Bongo player, percussionist Hernan Ray "Little Ray" Romero
Interview: A Life In Music: One On One With "Little Ray" Romero
by Henry Medina
Hernan Ray Romero was born on June 18th, 1923 in Ponce, Puerto Rico. He has been performing for 56 years and, considering his talent and experience --spanning generations -- with legendary bandleaders, he is truly one of Latin music's most gifted treasures. He has just turned 72. What follows is an interview with Little Ray and musicologist/filmmaker Henry Medina, to whom we owe many thanks. Thanks also to Mr. David Carp, musicologist and radio personality (WNYC in New York) for his tremendous effort in transcribing this interview.
Please note that, due to the constraints of space, some of the questions and answers have been somewhat condensed or combined. However, we have made efforts not to alter the content or tone of this discourse.
Bruce Polin, Editor
HM: Tell me about your earliest memories of Puerto Rico during the time when you were growing up.
RR: I used to travel a lot with (singer) Ruth Fernandez. She took a liking to me and took me over to the rehearsals in Ponce. From there I went with them when they did gigs on different parts of the island. Around 1937.
What was the instrument you picked up?
What was their construction like?
Weak, weak. I brought a pair from Ponce to New York - I started working with little sextets, you know, guitarra. We used to do gigs in Brooklyn and the Bronx. I finally got a gig with a Brazilian guy, his name was Ciro Rimac. He had a vaudeville act which played all over - Chicago, Pittsburgh. I remember I was supposed to take a solo on one of the numbers there and (laughs) the bongos fell apart. I mean it just caved in. The whole thing caved in.
In New York City, what was the primary source for getting your drums?
It was a bakery on 116th and Lenox Avenue. Simon, a Cuban, used to sell all kinds of cakes. And he had his little thing going on with the skins and bongos and congas comin' in from Cuba. He had bongos with tacked-on skins without tuning keys. You had to stretch the skins on in those days, you know. You had to know how to put 'em on...wet 'em, pull 'em, stretch 'em all the way around, even. And that's where the first bongos came in from Cuba.
What was the average cost for these drums back then?
Something like $14 or $15 for the conga drums y por el bongo ocho pesos.
Okay. So now you're here in El Barrio performing with the bands you mentioned. Tell us about the music scene at that time, the bands that you're beginning to notice in the local club settings like the Park Palace...
The Park Palace was Machito's band. I was working with a group that was run by Federico Pagani. I'm talking about 1940 or '41. I was working with La Sensacional Guerria de Federico Pagani. We used to have duets with Machito's band in those days. The Park Palace was downstairs, the Park Plaza was upstairs They had dances upstairs and downstairs. But downstairs was the better bandstand because it was all wood and you didn't need much amplification. There was just one microphone. One microphone for the singer, one for the piano, one for the sax section or whatever, you know. It was a wooden bandstand and the bands sounded great there. From way back you could hear everything clear.
What was the admission charge?
50 cents to get in. The dances were held on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
What was the lineup like?
Well, maybe two bands, no more than two bands. And the pay was real bad. No scale, no nothin'. The pay scale was, maybe, $12 a night for 3 or more sets. Some guys got more, you know - like if they doubled on flute and sax or did arranging, tu sabe?
Wow. How long was each set?
40-45 minutes per set. I didn't belong to the union until 1945 when I came out of the army and Noro Morales called me up and I joined his band. He was working at La Conga downtown. [Little Ray also played conga with Xavier Cugat's band before he went into the army - Ed.]
Since that was a very early period in your life and you were playing with such great bands, talk about other significant percussionists that were around you and of their influence on you.
I was first influenced by the band that Miguelito Valdes played with in Cuba. La Casino de la Playa. And I used to listen a lot to Ramoncito Castro, el bongocero. I liked the way he played. I was influenced by him. learned his shit, you know, and so forth. Another guy that influenced me was Chino Pozo. He was with Machito's band and he had the same style que tenia Ramoncito.
Did he give you lessons?
No, just pickin' up by ear and sight, you know. Chino showed me how to put on skins, tacking the drums on. He was with Machito and I was with Noro Morales' band. I had just gotten out of the army. My brother knew Noro so he called me up and asked me to come down to a rehearsal. I went down to La Conga, rehearsed with the band, and that night I started with him.
