Les Moncada is a Latin Jazz orchestra leader and conguero for over 40 years. He was born in Oakland, California and currently resides in Sacramento, California.
Les Moncada is a student of conga and batá master Francisco Aguabella, a friend of the late promoter Bill Graham, vibraphonist Cal Tjader, Latin Jazz band leader Pete Escovedo, conguero Mongo Santamaria and many, many more.
He has been writing for many years for World Music Central.
Les has several Facebook sites: Timbales and Congas Bongo Bata & bells; Conguero, Professional Conguero & their Instrument; Bongocero, Professional Bongocero their Instrument; Alambres Dulces, Tres, Cuatro & Laud
There are drummers, then there are drummers. Some go out of their way for exceptional things to happen to them. Tony Rosa, master conguero and master batá drummer, resided in the City of Los Angeles, California. He played batá for the Orisha community for 7 years with conga batá master, legend of legends, Francisco Aguabella, from Matanzas, Cuba.
Francisco was a very stern group leader; whether it was his Latin Jazz Orchestra or Folkloric group and his religious batá ceremonies. Francisco either liked you or he didn’t like you. It was always beneficial to be on his good side. Francisco had three Afro-Cuban folkloric groups in California: one in San Francisco, another one in Los Angeles, and a third in Sacramento. Sometimes I say ‘Masters’ are so good, that they actually are not teachers.
Francisco Aguabella’s apprentices have reached legend status and Tony Rosa is one of them. Tony Rosa performed with Francisco Aguabella’s Afro Cuban folkloric group in Los Angeles, along with batá master Virgilio Figueroa and Francisco Aguabella.
Virgilio Figueroa, also from Matanzas, Cuba, made a remark in one article I wrote for World Music Central, where Virgilio contributed on a tribute to Francisco Aguabella. He said that Francisco showed his apprentices Afro Cuban rhythms that are no longer played in Matanzas today!
Tony Rosa took the big step and moved to New York City. Being an accomplished conga drummer, he linked with great all time master timbalero Manny Oquendo and Conjunto Libre, with co-leader bass legend Andy Gonzalez, brother of legendary conguero and trumpet player Jerry Gonzalez. Tony also performed and recorded with the legendary group Conjunto Folklórico Nuevoriqueño Experimental and recently won a Grammy performing and recording with Arturo O’Farrill.
Let see what Tony has to say about his life and career.
Tony, tell me your background, or family background in Latin music and drumming.
I am Puerto Rican, born in New York City, raised in Los Angeles, California. My father is from Mayagüez, Puerto Rico and my mother from Loiza, Puerto Rico. My influence comes from my mother, being a priestess of Elegua and taking me to all the African dance classes and “tambores” (religious drum ceremonies) as a kid.
How did you meet conga bata master Francisco Aguabella? Tell us some of your history with Francisco Aguabella.
I met Francisco Aguabella in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Francisco was very serious when it came to Cuban drumming (batá, yesa, etc…) He was very selective with who he would share and teach Matanzas-style drumming with.
So how was it that it occurred for you to go to New York City from Los Angeles?
I went to perform in New York with El Chicano. While there, I hung out, checking out other Latin bands. The music vibe in New York was intense at that time. Salsa was booming. I felt like I wasn’t growing musically in Los Angeles so I decided to move to New York in 1996.
You performed with Manny Oquendo and Conjunto Libre. What was your experience with that orchestra?
I started with Manny Oquendo y Conjunto Libre in 2000. Never ever did I think I would be with Libre steady. Manny was very picky when it came to conga players. That’s how I got respect from others; plenty wanted “that chair”. Laughs out loud.
What other bands have you played with in New York?
In New York I have performed and shared the stage with artist like Nelson Gonzales (legendary tres player), Miles Peña, Chocolate’s group Grupo Foklórico Nuevayorkino Experimental, DLG, Orlando “Puntilla” Rios, Bebo Valdés, MalPaso Dance Co. from Havana Cuba, Lou Soloff, among other artists.
What do you think is the difference in musicianship Los Angeles, vs. New York City?
There are great musicians and drummers everywhere, I think it’s all about attitude. New York musicians are aggressive, where Los Angeles musicians are more laid back. My opinion!
You won a Grammy. Tell us a little about that situation?
Winning a Grammy was very exciting and awesome. My first Grammy was with Cachao Master Sessions in Los Angeles 1994. I didn’t find out till later on. Conguero Richie Flores informed me. I am so proud to say I am a 4 times Grammy Award Winner, feeling blessed. The other 3 Grammys were with Arturo O’Farrill and The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra.
What are you doing now musically in New York?
I currently have a 9-5 and traveling and still playing drums.
What does the future bring for Tony Rosa, master conguero and batalero, the musician?
I am currently working on my own project CD, recording. Latin Jazz with Afro Cuban and Puerto Rican rhythms. Lots of drums…
Thank you, Tony Rosa for your interview. Now that I have up and coming musicians that have been in the circuit for a while, the next few interviews that I will be doing is with the middle generation of musicians, to expose their contributions to the Latin music community. Those musicians are Latin percussionist, orchestra leader and Puerto Rican Folkloric Director, California-based Jeri Quiñones from Vieques, Puerto Rico and legendary Latin bassist Lalo Vazquez from northern California, residing in Mexico City. There will also be other specialty interviews to surprise the readers as well.
I feel that each musician has their own personality that goes hand in hand with the instrument they play; I also feel each musician has a friend that they are attracted to, based on personality, charisma and charm.
With a charismatic personality, Tito Puente, the legend of the timbales drums, composer and Latin orchestra leader, had his best friend: Joe Conzo Sr. from New York.
Joe Conzo is an encyclopedia, with his friendship and grand knowledge of Tito Puente: events, recordings and so much more. He is the author of a book about Tito Puente entitled Mambo Diablo.
Joe Conzo is also giving lectures at Hostos College in the Bronx, New York. The lectures and studies on Tito Puente and Latin musician legends of the past intend to make the students and public aware of these musical legacies.
…and let’s see what Joe Conzo Sr. has to say.
Well, Joe, talk to me a little bit about your background.
Joe: I am of Puerto Rican mother and Italian father. I was born and raised in Spanish Harlem. I had 1 brother, who recently passed and I have 2 sisters.
Joe how was it that you got involved in Latin music?
Joe: Latin music was in my family, in going to candy stores as a kid, walking down the street. Home was always where Latin music was played. There were two types of Latin music, there was the Le lo lai, or country Puerto Rican and Cuban music, and there was the swinging stuff that they would play at the Palladium and at Park Palace.
There was Park Plaza and there was Park Place, both at the same location, one upstairs and one downstairs that was the place to be! It was located on 110th Street, off 5th Avenue. It is a church today.
(Joe was naming all the bands that used to play there, Noro Morales, Tito Puente etc and he said all the musician would congregate and talk on the corner, you would see them all out there, talking on the corner).
Joe how was it that you met Tito Puente?
Joe: I met Tito Puente in the Palladium in 1959. I ran into him, and I also went to see him. I was a frustrated conga player. Tito Puente’s music was unbelievable. I bought one of his albums for 75 cents; it was Cuban Carnival.
I really resent the word “salsa” like Tito Puente did, (it was a catch promotional word to promote the new movement of salsa music, evolving from the mambo era.)
