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Spanish Harlem Spin-offs Part 1...
Chino Nuñez: "Four and a bari"

A conversation with John Child

In the first of two Spanish Harlem Orchestra spin-off interviews, percussionist, arranger, pianist, bassist and producer Chino Nuñez tells John Child about his first solo album, It's SHO Time: Strictly Hardcore On 1 Or 2 - Tribute To The Dancers (Cookita Records 002), and his 30 year career. This has included working with Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, Héctor Lavoe, Ray Barretto, Willie Colón, Adalberto Santiago, José Alberto, Africando, Marc Anthony, and of course, the 2005 Grammy winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra. In addition to explaining the title of this piece, Chino speaks candidly about the highs and lows of the Latin music business and the challenges of leadership.

John Ian Child (JIC): You were a very precocious musician, and started playing professionally at the age of 12 with local bands like Amaury y su Típica Latina, Conjunto Acere, Conjunto Realidad and César y la Ritmica. I'd be interested to hear about these bands, particularly Realidad, and whether they contained future stars?

Chino Nuñez (CN): Realidad especially. In Realidad we had Willie Ruiz, who's now one of the top arrangers and an arranger of my CD It's SHO Time (2005 on Cookita Records). Willie's also a trumpeter, educator and producer. Tito Nieves sang with Realidad a couple of times. Conjunto Acere had a gentleman named Cuqui Lebrón; he plays with Marc Anthony now. He's a trombone player. Basically we had interchangeable musicians that came in and out: Bobby Allende, sometimes Marc Quiñones, and so forth.

JIC: You were raised in Brooklyn?

CN: I was in Brooklyn, yes.

JIC: Were these Brooklyn based bands?

CN: Yeah, most of these were Brooklyn based bands.

JIC: Am I right in thinking that the Realidad were the predecessors of Conjunto Granada who released the marvellous album Salsa Attack (1984 on Latin Phoenix)?

CN: Some of them, yes.

JIC: Realidad had an album Asi Es Mi Tierra (1982) on the Salsa label that was recently reissued, which is fantastic.

CN: Exactly, you're absolutely right. It's a great album. The band was funny because we were young kids at the time.

JIC: But you weren't on that album…

CN: I was not on the album.

JIC: Even though you were working with these local bands, I understand you were working with some really big names like Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco. How did you manage to slot into this at such an early age?

CN: I was working with Conjunto Acere in Brooklyn and there was a club called the Red Plum. They used to bring these big attractions to the Red Plum like Celia Cruz and Ismael Miranda. Louie Cruz, who was the piano player for Ray Barretto, used to make bands to back these people up. People like Tito Allen would come in. It was awesome to see them play.

JIC: Was Louie Cruz like the house band?

CN: It wasn't the house band, he was just backing-up certain individuals when they were starting to go off on their own. When Ismael Miranda first came out, I think Oscar Hernández was playing with his band.

JIC: Orquesta Revelación?

CN: Revelación, exacto. So as the years went by, that's where Louie actually saw me, in this place called the Red Plum. He started to know who I was, and when he made other groups, I came into the picture. That's where they saw me playing when I was about 11 or 12. Pacheco was one guy who used to love to see me playing at that age, and he would call me up and I would play with the band. I would get called-up to do certain gigs.

JIC: There's a story where you felt humiliated at school.

CN: I was doing a music course at school and the teacher got really upset because I said: "I don't wanna be here, these guys are playing out of tune." I got sent down to the dean and I was suspended. My mom went up the next day and we were trying to figure it out. And it so happens that this teacher, Mr. Ramírez, had seen me perform at a gig with Tito Puente. And Bobby Allende was at that gig as well. He came up and said: "Hold it. This kid is already a professional. This kid is playing already. He's no joke. This kid already knows what he's doing." And that's how I got off the hook. I actually got a passing grade for that class. But it taught me a lesson. I was insubordinate; I shouldn't have done what I did. But I thank Mr. Ramírez for getting me off the hook.

