Interview with an important member, and one of the most respected names, in the Latin music percussion community.
José Mangual, Jr.: A Family Affair / Interview by David Carp
Puerto Rican musical culture is blessed with numerous families where both the name and talent of a parent are passed down to the oldest son. The Latin music world was saddened on September 24, 1998 by the passing of José Mangual, Senior, one of the most respected bongoceros in history and one of nature's noblemen. His sons José Mangual, Junior and Luis Mangual have inherited not only the Mangual name, but also the Mangual talent and humanity. José Junior's dynamism as a performer is matched by his savvy as a producer. This was acknowledged in the February 4, 1978 edition of Cash Box with the following review of his first Chano Pozo tribute: "It took a long time for someone to come up with a tribute to the late Chano Pozo, veteran conga player.... José Mangual, Jr. does a fantastic job with the help of the top Latin rhythm section in the music business". His track record is no secret to industry insiders; the length and breadth of the Mangual Jr. career are meticulously documented by John Child's accompanying piece. The following comments on his family, his career, and the music scene as he's experienced it were taken from a November 8, 1998 conversation with David M. Carp.
David Carp: Let's talk about your generation of the Mangual family. Are you the oldest of your siblings?
José Mangual Jr.: Yes, and Luis is the second. I have a sister Sandra, a sister Felicita, a sister Carmen and a brother George.
DC: Now on the first Chano tribute album there's a Carmelita who is thanked for her contributions and also a Sandra, are those your sisters?
JM: Yes, on background vocals.
DC: So all the Manguals of your generation are musical?
JM: Yes. Carmen plays the cowbell, Sandy plays good conga, Fifi plays good maracas, they like to sing and enjoy themselves.
DC: Can you give us some background about your brother Luis?
JM: Well, he played with Pacheco, played with Héctor Rivera. He also worked for a lot of years with the Joe Valle Orchestra, he played timbales for about five years with Joe Valle. This was at the Club Caborrojeño and some other places off of Broadway, Joe Valle worked in all of them. And he did a lot of studio work that my father couldn't do because he was out of town or whatever, he took care of that for my father, too. So he's a great percussionist. He's a great bongo player, he's more into a Mangual, Senior, style than I am.
DC: And he's now working for the MTA?
JM: He works for the MTA now, yes.
DC: But does he still play?
JM: No, his schedule is kind of rough. But he's been doing some work with Gilberto "Pulpo" Colón's group Ensalada de Pulpo. So he's back to the bongo a little bit, you know, just to enjoy himself. I'm happy because they have to hear that sound that he has on the bongos which is great, which at least is preserved on the Johnny Pacheco records.
DC: You said that your brother plays closer to your father's style than you do. Any further comments?
JM: Well, listening to my brother, he has a cleaner sound on bongos, just like my father. He uses his fingers a lot, which I don't. I'll use my fingers but not the same way. If you would listen to the recordings, he's more related to my father's style.
DC: So for the really intricate, fast kind of playing he'll use his fingers?
JM: He does it with his fingers, and that's what my father's trick was.
DC: What are the first percussion instruments you remember making any contact with at home?
JM: Of course the bongo drum. My father used to come in and put the bongo there by the door, and my brother Luis and I used to open it up, started playing on it and so on. Of course we used to just sit down and stare at the box until we had the courage to open it up, and there was always a guiro or a maraca around. Because with the type of work that my father did every day playing - there was no Latin Percussion, there were no heads that were made and you go to the store and buy it - he had to wet the skin and mount it and let it dry at that time. You would have to take the tacks off and mount it all over again because it used to get burned with the sterno can. So therefore the drum was always around, and maybe Carlos "Patato" Valdéz would leave the drum in the house 'cause he had to go some other place and my father had to record with him so he left the drums there. And, of course, looking at the bongos in the back and Patato's drums last night - it was great, it was a great thrill.
DC: When your father was working with Machito that meant going up to the Concord in the summer, were you ever there?
JM: Yes, we used to go for a summer vacation. Sometimes it was two weeks, sometimes it was a month.