(Joe Conzo told me that Jerry Masucci coined the word for his Fania label. I told Joe that the first time I heard the term “Salsa” was in 1973 when I was a young 15 year old FM radio DJ at the University. One of the secretaries at Tico Records, Diana Monge, used to send newsletters from Tico Records, which later became Fania Records. “In the same building,” Joe says and I agree. The newsletter sent out to the disc jockeys was called “Salsa Dice”.)
Joe, if Tito came over to your house to visit you on an evening or such, what would Tito talk about, or what would you and Tito discuss? First of all what was Tito’s favorite drink?
Joe: Tito’s favorite drink was vodka and cranberry. If Tito came over, we would talk about anything, no set topic, just everyday things. Tito did not talk about politics, he played for 4 presidents, 2 Republicans and 2 Democrats. (Joe goes on naming the presidents, but Tito despised politicians).
What did Tito think of his band members?
Joe: Well, we would have band talk, discuss expenses, maybe cutting down the band. You know Tito had 14 mouths to feed, (laughs out loud, discussing band members), sometimes he had to cut down the band. it is hard to travel with a big band, maybe they would call some horn players and musicians on the west coast etc, to cut down band expenses.
Tito would not convert to one thing (or type of band). Tito was not afraid of competition; he was not afraid to branch out and not afraid to challenge things.
Tito did what he had to do to stay on the top, and they could not pay him to play every week in one place, although he did one time.
Tito had a mindset to improve his band, he was always writing (arranging) things and trying new things.
Joe, are you working on a new book? I heard it was about, “The Big 3”, Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez.
Joe: I started the book. You know that the Puente book I wrote took me 2 to 3 years to write.
Well what does the future of Joe Conzo bring?
Joe: I have been lecturing at Hostos College and I will continue that. (Joe went on to tell me that Tito Puente wrote over 700 tunes and about the thousands of recording he has of Tito Puente and some live recordings of Tito Puente and also about some albums that he produced. Joe mentioned that he knew Morris Levy, the owner of Tico Records, and he stated that when folks in the studio hear that they are really impressed, due to Levy being a recording legend and owner of Birdland).
I will continue to doing the lecture series and see what life brings.
Thank you, Joe Conzo Sr., for your time and vast knowledge on the subject of Tito Puente and Latin Music. I appreciate your support for Latin Music and your support of my Facebook Percussion Site Timbales and Congas Bongo Bata and Bells, along with my son Marco Moncada.
Joe Conzo asked me why I was posting vintage pictures on my Timbales and Congas site, telling me that only he and bongosero John Rodriguez could identify the musicians in the pics, laughing that I was making him think.
There is a great difference between a drum set drummer playing timbales and an actual timbalero when he plays the timbales. Most drum set drummers try doing immense rolls, thinking that doing that is very impressive.
I, as well as others that have many years of experience playing timbales, can pick out an actual timbal drummer vs. a drum set drummer playing timbales.
Because drum set players are given the opportunity to bang on a drum and the audience roars, does not mean that they actually know their timbales chops. This is not in all cases. The late Mike Collazo was a drum set drummer for Tito Puente Orchestra and also one of the best timbales players ever.
Timbales or conga drumming is not about the ability of how fast you can play, it is about what you are saying with the drum as a percussionist. I have a friend from Africa. We are in a mutual club; he is a young guy and he told me he was a drummer in Africa. I knew the answers of what I was asking him, due to the fact that I am a very spiritual individual as well as drummer. I asked him why he drummed and he told me “to call spirits.” In our conversation he was telling me that they used the drums to talk to other villages from a distance.
Now, let me make the comment, when drummers play extra fast, what would the other village say about the extra fast conversations. That is what goes through my mind when I see drummers playing fast.
I used to sit down and talked to conga and batá legend Francisco Aguabella, at my home when he visited me. We would talk about fast playing on the conga drums. Francisco told me that he would play for days some non-batá ceremonies and that the drummers would take turns drumming and sleeping, taking shifts with other drummers and these ceremonies went on for 3 days at a time. Imagine the endurance of not tiring, when playing for days at a time.
As an orchestra leader observing and hearing remarks from conga drummers, today’s conga drummers do not want to do a conga solo on stage for more than 2 minutes duration; they have actually requested such. Endurance is one of the many keys to conga drumming or drumming per se. Playing fast does not impress me. Observing Francisco Aguabella or Mongo Santamaria with the voicing and language they were saying with the conga drum, when they played the conga drum to me is real conga drumming.
Francisco Aguabella would say that it was just a new technique that the drummers were utilizing by playing fast. Francisco Aguabella would tell me that these new drummers were getting bits and pieces and copying the techniques of other drummers or lessons from other drum techniques to try and be different and try to invent their own new style.
I asked Francisco Aguabella what he thought about these new up and coming drummers with fast techniques and he just made a face (smirk), like he always did.
To think in my mind, when I was around Francisco Aguabella, that he played with batalero group leader; “Okilakpa” Pablo Roche, Batalero Trinidad Terregoza, Raúl Diaz, Geraldo Rodriguez, Batalero Jesús Pérez, Julito Collazo and even learned batá from the famed Esteban ‘Cha-Cha’ Vega, plus years of playing with other legends and even playing rhythms that are no longer played in Cuba today that, and he taught his to his students.
Francisco would perform a conga solo on stage for Eddie Palmieri’s Perfecta Orchestra on one tune. Eddie and the whole band left the stage for 10-15 minutes while Francisco soloed alone on stage. In my mind I would say to myself, how could Francisco fear or even have a doubt of his own ability to play congas, when he came from the real actual roots of Matanzas (Cuba) and has played drums, even before some of these cats were born or thought of. And a lot of the new legends can never ever say they played with Trinidad Terregoza or batalero Jesús Pérez, like Francisco Aguabella did..
There has to be respect for some of these master drummers as well as Mongo Santamaria, Cándido etc. as well as the elder and present African drummers and timbal drummers like Manny Oquendo.
In timbal drumming I have personally gotten many tones out of the drums, but after 45 plus years of playing, I guess I also have the ability to do this with the conga drums. This comes with dedication, time, patience and love for the drum.
Manny Oquendo did not play the timbales fast, he was just Manny. Drummers I know wanted and actually did kiss Manny’s hands out of respect for his mastery as a timbal drummer.
There are timbaleros (timbales players) in Latin music and then there are timbaleros. Nicky Marrero is the master at his work! Nicky Marrero has performed on hundreds of recordings, especially for Fania Records in New York City. Nicky Marrero is “El Monstruo del Timbal”, the Monster of the Timbales.
Nicky, has the ability of getting many tones out his drumheads, playing with preciseness and action. Nicky Marrero is always exciting on stage and bringing light to the show. You know that when he plays, it is Nicky Marrero up there on stage soloing, A-1 plus, like a Monster Timbalero should.
With years of playing, practice and patience with the drums, whether it is timbales or congas, Nicky Marrero brings a solo swing to the orchestra, to compliment the musicians and the coro (chorus) in the orchestra. This is what Nicky Marrero does on stage if you observe him.
Nicky is always getting better, as he ages, like a fine wine!
Nicky has performed with all the legends; too many to name, also a member of the legendary Fania All Stars and is a very humble musician.
Let’s hear what Nicky has to say about himself, and his love for the timbales, and what he has to say to the new young and upcoming timbaleros!