JIC: It's on record that you made your recording debut on Johnny Ortiz's album Johnny Ortiz Y Taiborí (1979 on Fania) with Tito Nieves. How did that come about?

CN: Johnny Ortiz saw the likes of certain Brooklyn musicians, and these guys had already seen me play, and they said: "We're looking for a timbalero, would you like to partake in this project?" I said: "Hey, I'm down." That was the first recording, so you want to see your name on an album. We went into Johnny's house and Tito was sitting in the living room. He said: "I know you man, we went to school together." We just didn't know that we had music in common. When I heard him sing, it was incredible.

JIC: Was Johnny Ortiz living in New York at the time?

CN: Yes, he was living in Queens and he had property in Puerto Rico as well. But most of time he was in New York.

JIC: Did work come out of that album? Did he have a working band?

CN: Yes he did. As a matter of fact when the album was released, we worked for about a year with Johnny. Then Johnny left for Puerto Rico, and we continued working with the band. Unfortunately Tito didn't work with us, he was already under contract to Conjunto Clásico. He did La Masacre, Clásico and us at the same time.

JIC: Did you come across La Masacre's leader Julio Castro?

CN: I personally didn't, but the guy who came into the band to replace Tito Nieves was a gentleman by the name of Frankie Vázquez. (Laughter)

JIC: I remember Frankie telling me. You continued to have an association with Tito Nieves?

CN: Absolutely, he's a good friend of mine and I still work with the band. I'm one of the substitutes; I either sub for Bobby Allende or Marc Quiñones. Whenever Tito calls me, and I'm available, I'm always there.

JIC: Does he have a band as such or does he put together a band when he needs to?

CN: His New York band has been around for maybe 15, 17 or 18 years.

JIC: So there is a group of people that regard themselves as Tito Nieves's band?

CN: Absolutely. The band has been around for a long time, and it's a great sounding band.

JIC: Who directs it?

CN: Right now, the guy who calls the guys together is Bobby Allende. He's in charge of doing that. The musical director is Nelson Gutiérrez, who's been with Tito since the inception of the band.

JIC: Does he have a similar set of musicians in Puerto Rico?

CN: He does. Unfortunately the budgets don't allow you to take bands like back in the '70s. He has a great band in Puerto Rico. From what I hear, he has a good band in Florida also. He's doing well.

JIC: In addition to Tito, your career is characterised by having a number of longstanding relationships with various bands and artistes, such as Conjunto Imagen, José Alberto, Ray Sepulveda, Johnny Rivera and Africando, which I would like to ask you about in turn. Tell me about Conjunto Imagen first?

CN: Ernie Acevedo from Brooklyn has been a good friend of mine for many years. We grew up together. I used to go to his rehearsals. He would kinda like give me the stare, to like say: "Yo, get out." We've become such good friends and brothers in this business. I saw him blossom like he saw me blossom.

JIC: Imagen gave you the opportunity to spread out and be more than a percussionist: arranging and playing piano.

CN: Yeah, I played piano on "Sueltala," which is a tune that I arranged.

JIC: On the new album (Ayer, Hoy Y Mañana '04 on Muziq Records)?

CN: On the new album. And I think I played piano on the previous album Contra La Fuerza (2002 on Platano 5146).

JIC: I was a bit surprised when I first noticed you playing piano. How did that start?

CN: Some people don't believe me to this day, but I learned by watching. And I've had the blessing of playing with gentlemen like Oscar Hernández and Ricky González, and a guy named Edwin Sánchez. Every band I've been with has had a prime piano player. To me it was just a blessing, because I could ask questions and I would sit down at the piano. I knew chords from 14 at the earliest and I would sit at the piano to find out how certain things worked.

JIC: How did the arranging start?

CN: A gentleman named Willie Ruiz.

JIC: Yer man?

CN: Yeah, my right hand man.

JIC: We'll talk more about him in the context of your new album. Another star name you've been associated with is José Alberto.