Do you remember some of the musicians who were playing with Noro at the time?
Humberto Morales was the drummer, El Gitano (Billy Richko) was on bass. His brother Rudy played bass, too. He played a lot with Charlie Palmieri's band. Tito Rodriguez was the singer, you know. The sax and trumpet players were all American guys.
What do you remember about Noro the person. Any anecdotes about him in general?
He was a heavy eater (laughs), he was a heavy eater, man. In Miami I once saw Noro do three chickens. Then he had I don't know how many dishes of ice cream. A heavy eater. He was a beautiful guy, though. He was my best man at my wedding. He didn't arrange and he didn't read too good either. But he had an ear.
He was a very percussive piano player. I notice on a lot of the recordings that I have that he has to get the bass behind him real good...
Yeah - oh yeah. He was always fighting with the bass players, that was his pet peeve, bass players.
And his brothers?
His brother Humberto Morales - yeah, he was a good drummer too. But he wasn't a Latin drummer, he was more like a Buddy Rich type drummer. But since he was Noro's brother he had him in the band. He played American style, not como timbales like we know it. But he was a very good drummer and he read excellent.
In El Barrio during the 1940s there were all these different social clubs and different clubs. What are some things that you remember about your early musical associations?
I used to walk around with my bongos under my hand all the time, in the subways. I didn't have a cover for them, so I just carried them. We used sterno cans to heat up the bongos for tuning. We used to go to the dances - just with any band - pay or no pay, just for the love of art, you know?
And that was your formative training? In other words, there were no schools. You trained with a lot of these musicians, the young and old, who were coming up in the field, as you went along.
I used to listen a lot, yeah.
So the drummers that you were most influenced by were Chino Pozo and...?
Chano Pozo, Candido.
Did any one of them take you under his wing?
Only Chano. I met Chano through Miguelito Valdes. I was with Valdes' band (as a bongocero) and Chano was with Dizzy Gillespie. They were in California. I met them out there and Chano took a liking to me.
What year was this?
1947. Chano taught me the positions, you know, how to play conga drums. Miguelito used to say, "Well, the bongo sounds too weak for a full band, a big band like this. I want something heavier." So I started playing conga drums, and I stayed on that.
There's a lot of talk about Chano being a hoodlum. But there are those who say he was simply protecting himself from the abuse he use to get and from lack of receiving royalties, and he stood up to all that...
I have nothing bad to say about Chano, you know. He was great with me and that's it. As far as I'm concerned he was a great person. We all got hang-ups, you know, but you remember him as he treated you.
Give me some of your impressions of seeing him with Dizzy Gillespie at shows. Is there anything outstanding in your mind, or a significant day that you saw him performing and it just blew you away?
Yeah, one time in California I went to see him with Miguelito Valdes and he was with Dizzy's band and they were performing "Manteca." And it was heavy that night, real heavy. It was a combination of everything, playing drums by himself, the band coming in, the band dyin' out, him playing again and then singing while he was playing. He was a great showman. He was very, como se llama, magnetic.
He and Miguelito Valdes were very close?
Was it through him that you met Miguelito?
No, I met Miguelito first. I was working with JoseCurbelo's band in 1946 and we were working in Atlantic City, at the President Hotel. We had to accompany Miguelito Valdes at his shows, you know. Tito Puente was the drummer there and Tito Rodriguez was singing. We were all rooming together. I wasn't very happy in the Curbelo Band. Miguelito did the show and then said that he was going out to California to form a band out there. So, we were still at the hotel when I found out that Julio Andino had left for California to join Miguelito Valdes. Georgie Lopez had also left to join the band. While we were working there I get a telegram from Miguelito Valdes in California asking if I wanted to join the band. And the guy that almost pushed me to go was Tito Rodriguez. He said ,"Go, go!" And I went to California. I joined Miguelito's band.
What kind of problems were you having with Curbelo's band?
Mostly about money.
So you left there and now you're with Miguelito Valdes' orchestra. Tell us something about this orchestra.