DC: Oh, it varied?
JM: It varied, you know, whatever time. Because they had little houses and the musicians could rent them for the families. So it was very nice, that time. We played baseball with Machito and Machito's sons and all the musicians there. During the day there was salsa at the pool or Latin music, it wasn't even thought of being called salsa at that time. But it was at the pool and I met Buster Crabbe there, he was like a swimming instructor, and a lot of famous people at the Concord Hotel.
DC: Did they give cha cha or mambo lessons at the pool?
JM: Yes, that was part of the show, Sunday afternoon or Wednesday or some time. But it was the thing, the mambo, the cha cha, everybody did it even if your name was Schwartz. It's not like now where if you're Spanish, then you must know salsa. At that time I saw a lot of American people dance better than the Gonzálezes and the Riveras, I mean, that's a fact.
DC: Sure, they made it a point to learn.
JM: So it was great.
DC: Thinking of when you lived on East 116th Street, how aware were you of folkloric Puerto Rican music, bomba and plena? Did you hear much of that in the community?
JM: No. The first time I heard bomba y plena was when my father invited Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera over for dinner, a lasagna that my mother made. I remember that that was my mother on 106th Street and Second Avenue and there was a lot of snow and she fell and she broke her arm. But she made the lasagna and Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera and I think it was Rafael Ithier and some of the people from the band that were here playing at the Palladium Ballroom, they came to our house for dinner. And that's the first time I heard bomba y plena, you know, Rafael Cortijo with Ismael Rivera singing.
DC: But you don't recall people out in the park or in the community just joining together and making that music.
JM: No, I don't recall that very much. I remember my father's mother, my grandmother, they would play something that we used to say was jíbaro music, like from the Island. Mon Rivera, things like that, they were more into the Puerto Rico thing. My mother came here at the age of one year old so everything was New York style, everything was American. At my grandmother's house the tradition was there as far as the food and the ideas and the language.
DC: Can you talk about the first group with which you did regular gigs?
JM: It used to be called El Super Combo Los Bohemios. At that time there used to be a lot of small bars and parties and everybody would pay sixty dollars for a group or fifty dollars and they used to call this guy to play. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday they had a party somewhere or a dance. The Baseball Players of the Club de Guayama of Puerto Rico, they had a little thing, they sell their little raffles and cook their food and sell the drinks for a dollar and beer and get the people, but they needed live entertainment. And so this group in the Barrio, there were many of them that used to play these dances.
DC: So how old were you when you were doing this kind of gig?
JM: I was fourteen years old. Even when I was twelve I used to go play, they gave me two dollars playing the bongo. Their two dollars, that was fine at that time. The guys were older men but they needed a percussion player and of course I was around and I was Mangual's son. So I used to swing the thing for them, so of course they used to call me to play. Then after that I went to play timbales with a group called Jarabacoa, Conjunto Jarabacoa. That was two trumpets - they were like a little bit more upstage. They played Las Estrellas, there used to be a club on Madison Avenue and 111th Street, Las Estrellitas Social Club. And they used to be in the Bronx, they went to Connecticut, they went to Jersey and they were like a little upstage, it was a top band. There was also Jarito y su Combo on 117th Street.
DC: Oh, the guy who's legally blind.
JM: Yeah, they used to call him the Puerto Rican Sammy Davis, Junior. But there were a lot of groups here in the Barrio and in the Bronx, so I always stayed working Friday and Saturday, whether it be bongo or conga or timbales.
DC: Now did you ever actually study timbales with anybody or snare drum rudiments or any of that stuff?
JM: I went into the seventh grade in Junior High School 167, Wagner Junior High School on 76th Street between Second and Third - although I grew up on 116th Street between Park and Madison I lived in the Yorkville section during the late '50's into the '60's, on 95th Street between Second and Third Avenue. Anyway, I was with the band and of course I played timpani drums and the snare and so on there. So I read there.
DC: How common was it when you were a teenager to have Latin percussionists that read?
