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David Carp has an extended conversation with this Brooklyn-born timbalero who went on to play with Orquesta Dicupe, Charanga 76, Tambó and now leads Los Jóvenes Del Barrio.

Interview: A Talk With Johnny Almendra

by David M. Carp

We don't want to see Los Jovenes del Barrio as a charanga, it's the instrumentation of a charanga that can play music- you know, that's what I'm going towards.

For percussionist Johnny Almendra teaching, performing and studying are fueled by the same passion, informed by the same intelligence and kept out of trouble by the same street smarts. The passion is for music in general and the musical heritage of his Hispanic Caribbean roots in particular; the intelligence is innate, although cultivated by wisdom from the likes of Mongo Santamaría, Louie Ramírez, Willie Colón, Tito Puente and other mentors; his street smarts are a by-product of his Bedford-Stuyvesant upbringing and travels across four continents. After over 25 years of touring, recording (he's on at least 50 albums) and gigging in the New York area Almendra founded Los Jovenes del Barrio. For the last 19 years Johnny Almendra has been teaching at the Boys Harbor Performing Arts Center, an East Harlem institution dedicated to the preservation and development of Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American cultures. It's no accident that Los Jovenes del Barrio developed out of his work here. This evolution and much of Almendra's own were explained to writer David Carp during a recent visit to the Harbor.

David Carp: The 1950's were a golden era for New York Spanish language variety theater. How aware were you of the teatros as a kid?

Johnny Almendra: The first theater I remember is El Alba, it was on Flushing Avenue and Broadway in Brooklyn. I was about four or five years old and I remember seeing César Concepción, Joe Valle. The MC was Willie Chevalier, "El Huesito de Nilon". Yoyo Boing or Mantequilla could have been the comedians, the movie starred either Pedro Infante or Miguel Aceves Mejía. We used to go to El Alba every Sunday, it was our day. My mother would get us dressed up and we'd walk from our house on DeKalb Avenue all the way down Tompkins all the way down to Flushing, that's a long-assed walk. We'd stay for the movie and the show - it was a long time, about a three hour thing. I actually saw Machito there when I was a kid. I didn't know who he was but in later years I remembered what an effect that band had on me. 'Cause I had heard César Concepción and that was cool but when I heard Machito something else happened to me, it was like "I want to do that!" But it was like I was listening to classical music, like I was listening to something so incredible, it was so far away from me, you know what I mean? What I heard in the old teatros really impressed me a lot.

DC: How were the theaters and other manifestations of Puerto Rican culture viewed by different age groups within your community?

JA: What happened was that people my mother's age, they loved it, they related. I was very young so they took me, I didn't have any say. Now my brother, he's in the middle, he's in an identity crisis being in neighborhood gangs like the Champlains and having this peer pressure of the street and not wanting to speak broken English and trying to be Americanized and being ashamed of the way my mother spoke English.

DC: How much older is your brother than you?

JA: He's ten years older than me and my sister's fifteen years older than me; she's 60, he's 55. But my sister was always into the Latino thing. She was the one that used to teach me how to dance, we used to dance in the living room. I remember Tequila was big then, in the '50's and forget it, man, we would do every dance. And then we went to the Palladium and I was very open to that for some reason. I remember a lady named Trina used to take care of me. My mom used to go to work, she'd drop me off on the second floor, this lady took care of me during the day and she had Arsenio records, Chapottin, Cortijo. And man, when I heard Arsenio Rodríguez as a kid I didn't know who he was but it just made me feel incredible. I related to that, it just pulled me like a magnet, those tumbaos and I don't know, I just had a connection with it. Also I used to hang out with Mario Libran, a musician who lived in the neighborhood, there were rehearsals there and I heard a lot of records. So that was my path but my brothers, it was a little different, they were kind of ashamed. But eventually you want to know who you are, your identity, and you settle those questions. I really didn't go through that too much because I was so proud of my culture since I was little.

DC: How much did people go outside of their neighborhood for entertainment?