Nicky where were you born, your birth name and where were you raised?
I was born in St. Francis Hospital in the Bronx on June 17th 1950 and raised in the Bronx. My Name is Nicholas Marrero Jr.
Was your family musical in any way?
My uncle Chuito Velez played guitar, piano and the accordion. He had his own Orchestra and would sometimes join the family on weekend parties. Like in most Puerto Rican families there was always something to celebrate or just get together to dance and party. My Brother Luis Sánchez played guitar and bass for many years with my uncle as well as with Belisario López y su charanga, the Plata Sextet, and Orlando Marin and his Orchestra.
When was the first time you heard a cowbell and when was the first time you listened to a mambo-ish or salsa type music or Latin music?
Quiet simply, at home! Plus, by parental composition, Puerto Ricans love their Spanish radio stations to keep up the latest cleaning products, soap operas, what movies are showing, what theaters are having live vaudeville acts, then If there is time left in the day—–The News!! There was Spanish music in all of them, from different Latin countries. Diversity!
What was the first band you were a member of professionally?
Orchestra Caribe, meaning I got paid. The going rate at that time for a 14 year old, was 10 to fifteen dollars, if the promoter didn’t high settled it out of town. And there were 12 of us plus the band boy, who just wanted to be part of the group, the guys just looked the other way, except maybe sometimes?
Who are past or present your favorite timbal players, conga players and bongo players?
Me, Me, and Me! Seriously, on timbales, Orestes Vilató and Orlando Marin. On conga, Orlando Vega and Johnny Rodriguez. On bongo, Johnny Rodriguez, Bobby Allende, and Orlando Vega.
Nicky, what was you favorite band to play with, or you can mention a few?
Eddie Palmieri, Machito, Tito Puente, Fajardo, Tipica 73, Dizzie Gillespie, Jorge Dalto, but then I was part of at least forty other bands, and for different extended times. There’s not enough paper to explain it all but in a book.
Who would be your all-time favorite Latin orchestra leader?
What is some advice that you would tell young timbaleros or percussionist who study the art of drumming?
To listen to the past records, and learn about each orchestra and its members and their backgrounds and where they came from and to follow their carriers. Learn to listen, and listen to learn!!! Practice the art of imitation to the exact with discipline. Learn that you are your greatest competition!! Broaden the many options of how to practice, they become limitless, as are your abilities.
The Big 3, Machito, Tito Puente Sr. and Tito Rodriguez Sr., what is your opinion of them?
They were my heroes, and still are. I wouldn’t know whether to dance or play! There were many excellent dancers in my family, and I picked up on it very quickly, and became a very good dancer myself. It sometimes boggles me how some percussion players play and don’t know how to dance—really! That’s like a dentist pulling out teeth without first taking x-rays! Huh!
What is your all time favorite record or records?
Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente, Machito, Cal Tjader, Cortijo y su Combo, the charangas of Aragon, Fajardo, Arcano, Estrellas Cubanas, La Sensacion,Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barreto, Charlie Palmieri, extra, many more. Conjuntos—Arsenio, Chapottin, Modelo, Roberto Fas, Rumbavana, Kuvavana, Estrellas de Chocolate, etc.
What is one or two of the favorite recording you performed on?
Well, Nicky do you remember when you went to get your cha cha bell repaired by craftsman Pete Lugo. Let me ask why did you insist in getting that particular bell fixed and not just buy another new bell?
This bell was made with a special gage of a certain type of metal, and it had to be treated just the right way or it would ruin the bell forever. The sound of the bell became part of who I am, the study I put into investigating and analyzing their sounds and the types of material they are made of.
So tell us about your great current projects that you’re on.
Well, what are the future plans for Nicky Marrero musically and otherwise?
I am working on to fulfil my dream of starting my own project (orchestra) and record.
Have you seen the music scene changing somewhat and what do you think of that?
To bring it back to the dancers, with quality entertainment. We need more clubs of quality!!
Who are or were your favorite musicians to play with. Give us some names?
Nelson Gonzalez, Jimmy Bosch, Eddie Palmieri, Johnny Rodriguez, Willie Rodriguez and many more.
Now you tell us something Nicky
We need more in depth professional interviews such as yours. Also more radio stations with quality Latin cultural music past and present, with knowledgeable radio personalities!!
I would like to thank Nicky Marrero for his precious time, when I approached Nicky to this interview he was flying out to Lima, Peru with the Eddie Palmieri Orchestra! Thanks Nicky! El Monstruo del Timbal!
I met Chucky Lopez in 1973. Eddie Palmieri had moved to the City by the Bay San Francisco, California. Eddie has family there and felt the move would be great since he loves San Francisco. One night, after hanging in San Francisco during the day, myself and 3 other friends decided to stop by Cesar’s Latin Palace on Green St, the old location to see who was performing. It was dark about 8:00 or 9:00 p.m.
The doorman at Cesar’s in San Francisco said Eddie Palmieri was playing and we all went in to see the show. Chucky Lopez was on bongo and mostly on timbales that night, doing what a great musician does best, play! I do not remember who all the members of the band were at that time; although that night I met Eddie and also very young outstanding vocalist (Ubaldo) Lalo Rodriguez from Puerto Rico. Lalo did stay, residing in San Francisco for quite a few years, and I never imagined that decades later my orchestra would open for Lalo.
Chucky is a great person, musician, bongo legend of legends and an all around great Latin percussionist.
Mind me saying this, when Chucky plays, the people in the audience just turn their heads to look who’s up there on stage playing. All bongoseros have a style, but Chucky has select style of his own.
Chucky’s father is the great conguero Tommy Lopez, who passed away, great friend of Francisco Aguabella. Francisco used to tell me that when he traveled to New York, Tommy Lopez would keep him up all night long playing rumba! Francisco always spoke well of his friend Tommy Lopez and would laugh and chuckle about his times with Tommy Lopez.
Let’s see what Chucky has to say…
Chucky tell me when you were born?
I was born on August 1st 1954 and my birth name is Thomas “Chucky” Lopez.
Tell me a little bit about your upbringing in music?
I was raised in Hell’s Kitchen during the 60’s. That was a wonderful time in my life as it was the first time that I went to see musicians perform live at the Apollo.
It was also the last time they closed before renovation and I was fortunate enough to have played on the stage at the Apollo, I was only 8 years old. My father is Tomas Lopez, he was also quite know in the Latin music field.
Chucky can you tell me a little about how you got musical lessons as a kid interested in music?
Ever since I can remember. I remember my dad giving me lessons, even on occasions when I just wanted to be a kid. My father would always say to me “niche” do it like this, do it like that! He never let up. For that I am grateful as it opened doors for me in the music field.
Who did you dad hang with musically?
Some of my dad’s friends were Patato (Carlos Patato Valdez), Totico (Eugenio Arango), Julito Collazo, Francisco Aguabella, Chino Pozo and Armando Peraza, just to mention a few.
So how did this work for you musically?
I grew up with these guys on a daily basis as my dad and they would have jam sessions and just hang out.
Chucky how did it work out that you started to play the bongos?
I started picking up the bongo more seriously around the age of 13. Although my dad had trained me more on conga drum, my preference was the bongo.
So where did you go to play the bongos or observe musicians performing?