CN: José "El Canario" Alberto made the phone call, and the first album I recorded with him was the one containing "Disculpeme Señora" (Llegó La Hora '92 on RMM). Sergio George produced that particular song and that took off. And from that moment on, he just kept calling me back and I kept doing CDs with him (On Time '95 and Back To The Mambo / Tribute To Machito '97 on RMM, and Herido '99 on RykoLatino). It's been a blessing being part of his musical life.

JIC: Tell me about your association with Ray Sepulveda?

CN: My brother. I've been in his band for over 15 years. I started there as a bongo player, and moved over to timbales at the time that Ricky González was the musical director. After Ricky left, he went with Tito Nieves and then he went with Marc Anthony, and I became musical director of the band. It's one of the best bands in New York City.

JIC: Unfortunately Ray hasn't recorded a solo project since the RMM label folded. Is there anything on the horizon?

CN: There is something in the works. We are actually doing a solo project for him. The project is starting sometime in October (2005).

JIC: Are you going to be playing quite a prominent part in that?

CN: I'm just going to be producing and playing in it. We're going to be doing something like I did with Chino Nuñez and Friends, but we're going to do it for him as well.

JIC: Of course he's worked with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.

CN: He's doing his thing.

JIC: Tell me about Johnny Rivera?

CN: We met in rehearsal with a band called Los Rodríguez, and it's the sons of…

JIC: Roberto Rodríguez.

CN: Yeah, who was a trumpet player for Ray Barretto, Orquesta Broadway, Fania All Stars and a who's who in New York. I met Johnny there, and we hit it off friendship-wise.

JIC: Los Rodríguez did two albums on Combo (Roberto Rodríguez Presenta Los Rodríguez '81 and Tiene Sabor '83). Are you on them?

CN: No, I'm not on those, but Willie Ruiz is the trumpet player there. Johnny and I remained friends and we ended-up playing with his uncle, Adalberto Santiago. I was timbalero/coro and he was a corista with Al. Unfortunately I left the band just before he recorded.

JIC: So what stage of Adalberto's career was that then?

CN: It was about 1981. He made a New York based band. Awesome group.

JIC: He had an album on Tropical Budda with his own band (Más Sabroso '85).

CN: Exactly. He had a good band; swinging band. Then I left for Miami, and I got out of the scene for a bit and married.

JIC: Did you work down in Miami?

CN: I did. I worked with a band called Los Licenciados. It was just a local group that played weekends at a club in Miami. But, out of that group came Diego Galé, Luis Enrique, myself and several other guys that did the Miami Sound thing. Vocalists Lefty Pérez and Gabino Pampini were also in the band. Galé was there trying to make ends meet. He was all over. I just saw him in California; we hadn't seen each other since the '80s.

JIC: Johnny Rivera is in a similar position to Ray Sepulveda: he hasn't had any solo projects for a while.

CN: On his behalf, he has got a project he's doing on his own which I think will be coming out in a month or so. Nice project. I'm one of the writers there. I wrote an arrangement. He's coming out with something new.

JIC: This is an independent production.

CN: This is independent.

JIC: Has he been quite busy in recent years?

CN: Yes, he gets called to do his gigs. He goes out of town. He goes to Peru a lot; Colombia; he comes to New York and Florida and all that.

JIC: Where is he based?

CN: In Puerto Rico, in Areceibo.

JIC: You've been involved in the Africando project.

CN: Africando, what a story. These guys came to New York one day and started making phone calls. I remember the first session I had with them (Vol. 1 - Trovador '93 on Stern's), Sergio George was on piano, Johnny Torres (bass), Bomberito Zalzuelo (trumpet). It was just an incredible group of musicians, and we were playing music that made people dance. Their biggest hit was "Yay Boy" of course (from Vol. 2 - Tierra Tradicional '94 on Stern's)

JIC: Have you ever performed with them live?

CN: I did the Lincoln Center with them.

JIC: Who were/are your role models as a percussionist?