JM: Well, I understand that there were a lot of Latin percussionists that read. Like of course the Henry Adler School, where my father used to go to buy his skins and so on, Henry Adler with Ubaldo Nieto and Ubaldo was a great reader. And of course Humberto Morales, that played with the Philharmonic Orchestra and so on. So there were a lot of readers when it came to becoming a timbal player or a drummer. As far as bongos and congas, you know, you just heard what was happening and you were good and that was it!
DC: And you just had to remember the breaks -
JM: Remember the breaks, which was hard! And at that time you really had to be on the money because everybody recorded at the same time. It's not like today where I could mess up the break and keep on doing it for two hours, at that time everybody had to know what they were doing. The whole band played together and no one made a mistake and if the mistake wasn't that bad, next song!
DC: Can you tell us about how you began to record as a vocalist?
JM: Well, there was an album that was called La Protesta, which was Tony Pabón's first album. And I wrote a song and I played the vegetables on the album, like the maracas and the guiros and I did some background vocals. There was a song called "San Miguel" that Kent Gómez and I wrote together. Tony Pabón liked it. Nestor Sánchez is singing the song and I'm singing it, too. I'm saying, "Nestor, but try to sing it this way!" And Ralphy Cartagena is there, who is the president and CEO of that company, and he tells me, "You know what, you're telling Nestor how to sing, you're a bongo player. So why don't you go in there and sing it?" And I went in there and I sang the song (laughs). Tony Pabón and Ralph Cartagena gave me that first push into singing the song. This must have been around 1970, yeah, '69. I was starting with Willie Colón, then he went on a trip, then he had another bongo player. But I was singing with La Protesta too, yes.
DC: Have we missed anything significant before La Protesta, groups that you worked with in the mid '60's?
JM: During the boogaloo era with I was with Monguito Santamaría but he had a Latin jazz type of thing.
DC: When you consider how strong the boogaloo was in that period, you know, the crossing over with bilingual lyrics, how popular was Latin jazz during those years? How much work did Monguito get?
JM: Well, there were a lot of venues. At that time there were a lot of American places - like you had the Village Gate, you had a lot of venues that wanted to hear a good timbal solo and just a Latin jazz number and not too many Spanish lyrics. So he worked a lot and besides he's the son of Mongo Santamaría, who was very hot at that time, too. So he got a little work and he got signed on a record deal, Fania Records.
DC: How popular was he outside the Hispanic community?
JM: Well, he did his Spanish gigs but American people would go to see him a lot because of the following for his father. But he also had a guy named Ronnie Marks that sang in English, a brother that danced and ùhe was like James Brown on stage. Plus Monguito had another singer singing the salsa numbers, plus he had instrumentals with Canazol. He had a guy named Sam Turner, a conga player that played with Lionel Hampton.
DC: This is an American guy.
JM: American guy playing conga but he played real, real, real on the money. Now I'm not putting him in a Willie Colón band, he would probably be a little bit off. But with Monguito's style he was perfect.
DC: So in this band you played bongos.
JM: I played bongos.
DC: Because of the different kinds of music you're describing, does this mean that there are numbers where you just lay out, numbers where it wouldn't make sense to have bongos, or did you pretty much play everything?
JM: I played everything. See, I come from both worlds so I could put it in in its proper level, you know, the bongo playing. If it was a cha cha, so instead of playing bongos I'd play the guiro. On a mambo, it was mostly cowbell, you know, the intro with the bongo and then (sings "Bop bop ba-re bop ba-re bop bop"). It was cymbal and a ride and everybody just soloed on it. So I would fit into all these little things. You see, I grew up listening to all types of music in my house. My father was very versatile in not only playing one style, he had different styles according to what was happening - what's the arrangement, what it is and he'd go on into it. So I listened to all types of music, so I just was not limited to one style of music or one style of playing.
DC: Right, and your father was a jazz lover.
JM: Exactly. I mean when he came here it was bebop time, you know?
DC: He came just in time to see Dizzy Gillespie taking off.