Well, we went to play in the hotels. That's all he wanted to do. In other words he wanted to be like Cugat's band. He wanted that type of music, you know - se tocava la salsa, el mambo, este tocava Brasileiros, e tocava tango, se tocava un pasodoble - everything, you know, for different people.
So it was cabaret?
If he played for the people of El Barrio, of course, he played differently...
He played most of the tunes that people knew like "La Negra Leona." "Babalu." "Rumba Rumbero." a lot of these tunes. And then he had his girl singer, she sang all of the American tunes.
What were some of the tunes that were integrated, let's say, to bring out the percussion in the band. Were there any tunes that you remember that you could take solos on?
Rafael Hernandez's "El Cumbanchero." usually. I'd go out there with a drum tied around me, you know, and he'd be out there with another drum and we'd both play out there. The band would stop and let just me and him go.
You must have learned a great deal...?
Yes, yes. It was a school in itself. I enjoyed it, I enjoyed it.
What do you associate with him teaching you? Anything stick in your mind in terms of either drumming or certain things he would do?
Just how to place my hands. On the bongos he used to play [plays an example]. But nowadays you use the whole hand, you use everything. The rest I picked up by myself.
What were the years that you played with his band?
Ah, well let's see. I married my wife in 1951... from 1947 to about 1952. In 1952 I quit the band while working at the Waldorf Astoria. My wife was pregnant and I didn't want to travel. I stayed in New York. It was at that time that Tito Rodriguez asked me if I wanted to join the group, Los Lobos Del Mambo, at the Palladium. Toca Chino went with the Jack Cole dancers. So I came in. I started playing bongos with Tito.
What do you remember about the early Palladium?
The Palladium was Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday. Wednesday was the night when all the dancers came in. All the American dancers and the Latin dancers. All the actors that were in town would come around on Wednesdays as guests. Marlon Brando, Lawrence Turney and all those guys used to come down to the Palladium.
Are there any outstanding groups or individuals that always stayed in your mind as being great dancers?
Luis Maquina. You know Luis Maquina? He was my favorite. Augie and Margo, Larry Selden, Anibal and Joe - the Mambo Aces, they used to call them the Mambo Aces. But the guy who I really watched when he danced was Luis Maquina. He had that style. It's, you know, nobody else was doin' it. El tipo bailaba tipico, you know?
En la cinquentas?
Is there any particular tune that you remember that he would explode, a certain tune that you would always associate with him?
No, because they all danced mostly to the same thing. You know, the band would start off and everybody ...we did just one tune for all the dancers.
"Mambo Inn" or "Picadillo" or "Barbarabatiri" or just improvise.
Okay, at the Palladium, there are Wednesday nights, Friday nights, Saturday nights and Sunday nights. What can you remember in terms of...I've heard that there were different...?
Different people, yeah.
Right. Like on Sunday nights there would be a black crowd.
Black crowd. Friday nights would be a Latin crowd. Saturday, also a Latin/mixed crowd. Sunday, tu sabe, the black crowd. And Wednesday was the, what they called the elite crowd...a mixture of everything.
Were there a lot of Americans, too?
Yeah, yeah. A lot of Jewish people.
There were a lot of great Italian dancers as well.
And Jewish girls, yeah. All good dancers. Cuban Pete. and Millie. Este...
Was Dottie Adams?
Yeah. What was this other girl's name? They used to call her Buttons. They used to call her Buttons because she never wore a brassiere (laughs). And her buttons used to stick out, you know, they used to call her Buttons (everyone laughs). Marilyn Winters.
Marilyn Winters, yeah, you know. Bonita chiquita, yeah.
Who were you playing with? Which group?
With Tito Rodriguez.
How long did you stay with Tito?
Ahhh - till about 1955, I think it was. From 1952 to '55 or '56. I know that after I left Tito I went with Eartha Kitt.
Okay. First you were playing with, of course, Miguelito Valdes, and now you're moving, as you've said, into the Tito Rodriguez band. But before we get into that, talk about Tito Puente during his early period, the most significant thing that you remember or the style of drumming that he was bringing into the music scene at the time.