I started hanging out at Hunt’s Point Palace every Sunday. That was the place to see and be seen. About 10-15 bands would perform and one could see them for only a $2.00 admission. On one weekend Johnny Colon was performing and he invited me on stage, the rest is history.
Whom have you performed with?
I played for Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri offered me a job. Most of the guys I hung out with were older and I learned a lot from them. I was still in Junior High School, 123 to be exact in the Bronx, New York.
Where did your career take you?
As I moved on with my career I was fortunate to play with Machito, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Orquesta Broadway, Mongo Santamaria Jr., Conjunto Clásico, Larry Harlow, Ray Barretto, Tito Rodriguez, Jr., Conjunto Candela, Cortijo El Combo just to mention a few more. I have traveled to many countries, states and cities. I have met people from all walks of the earth.
What do you say about the roots of your learning bongo?
It was quite a privilege as I had my father on hand to assist me with clave and various rhythms and tuning my instrument etc. When I think back of my childhood teen years I can’t say I regret anything, as I was quite fortunate. I am still very fortunate 30 years later to be talking about it.
Some words from a few friends of Chucky Lopez:
Pablo “El Indio” Rosario: percussion legend, Puerto Rico:
Chucky and I grew up together, although I am a little older. For his very young age he was always a step or two ahead of the rest in part due to his dad Tommy Sr. In my opinion, Chucky is one of the top bongo players that the music business has to offer for the last 50 years.
His bongo solos should be studied by all aspiring bongo players as a true focus of advanced drum conversation. He is a musician that happens to play bongo among other percussion instruments. Yet at the same time, he is the most underrated bongo player today. He is very humble, not criticizing or embarrassing anyone. We come from the same school of show me what you’ve got to say. Toca y no hables tanta baba (play and don’t talk so much).
To this day, I am still learning from one of the most powerful bongoseros of our modern time. Mr. Thomas Lopez Jr. (Chucky Lopez) El Verdadero Caballero.
Pete Lugo, artisan, bongo & bell maker, Bronx, New York:
I have always had much respect and admiration for you Chucky, for you as a person as well as a master drummer. Who knows, maybe one day I can build a nice bongo for you. I hope when I open my new shop in the Bronx, you can visit me, so I can begin to post some pictures on my wall of my favorite percussionists or percussionists that I build drums and make bells for. I would also like to meet Pablito El Indio Rosario one day, another of my favorites!
Mario Grillo, leader of Machito Orchestra, percussionist, performed with Chucky Lopez in the Machito Orchestra:
All I can say about Chucky Lopez is 2 words: The Best. My father (Machito) loved his playing; he has extreme knowledge of what the instrument is about. His concept is complete, great. He is from the old school, he is a master at bongo, conga and timbales, you’re not gonna get better than Chucky Lopez.
I have known him all my life; I have known his father Tommy Lopez all my life. He has extreme knowledge on the tradition. Chucky is a team player, when Chucky is in a rhythm section, he makes the section better, he makes you better, ‘cause you got to play better, he also has a great memory, a photographic memory, he can play a tune and 10 years later he will play it just as he originally did. He is a great player in the studio as well as live.
His father Tommy Lopez was know as “Mano de Hierro” (Hands of Iron), Chucky is the same, he has hands made out of cement. I have played with other players, the best players [Mario mentions the names of a few greats] but hands down, hands down, Chucky is the one you want to play for your Orchestra.
“Thank you Chucky Lopez for making this interview possible and to the great ones, Mario Grillo, Pete Lugo and Pablo “El Indio” Rosario for your great time, memories of Chucky, and assistance to make this project possible. You guys are the greatest! Thanks again!” – Les Moncada
Francisco Aguabella was one of the greatest Latin drummers. He was a conga and bata master, a Latin Jazz orchestra leader, and composer. Francisco was born on October 10th, 1925 in Matanzas, Cuba and passed away on May 7th, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.
Francisco composed many pieces and eyes and ears were always open to his tunes. ‘El Agua Limpia Todo and ‘Complicacion’ were composed by him and recorded and performed by the Tito Puente Orchestra. The dance halls from New York City to the West Coast went crazy. This was the mambo era after the war, a magnificent time and reason for all the races to unite, whites, blacks, Jews, Latinos, Asians, all who wanted to learn the new dance steps to the mambo, cha cha cha and the rumba (as in Walter Winchell rumba not Afro-Cuban folkloric rumba).
Tito Puente made the world go crazy with Francisco’s tunes. One of these, ‘Marchando Bien’ was recorded on Tito Puente’s last CD that featured Eddie Palmieri, and was sung by the late Pete ‘El Conde’ Rodriguez.
At times, I would be at a restaurant, eating with Francisco and he would hum a few bars of a tune and chuckle, saying “Listen, this is something I composed and Eddie Palmieri is interested in it”.
Francisco resided in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years, making recordings, performing with the Latin rock group Malo; Carlos Santana; and Tito Puente. He was the musical director to Cesar’s All Star band nightly at Cesar’s Palace, a nightclub owned by pianist Cesar Arscarrunz. Francisco was always performing with his own Latin Jazz orchestra and traveled at night to play a bata drum ceremony in Los Angeles the next day without resting. Francisco traveled back and forth to New York City to play with Eddie Palmieri, to participate in recordings and to perform with various other Latin orchestras. In his later years, Francisco returned to Los Angeles.
Francisco had a knack in finding young new talent, such as the late vibe player, composer and bongosero Nerio Degracia. Nerio wrote compositions and performed with Francisco and in his later years had his own Latin Jazz band.
Composition by Nerio De Gracia, Image of a Star:
The first Latin female pianist in San Francisco, Patricia Thumas performed with Francisco Aguabella while Armando Peraza was in his orchestra.
Conga drummer and batalero master, Virgilio Figueroa, colleague, friend and apprentice with Francisco Aguabella says about Francisco:
“I first met personally Francisco Aguabella in 1972 in Los Angeles through Julito Collazo, who was my bata teacher and friend in New York City at a bembe toque at Bebo Ochun ocha house, when I was 15 years old at the time. I relocated to Los Angeles in 1974 and became Francisco’s personal friends till his passing 5 years ago.
I became a full member of his traditional Afro Matanzero folk group in 1980. Francisco was living in the city of San Francisco at the time. In 1982 I became a Lukumi priest and traveled to Cuba in 1983 to expand my knowledge of the Lukumi religion and ceremonial bata drumming in the city of Mantanzas (Cuba). In turn, I met my padrino (godfather) Alfredo Cano Calvo (deceased) who also happened to be Francisco’s sister Librada Aguabella’s godfather.
I met all of Aguabella’s blood relatives and became the bridge between them. In 1983 I decided to bring from Matanzas Cuba the first consecrated full set of añan bata to Los Angeles and recruited Aguabella to move here to Los Angeles from San Francisco and teach us how to play Matanzero style since he was the only one in the USA that new how to play in that manner. Tony Rosa, Mike Orta and myself were his only students at that time.
What impressed me to most about Francisco Urrutia Aguabella was his commitment in preserving the traditional Matanzero añan style of playing which he learned at the tender age of 15 by master oluaña Carlos Alfonso and the power he had when he played never got tired and demanded the same from his players.
Personally, I learned with him many other style of drumming such as olukun, iyesa, bricamo, bembe, arara and bakoso, styles that are no longer played in Matanzas today.