JM: Exactly, and not only taking off but he was right there with him as a partner, you know, with Charlie Parker. So we heard all types of music in the house.
DC: How about R & B or doo wop?
JM: No, I never went for that. I'd rather be listening to Chapottín then the Imperials or Frankie Lymon, you know what I mean? And that was my era but I'd rather be listening to Chapottín or listening to Cortijo.
DC: Let's talk about how your association with Willie Colón began.
JM: My association with Willie Colón starts while I was playing with Monguito Santamaría, with Héctor Lavoe. Héctor Lavoe, first thing he told me was, "You can't come in here playing (sings 'Ton tan to-kan ton ke-ke ton ton, ke-kon kon, ke-kon kon"), I want (sings "KON chi-ki KON chi-ki KON chi-ki KON chi-ki KON KIN KON"). But Héctor wanted someone to sing chorus and he said, "You know, you could do it." And besides, Héctor is from Ponce, Puerto Rico and my father being born in Juana Díaz, which is near by and the family's from Ponce - so I relate myself to Ponce, Puerto Rico, that's where my roots are.
DC: You're compueblanos.
JM: Compueblanos. So Héctor was saying "Hey, you're from Ponce" and so on, "I want you to stick with this band". So I get my first shot, 1968, we went out to Los Angeles, California and worked with Willie Colón there for two weeks. We rehearsed and played at a place called Virginia's on Wilshire Boulevard. Puente used to go there, Rodríguez played there, Virginia's was the place where all the Latin bands went there to play. I wouldn't consider it like the New York Palladium. It wasn't a big place, but I guess the bands worked there a lot. So we played there, we rehearsed and when we got back from L.A. Willie kept on rehearsing. He had the arrangements and he recorded Cosa Nuestra, which was the "Che Che Colé" album. We traveled and had a great time during that era. After the "Che Che Colé" he made a big hit. He was already on the sounding board but with that album he went to the top.
DC: When I interviewed Johnny Pacheco he mentioned that he acted as producer for this album. When Pacheco was in the booth how many of the ideas did he actually come up with?
JM: Well, Willie Colón knew what he was doing. Pacheco was there being the recording director, vice president of Fania and he had his input with the background vocals and made sure that everything was on the recording level the right way. But I don't recall, he must have had great input because he's a great master. But Willie had his ideas and we were a well rehearsed group. So when we went to the studio we laid it on.
DC: What kind of places in New York did you play with Willie in the late '60's?
JM: Oh, man! We played the Hunt's Point Palace, the Palm Gardens. There were a lot of venues and Willie Colón was in all of them. Besides, he had something that no one else had. He had a small group with young guys and he was breaking the barrier, he was on his way. Besides, he got so popular that we were in Puerto Rico at least four times a year, or Venezuela, Panamá, Europe - I mean he stayed busy!
DC: How common was it to do more than one gig in a day, like a double or triple?
JM: It wasn't very common. We'd have a double, we had a trouble with Héctor Lavoe, would he get there? We had trouble getting him to the first gig, I don't know about two gigs! Because in order to do a double gig you would have to be promptly at 10 o'clock at Venue Number One, and at 12:30 sharp leave Venue Number One at 1:15 be at Venue Number Two. Sometimes we did 'em, like we'd do the Saint George Hotel and then go on to the Corso or something like that. But I would think he didn't like doubling, he didn't like too many doubles, we didn't do too many. But I guess the fact of that was we had problems getting Héctor to Number One. What happened if he came late to Number One, we can't get to Number Two!
DC: I don't know how often the following routine happened, but when I first met Yomo Toro he described a situation where Héctor shows up two hours late and he says, "It's not that I came late, you came early!"
JM: That was his thing. It's something that you can't believe, my dad'll get mad at me if I'm ten minutes late. And Héctor used to come in an hour, an hour and a half late, people asking for their money at the door, the promoter's going crazy. Héctor'd go up on the bandstand and joke and the people loved him. "Anyway, what happened was that my son was playing with matches and my kitchen was on fire. The firemen came, I had to go out in my shorts, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, and by the time they told me to go back in the house it was like an hour. By the time I got dressed and got all beautifulled up for you people because I'm here to sing for you!" And we're sitting there and the show is going on.
