other when you’re playing?
AP: Oh, it’s very important! When we don’t listen to each other…it’s complicated, complicated.
RR: We all have to play together. The thing is with the rhythm section in general, the five of us, drums, bass, and the three percussionists—it’s like five fingers. We all have to be connected at the hand. Otherwise, if we all go our own way and aren’t listening to each other, then there’s no conformity. It just doesn’t all fit together. If it doesn’t all hit right where it’s supposed to, then we get thrown off and lose time.
AP: We listen to each other, but sometimes you also have to listen to the front line; what’s in front. Everybody has to be in the right place, every musician in the band.
RT: Do you still practice individually; still work on your own chops?
OV: That is a very intricate question (laughter). The way I would answer is that we’re always so busy playing that acutally when we don’t play we rest.
RR: In a way, we’re studying and practicing by listening to records. You pick up things. Even though you don’t sit down and actually work it out, you hear it and can work it out in your mind. When you’re playing the congas or timbales or whatever as much as we do, for me it’s painful. Because my approach to the conga is very physical; maybe more physical than it should be. I hurt myself. So when I get home, I don’t want to hurt myself anymore.
OV: There are also different ways of practicing, like Raul said. We don’t have to practice physically how to do a roll, how to do anything. But we could practice mentally. If our mind is active enough to know what we want, our arms will respond right away. So actually, what we have to keep in shape is the mind, to know exactly the approach and the kind of interpretation that we want to do in certain things. This is what has to be in shape.
RR: Physically, anybody who can play should be able to play anything that’s put in front of them—physically. It’s mentally that you have blocks. Your own limitations, that you put on yourself, are the only limitations that you have. And if you forget those limitations, then you’ll be able to play anything you want, really.
OV: For example, it’s really wrong to think that normally a percussion instrument should play fast to be good, or play a roll to be good. Sometimes counterpoint, or maybe one over here and two over there may be the right way to play more interestingly and deeply than just to go “brrrrrrrrr” fast. So that’s why I say to train the mind to know where to put the counterpoint against the phrasing and all that—to put it right. That’s why you’ve got guys that can play with one hand. There’s guys like Armando who could play two congas with one hand, and could do a solo with the other hand. Really you only need one hand, because the phrasing and the concept is there.
RT: Do you guys get together with Graham Lear to work out things?
RR: Sometimes when we go into rehearsals we’ll jam with him, and yeah, we work out things. Graham’s a great drummer. I’d have to say he’s the best drummer I’ve played with. When he wants to play within the percussion he can do it, and it’s very difficult for a drummer to be able to play with three other drummers, and be able to say something without getting in the others’ way. And of course there are times when we all don’t gel 100%, but the majority of the time it’s one machine.
RT: When you’re playing do you think in terms of complete phrases, and repetition? Or just in terms of maintaining a single groove?
AP: In certain parts of the music we maintain a single groove, steady.
OV: We are accompanying the music. Our job is to maintain a certain groove.
RR: It’s like a gallop.
OV: Now if you do a solo thing, you might think of eight-bar phrases.
RT: How do you see the direction of the Santana band moving now? Are you going back to more of the traditional Santana sound?
OV: I wouldn’t say it’s the traditional old Santana sound. I would say that if it’s traditional it could be put into today’s interpretation. In other words, to keep the elements of the traditional, but move them up to date. Like what we did on Zebop. Zebop is not the Santana band of ten years ago. It’s different, and yet it has the elements that identifies Santana.
RR: It uses the same qualities, but it’s varied.
RT: Have you been happy with the recorded sound you’ve gotten?
RR: No, not 100% for me. Orestes and I were listening to some tapes of some real old albums when we were driving over here. Some things that had been recorded in the ’30s and ’40s, where the percussion sound is incredible. And they used maybe one microphone for an eight-piece band. It blows my mind.
OV: Monoral equipment, one mic’, and yet you get all the purity of the drum.
RR: The overtones. See, that’s what I think is lost in recording a lot of the time.
OV: All the filtering, the DBXs and that has deformed the natural sound.
RR: They put a microphone down close to a conga drum, and it’s like putting the listener’s ear that close to the conga drum skin. You don’t hear the overtones.
OV: You don’t give the sound waves time to amplify…
RR: And to play off the walls of the room and whatever. And that’s the beauty of the instrument. It’s not just the initial percussive slap; it’s the aftertones.
RT: Armando, is the sound today as good as it was on that first session you did with Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich?
AP: Well, in that time it wasn’t such a technological thing. It was like Orestes said, you had one mic’. I have a record with George Shearing. It was one mic’ in the front, and it sounded good, man. I can hear myself. Sometimes in the modern sound I can’t hear myself.