You know, his own style. Everybody was trying to play like Tito Puente - everybody, all the drummers. Tambian estava Papi Pagani, he had another style of playing, Monchito Muñoz tambian. But Tito had his own thing goin'. And he was an arranger, you know, so whatever he arranged he arranged according to what he can do, you know?
But Tito Rodriguez formed his conjunto a little earlier than Puente. Rodriguez established himself, of course, in the Catskills. Did you perform with him prior to joining him, or was it after you left Miguelito's band that you started to play with him?
I left Miguelito's band and then started playin' with him. But while I was with Miguelito's band I was recording - whenever I came to town I would record with Tito Rodriguez.
Oh, so you were recording with him prior to your joining the band?
Yeah. Me and Chino, both of us.
And what were some of the tunes that you remember recording?
"Frizao Con Gusto." "Guarare."
How did you join Tito Rodriguez' organization?
Well, Tito asked me to join the band. I was working with Miguelito Valdes. He knew I was leaving so he asked me if I wanted to join the band. I said, "Why not."
Were you playing congas?
Bongos. I took Chino Pozo's place at the Palladium. And we worked there four days a week, which would amount to $72 plus...
That was good money at that time...?
Yeah, $72 for the four days. So your take-home pay was $68 or $69. But you could live on that then.
Aside from playing in the New York City area, were you playing up in the Catskills too?
Yeah, up in Laurel's Country Club during the summer. Machito would be at the Concord Hotel, we'd be at Laurel's Country Club. Other bands would be at Brown's Hotel or whatever. There were lots of hotels up in Liberty, NY, in that area, Monticello. You know, the bands used to go either to Atlantic City or to the country, upstate New York.
What can you tell me about the clubs upstate?
The Concord was a big hotel. They catered mostly to the Jewish crowd. They were all Jewish up there. And it was an older crowd, where Machito was at. Where we were, with Tito Rodriguez, it was strictly an all young crowd. Looks like the fathers and mothers went up one way and the children went another way, you know?
Under what circumstances did you meet Tito Rodriguez? Did you see him perform?
In 1941 I was playin' with Joe Loco's band and they brought in Tito one night to sing with the band. I was 18 or 19. This was at one of the dances in the Bronx on Prospect Avenue, on Longwood.
Close to Westchester.
It was a big Jewish and Italian community there at the time. Prospect Ave, that's were my father grew up...on Jackson Ave.
They was just startin' to take over, there was a lot of Puerto Ricans movin' in that area there. It was just starting, yeah.
Manny Oquendo was living in that area...?
Yeah, Manny Oquendo. I used to live on Fox Street. Manny Oquendo used to live on Kelly Street. Tito Puente used to live on Intervale Avenue and 163rd. Este, Vicentico Valdes lived on Hunt's Point. Tito Rodriguez was livin' on Roger's Place. Noro Morales used to live around there too. There was a lot of musicians around there.
So you joined Tito Rodriguez' band around 1952 to replace Chino Pozo. And you lasted in that band how long?
Three, four years.
What were some of the tunes, because I've heard stories that while playing at the Palladium Ballroom Max Hyman [the Palladium's owner] would...?
Oh, he'd have a fit whenever we played "Blen Blen." He would pull out his hair because they had a drugstore downstairs. And when the people upstairs started dancing the floor would...you could see it movin' up and down, you know.
It would sway?
Yeah, and he would have a fit -- "Don't play that no more, don't play that number no more!."
Would they take the chart away from Tito's band?
No, he'd just tell Tito, "Don't play that." So, we'd play "Mambo Mona" and it was the same thing (laughs). Oh, God, yeah. It was funny watchin' him walk up and down, you know, pullin' his hairs out because the fuckin' floor was rockin', you know. And the battles between Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente and Machito...when the three bands were up there, there was a crowd. Machito brought his crowd, Puente would bring his crowd, and all the dancers were with Tito Rodriguez, you know.
And Machito would be the steamroller ?
Would steamroll everybody?
But that band was a bitch, that band.
So you'd leave Tito Rodriguez' band about what year?
Oh, 1955. I think it was. And I went with Eartha Kitt.
How did that come about?