DC: So he always had a line of shit to lay on the crowd.
JM: I mean he's the only guy, that's why he call him - "And do you know what, they told me that I started here an hour ago. So I'm here now, they told me it was 12:30 when I started. So why do you people come to see me at 10:30, huh?" (DC laughs) But at that time also there were two bands playing in a club. The only thing was the pause between one band and the DJ and what used to happen when there was no DJ, and we were having problems. So therefore Willie used to say, "Let's go!" and we used to start playing "La Murga" or another song and he would sing an inspiration, I would sing an inspiration. We would do "Jazzy," which is (sings), an instrumental. But then Héctor would pop it, so we cut it.
DC: Think of the songs on Willie's records, were they well routined through being played at the dances, or were there songs that were created for the studio?
JM: Yeah, like "June '73," but Willie is such a talent. See, at that time all groups stayed together for a long time. It's not like today, I have a session, I'm just gonna get this guy, this guy, this guy, this guy. Great musicians but we have to play - we're studio musicians. But no, Willie had a band that played with him. We all knew each other 'cause we traveled together, ate together, partied together, did everything together. So when he had an idea we would just follow him and when we went to the studio it was great! Then he had a great singer that had no problems with a word in Spanish, everything was perfectly said and inspirations and so on. 'Cause we all worked together, so it was very easy for Willie Colón to create his thing and he had just great ideas. You know, he would write something, today he'll get the idea and write it down and the next day he'll try it with the band, you know what I mean? That guy, he's a genius!
DC: Before talking about Willie's recordings of typical Puerto Rican music I want to ask you about your own history of listening to these styles.
JM: Well, when I first started really getting into it was when we did the first Christmas album with Yomo Toro. So then I had to listen in order to learn the style, to get into the roots of our music, which I never even knew. My thing, we grew up listening to Aragón, Chapottín, the Machito band and so on, but then we had to get into the root. So I happened to listen because the records were accessible in my aunt's house, they were there. So I just listened to Ramito, Chuíto de Bayamón and the groups I played with as a kid, there was a cuatro and a guitar. But they didn't play hillbilly music from la montaña, which was that type of music with the cuatro. They just played (sings son montuno vamp), they were playing like a salsa thing but with guitars. But then my aunt, she had those records so I started listening to them there. Then with Yomo and Willie's ideas, they put everything together and of course Héctor Lavoe singing and you hear those albums every year.
DC: In fact I was just listening to one of the Mon Rivera albums that you played on near the end of his life, where he redoes some of his old hits. Then I turn on "La Mega" with Polito Vega - he's playing the same tunes I was just listening to!
JM: (laughs) Wow, that's great! We had Milton Cardona and Kako - you know, he's from that tradition so he was like there trying to hold the thing together. Great album, I think we did two of them.
DC: What was Mon Rivera doing at that point in his life, was he working much?
JM: No, he wasn't working much. But I think that Willie loved his music, see, and being in the position that he was, he would be able to tell Gerry, "I think this idea's gonna work." Gerry probably said, "You're right, Willie, let's go." Because Mon Rivera is one of the pioneers of the trombone and Willie was a trombone player, so he figured, "Let me get this man now while he's still in motion and let me record him and let me do some new music and bring a little bit of the old music up." And remember, it's like E.F. Hutton, when E.F. Hutton speaks everybody listens so whatever Willie played, everybody listened. So he educated a lot of Nuyoricans like me to the music of Puerto Rico. He made you think man, my ancestors are there or my roots are there, let me think about the Puerto Rican flag and the music and the culture.
DC: You recorded some of Mon's old numbers like "Aló quién nama," "Karakatis Ki." How much did you play these numbers at Willie's gigs?