CN: You know, I listed so many on my album. (Laughter) I'm a firm believer that role models are people that help you in your career. I consider my real role models: Tito Puente, Orestes Vilató and Nicky Marrero. I also have Mike Collazo, Manny Oquendo; I learn from everybody. I'm an Orestes fan; he's like my real idol. He's the guy I worship every time I hear him play. I remember Ralphy Irizarry playing when I was coming up though the ranks. I was blown away. Ralph is a bad dude. You hear Marc Quiñones, Luisito Quintero, these guys. And I play side-by-side with them. Sometimes I'm looking over to my left; he's playing and I'm learning. As far as role models are concerned, Orestes is my main guy and Tito Puente. Tito, because of the versatility that he had to play vibes, timbales, drums, piano, he was an arranger. I want to go down that line also. I didn't mention someone: Louie Ramírez. He was one of my good friends and at the same time a great teacher. He was one of the guys that opened up my eyes. He said: "Get yourself on a theory course."

JIC: Did you get the opportunity to perform with Louie?

CN: I recorded the CD he was making when he passed away, Preparate Bailador (1993 on RMM).

JIC: The one that was issued under Ray de la Paz's name.

CN: Yeah, under Ray's name. I was actually able to play for him before he passed away and finish the project.

JIC: How would you describe your approach to playing in a way that the layperson would understand?

CN: I'm simple with finesse, and I swing. My thing is about swinging. I'm analytical. I listen to everybody in the band. I just become part of it. I want to become part of the group, not be the group.

JIC: You mentioned a whole series of names that have influenced you. Did you carefully analyse the ingredients of their work that you incorporate into your own performance?

CN: I've sat down and listened to a lot of records and heard what these people have done as far as soloing and playing. I'm also analytical when I'm playing live. While I'm playing I'm listening to my guys. It's what makes you better; just listening to people and listening to what they're doing and accompanying the guy next to you. Henry Mancini said in one of the books I read when I was learning how to be an arranger: "You have to be analytical and know who you are writing for and who you're playing with."

JIC: You're often seen in combination with Bobby Allende, would you like to comment about your relationship with him?

CN: Besides being one of the top congueros in this business, Bobby is master of being a great human being. I've maintained a relationship with Bobby since the early '80s. I played with him in Willie Colón's band; he was musical director there. Actually I did the whole of 1990 with the band and then left. It's just a blessing to play with him.

JIC: You've clocked-up a magnificent CV in terms of session work with the likes of Marc Anthony, Cheo Felicano, Ismael Miranda, Junior González, Van Lester, Johnny Ray, Frankie Negrón, Santiago Cerón, Raulín, Los Soneros del Barrio, Jimmy Bosch and George Delgado, among others. Are there any particular albums you would like to single out for comment? For example, I note that you were on Marc Anthony's first salsa album Otra Nota (1993 on RMM's Soho Latino label).

CN: Yeah I recorded that. That was great. I remember walking in and seeing Marc Anthony sitting on his mother's lap, and saying to myself: "This kid is like a mama's boy, but he's a great singer man." And I knew from the day that I heard him, I said: "This guy's gonna be huge." And so he was. It was fun recording that CD with Sergio (George).

JIC: You'd probably never heard of Jennifer López at that stage?

CN: At that time, no. Jennifer wasn't even around; she wasn't even in the movie scene at all.

JIC: I listed other big names. Is there anyone else you want to mention?

CN: Cheo of course. While I was in Miami we backed-up Cheo. I've known Ismael Miranda for many years, since he was with Larry Harlow. Same thing for Junior González. Van Lester recorded on my CD, and always has this sound a little bit like Héctor Lavoe. I was in Héctor Lavoe's band back in '85 to '88. I was the bongo player with Héctor.

JIC: I saw Héctor Lavoe twice in New York in 1986, first at the Corso and then at the Village Gate. That was a point when there were musicians in the band from Angel Canales's band.