Tito had a piano player named Al Escobar, este. He was working with Eartha and Eartha wanted to get a conga player. He asked me, "Do you want to join Eartha's band? You know, she's paying so much..." and this and that. So I figured, shit, I'm making what with Tito at the Palladium? Escobar says you're gonna make X amount of money and when you're not working you have a retainer. She used to pay us three hundred dollars a week when we played and $100 retainer when we weren't working. She used to buy our clothes, our shoes, room and board. So you made three hundred dollars clean.
Clean. And that was a great deal of money for you at that time?
And you were married in '51?
So by this time your first child is there?
The first time you met your wife was here in the Palladium Ballroom?
Yeah, yeah, in the Palladium.
But you were married previously...?
Two other times. One lasted six months. The other lasted three years. And this one's lasted 42 years, so far.
That's a long time.
And I don't regret 'em (laughs).
Up to this point, was this the best pay that you had received so far, with Eartha?
Ahh, well, I worked with Sammy Davis for a while at the Tropicoro with Anselmo Sacasas' band after I moved to Puerto Rico in 1958. So let's say [this was] about '59, '60. In 1961 I was still in Puerto Rico and I got a telegram from Tito Rodriguez seeing if I wanted to come to New York to work with him at the Colony Club in Long Island for the summer. So I says, "Okay, why not?" I did the gig and I went back and I joined Fajardo's band at the Chico Bar. We used to work seven days a week.
Seven days a week plus a matinee on Saturdays. And from there they needed a conga player with Anselmo Sacasas' band. I used to work with Fajardo and then go do the gig for the show, two shows a night, backin' up Tony Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Anyway, I was gettin' paid at the Chico Bar and I was gettin' paid over here, you know.
Now, not to get personal, but you're making good money?
Did you take your money and invest it, in terms of property, did you...?
Oh, yeah, yeah --
Because I've heard so many stories about musicians who, tu sabe, who made good...?
Well, if it wasn't for her I would have pissed my money away.
If it wasn't for your wife?
I was making close to $600 a week between both jobs. And no, we saved our money. I know a lot of guys that work and work and work and...
Don't have a thing to show for it.
They just pissed it away because they think that it's gonna last - nothing lasts. You gotta be...face reality, these things don't last, you know?
One topic that is not really discussed is drug activity during the '40s and the '50s in terms of the musicians that were part of the scene. Some of them were great but got caught up in that mess and never survived it. What are your feelings about the drug activity during that time in terms of Latin music?
It was heavy, it was heavy. A lot of guys I know, you know, got all screwed up. I don't want to mention names. They were my buddies and I hated to see them go that way, you know? It was a big, big problem.
It affected not only, of course, the jazz musicians, it affected...
Yeah, it did, the Latin musicians. I don't know if it's a copycat style of living or what it is...or weak minds or...I don't know what causes it, really.
What were some of the reactions in terms of the bandleaders to people who were part of that drug scene? Did they tolerate it, were they against it? I've know musicians who were dope addicts that played conga with Machito's orchestra...?
Yeah, they tolerated it because they were good musicians, you know? Eddie Medina was a great trumpet player and a great conga player, too.
A lot of guys got caught up (in that). Would they always make the gig?
Ah, they would make the gig, yeah. But their performances weren't the same, you know. And I was the one that used to get paid and go straight home, I never hung around. They used to hand around in bars after the gigs, you know. I says, "No, I'm goin' home."
How did your move to Puerto Rico happen?
I left New York in 1958 and I came back in 1968. When I came back in '68 the first guy that gave me a job was Eddie Palmieri. He was working over at Carlos Ortiz' on Longwood Avenue.
That place is now a police station.
Yeah. I worked there with Eddie for a while but then I had to leave Eddie because Eddie wasn't (laughs) paying right, you know. Then I went with La Orquesta Flamboyan, remember Flamboyan?
Si, I remember. In fact, that's the first time I saw you.
Yeah, La Orquesta Flamboyan. Then I went with Charlie Palmieri's band. While I was with Charlie Palmieri's band Ray Barretto offered me the gig because Orestes Vilato was leaving. And I didn't want to take the job because, although I was playing timbales, I didn't feel I was capable enough to cover that fuckin' seat of Orestes, you know, that Orestes is a drummer, a good timbales player, yeah. So Ray says, "Come on, I know you can do the gig, I've heard you play." you know. So between Ray Barretto and my wife they got me, I didn't want to go, they got me to join Ray Barretto's band.