JM: Well, for instance, like behind you there's a poster, it says "Super Salsa '78," That was a concert in Puerto Rico with Celia Cruz, Héctor Lavoe, Mon Rivera and Yomo Toro. The whole idea was to have all his singers come in and do two or three numbers. Mon Rivera at that point did not do that concert because he was sick already. When we did the first album I think we did one concert and then a couple of others. Then we did the second album because that went very well and then Willie was trying for him to do those shows. But we never really got to work a lot with Mon, he was already sick and then he died. ("Super Salsa '78" was on February 17th, 1978, Mon Rivera died on March 12, 1978)
DC: Did you use panderetas on those records?
JM: No, we used the bongo tuned to a certain way (sings) and the conga drums (sings) and the timbal playing time. We sounded a little bit like panderetas, but it's not the real folkloric sound of the pandereta but we tried to fit it in there.
DC: But it's the kind of tuning that you'd hear on the panderetas.
JM: Yeah, the tuning has a lot to do with it.
DC: It's like (sings la, la-do la, la-do la), like that.
DC: Have you ever played panderetas?
JM: I tried to. I would think if I would go somewhere with los pleneros and those guys I would be able to get into it. It's a lot of practice, you know, the position to hold it is different, to hold the pandereta. But I haven't tried it, though, and it's easier on the conga drums.
DC: Before we got started today you were telling me how you ended up on the soundtrack for The Incredible Shrinking Woman, could you tell us that story?
JM: Well, I recorded for Ciani Music and she asked me to do the background vocals, I had recorded the percussion already with Milton Cardona.
DC: This is Suzanne Ciani, the one who plays keyboards and synthesizer?
JM: Yes, she has a music production company. And so she said, "What do you say when something happens? There's a little girl, she's lost." And Milton said, "Ay yay yay!", no big deal, and she says, "Ay yay yay, that sounds good!" And then she says, "She's lost and she needs help" - "Ayúdame!" So he says (sings, claps clave, "Ay yay yay, ayúdame" and we heard the track and we used that chorus in there. And then she says, "Sing about the little girl in inspirations," and we sang and she said, "Well, listen, you guys just did this so you have to sign this release form where the music is mine." Who cared? I should have cared! Because it was in a major motion picture (laughs) where I could have made some money on it. There's a maid, her name is Consuelo, she puts on the radio and you hear the Latin music playing and she's dancing and the little shrinking woman is in the faucet there. She falls down the drain and the music is going on and she doesn't know what's happening but she's screaming, and the maid doesn't hear 'em because the music is loud and she's dancing.
DC: How did you get involved with producing, stuff where you write some of the material and you sing and it's your concept - how did that evolve?
JM: Well, it all started with Latin Percussion. After we finished the job with Willie Colón we would have a lot of younger people interested in the percussion and answer their questions. So I said, "Damn, we should do an instructional LP." I approached Martin Cohen from Latin Percussion and in October of '74 we went into the studio and we recorded Understanding Latin Rhythms, which is my concept and my ideas, OK? So we did that LP and it went very well. We used my father on the bongos, Patato Valdéz on the conga, Bobby Rodríguez on bass, Manny Oquendo on the timbales cas deans - I always tell the people that these guys are deans in their field.. For merengue we used Porfirio Jiménez, a merenguero who used to play with a merengue group in the Caborrojeño. I always loved the way he played and so I called him in to do the merengue part, just to give a demonstration of what a merengue sounds like on the tambora and the guira and so on. And that's when I started getting into the producing. Then I decided to record Tribute to Chano Pozo, 1977. The idea was that you would buy the record, inside the record there would be an insert for a dollar and mail it to my company, which was called Tumbao Publishing, and we'll send you a booklet that will go with Cut Number Two and you would hear the sound of the timbal, of a conga drum and the bongo drum.
DC: OK, that explains some of the short cuts on the album.
JM: The short cuts, OK? So then we record "Campanero." In the booklet it says, "To give a full conjunto effect...," conjunto meaning together, so we had José Febles do the arrangement of "Campanero." So I figured why should we be singing about some woman, about some guy - let's talk about a cowbell player! A bongo player, a percussion player. So we did "Campanero" and it was a tribute to a great drummer, who was Chano Pozo. And let me tell you, "Campanero" and "Cuero na' ma' " became the salsa hits.