Francisco was a time capsule from the 40s and 50s.The main thing I miss about him is his sincerity and honesty and overall loyal friendship. Francisco did not befriend many people, but he made friends with me, and gave much needed advice growing up as a young man. For me, besides a friend and teacher he will always remain my Afro-Matanzero legend the one and only.”
Francisco Aguabella had few personal apprentices some who have reached legendary status due to their contributions in music:
John Santos, 5 time Grammy nominee and musical director of many charanga orchestras and Afro-Cuban folkloric groups throughout the decades. He’s a bata, instructor and clinician and a Latin music historian and musicologist.
Michael Spiro, music professor at University of Indiana, clinician, instructor, musician, and bata and Brazilian percussion master.
Tony Rosas, conguero, bata master, and musician currently based in New York City, performing with Conjunto Libre and Conjunto Folklorico Nuevorriqueño and other Latin orchestras;
Virgilio Figueroa, bata master, conguero, performing musician with other Latin orchestras in the Los Angeles area, with his tireless contributions to the Los Angeles, Nevada and other communities with his sacred añan drum group;
And me, Les Moncada, musician; former Latin orchestra leader & Afro-Cuban folkloric drum group leader; bata performer in clinics with Francisco Aguabella; founder of Latin Drumming Educational site on Facebook: Timbales and Congas Bongo Bata and Bells and 8 other Latin instrument sites on Facebook, and writer for World Music Central.
Francisco left us history in his recordings, especially his Afro-Cuban folkloric recordings. Additionally, Francisco contributed a great deal of folkloric knowledge to the Afro-Cuban recordings of Ramon Mongo Santamaria.
Francisco Aguabella once told me, “I do not play the drum, I have lived the drum”. Remembering that phrase, it’s great when one’s daily line of work is drumming for a living, teaching drum lessons and or even selling drums and miscellaneous supplies to drummers, or as a musician full time.
Michael Pluznick is such a drum master, who has been learning and teaching drumming all his life. What a dream job! Any drummer would actually die for! Michael is constantly traveling worldwide, teaching drumming classes and playing with the legends of drums for example djembe drum legend Bolokada Conde.
Michael was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, but he presently resides in Delray Beach, Florida. Michael travels extensively to Asia and Africa and soon will be voyaging on his third trip to Cuba soon!
I became familiar with Michael when a group of young drummers decided to go to Cuba in 1985 for a venture. They wanted to learn more, had exhausted their resources in the San Francisco Bay Area and decided to go to Cuba.
During this trip to Cuba, they studied with the masters and brought back videos that knocked everyone’s socks off. I was one of the sponsors of the group, as an aspiring Latin percussionist also wanting to know more and more.
Michael and his group recorded the famed Changuito timbales solo in front of the hotel in Cuba, saw the show by Juan De Dios, quinto conga drummer and dancer, and met Pello El Afrokan who is the inventor of the Latin rhythm Mozambique, made famous by Pello, pianist Eddie Palmieri and timbalero legend Manny Oquendo.
Pello then invited them to his apartment for batá lessons and a rumba, with elder batá legend, Amado Gomez present. At a certain point, the legendary Afro Cuban rumba singer Carlos Embale walked in. There is a video of this session that might be recovered in the future. I no longer have this video personally.
Michael and the group also met and associated with the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba and batá elder Carlos Aldama, who was the lead batá drummer for the Cojunto Folklorico. Today, Carlos Aldama resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, and sometimes on a whim, I have wondered, that if that trip inspired musicians to move to the USA and the San Francisco Bay Area.Let’s see what Mr. Pluznick has to say:
Les Moncada – Michael what is your family background.
Michael Pluznick – My family is of Russian descent, via Poland. My grandfather moved here to the USA prior to World War II.
When was the first time you actually heard percussion and realized that it interested you and that you would have a love for drums?
My father was able to get us free trips to Puerto Rico in the 60s when it was first becoming a tourist location. I wandered on the beach and heard drummers there for the first time as a small child. At our hotel, there was a band with a bongo player. I will never forget one Christmas there they were giving out presents and they gave my friend some tack head bongos. I was so disappointed I did not get them! Hounded my father for several months until he was able to find me a Mexican tack head drum and later he got me one with actual hardware.
How did you start studying drums, who were your teachers?
At the time I first started playing in 1967. There were no Cuban teachers in my area in New Jersey, so I took drum set lessons and learned basic fundamentals from a drum set teacher at a nearby music store. I had no technique, no slap and tone but I loved how it felt to play and practiced to Santana and Olatunji records.
I played in several bands as a thunder drummer not knowing how brutal I was! In 1975 I was at art school at RISD in Providence Rhode Island playing in the school jazz band. I met a local conga player, someone who told me I needed to study, that I would never learn, if I did not listen to people better then me.
At first I thought he was crazy. And then I had an epiphany, a realization that I had two possible paths I could partake on; one as a percussionist and hand drummer or one as an artist. I realized the path as a drummer would be incredibly difficult but in that moment of realization I decided to drop out of art school and pursue a path as a drummer.
I contacted a close friend of mine who was a very good player, George Terzis for lessons. He showed me how to hit the drum correctly and told me there was an actual language to playing drums. He introduced me to Gail Philipo in Boston. She had studied with several master drummers and she was able to give me a solid foundation in the concepts of traditional drumming from Cuba and West Africa.
After Boston I went to California where I studied full time with Simbo (Craig Goodman) as well as several local teachers there at the time including lessons with Marcus Gordan, Tobagi, Luis Cespedes among others.
My son moved to New York where I visited often and I started studying with John Amira who taught me Haitian drumming as well as Afro Cuban drumming for a few years. He wrote everything out in box notation so he got me into that as well.
I got a job as the percussion salesman at Haight Ashbury Music Center, (San Francisco) after the change of owners from Chickens That Sing Music. That was 35 years ago!
While I was at the shop I would often practice on the many conga drums that were there. Armando Peraza would stop in regularly and we would have a jam session. He would quiz me on each rhythm I would play for him and then he would solo. The shop would completely fill up with a hundred or more people every time he got down to business! It was an amazing experience.
Armando had a friend an African American friend named Ray Gardener (he wrote” Dance Sister Dance” for Santana). Ray would come in often to the shop and he invited me to record with him and Raphael Ramirez in the studio, which was my first experience recording. He and I had intellectual debates on traditional music vs. making world music combining traditional with non traditional.
Tell me about your trip to Cuba.
I had a friend named Jerry Shilgi, who passed away a while back. I met Jerry in the yard at Sproul Plazz in Berkeley California where there were jam sessions on Saturday and Sundays. I would not call them a drum circle, but something like that. Jerry introduced me to my teacher Simbo who played both traditional Afro Cuban and West African styles.
Jerry was connected to everyone and everything at that time.
We became roommates in China town in San Francisco. He found out about the trip to Cuba. No one we knew had gone before and it was a no brainer for me. I had to go.
I was able to acquire one of the first non commercial video camcorders to film with. We went officially as members of an educational group going to the Jazz Festival in Varadero (Cuba). While we were in the coffee shop at our hotel the first day we were there we saw the legendary Pello El Afrokan. We were there with Rob Holland and Bret Golin.
We asked him if we could study with him (Pello) while we were there and he agreed to not only teach us, but he basically brought us around and introduced us to everyone in the music and drum scene you can imagine, as well as set up classes with us for rumba, mozambique and batá. We even had a rumba with Carlos Embale singing in Pello’s apartment!