But just backing up momentarily, why did you move to Puerto Rico at that time and for such a long stay? Was it because of the bands and the gigs that were there for you, or was it that you just wanted to get out of New York?
Yeah, I just wanted to get out of New York. There was a lot of shit goin' on with the police department. If you were a member of Local 802 and something goes down, you got busted. If you had anything to do with the police, the police would not let you work.
They took away your card?
They took away your card. You know, they had more power over you than the union. So you had to have a police card. So on one occasion I lost my police card and I couldn't work. So I says, "Well, fuck it, I'm leavin'." So I left. After I left Mayor Lindsay came in and stopped all that. So he abolished all that and I came back in 1968.
Was there corruption going on among the cops?
Yeah, man, a lot of guys got busted and they lost their police card. And when you went to work in a club you had to produce your police card. It was more important than a union card! If you didn't have your police card, the [club] owner couldn't take a chance on hiring you even if he wanted to...
'Cause they might give him a fine?
That's right. They had control over the waiters, they had control over the dishwashers, they all had to have police cards with your ID, your picture, you know? And if you didn't have that you couldn't work, no matter what union you belonged to. [So when I came back from Puerto Rico] I went from Eddie to Flamboyan, different orchestras, you know. I knew that if I played I'd get my money at the end of the night.
After the [Cuban] revolution there's a whole new crowd of musicians that are seeping into that music, there's the sound of boogaloo. How did you react to the boogaloo scene at that time in terms of the quality of the music and the musicians?
I thought they were losing it, you know, los tipicos were gone, mixed with the, como v'entanto, canto Americano and all this and that. By that time I had already moved to Puerto Rico. I was living there when the boogaloo came out. [It was] after that when I started hearing about Joe Bataan, this other guy....
Pete Rodriguez and all those bands, este..."I'll Never Go Back To Georgia" with, como se llama...
Joe Cuba, yeah. And they were, in Puerto Rico, playing their music down there. I didn't like it, I never dug the boogaloo scene. Just wasn't for me, you know.
After the early '70s there's a resurgence, the All-Star groups are coming into their own, the Fania All Stars are coming out. There's a lot more, bigger orchestras playing on the music scene. How did you find that? What was your reaction?
It was better than the boogaloo era. I dug that more. Pero, it wasn't like when we were on the scene, the music wasn't the same. And they didn't call it mambo anymore, now they call it salsa. It's just another name.
What can you tell us, in terms of quality and musical taste, about Tito Rodriguez as opposed to other bandleaders that you worked with?
Well, Tito had his own style, you know, he knew what he wanted. So he would look for the right people. Tito always had the right people with him. What he wanted to do, he would do it, you know. [With Tito] you always had to be properly dressed, shoes shined, groomed. I remember one time we were working at the Palladium and this guy walks in with the suit, we had suits, Tito used to buy the suits. Well this guy had slept in his fuckin' suit, you know (laughter). Tito sent him home, says, "You don't get up on the bandstand, you know, makes me look bad." Unshaven or whatever, he was strict. You know I dug him for that. You don't see that now.
So you started seeing the dress code changing in the '60s, people coming in with long hair during the hippie movement, during the Vietnam War...?
The worst dressed band that I ever worked with was the Flamboyan. [Frankie] Dante, you know. These guys used to come in with sneakers, pants all torn, unshaven -- a street band.
Smelling, the whole deal?
Yeah, and I was the only one who came in dressed (laughs), you know? I felt out of place 'cause I had that old school thing. It was a lot of fun playing with them but (pause) that makeup was something else, man, of the band, you know. It's a street band.
In terms of batá drummers, when did you first get to go to one of those meetings where they played batá drums...?
I started through Julito Collazo.
And Julito was already here in the late '40s?
Yeah, late '40s, no early '50s maybe.
I heard that he was the one who introduced the batá drums to New York City, right?