DC: So they were played on the radio.
JM: I don't know how, but they played on the radio. It started playing on radio in Panamá, in Colombia, in Venezuela - I mean all Latin America played "Campanero" and "Cuero na' ma' ." So an instructional album turned out to be a salsa album.
DC: That's wild.
JM: Then I got signed by Velvet Records in Venezuela and I started producing my own things, which I still own today.
DC: So the compilations that are coming out now, that stuff is originally Velvet?
JM: Some of it, some of it is Campanero and some of it is Velvet.
DC: So is Campanero a label or a production company also?
JM: It was a production company.
DC: Then what is True Ventures?
JM: True Ventures was my first company. If you recall on the Understanding Latin Rhythms, it's LP Ventures. So then I said "This is a true venture," so it's called True Ventures (DC laughs), understand what I mean? (DC slaps JM five) But Mr. Cohen was my teacher of my business, I respect him and love him a lot. He was a very good friend to my father and my father endorsed his product a lot of times. At this memorial and throughout my father's death he's been a very close person to the Mangual family, we speak. He was my teacher and I learned a lot from him.
DC: The second Chano Pozo tribute came out considerably later. Can you explain the time gap?
JM: The time gap to this album was that I had a lot of people interested in recording me. But when it came time to figures and contracts all the business went down. Then there was the period of salsa romántica, I stayed out of the studio as far as producing my own albums for five years.
DC: And which years are those?
JM: Well, it was about '86 through '92. So I was in the studio producing for other labels but not for myself. I stayed active, but I mean I was doing like for Polygram Records, "Lady in Red," and I was doing things in South America, and Melcochita. You know, things like that but I didn't see my music. Then the business changed where record companies were involved with radio stations and radio stations only wanted to play that style of music and I don't have the voice for that style of music and my thing is strong and percussive. I mean that music cannot be percussive, you know, romantic cannot be too percussive.
DC: So you made your living for that period as a producer?
JM: As a producer. And I traveled by myself as a soloist through, let's say London and Europe doing my little concerts.
DC: Do you take any key men with you or do you go as a single and use local musicians?
JM: There are local musicians there and in London, there's a band. I get there two or three days before, sometimes I send the arrangements ahead and when I get there it's "Cut this," "let's tacet this," and "let's make this easier this way." And it works out, sometimes I'm happy, sometimes I'm not. But the show must go on. Sometimes you have a bass player that doesn't know the right tumbaos and so instead of having dinner that night you're in your hotel room trying to teach him some basics and "Play it this way," and so on. And a lot of times it works out, 75 per cent of the time it pulls through.
DC: So other than the Spanish speaking countries you go as a single to England and what other countries?
JM: Paris, Germany and Holland. This coming year -- I met a promoter from Spain, I think in '99 I'll be in Spain. I'm going to work toward my entertainment field.
DC: What about Scandinavia?
JM: Scandinavia, I was there with David Byrne, I met a lot of people. But see, these places that I'm talking about, there are a lot of Spanish people, you know, people from Peru, from South America, from Colombia working there. So there's some people that have the venue already and they call you direct to go there. Scandinavia, I don't know if they're in Scandinavia yet, where there's a promoter who will call you directly. They call Ralphie Mercado and Ralphie sells them his bands.
DC: Do you perform much as a vocalist in New York?
JM: I'm fond of an orchestra called Sarabanda and three years ago I had a couple of hits with that band. And two years ago I had a song played on the radio which is one of those soft songs, Luis Miguel old bolero, and it's called "No se tu" and "No se tu" came out to be a big hit with that band. And I played a lot, I did the Copa a lot, I went to Canada, I went to Boston. Then once you're not played on the radio, you're not called any more because we only have four or five venues here now, in the greatest city in the world.
DC: It's ridiculous!