We were able to sit in at the Saturday Rumba with Conjunto Folklorico Nacional as well as many of the famous night clubs and bands that were playing there at the time, as, Pello was so well respected. We barely slept and I remember several times passing out on the bed with all my clothes still on and waking up early with Pello waiting for us outside.
How did you get involved with the djembe drum?
My teacher Simbo insisted we study West African rhythms as he taught us that all rhythms on congas were some how rooted in and related to West Africa.
At the time there were no commercial djembes available so we were taught to make and skin our own drums.
Also, one thing a lot of people today do not realize is that in the mid-late 70’s there were no internet, CD’s or information readily or easily available. Plus most teachers were very secretive at the time for various reasons.
The rhythms, parts and arrangements were simply not out there like they are today. There were very few records available and there were not a lot of groups performing traditional music from Cuba, Africa or Haiti.
Professional percussionists and die hard students would learn any rhythm or percussion piece that came through. There was so little information compared to today. So therefore, many of us learned and played whatever came to us, or whatever we could find. There was not as big of a separation in styles as there is today. And if you wanted to get work you needed to be versatile in many styles.
Michael, who have you performed with or studied with, djembe wise?
I started with Simbo, then I took lessons with whoever would come through locally in the Bay Area including a talented griot named Karamba Diabate. When Abdoulaye Diakité came to the Bay Area, things changed drastically as he was open to and taught both women and white people. I personally believe that Abdoulaye is almost single handily responsible for the birth and explosion of the djembe in the USA. His philosophy is “Djembe Bara” or “unity of the drum”. He spent a lot of time in Santa Cruz where Drumskull Drums was born and many teachers came out of.
The next wave of djembe related music and drumming came with Mamady Keita who I studied with, in group scenarios as well as Mabiba. Wade Peterson a student of both also tutored me regularly for a couple of years.
I moved to Maui, Hawaii where I got to study with Mohamed Camara, M’Bemba Bangoura, Dame Gueye and many others who would come through on extended stays.
When I moved back to the Bay Area about 15 years ago I was able to study with and then perform with several groups. The most notable is Bolokada Conde from Guinea West Africa.
While I was living in the Bay Area, my chiropractor told me he wanted to record some music. I had a friend who was an engineer at Bear West Studios in downtown San Francisco. I took the chiropractor to the studio and helped organize the session. This was the start of me producing and recording regularly in studios. I was eventually able to play on several rock and pop albums and created several of my own recording studios and music and drumming CDs over the years.
I recorded and performed with members of The Grateful Dead, Clarence Clemons (from Bruce Springsteen), The Tubes, Todd Rundgren and some other pop stars in the Bay Area over the years. In the 80’s i was able to get a recording deal on the Narada label for 4 CDs of my own world music combining traditional themes with western instrumentation as well. You can see and listen to samples of all my stuff on my website: www.michaelpluznick.com
I see that your travel all over the planet, which I think is great. Do you teach, give clinics and can you mention the different locations that you travel to, can you tell me more about this.
Yes, 25 years ago I started to travel to Asia and fell in love with it. I also started going to India on various pursuits. I started bringing my drums here, both congas and djembes and found the local pockets of friendly and curious drummers.
Most drummers here in Asia are talented and self taught, these days from the internet. One thing led to another and I started to share and teach wherever I went. People here are appreciative like I was and still am when someone shows me something I don’t know.
When I can I sit in with the local jazz or funk groups for fun. Of course the musicians are struggling here so it is not a great place to gig.
Michael who is your all time conga drummer?
My favorite conga layer who I actually played with is Armando [Peraza]. I also love his bongo work. My favorite recording conga player is Mongo Santamaria. I love Giovanni and Richard Flores. They have taken it to a whole new level. I used to listen to a lot of Los Papines, they were my favorite for a while, especially Luis. Then of course there is Patato! And Daniel Ponce.
How do you pick one? Thomas Cruz really has super cool stuff…there are so many fantastic and unbelievable players I love… but for me, what rocks my world is old school, deep pocket and groove. Maybe I am just getting old!
Who is your favorite bongo drummer?
Bongo… again it’s Armando and Dandy. I saw Karl do a bongo and an amazing bell solo the other day and I was quite impressed. I feel his playing has sky rocketed as well.
How about your favorite timbales drummer?
Timbales… I am an Orestes fan as well as Changuito. And I do love Chepito as well. He ripped in the day! The first time I saw Changuito was with Los Van Van in Cuba in 1985. I was filming them and standing behind him. I had no idea who he was in those days. Rob Holland did, but I did not. He was not an international sensation then.
Anyway, he did about a 15 minute solo and I filmed the whole thing. I had never heard anyone play like that except maybe Elvin Jones. So outside, so revolutionary”. All I can say is he blew me away!
Michael, who is your favorite djembe player?
Bolokada Conde and M’Bemba Bangoura for Guinea style; Abdoul Doumbia and Moussa Traore for Mali style; Dame Gueye for Senegalese; and Dr Jobi for Ivory Coast style. These are all older and some people consider “old school” style. There are several super hot young players who I listen to but I prefer to study with and play the older style(s).
Of all the drums and instruments you play, which is your favorite and why?
I cannot honestly say I have a favorite, I love congas, bongos, shekere and djembe. I practice and play as much as I can. These days, I suppose, because of the popularity of drum circles I get most of my students wanting to learn djembe so as far as work, it is almost always on djembe these days.
For me it is all related. When I study Malian music (I lived in Mali 2 times) I hear the roots and a direct undeniable connection to Afro-Cuban drumming. It is so plain and clear!
The 6/8 (or 12/8) bell, the root to all the drumming we do is in every drum music that comes out of the West African diaspora be it Cuban, Haitian, Brazilian or other regions in the new world. It is all connected and so are its instruments.
What is the future for master drummer, teacher Michael Pluznick? Recordings, lessons, travel?
Ha, ha, ha. Brother, I am not even close to mastering anything. Fortunately, I have contact to and I am able to study with masters, and I see them online.
Mastery is a far off place for me. I am happy and will always be happy to be a student of this fine art and I am motivated to continue learning and studying every day.
I feel I have very good methodology for sharing and teaching, I can help people so I teach. I continue to record projects whenever I can and whenever there is a opportunity. I love traveling and hopefully with God’s help I will continue to do so.
I would like to thank Michael Pluznick for his time with this interview due to his busy schedule and wish him the world of the best in the “spirit” of drumming for many years to come!
There are at times special musicians with the utmost talent and creativity. Angel “Cachete” Maldonado is this type of musician. We will refer to him as “Cachete” during this interview. Cachete has played the rhythms of Puerto Rico, which are bomba and plena, with his folkloric groups; but he also preserves the Afro-Cuban guaguanco (rumba) style, with Cachete’s style and flavor.
Cachete had, and still has, an outstanding Latin orchestra by the name of Batacumbele that performs on a regular basis on the island of Puerto Rico. Let’s see what Cachete has to say about his life in this interview.
Cachete, tell me a little bit about your childhood background. Where in Puerto Rico were you born?
I was raised in the Barrio Obrero, the nest of a lot of musical groups, as well as sportsmen, playwrights. A nest of all the big ones, like (composer) Tite Curet Alonso, adopted son of the Barrio Obrero, The Rodriguez, Tito Rodriguez (Latin orchestra leader), Arturo A Shimburg, Rubén Gómez, to mention a few.