Yeah. And it was supposed to be a secret society. The batá drums weren't supposed to be, they were in a closet like, they were not supposed to be played with dance bands, it was taboo, you know. Anything you did on a drum, on batá, you couldn't reproduce it on a conga drum because, to Julito Collazo, that was an insult, you know. And finally it's out of the closet, they're playin' it with everything, you know.
So the first time you got in contact with that was in the mid '50s?
Yeah. Julito Collazo was the first one [to take me to Bembé rituals]. Tommy Lopez, Julito Collazo and I went to my first santeria rituals. And I didn't like it either, but I liked the drumming, I was intrigued by the drumming. you know. But I didn't like what was going on.
Like what, explain just more or less what you're talking about?
Este, the things goin' on during the ritual there, you know, tu sabe?
(Laughs) It wasn't for you, that wasn't you?
My wife is a spiritualist.
What can you tell me about the club scene in the '60s and the '70s, the Corso Ballroom and stuff like that?
Corso's Ballroom was where salsa was at, where the mambo was at, you know --
After the Palladium closed?
Yeah. And the Caborrojeño was where they had what we called the hicky bands, you know, they didn't play what we played. So it was different. I'd rather go to Corso's than go to El Caborrojeño unless I had to work there. And the owner there was somethin' else.
He's dead, yeah. Ah, he was a bitch, he was a bitch. He wanted you to play what he wanted. He used to tell the bandleaders what to play. So...
And some people did what he said and some people didn't dig it?
Yeah. When you didn't dig it, you didn't want to work there no more, yeah. And if you argued with him you wouldn't work there again anyway, you know? Pero he was difficult, he was difficult. He wasn't like Mr. Hyman, Palladium, you know. "I want you to play this and this and this and that's it!." you know.
So now we're moving into the late '70s early '80s.
Ah, in 1978 I joined Machito's band. And we went to Finland, every year we used to go to Finland. I went to Finland with Machito for about five years straight, you know. Machito's band was nice. Chocolate was in the band, Chombo was in the band, too, for a while. And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed Machito's band.
And you recorded extensively? Of course, you were part of the Grammy album?
Yeah, we did that in Holland.
So, by the early '80s you were still with Macho's band. After Macho passes away and the band breaks up, where do you go from there? You were also teaching at Boys' Harbor before that, right?
Yeah. I was teaching over at the Drummer's Collective. After that I went to the Johnny Colon school. From Johnny Colon, then I went to Boys' Harbor. I was teaching there, that's all. Sometimes I get gigs, you know -- but I wanted to stop doin' the gig scenes.
Why, it just wasn't productive for you?
And you had to travel a lot of places where you don't want to be?
You'd rather be home now, you'd rather stay with your family, chill out?
Talk about your teaching, the type of teaching that you're doing. In terms of your students, new students who are involved in percussion - what is it that you want them to learn? How do you go about reaching students, say, in terms of conga drumming? What is your routine, the routine that you will use with a new student?
Posture, sittin' with a drum. How to hold a drum, how to sit and hold a drum. Your hand positions, you know what I mean?
And your coordination, see if you've got coordination. And teaching one hand at a time. You get one hand - this hand does this, learn this first. And then learn the other hand, you know, your left hand (plays). And that's the first thing I teach 'em (plays). And how to count - that they have to learn, I want to hear 'em countin' when they're countin' so they'll know where they're at. In other words it's (counts and plays tumbao). But not all of 'em, you know, do that.
By now you've taught a cien numero de students, you've had a lot of, I would imagine, successes and perhaps some failures, right?
Out of the students that you've taught and people who come back to you, who are some of the exceptions, I mean some of the guys that you feel that you've taught...?
Hilario Perez, Tommy Lopez. I taught Sabu a little but Sabu never wanted to listen, you know?
How about Giovanni [Hidalgo]?
Giovanni is in a class by himself. Giovanni, in my estimation, is the best, he's the best, forget about it. One in a million.
I've heard Giovanni has had classes with you?
No, that's not true.
No. Maybe I've learned somethin' from him.