JM: Yes. But at one time, you know, I played a lot of gigs. That's why we just recorded an album called Son Boricua with Caimán Records and it's a sextet. A sextet could go anywhere, you know?
DC: Who's in the band?
JM: I used Jimmy Sabater and he sang a couple of songs. Frankie Morales, with Tito Puente, the vocalist - he sang a couple of songs. Lucho Cueto, Papo Pepín, Ray González. Jay DeJesús is a good piano player, Rubén Rodríguez on bass, Ray Martínez. A young lady called Ada Chabrier, she sang a ballad medley of Rafael Hernández songs. And it was all songs from Puerto Rico but done in New York, Nuyoricans singing to Puerto Rico.
DC: In the 1980's, with the advent of salsa romántica, do you recall as a session player situations where the producer is actively telling the percussion to play differently or to play softer, or would it be handled that way? How much of a sense did you ever have that they were telling you from the booth to cool it?
JM: I never was told that. I believe that maybe they would say the martillo has to be played (sings "BA-ke-chi-ki, BA-ke-chi-ki, BA-ke-chi-ki, BA-ke-chi-ki") in order for the guy, because now we're going into old bolero lyrics and it has to be romantic so I can sing (sings "Yo te quiero, yo te adoro") and the bongo player (sings "Ba-TA, gu-gu-gu-du!"). No, (sings "BA-ke-chi-ki, BA-ke-chi-ki, BA, TA, ba-chi-ki" ). Automatically, when you look at the drum music, you would say, "Well, this has to be a little softer, I have to play just time." Because if I come in and I do a little (sings "Bap BAP-oop") you know, it doesn't go with what the guy's singing, and a lot of times when you heard the singer you fell into it. But I think that's what they're saying now. That's why today's rhythm sections, they all play the same way, that's why all the music sounds the same way. Before you could tell, that's Machito, that's Rodríguez, that's Tito Puente, that's Orlando Marín, that's Vicentico, everyone had his own identity. Today's music, the arrangers are all gonna write the same way. All the singers want to sing the same style and there's no difference.
DC: Because, to me, the whole role of the rhythm section has been kind of watered down over the years and people have forgotten what strong playing is all about.
JM: Well, it's with the style of today's music. It's supposed to be, what do they call it, romantic salsa and the percussion cannot be the way it should be. You know, you have three trumpets and two saxes or a big band, you have to play! I remember in school the first thing that they said about music was, "Music is what you sing and rhythm is what you dance to." I mean I'll never forget that instructor saying, "Music is what you sing and rhythm is what you dance to," and people need the rhythm in order to dance. Now when you have those big bands, Puente with Mongo and Willie Bobo, Machito with José Mangual, Patato, Ubaldo Nieto, Tito Rodríguez, Chonguito, Vitín Palacios and Míonchito or I'm thinking of Manny Oquendo and Mike Collazo and Marcelino Valdés on the conga, that was a great rhythm section! I mean rhythms were strong because they had to hold up that big band and let the people swing. And what happened was they all played as a section, they all played together - the bongo, the conga, timbal player, they all complemented each other. Today's percussionist is playing something that he feels like playing because he knows he's recording, and without the concept of the dancer and of getting involved in the arrangement. Those bands were great because they rehearsed what they were gonna record because there was no time to go in the studio and rehearse, it was the time to go to the studio to record!
DC: And, like you said, you're recording live so you can't fix it in the mix.
JM: I remember going to a Vicentico Valdés recording with my dad and the trumpets were on risers - you know, where you use dynamics in music, where you play (sings a line with a strong crescendo and diminuendo). Today the engineer says not to do that, don't worry - there's no dynamics! You look at the arrangements, they have no dynamics! I guess if you looked at René Hernández's arrangement it would have dynamics for the section - you know, where the saxes would come out here and the brass would be a little lower, the trumpets and then the trombones would come in. In order to have the right sound the people would play with dynamics. Now everybody plays the same way, same volume!
Click this link for the important José Mangual Jr. musical profile and discography by John Child