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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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.