'Cause they say you can't teach an old dog new tricks - that's bullshit - depends on what you got here, you know... Giovanni's in a class by himself. Con Batacumbele, el mejor conguero de Cuba, este Changuito praised him. He says, "Oh this guy, this kid is somethin' else." And he's gotten better and better. This guy's incredible, bro'. He used to live down here. He's my son's godfather, you know.
Oh, so that's the relationship! Because I heard that he used to come down here and jam with you.
Yeah, he used to stay here, he used to live here. Whenever he was in town and came in from Puerto Rico he would come down here. So I have a lot of tapes of Giovanni live, that he did down here by himself. Playing with three drums and a pair of bongos, by himself! By himself. When he was living down here, about 9 o'clock in the morning he'd get up and you could here him upstairs practicing down here alone by himself for about three or four hours...
Every day, every fuckin' day. He's got two right hands.
Talk about some of the Cuban groups that are performing in Cuba. You have a wide range of musical interests and you still study a lot of the Cuban percussionists. You are a great admirer of Tata Güines...?
Tata Güines is great. But I've learned to hear others that are even greater, you know? I'm not taking anything away from Tata Güines 'cause I admire him and I used to listen to him a lot. But Afro Cuba has, Tamborero hay que tan cabrone, Los Muñequitos, y Conjunto Clave y Guaguancó. Those are the three groups in Cuba. Y hay otros que I haven't heard. But these are the three groups that I listen to; Afro Cuba, Los Muñequitos, y Conjunto Clave y Guaguancó. Folkloric music -- they don't play dance music, you know.
In your estimation, where do you see the music headed. Do you think we have a lot of problems in maintaining our culture. We have to teach students properly. Do you think that things are headed in a positive way? In what direction do you think the music is going?
I don't know. There are a few diehards, you know, that want to keep this goin'. But there's not enough of, e la cultura del tambor, there's not a lot of it, I don't see a lot of it, you know. Maybe little groups here and there, tu sabe, pero it's the young crowds, they listen to somethin' else.
Yeah, we've lost a lot of our people, lost a lot of people to a lot of other music so far. And it's hard to get them back.
Yeah, it's the intermarriage of cultures with the music, you know.
In terms of what [salsa] they're promoting today...?
I listen to the old stuff.
In terms of what they're promoting...?
No, I don't like it.
The promotion of the folkloric music is a rather bad situation.
Yeah, there should be more exposure to it, I don't know why there isn't but...
Este, Latino radio, in terms of what you hear on FM and AM radio, esta malisimo.
Esta malisimo. Hay dos o tres de disc jockeys out there that [hits drum] sometimes they play good music and [hits drum] most of the time they don't. They must have their days, you know, pero no, no. I don't like it. [pause] A lot of times I'll hear salsa on radio and [pause] boleros and salsa - you know, I don't like that, it's not me.
El baile romantico -
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah -
And then the merengues in terms of the bands...
Ugh, forget merengues.
There's great folkloric music coming out of Santo Domingo, but [the music played on the radio] it's a lot of music that's really, you know, there's no variation.
If someone asked you how would like to be remembered, as a person, as a family man, as a musician...?
[pause] As all three [laughs]. Family man and a good musician, good percussionist. There's a lot of guys, like Julito Collazo, that wouldn't teach white guys the proper way to play batá just because you were white. He had that racial shit goin', you know. I believe in teaching anybody, that color doesn't mean nothing, you know. My father was black. My grandmother and my great-grandmother, I met her in Puerto Rico when she was 99 years old, she was pitch black. My mother was white, and they ran my mother out of Puerto Rico because she married a black man, you know. They are, yo tengo la sangre negro po' dentro, I guess we all do, you know, somewhere along the line. So I don't know what it is with some guys that just don't want to teach you, you know what I mean?
So basically, you want to be remembered as a good father and a good musician?
Yeah. And a good teacher. Some guys hide stuff that they don't wanna teach.
But what's the point?
That's a good point, what's the point.
What was the point. What is the point if you don't teach it to somebody else, it'll never be saved.
No. I'd like to give what I know, you know what I mean, not hide it. Like they say, enseñale pero, enseña todo que tu sabe. I don't believe in that "I'll take that to my grave" -- I'd rather give it.