Tata Güines, Cuban Percussion Legend Dies at 77

Tata Güines
Tata Güines
Cuban percussion maestro, Tata Güines, died Monday, February 4 in Cuba of kidney failure and high blood pressure. Known as the "rey de los tambores" (king of the drums), Tata Güines was renowned worldwide for his percussion work since the 1950s. His specialty was the tumbadoras (the name given in Cuba to congas).

Arístides Soto Alejo was born June 30, 1930 in the town of Güines. He was better known as Tata Güines, his artistic name. His musical career began at an early age, in the 1940s. Although he played tumbadoras, Tata Güines learned how to play bass as well. Initially, he was the bassist for Dionisio Martínez’s (his uncle) band. He later formed the Estrellas Nacientes orchestra, which included several of his relatives.

Life for musicians was hard during that period and Tata Güines had to play whatever was available. His daytime profession was shoemaker. Sadly, percussionists were at the lowest end of the scale. Tata Güines mentioned in an interview with a Spanish publication how percussionists used to ride on the car fenders while the musicians rode inside the vehicles.

In the 1950s he worked in the United States, performing with Frank Sinatra, Josephine Baker, Dizzy Gillespie and José Fajardo’s orchestra. Unhappy with American racial segregation, he moved back to Cuba after the revolution.

 Tata Güines recorded with some of Cuba’s finest, including Cachao, Orlando Maraca and ¡Cubanismo!. Three of the albums he participated in were nominated for Grammy awards: Lágrimas Negras (2004) with Spanish Flamenco singer Diego “El Cigala”  and Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés La Rumba Soy Yo  with the Cuban All Stars (2000) and Cuban Odyssey with Jane Bunnett (2000). 

Tata Güines received Cuba’s highest music award, the Premio Nacional de Música in 2006, and the Diploma al Mérito Artístico granted by the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in Havana. Other accolades include the Orden Félix Varela (2004) and the Alejo Carpentier medal (2002).

His solo recordings include Aniversario (Egrem), Pasaporte (Egrem) and Tata Guines (Yemaya).