JA: In that time there was a lot of gangs so you couldn't step out of your territory, you had to be cool with that. But what happened, there were social clubs in each section of Brooklyn so you'd go to all the social clubs. I used to do postering or give out the flyers, my brother-in-law Phil Peters began promoting dances and I used to help him. That's how I got to hear a lot of music 'cause I used to hang out, it was weird but they wouldn't stop me in spite of my young age. There were lots of social clubs all over Manhattan, the Bronx, every borough had 'em and you would do the rounds, you know? You'd start at 8 o'clock, by 6 in the morning you'd be getting home.

DC: At what point do you get your hands on something and start making music?

JA: As a little kid I was already banging on stuff in the house. Like I cook with the milk to make coffee, that pot was my cowbell. So I would walk around with that all the time, I'm like five years old and I'm driving my mother crazy - you know, I was a pain in the ass! And it wasn't until much later that I bought a conga off my sister-in-law's brother who was a painter and he was into the beatnik scene - you know, (laid back beatnik voice) "Check out my congo!" and all that stuff. So eventually the guy saw that I could play 'cause I could hear a sound and imitate it. I thought the tumbao was (sings jazzy tumbao), I was listening to Chano Pozo so that's what I did. If I heard any sound I would imitate it right away. So then the guy says "OK, I'll give you the conga drum but you gotta pay me five dollars". I played tumbao for ten years, one drum, I didn't learn any other rhythm but that rhythm. You couldn't come to me and tell me "Hey, you want to learn this new rhythm?" - no, no, no, I was still playing this. I had this innate thing, "You gotta get this down", it's like it's never good enough! (laughs)

DC: The transition from playing hand percussion to playing with sticks, tell us about that.

JA: There was no transition, I went easy from bongos to congas to the stick thing. And although when I got to the sticks I played natural my way eventually I studied with Joe Cusatis who straightened out my hands, educated my hands. I had never worked on rudiments plus first of all, how to hold the sticks. The posture of your hands was very important so that you could execute things easier. Not to be awkward, to use the right balance - you know, simple things like that which are not so simple to explain. Those are the things that he repeated and drilled at me, drilled at me until I started hearing voices in my head, "Thumb back", whatever. I was playing traditional at that time, then I learned matched grip. When you play matched you use nine muscles, with traditional you use five. All these different things, the French grip, the tympani, the German grips and the different things that you're gonna utilize in all types of playing. How to play the rudiments, how to use all this material. How to play big band, how to play trio, how to play anything. You know, that's why I consider myself a jazz player as well as a Latino percussionist because I've lived in both societies at the same time. You grow up in New York, you get hit with everything. One day you're listening to Toscanini, the next day you're listening to Woody Herman and then you listen to Trio Los Panchos and all of a sudden you're listening to Los Chavales de España. Or Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald - I mean that's New York!

DC: By the mid 1970's you were working as a timbalero with top New York charangas. How strict were people about using typical instrumentation?

JA: Very strict. I was playing with Fajardo, I played with Broadway, I subbed with Novel, Ideal, then I finally got to play with Ideal and stay there. But people saw the way I played and it was cool. Like Charanga '76 was really not strict because they were a little innovative and different because of the voices, they used a cymbal. Some charangas, you can't use a cymbal, they don't want that, it's tipico. "No, you have to do it like this and you have to do it like" - you know, some of these guys are always on your ass.

DC: That's their trip because that's the way it was done in Cuba -

JA: And that was more of a trip that they had, I got into a lot of arguments with these people. But that's the kind of shit I went through, with Novel I didn't go through that because that's a charanga from New York. Eventually the leader was Willie Ellis, he's Cuban too but he was always a sweet man with me, also my insurance man. And I remember the first Orquesta Novel with Hector Zeno that I thought was one of the swingin'est charangas I ever heard, that guy played the shit out of the timbales! He had this tipico Cuco Martínez thing, you know, not soloing in that sense but this feel. So that really impressed me.