CN: Right, which was Victor "Even" Pérez on timbales. If it was 1986, I was with him, because that was unfortunately the year my mom passed away. I was playing bongos and I had hair. When I played with Héctor, it was me, Milton Cardona (conga), Victor Pérez on timbales, Pulpo (Gilberto Colón) on piano. Right about August of '86, Professor Joe Torres came in and took over the piano chair.

JIC: You're been busy on some albums for Johnny Ray (formerly known as Johnny Zamot).

CN: Oh yeah, Johnny called me do some recordings with him (Mascarada #2 '03, Crossing Over '04, Cali Salsero '04 and Yo Soy Boricua '04, all on JZ Productions Ltd.). Of course I got George Delgado to do a couple of things for him as well.

JIC: In addition to Marc Anthony, another pretty boy you've sessioned with is Frankie Negrón.

CN: Absolutely. I did his last CD and I think I did his first CD (Con Amor Se Gana '97 on WEA Latina).

JIC: Of the salsa dura guys you've worked with, there's Santiago Cerón, Raulín…

CN: Raulín, yes. I did one with Santiago Cerón where I played on it and arranged (Homenaje Al Gallero Palmasola '96 on Leomar Racing; Chino also appears on Cerón's Mi Campeon Jukin '94 on Leomar Racing). I think I did about three or four records with Raulín (Mama Vieja '92 and Que Se Cuiden Los Soneros! '93 on Day Dance, El Sonero Que El Pueblo Prefiere! '94 on AE Music and Raulin En Venezuela '01 on BMG/AE). Mama Vieja was one of them. Awesome. One of my favourite arrangers was in that, may he rest in peace, José Febles, and Ricky González played on that. And we had a blast doing that.

JIC: And the list of people you've worked with goes on…

CN: …Los Soneros del Barrio, Jimmy Bosch, George Delgado, of course, and a host of others. Jimmy Bosch was fun. I didn't even know I was going to record on El Avión De La Salsa (2004 on JRGR Records) until the last minute. Los Soneros del Barrio of course, my friend Frankie (Vázquez). I could not stay away from doing that (Siguiendo La Tradicion '03 Rumba Jams). When I got called I was honoured and said: "I'm going to be there, definitely!" George Delgado's Mi Ritmo Llego (2004 on Rumba Jams) of course. More props to him, he deserves it. He's a veteran of this business, one of the key percussionists in this business; and now to have his own group, more power to him.

JIC: What was the story behind you getting signed-up to the wildly successful Spanish Harlem Orchestra, which has taken you and the guys to Grammy land?

CN: You work in a factory all your life and you play the lottery every single week when you get paid. One day your number comes out, and you win a million bucks and you've got a big smile on your face. This is exactly how I felt about Spanish Harlem. I worked so many years in this business. Thirty years I've been in this business, and then the call comes in.

JIC: Didn't the project sit on a shelf for a while?

CN: Absolutely, about a year and a half, two years. It sat on the shelf, nothing was happening. Of course 9/11 came around and then things got really bad. I was going through a divorce. I was homeless for about a week. I had to go back to work nine to five - lost everything. When you hear these stories when these pop stars say they went broke: I went broke! I had custody of my daughter prior to my getting divorced. I actually had to bring my daughter back to her mom's house, because I couldn't, I couldn't… So it was a rough moment for me. But Oscar (Hernández) said one day: "Listen, we're going to Turkey. We're going to London." That was the first time I came to Europe. I said: "I can't do it, I've got a day job. I'm sorry." He said: "You might want to reconsider and think about this, and revamp your answer." (Laughter) He said: "I know you can't make it this time around, but look at the itinerary." And he faxed me the itinerary, and I said: "Look Oscar, I can't make the first one, but let me have the next one hundred gigs that you have listed." And I went up to my boss and said: "Listen, I don't do this for a living, I do this for a living. I'm a musician." And she said: "Gladly, you know what? Take your stuff, go home and start playing music, because I think you're going to be a musician from this point on." It was a second chance. And ever since then, here we go: a nomination for a Grammy, the next one we win. We win the Billboard, we get nominated for World Music. It's been a blessing and I pinch myself everyday just to make sure I'm not dreaming.