OV: Not only that, but for example, the conga most of all has lost a lot of sound in today’s recording. Armando and Raul, and some of the good congeros, get a bass sound out of the center of the drum, which is actually like a low octave. It’s a false low octave, that if you hear them acoustically they could do it. They do it in the concerts. And yet when they record, that low octave is not reproduced the way it should. It loses it somehow with the filtering and all.
RR: I remember recording on the last album, and being asked to play harder and louder, just for the rhythm. And my own concept is that I should be able to play however I feel comfortably, and it’s up to them to turn the knobs . . .
OV: That’s their job.
RR: We all try to play with dynamics, and sometimes we feel we’re supposed to play soft, sometimes loud. And what would happen is, I’m playing along here, and I feel that I’ve gotta come down a little bit. Then they say I wasn’t playing loud enough during that section. And the VU meter is going down here, as opposed to being up here. And what’s happened in general with recording is it’s become too technical. And each track has to be so clean, there can’t be any leakage. I understand the reason for that, but you lose something in there. It’s so much nicer if you can get a whole band in there that has everything well rehearsed. You can record the whole rhythm track along with the solos, and everything at the same time.
OV: I think that cleanness and all that only works with symphonic bands or something like strings, but with popular music you’ve got to have the strength and that thingthere…
RR: The feeling.
OV: You can’t get that technically.
RR: That live sound, the live feeling that comes off.
OV: Sometimes people prefer to buy albums that have been recorded live, because they have that. Even though you can hear the people and the noise behind, they have that alive stuff. That’s the difference between a machine and live musicians. That’s why disco didn’t survive, because it was a machine. I’m glad though, glad we have a job.
RR: I’m not saying that it doesn’t work that way, but for myself, it’s losing something. When we were working with Keith Olsen, we recorded “I’m Winning.” And the way he likes to record, he’ll time every four bars with a stopwatch to see if the meter is consistent. He’ll count, “One-twothree- four punch,” then he’ll compare that with sixteen bars further into the song. And if they don’t match to within a hundredth or tenth of a second, we’ve sped up or we’ve slowed down. And I’m not really for that much perfection, but then again, it works. He’s found certain formulas that do work. You can’t really say it’s wrong. It’s just a different approach, I guess. Too much perfectionism. He was the same about the tuning of the congas, the tuning of the bells. Everything had to be perfect.
OV: I liked that part. I think that was a great thing about him.
RR: I definitely learned a lot.
RT: What was the last record each one of you bought?
RR: That’s a good question. Teena Marie was the last record. I’m personally a fan of R&B and funk music, because I grew up in that environment, before I learned about traditional Latin music. And so I still love to listen to that kind of thing, funky stuff. We did an album with Rick James. I like that kind of stuff. I’m a fan of the old Motown sound: Temptations, Four Tops, all these people. But if I want to learn something, I’ll put on an old album, of Armando or Mongo or someone. You study these things, and that’s where you learn. You don’t learn from popular music as far as the percussion is concerned. You can learn how to try to fit it in, but it seems a little bit watered down. It’s not played with real conviction sometimes. It’s just there for decoration.
OV: For myself, I can’t buy the records I like to hear in this country. They don’t sell them. So being that I consider myself basically a percussionist, or something like that in my field, I try to get tapes. I make tapes, copies of concerts or percussive things that have been done. But besides that, normal records for my listening pleasure, I buy American records and all kinds of records. For my research in percussion, I have found very few records that I can actually learn that much out of. It doesn’t sound that good that I say that, but… What I want to hear is something that I haven’t heard already.
AP: I listen to all types of music. I still love to hear my Afro-Cuban music, because it’s in my roots. And I’m very jazz oriented too. And I like good rock and roll, played by somebody that can play the music. Because every music has something to say; everybody has feelings. Some people don’t like western music. I like western music, the hillbilly music. All this music is valid. To me, everybody has a soul, and their own environment. It’s true.
RT: Have you heard of a band called “Osibisa”?
AP: Osibisa, of course, from England.
RT: Is Osibisa more African-influenced percussion?
AP: It’s true. Yes.
RT: What is the difference between African and Afro-Cuban percussion?
AP: You see, our whole sect has come from Africa. We colonize for the Spanish rule on the island called Cuba. But the black Cuban created their own interpretation musically.
OV: And developed it.
AP: And developed different parts of it. But also we preserved a lot of the African tradition that today in Africa has disappeared.
OV: Including the religion.
AP: The religion. The African people don’t have this kind of thing that we still have. Because we preserve this thing. Cuba, Brazil, still have a little bit of that, Haiti…you understand what I mean? These three countries still have this; still have something that Africa really lost.
RR: And each one of those is slightly different. The way things are practiced in Haiti is slightly different than the way they’re practiced in Cuba or Brazil. Because they all had different influences. Brazil being under the rule of Portugal, Haiti being under the rule of the French, and Cuba being under the rule of the Spanish. So it’s all been preserved, but it’s been changed slightly.