DC: At what point did you incorporate the cymbal into charanga, doing the ride figures the way you do now, how did that evolve?

JA: I did that from the beginning. I thought that I can go to Charanga 76 and put the conjunto things that I'm playing in there just like Orestes Vilató had done it before and a bunch of people did it, you know? I wanted to be tipico in the feel but I wanted to use more instruments, a bass drum, a snare. Like right now with my group I use the drumset, it sounds great and then I find myself doing other things and the band sounds different. It's fuller and I'm more experienced now, I know what to play. Not just to play drumset for its own sake - no, to apply it in a Latin way where it goes with what's happening. So I always thought of that because I always liked to play a lot of the instruments, you know, to keep that covered.

DC: You're expressing the same sentiments but maybe with a little bigger vocabulary.

JA: Right, that's all. I heard Fajardo do it in Juaniquita and all those tunes (sings cymbal pattern), he was using the cymbal already. Maybe not in the Cuban records, no. The records he recorded here and the jam session records he used the cymbal and I say "What's wrong with that?", it's another color that we're using.

DC: One of the leaders you're best known for working with is Willie Colón. How did you get your opportunity to play with his band?

JA: First of all, I had been following him for years. I checked him out at the Hunts' Point Palace, this is when El Malo came out. I thought the band was horrible but Hector LaVoe was incredible and Nicky Marrero was incredible. And I saw that the shit about Willie was these guys were always pressed, like real suited up, they looked really good and they had a lot of balls when they played and that came through. And I saw Willie getting better and better, I saw the band getting better. I was in high school and that's when the Cosa Nostra album and Guisando came out - I love Guisando, I still put it on. Their sound of course was completely different from what came before 'cause if you're listening to Machito and the big bands and Puente, Rodríguez, that's like really weird, the harshness of the trombones. But then I got to appreciate where that was coming from also - you know, Willie always loved Barry Rogers, that was a big impression on him. I'd be watching them in the Saint George Hotel and I used to say "One day I'm gonna play with these guys". One time I was playing with Tipica Ideal and Milton Cardona was playing conga, he told me "Why don't you come down, I have a gig with Willie". I thought it was a rehearsal but it was a gig and there was no timbalero and I had to sightread the book. I didn't know it was Rubén and Willie, that was in the Casa Borinquen in Brooklyn. Willie turns around, "Who's this guy?", then Milton told him and he never said a word to me. He said "Tell him to come to the next gig" and that was it, I was there for eight years.

DC: You're also a veteran of Mongo Santamaría's groups. What kind of a setup did you use with Mongo?

JA: It was a simple setup, a drumset, timbales. Sometimes I would play 'em together, sometimes I'd play 'em separate because it depended on the type of gigs that we would do. If it was a dance audience Mongo would gear the music to be more Latino. If it was a concert then we would do the other stuff and we'd combine the stuff.

DC: How much did you play for a dancing crowd?

JA: Not much but you know, in the Village Gate on Monday nights occasionally people danced there. So you would have to play Como candela, Para ti and also you could do your other stuff too. Because in my opinion you can dance to anything, I mean I could dance to anything. But of course there's people that can't dance, they need the dancing and the coro and the montuno to really get into that. So we got to play a lot of different music, from ballads to Latin jazz. Pieces in 6/8, all kinds of different stuff, 3/4, joropos. Some of the old things like Watermelon Man, they sound easy but they're not easy 'cause you gotta find the feel of where those songs fall! And I learned a lot of that stuff from watching Steve Berríos play it too. Steve is the only one that's been there longer than me; he's an incredible musician and I admire him very much. I checked him out and I saw that pocket, that soul that he played with Mongo. So I tried to copy that stuff and also copy Willie Bobo and incorporate those things that they did with Mongo. I was featured in things like Mambo Mongo, that was a timbale solo and not only that but I was free to do certain things and try things. Then there would be tunes that were real modern that would come out. Like Marty Sheller wrote this tune called Salazar - that was a great tune to play on, I would get to play in a straight ahead groove. That's the great thing about Mongo's band, the variety that there was, you know?