JIC: So in your case, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra has acted as a springboard for your own solo project It's SHO Time?

CN: Totally, totally… It catapulted us to another level. It revitalised the dreams we always had to be the next Ray Barretto, or the next… I'm not going to say that I'm the next Tito Puente, because I think there'll never be one. But if I can just be a person that can contribute to this music being better, I want to be part of that group, I really do. I love my music.

JIC: How long have you been developing the idea of your solo album?

CN: Many years. I actually thought about doing a CD about 15 years ago when I was with Ray (Sepulveda). I wanted to shop it to Ralph Mercado. But for some reason or other, I never did, because I got busy. I was always busy, and at that time the music business was booming. We were working. It was always on the back burner. I always said: "Maybe next year." But now with Spanish Harlem, it's like a new toy, you just want to play with it; it's my toy. It's like you said, Spanish Harlem just catapulted us to another level to get us going and do our own thing, and back-up what we've done with Spanish Harlem.

JIC: Had it always been part of your concept to go for the Willie Rosario style frontline of four trumpets and baritone sax? If you don't mind the comparison?

CN: I'm glad you asked. I wanted to do the Willie Rosario feel, maybe with a New York sound. Also keep the context of Louie Ramírez, who had four trumpets, (Sonora) Ponceña feel. All these elements. And there's a reason: I always listen to Ponceña, Willie Rosario and Louie Ramírez. You name it: Barretto when he had three trumpets. The list goes on. I just wanted a certain sound. In New York, we have bands that normally have two trumpets and two trombones. And I said: "No, I want something different. I just want a little different sound."

JIC: Grupo Fascinación had three trumpets and…

CN: …a baritone. Absolutely, yeah. Great band that included Pete Nater.

JIC: I think Louie added a baritone on his Louie Ramírez y Super Banda (1987 on Faisán).

CN: Right, Super Banda, exactly. Awesome sound. I was playing around with it. I thought about many different combinations of brass, and I said: "You know what? I'm going to go with four and a bari. And I want to pay homage to somebody like Willie Rosario in the East Coast." And I think it worked. I think it was pretty good.

JIC: This would be a good time to talk about your work as an arranger on the album and your collaboration with Willie Ruiz.

CN: The reason why I arrange is because of Willie Ruiz. Also I'm going to give props to a gentleman named Bob Franceschini, who's a saxophone player who used to play with Willie Colón. We used to room together. A great saxophone player, unbelievable. Willie Ruiz taught me practically over the phone. I asked questions: "Willie what do I do here?" "This is what you do." "OK, great." And I went back and I started writing. My first arrangement was…nice. (Laughter) But my second was much better. And I just progressed more and more. Willie is an educator for singers, arrangers, trumpet players; you name it. He's just a great educator.

JIC: I've asked about your influences as a percussionist, but which arrangers do you admire? I suspect José Febles is among them.

CN: Absolutely, at the top of the list. The second guy would be José Madera. Of course Willie Ruiz is one of my favourites as well. A host of others: Oscar (Hernández). But Febles is definitely up at the top of my list. Ricky (González) is another one I love; great arranger as well.

JIC: It's good to see Frankie Vazquez singing lead vocals on three tracks, including, like George's CD, a cover of a Ray Barretto.

CN: There's a reason behind that. I recorded on Barretto's album Irresistible (1989 on Fania). In my productions, and hopefully I continue to do many more, I am going to include one or two tunes from certain bands I've played with, paying homage to them, for helping me get to where I am at now, doing my own thing. So when I transcribed that "El Hijo De Obatala" for George, I decided to go with "Indestructible" for my CD*.

(*NOTE: "El Hijo De Obatala" and "Indestructible" both come originally from Barretto's Indestructible '73 on Fania.)