AP: Because our music is interpretation. See, they teach Spanish music and incorporate it with the African. This is our mu sic. People all over the world, they talk to you about “Latin music.” But every Latin country has its own interpretation, musi cally. It’s different, one from another. You have Brazil, they have the samba. The Cuban people have the Afro-Cuban music. It started from the bolero. And we were one of the very first people to interpret the bolero and use percussions, the percussion instruments, or the miscellaneous instruments like the maracas, claves, and all these. It’s the creativity of the Cuban music.
OV: Even the bongo was made in Cuba. The clave, the sound of the clave, was made in Cuba, not in Africa.
AP: We have a special music that we call danson. It’s nothing but classical music interpreted the way we interpret it, with Afro-Cuban sounds. In this type of instrumentation we use flute, violins, cello, vi ola. It’s very refined music in our culture.
OV: That’s why I said most people think that Latin percussion is just primitive banging. They don’t know that in the 18th Century there was Latin music combined with strings and all that.
AP: We’re classical, because our back ground is European and African. But each country has its own interpretation. Mexico has its own music, the mariachi, the ranchera, the wopango. The wopango is closer to the Indian and Spanish. Because at that time in Mexico they didn’t play conga, because they didn’t have that deep of an African influence.
OV: That’s why I get mad when they show Speedy Gonzales, the little mouse on the cartoon, playing a bongo. Because the bongo had nothing to do with Mexico whatsoever.
AP: You see, each country has something. You have a big black population in Columbia. They play a lot of things similar to what we play, but a little different. But the instrumentation they play is nothing but Afro-Cuban music. And I want to tell you about the calypso. Do you know what the calypso is? It’s an old Cuban song that we played and interpreted for somebody in Jamaica.
OV: And the calypso nowadays is what they call reggae.
AP: Reggae music. I don’t like to discuss it, because you will say, “Well, you think everything is created in Cuba.” But I was talking to you about something that’s cultural, because I can bring in records to you. I know people that have these old records…
OV: We have the tapes. We could show you in 1938 the same reggae beats played in the same groove.
AP: One day when we have time, because you are very oriented in this business, we’ll show you the truth. These people have records, and it will prove to you where these grooves come from, reggae and this and that. You see, all these islands are very close together, and culturally they all have similarities. It’s like me and Orestes, we have the la Tumba francessa. It’s coming from Haiti, because there was a big population of the Haitian people coming to this part of the world. In Cuba, the Oriente province, where the Guantanamo Bay is, the people play strictly different than we play in Havana. They have different drums.
RT: Was there a time when the American political view toward Cuba kept some of that culture from coming to America?
AP: Of course.
RT: Is that still happening?
OV: It’s still happening. It’s still not being accepted for what it is.
AP: But you see, the American influence in our music started to come in the ’40s, ’45 or ’46. We had one guy called Perez Prado, the Mambo King. It was like a Stan Kenton band, with Afro-Cuban rhythm. Because he did the syncopation, the big brass, all this. The Cuban people, musically, were always very close to the United States. It started in the ’40s, and to today too.
RR: Oh yeah?
OV: There’s a lot of influence of rock and jazz in Cuban music today. But still, what they do doesn’t lose their roots. They have an international sound, that includes sounds from right here, or Japan, or Asia, but it still has their roots, and has the jazz and the rock. Like the group Irakere. They record for CBS. They’ve got the bata drums, which are very original, and they changed and have the trap drummer…
AP: In my town they didn’t incorporate too much of the religious drumming into the music. Now they are doing it in Cuba. There were those kind of drummers that we never used to put in the band for commercial purposes. They use them now. In my time it was the conga and bongo and timbale, that’s all. But now they use all types of drummers.
OV: Another thing that I should say before we finish: Any type of musician, piano player, saxophone player, singer, anybody, should have certain studies on percussion. I think percussion is very important, especially for piano players who have to learn to play phrases right, or for arrangers to know what to put on paper for you to play as a drummer or on a conga. I think they should study more of this stuff, to know what is right.
RR: Or what they really want.
AP: Sometimes they say to you, “This no fits, this no fits.” Well, it no fits because it’s the way you think.
OV: Sometimes you’re limited only to the way you know things. And if you don’t understand something else you put it down, not because it’s not good, but because you don’t understand it. And in that case it’s better to know.
RR: It’s like if we were playing on your tune, and you’re only familiar with one or two rhythms, so you want that to be played on there. Now what if we come up with a couple of others you’ve never heard of, that could fit the song maybe much better. It throws you off because it’s not what you heard in your head. If you knew more about all these different rhythms, then you could draw from so many more different things. And you could say, “Well, I’d like you to play a little bit of this, a little of that.”
OV: And still say, “I don’t like it,” but then you know what you are saying you don’t like it for.