DC: Let's talk about teaching - what are the most common problems for students?

JA: Well, it depends on the type of student that comes in. A student that's a musician, that wants to get better on his instrument; a guy that's doing it for a hobby; a guy that's doing it for therapy; or a guy that just loves it and wants to be part of his culture - those are all the different types of people that you teach. A lot of the guys working in salsa bands, they don't apply much time to listening to the past, I think that they feel it's old fashioned or something or it's not useful. So I've shown them that it is because the more you know about your past, the more you can do the future and the more sabor you could get out of what you're doing. Because what you're doing is nothing you're creating now, it's been around for hundreds of years. You know, no one's inventing anything, we're just rehashing the whole thing and coming up with it a different way. That's the way I feel and that's why I think that people should study. Besides, it's great for your mind to study and to always be in touch because as you study you get better at it. You get better at solving problems, all types.

DC: So you get better at being your own teacher.

JA: Exactly. And I've helped many guys work on their reading music, guys that started to do it but then quit. You know, that's another thing, people don't want to read. Percussionists find that there's a wall and I say "If you can count to four you can read music, that's how easy it is but you gotta work on it. You know, just every day you gotta work on it a little bit" and stuff like that. I try to break down that wall, that barrier of reading or working with a click track.

DC: Why do you think there's a barrier about reading?

JA: Probably fear, probably they see it like Japanese or some other language, they think it's more difficult than it is. And I know what that feeling is like because when I started to study my first teacher scared the shit out of me. As a kid I saw an ad in the Village Voice, the lessons were like ten bucks or something like that and he tells me "Oh, what kind of music you play, kid?" and I says "Well, Latin music". "Oh, that shit, you gotta play real music!" - he fucked me up like quickly, man, it's like "Oh, I'm in trouble!" Instead of giving me a beginner's thing about music theory he gave me the Hindemith book -

DC: Oh, forget about it, Elementary Training for Musicians is one of the toughest ear training books ever written!

JA: Yeah, and this was the first lesson! He completely destroyed my mind and scared the shit out of me and gave me this Ralph C. Pace drum book that's so hard I still can't do it! (laughs) I was intimidated because in a way I was scared to appear stupid, that I couldn't learn this information of music 'cause it is intimidating. So then it was a long time before I got the courage again to look for a teacher.

DC: How did you finally learn to read?

JA: I bought Learning to Read Music by Howard Shanet - he had the orchestra at Columbia University for years, he taught a class of 5,000 people how to read. I said "If these 5,000 people can learn I can learn". So I read the book about ten times and I had it down, man. All of a sudden I'm teaching other people how to do this shit, you know? And then I had this Louis Bellson book which was in my pocket all the time and I'm going (sings fast drum lick) in the train, in the bathroom - I mean I was obsessed with this damn thing and I think I went through about ten of these books, destroyed 'em. I still have it in my pack and I teach it.

DC: Can you tell us about how Los Jovenes del Barrio grew out of your teaching?

JA: It got started because I had a student at Boys' Harbor that was asking me "Why do I have to do the baqueteo on the timbales, they don't do that in a Jerry Rivera record!" I said "Well, you might not need it for that but there's gonna be occasions. You listen to a Gran Combo record or something, there's gonna be a section in the music where you might need to know what that groove is about and where it comes from!" And that's how it started and that's how we started doing things like Almendra in different workshops to show how this stuff started. Because I had the experience of playing in charangas myself and knowing how much I loved it I said "Wow, this is a perfect opportunity to expose this stuff!" In the Boys' Harbor library there's tons of charts, tons of music, little by little we put it together. I tried to do this before with Victor Venegas but it wasn't too successful because I did it in places like Henry Street Settlement, I worked there also but it wasn't as good. But then when I started it at the Harbor more people were interested.