JIC: So you actually transcribed the arrangement on George's album?

CN: Yes I did that too. I just love Barretto's music. I'm infatuated with it. So if I get a chance to do another CD, I'll do somebody else. One of the many you've listed. I have to pay homage to them. I think I owe it to them.

JIC: Tell me about your vocalist José Papo Rivera?

CN: He's a veteran of the Christian market. He's a Christian singer. Awesome singer. He lives in Orlando, Florida, right now. When he heard I was doing a project...since I did one tune where I'm trying to send out a positive message. Something like "El Todopoderoso" and "El Nazareno." Ismael Rivera did it with "El Nazareno" (from Traigo de Todo '74 on Tico); Héctor Lavoe did it with "El Todopoderoso" (from La Voz '75 on Fania); I figured I'd do one as well. I was looking for Papo for months, and finally I got word to him that I was looking for him. He called me up and said: "You want me there next week, I'll be there next week." Jumped on a plane, came down and sang "Ponme A Gozar." This was a tune that was supposed to go to Ray Sepulveda. Unfortunately Ray was doing other things in New York City, and Papo learned it in five minutes and sang it straight down. Frankie Vázquez was blown away. He and Frankie became good friends on this project.

JIC: That's the tune you also use on the video included on the CD.

CN: Exactly.

JIC: Is this Papo's first secular project?

CN: He did one many years ago, but it didn't do anything. I don't think it even came out. He's a great talent.

JIC: What generation is he?

CN: He's in my generation: 40 plus.

JIC: In addition to singing lead vocals on two cuts, your Spanish Harlem Orchestra cohort Willie Torres contributed to engineering the album?

CN: We actually recorded all the percussion in Willie Torres' studio. Willie's an engineer and arranger. He's one of the top guys in New York City, and he's got a great studio. The other studio is my studio. I have my own recording studio. We're just doing our thing, learning the behind the scenes.

JIC: This is off the back of income from the Spanish Harlem Orchestra?

CN: Absolutely.

JIC: Fantastic. It's great that you're able to feed it back. I've known Willie Villegas for a number of years, and it's good to see that he's done the video. He goes from strength to strength.

CN: I called Willie Villegas and said: "Willie, I don't have much of a budget for the video, but can you do something for me?" It was in an area of Brooklyn where I grew up, and I knew so many people. So the dance group, Tropical Image Dancers, said: "We'll be there for you, no problem, we'll dance, we'll get it all together." And that's the way it all started. Willie Villegas came down, and did an incredible job. He's the one that directed everybody. Besides being a great musician, and having a great CD himself (Dancer's Paradise '03 on Entre Amigos), he's also one of the guys that really knows what he's doing in terms of camera work and doing videos. He's an amazing person just to even take time out to do something like this. I even told Willie: "If you need me for your CD, I'm there." He's one of the guys who's a pillar in this business as far as trying to make salsa better and take it to another level.

JIC: Are there other tracks or elements of the album you would like to highlight?

CN: I did this CD with the intention of bringing certain ideas or messages across. The first tune, "Aqui Cada Uno Viene Con Lo Suyo," is a Manolito y su Trabuco song (from Locos Por Mi Habana '04 on Egrem) and when I heard it for the first time, I said: "Wow, this is a great tune." It sends a good message: everybody has his own thing. You can do what you want to do. You can make it happen if you really want to make it happen.

"Ponme A Gozar" is a tune that was done for me many years ago with a band called Orquesta Yarey (from Ponme A Gozar '94 on TTH). Chamey Solano was on it. It's very special to me because José Febles was the first arranger to arrange that song. And now Willie Ruiz re-did it for me. It's just a tune they dedicated to me, and it's special to me.

"Soneros De Bailadores" is just that. I wanted to pay tribute to Cheo and Pete El Conde (I played with his band as well; I played on Pete's CD Generaciones [1993 on Marcas]). And I wanted to pay homage to Ralph Mercado for his contributions to the music business. I included everybody I could in that tune. It would have been a bigger list if I had had the opportunity and I could have done it in less than five minutes, but I couldn't.