Were any of your parents or family members musicians?
My father was a bassist and guitarist. My sister was a singer and my aunt Ana Maria Cruz was a singer, of the famous Fiestas de Cruz, very well known on the island.
What is the first group or band that you were in and what was the instrument that you played?
The first professional group was with Johnny El Bravo López and Danny González. I would play bongo and cowbell with Johnny and timbas with Danny González. Prior to that I would perform with other groups, although they were not known and I used to sing at 13 and 14 years of age.
What bands have you performed with during your musical career?
Larry Harlow, La Conspiracion, Luis “Perico” Ortiz, Eddie & Charlie Palmieri, Leandro “Gato” Barberi, Machito, Tito Puente, Típica 73, Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barretto, Jaguares, Ricky Martin, Lucecita Benitez, Celia Cruz, etc., etc.
What gave you the idea to form the band Batacumbele?
It was my first trip to Cuba. It was born out of a development concern for rhythmic music. There already existed rhythmically an example, Los Van Van with Changuito, creator of the songo rhythm that revolutionized the musical wave in Cuba. The Ritmo Oriental de Cuba, Irakere and other groups who spearheaded the new wave of music. A new form of playing the drums of the Ritmo Oriental and the tumbaos (beats) of Nino Valdes with four tumbadoras (conga drums) and Batun Bata, etc.
I have a love myself as a conga drummer for Afro drums of Rumba music. What inspired you to love and play that type of music?
Even when I was really young, studying drums, my love for the rumba and its drums (congas) was born. I remember that my father would take me to a rehearsal of Rafael Torres Silva. That was my first contact with the percussion of conguero Celso Clemente. He was the first person I saw play the timbas.
Later, Papo Román, the second conguero that I saw in the group. Then I began to listen to Mongo Santamaria; Carlos Patato Valdez; Francisco Aguabella; Julio Collazo, my first teacher of bata drums; Tommy Lopez; Mr. Ray Barretto; Ray Romero; Francisco Aristides Soto, better known as Tata Guines; Yeyito Iglesias; Guillermo Barretto; Tito Puente; Willie Bobo; and Jose Mangual.
Cachete, what’s the latest with Batacumbele these days?
With Batacumbele, now I am working with a group of young talents in union with Luis Marin, the musical director, and Pablito Rosario one of the original members. Noel Rosado, Tono Vazquez, Angie Machado, we have continued with the hard work of continuing with the group.
Due to my condition, I had to readjust my involvement with Batacumbele, but I keep working with the group Batacumbele Sangre Nueva (New Blood) and Los Majaderos de Cachete Maldonado, a group of rumba, bomba, and plena.
What are the future plans for you as a drummer, bandleader an artist?
Right now we are currently in the process of finding a location to give workshops and classes of Afro-Antillean dances, bomba, plena, rumba and other rhythms of the Caribbean, where all local and international people can enjoy the work in a patio.
I await to serve the public in general this year, 2016.
I would like to thank Cachete Maldonado for his great time and effort to make this interview possible.
At times, when I’m writing, I’m aware of conditions suffered by artists or craftsmen that due to age, and the fact that we are all human beings, have maladies that are not discussed on our Facebook page(s) Timbales Congas Bongo Bata & Bells, nor in our interviews for personal reasons. At given times, there are impolite or abrupt remarks made by readers that are unaware of the condition of the artists and craftsmen because they do not know them personally; those are overlooked at this time.
I would like to give a “great thank” you to Pablito Rosario for making this interview possible. Thank you Pablito!
When you talk about drums, there are the handmade versions of drums and then there are also mass manufactured drums. Michel Ouellet the owner of MOPERC located in Canada has one of the most outstanding handcrafted drum companies around, making congas, bongos, wooden timbales (tarolas) and soon, once again, batá drums.
Michel is an extremely social individual even though he has a busy shop schedule. He made time to talk with me as did the famed Jay Bereck. Let’s see what Michel has to say about himself and his drum company.
Michel, can you tell me little about your background?
I was born in a “not musician” family but very young I loved and listened to much music. My father was a blacksmith and was very clever with his hands so seeing him working daily, I began very young to make and build different things with my hands, spending my time beside him in his shop.
Michel, when did you first discover the drum, conga, bongo etc?
I moved to Montreal to study Arts at college. There, I began to play bongos with my guitarist room-mates. At the first 80s I began to study Latin percussion with different good players in Montreal as my friends Pierre Cormier and Andre Dupuis who studied in New York and Cuba. I learned rumba at this moment with them. This was my passion. I played hours and hours.
What made you start a drum making company?
At the age of 28 I moved to the country with my little family. I was a carpenter. The first month I arrived here, 27 years ago, I made for myself a djembe with a log with my chain saw! I accompanied African dance class with my first djembe. I made a second one that was better and I did more than 20 instruments in this way. Mostly, djembes and also batás.
During this time I was carpenter, as my career, during this part of my life. In the end of the 80s I began to study the construction of congas made by staves. I found different ways to build them. I saw the LP [Latin Percussion] method, with staves in two or three plies, I saw Skin On Skin who steamed and banded the staves (I went to buy congas at the Jay shop in Brooklyn).
I also saw how Valje (drums) would cut some grooves inside each staves to curve them. And I discovered the Junior Tirado; that Junior would cut each staves in a solid piece of wood. But I began with the steam method myself. Then I changed from cutting the staves to a solid piece of wood. This is the method I’ve used for 20 years and the one which I prefer.
The first congas I made I showed them to the percussionists in Montreal and they began to order some, and then ordered more. Later, I went to Toronto and the results were good, In 1990 I found the proper method officially, after 2 years of research.
The 90s were the years I developed my methods and different instruments. I have made batás, tamboras, congas, bongos, timbales, djembes, sabars, dununs, talking drums and different other little drums. Even a couple of drum sets for friends.
Quickly, I knew that my market would be in the bongos, congas and djembe drum making. Therefore, I have put the others drums on the aside and I just started offering timbales.
What kind of styles of music do you play and where have you traveled to expose your great product? Who have been some of the sponsors of your drums for your MOPERC Company?
In the 2000s. I came back on the scene with different models, salsa and grupo de son. I have Cuban friends Habana Café; with a salsa timba band. They still have a good success here in Canada.
I have played this style of music for 12 years on congas. But 8 years ago I quit the scene for keep my energy for my business.
I traveled to Cuba many times where I have concluded partnerships with Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Yoruba Andabo, Afrocuban All Stars, La Charanga Habanera and different musicians such as Panga (Tomas Ramos Ortiz), Rolando Salgado, Pacha Portuondo, el Chino…
In the USA I have held clinics during these last years in different places as PASIC in Nashville, in Los Angeles and once In New York.
Last year, at the age of 55 and after more than 25 years of business I made a move to sell MOPERC Company and retire. But for some technical and human reasons the sale did not work. I think it is because I have not finished with this work. Now I’m very glad to be here as owner and founder for some more years. I have many projects. The sales go very well. I sell much in USA, much in Canada and a little in Europe. Some of my drums go to South and Central America and some to Asia, Africa …
How is the drum production going? Do you plan to start making batá drums again?