DC: Johnny Pacheco says that one reason he broke up his charanga and switched to a conjunto format was the lack of violinists who were comfortable in this style. How different is this situation 35 years later?

JA: I go through violinitis all the time! But it used to be worse when I was with Charanga '76. It was only a band that was playing two chords all night but you couldn't get guys to go (sings charanga violin riff). That feeling, forget about it! But now kids are more open, before we had a bunch of snob guys. The classical kids of today, they're coming from other countries over here to study. They're more open, they don't only want to play classical, they want to play everything! Now I have seven, eight violinists that rotate, the main cats will be there but then I got three cats that are always on the road, that whatever these guys have to do it works out. I use Regina Carter who's one of the best jazz musicians, who loves Latin music and when she comes off the road she calls. She played on the record and she's incredible, this woman is like ridiculous! And Robert Thomas is someone else who brings another style - he plays with the Jazz Passengers, he has such a great love for all this music.

DC: What kind of other musical flavors are on the horizon for Los Jovenes?

JA: There's more R & B, there's more Latin jazz. Like the cumbia that I did on Reconfirmando, I want to do more Afro-Colombian mixed with salsa rhythms. I was in Curaçao just a few days ago but I've been going there for a few years. They have a thing called tumba which is incredible and I've been noticing some of the bands from Curaçao like RR, how easily they go from one thing to another. Of course they rehearse every day so it's easier for them to do that. It's pretty difficult for me with the music I have, we rehearse once a week but we need more rehearsal. And I want to mix things, I even have an Israeli thing which Sam Bardfeld wrote, he's a great violin player that works with us. It's got a Cajun flavor but it has Israeli scales in it. I'm working on a Latin jazz thing with Memo Acevedo which is a bass kind of feature that puts Victor up front more, Memo is the guy that wrote Cumbiaranga. He wrote me this song that was too complicated with tons of lyrics - I said "Too wordy, I need a message, boom and out!" The guy came in two days - "I was thinking about you guys!", he says "I got a song that I think is gonna work for you guys". He comes up with a song with catchy little things that I enjoy 'cause I'm corny too, I like corny things. And that kind of corny thing is so corny that it's hip, that it catches your attention, every time we play it it's no fail. Now I'm seeing that people want merengues - I'm not gonna play a lowlife merengue talking about your booty, I want to write something that's nice. But I want to make it not really like a merengue, I want to make our own rhythm that you can still dance merengue to it but our own thing so that we have our own sound. Could be pachanga, who knows what it's gonna be? But that kind of thing, get an identity so that people can relate to that. I use some Juan Luis Guerra 'cause that's one of the best ones and Fernandito Villalona's stuff and we adapted it to this group. Sometimes you go to weddings and people want that, you gotta please the people, what they like to hear. But what I'm saying is that we want to keep it musically interesting and fun. And the only way to keep a band like this together is to have a bunch of guys that are friends, that have the common interest of keeping this music, it wouldn't work otherwise. I have a constant interest in learning every day, that's why I'm here, and the band is part of that learning. Sometimes we've been playing for many years, we don't ever learn this thing. Every time you play a montuno it's a new montuno and you're not gonna play it the same way you played it yesterday or the day before when it swung like hell, the next day it didn't - why? That's the mystery of the music, the energies and stuff like that. What better way to deal with it?

On October 17th, 1996 Los Jovenes del Barrio appeared at the Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture in the Bronx as part of a fundraising event for the Bronx Lebanon Hospital New Directions Fund Inc. This performance was videotaped, postproduced and aired in September 1997 on New York's WNET-Channel 13 in observance of Hispanic Heritage Month. RMM has just released the audio from this special as a CD called Johnny Almendra y Los Jovenes del Barrio: Live at Hostos. Watch out for Jillian's album Keepin' It Real, scheduled by RMM for release in May 1998.

Vicki Solá's review of Los Jovenes del Barrio's album Reconfirmando can be found in this issue of the Descarga Newsletter.

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