I’m working now on a new model of conga made of oak and mahogany. I used to make many congas and bongos with oak and mahogany in the 90s and I loved the sound projection of these woods. That will be more a vintage style model reminiscent of the old Cuban drums used in the rumba before and after the revolution. I like oak for the great projection and volume it offers. I love mahogany for its warm and rich tone. These are very nice looking grains of wood too. During these years I worked with maple, birch, ash, mahogany, cherry, oak, and others.
I’m working now also on batás drums. I have made some set during the years. Yoruba Andabo, Muñequitos de Matanzas and others play my batás around the world now. I have many demands. I’ll come back with these “high class” models of batá’s soon in 2016.
What is in the future for MOPERC, your drum Company?
We just went out with wood timbales (tarolas) recently and we have had great comments and success with them. We produced 2 videos demonstrating the wood timbales with my good friend and great Cuban percussionist based in Toronto: Rosendo Chendy De León.
I’m working on other different videos with my partner Francis Mercier. We are planning to film videos in Montreal, Toronto and also in Cuba this winter.
I do not have retail dealers, my preference it not to. So the best way for my product to be heard is on videos, and certainly producing live clinics with musicians. That is why in 2016, I will be producing several clinics in Montreal, Toronto, New York in and probably in Miami.
I have a small team, 2 employees in my workshop, plus myself and Francis, who helps me to develop and create the marketing utilizing these videos. We only focus on quality and contact with musicians. It had been always my target; “to make them happy and proud of their instruments”. Money and success come only after when this is well done. I think every craftsman and his craftsmanship should be like this.
When it comes to the Latin music world, the living legend of trumpet players was Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros Sr., who passed on January 6, 2016 at the age of 87 years.
“Chocolate,” as we will refer to him. was born in in Santa Clara, Cuba on April 4, 1928 and resided in Brooklyn, New York. In his musical life Chocolate played with so many orchestras; too many to mention. Chocolate performed with Beny More, Arsenio Rodriguez, the Machito Orchestra, Israel “Cachao” Lopez, Generoso
Jimenez, Larry Harlow and so many more.
According to timbalero great, Mario Grillo son of the famed Latin Orchestra leader, Frank Grillo “Machito”: “These are all the countries Chocolate Armenteros toured with me when we were in my father’s Machito Latin Orchestra: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, England, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Puerto Rico. The USA from Coast to Coast. We covered 35 cities in Europe. We traveled by bus, train, plane, ferry; we covered 15,000 miles in weeks.”
Mario stated that he is going to be 60 years old on St. Patrick’s Day and that he had known Chocolate for almost 60 years. Mario spoke of Chocolate with the utmost regard and said that Chocolate was family to his father and himself; that his sister Paula Grillo (former vocalist with the Machito Orchestra) and Alfredo Armenteros Jr. were baptized at the same church same day.
Mario Grillo: “When Mario Bauza and Graciela left my father’s Machito orchestra in 1975, they wanted Chocolate to go play with them in Mario Bauza’s Orchestra. Chocolate turned them down and chose to play with my father’s (Machito) orchestra. He was a very important person in my life and in many other people’s life. His talent was quite unique.
There are 1 million trumpet players on this earth; the minute he put his lips on that trumpet you knew it was Chocolate, just with his approach and concept. Chocolate was the greatest and most pleasant person; he was my friend and mentor. Mario Bauza had taught him my father’s music book (charts) and he taught me the book. He knew it full and well, he knew how my father’s orchestra worked and its approach and concept.”
Mario Grillo: “When you have a sound like Chocolate, how could you go wrong? He knew the roots of that orchestra.
I had dinner with many musicians and people, and dinner at the craziest of places. I even had dinner with Tito Puente. Whenever I would go out to dinner with Chocolate, it was complete, because he was complete. We would have a cocktail, an appetizer, a salad, soup, entrée, dessert and a digestif (an after dinner drink).
Chocolate recorded 3 albums for my father’s orchestra (Machito) and 2 studio recordings and he was on the North Sea Jazz Festival album recorded in Holland.
Even when no one wanted him as a roommate, when we were touring in Venezuela with the Machito Orchestra, I said he could be my room mate; we were in Venezuela for 10 days. I did not sleep for 10 days, when my wife came to pick me up at the airport she asked what had happened to me. She said I looked like a raccoon, with black under my eyes (Mario laughs)”.
Another time, Mario had told me about an incident where the promoter had not paid the touring musicians and his father Machito called the promoter and told him they needed to get paid, that Machito told the promoter that he had enough cash to fly all the musicians home and that if the promoter did not show up at the next city with cash for all the musicians, they were flying home and canceling the tour. Mario said that the promoter did show up and Mario did pay all the musicians.
With their payday, Mario said that Chocolate told him, “Let’s go have dinner”. Mario said that he and Chocolate spent $500.00 on dinner.
Mario was getting emotional talking about Chocolate. Mario Grillo: “When my father passed, I had the vote of confidence emotionally and physically from Chocolate and he came to our house after the funeral.
If you had a chance to see Chocolate, you saw the greatest thing, and if you didn’t you lose out!”
Miguel “Pacha” Pozo, leader of Charanga Pacha in New York City, Jose Fajardo Sr. Charanga Orchestra: “I never had the pleasure to perform with Chocolate but 2 years ago he was part of the Jose Fajardo Awards and still at 84 he sounded great. The sound that he got out of the trumpet was awesome, he will be missed.”
Patricia Thumas, pianist from San Francisco, California: “I did a gig long ago with Tito Garca’s Orchestra and Chocolate had flown in from Miami and did the gig with us, It was a blast!”
Cid Govanni Ramos, Latin percussionist from Puerto Rico, member of Facebook’s Timbales Congas Bongo Bata & Bells: “Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros was like the last Mohican of Cuban son-style trumpet player. He played with a lot of people back then in Cuba and in New York with the top salsa artists in the scene, he will be deeply missed.”
Faustino Cruz, timbalero, bongosero, Latin music historian & musicologist, and Latin instrument historian, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania via New York City: “Chocolate a heartfelt moment. We worked together for quite some time in the Joe Cotto Orquesta. I remember him calling me Joe Cotto’s son because I was the youngest member of the band at the time. We had great times. “
Tito Rodriguez Jr., timbalero, orchestra leader, son of the great Tito Rodriguez Sr.: “Chocolate will be sorely missed not only as a great trumpet player but as a person. He did several recording sessions for my father’s label in the late 70s. He was always smiling when I would run into him at his favorite eating place in El Barrio, New York City. A true legend RIP!”
John “Dandy” Rodriguez, legendary bongosero, formerly from Tito Puente Orchestra and currently with MLO The Mambo Legends Orchestra: “Chocolate was a super trumpet player, a super person, always smiling, always dressed sharp, he recorded in Cuba and the United States, he was a one of a kind person, great soloist on his instrument. Chocolate was not a lead trumpet player, but he had a tone, if you closed your eyes; you would know it was Chocolate!”
Our deepest regards to Alfredo Armenteros Jr.and Family. Chocolate will be greatly missed, although we have his grand recordings to listen to in his memory.
Thanks you to all the great artist that contributed their time and memories to this article. A special thank you to Mario Grillo, you’re too much man, and you had me from tears to laughing the hardest I have laughed in years! (almost like a Hispanic telenovela!)
Your Connection to traditional and contemporary World Music including folk, roots and various types of global fusion