"Asustado" sends a big positive message out to the people. The whole CD has its own thing. I'm paying homage to the dancers; I'm paying homage to personal friends in the business; people that helped me in my career; people that helped the music business itself. I'm trying to make everybody happy.

JIC: Have you started gigging as a leader yet?

CN: I've been a leader per se, as a musical director, with other bands; but as a leader of my own band, no. I'm going to do that soon. We've got the band together already. It sounds great.

JIC: You've got some dates?

CN: Oh yeah, we've got some dates. I'm putting together a show in Ohio in the United States. It's called Tributo to Los Soneros. We don't know if we're going to record a DVD out of it yet. In reference to that we've got Hermán Olivera, Ray de la Paz, Frankie Vázquez and Ray Sepulveda involved in that. That's going to happen in October (2005). It's going to be Chino Nuñez and Friends Pay Homage to Los Soneros, which will be Ismael Rivera, Héctor Lavoe, Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez and Tito Rodríguez.

JIC: So based on your previous experience as a musical director, you're already used to operating as a leader as opposed to being a sideman?

CN: I personally think all sidemen can become leaders in their own right. It's up to the individual. What makes a strong leader is not being selfish and learning how to listen to someone and say: "Wow, you've got a point, let's check that out; let's see how we can go about it, and embellish on that idea." Just take the group up to another level. I think Oscar Hernández has done that. He's taken the group to new heights as a leader. He doesn't want to be called the leader of this band, but, yes, he is. He's the musical director. He's the one that's handling the business aspects. He's taken this group to a different level without being selfish and by giving his musicians freedom.

JIC: During your years as a musician, have you looked upon any individuals as examples of leaders?

CN: Totally. Tito Puente for me. Tito Rodríguez. Louie Ramírez himself. Even Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Machito. These individuals, especially the Titos, both Rodríguez and Puente. I never got to play with Tito Rodríguez, but I heard he was strict. Strict like you had to come down in the right uniform. He could send you back home. He didn't care who you were. He ran a tight ship. Tito Puente, for the amount of years. If you really look at the tenure of some of these musicians who stayed with him for 20 plus years, you say to yourself: "Why did these guys hang around for so long?" It's because of the leadership qualities he had.

JIC: In your experience as an educator, are there opportunities for students to learn leadership skills?

CN: Unfortunately, they don't. They are set up in a position like George Delgado says best: "You crawl before you walk." Music is such a beautiful thing. You learn something new every day. That's what happened to me as a musician and sideman. The respect you have to have for your musical director, that's what later makes a sideman a great leader. When you can find a way to speak to a person and say: "Hey listen, you might want to try this, this way, instead of doing this. I wrote this part right here, and there's a certain sound I'm looking for and that's what I want you to get." Whereas: "Listen, you play this way and that's it. It's my word and no word at all." It's two different ways of approaching it. You have to take a step back sometimes and say to yourself: "Well, how do I get this guy to do what I want him to?" Through kindness, just through being a human being first. There have been many great sidemen that never became leaders. But they are known for being great musicians and being awesome players. Their quality as great sidemen is the fact that they listen to musical directors or anybody in charge, and they execute exactly what they are told to.

JIC: There is also the issue of having to manage guys who have been leaders themselves.

CN: Absolutely. That's a horse of a different colour. As professionals we're all here to make music sound as best as possible on stage.

JIC: You've mentioned great bands like Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez that were associated with being very drilled, wearing uniforms and so forth. Are you into having a uniform and an image for your band?

CN: I have to say yes. Me personally, I came up at a time when I saw that. I think aesthetics is something that captures you. You walk into a place and see a bunch of guys dressed the same, and you say: "Man, they look sharp!" It's definitely something for me. I like it. Spanish Harlem has its own dress codes. We have to dress in certain colours as well. Oscar has certain ways of doing things, and we listen. He's the leader, and he's the one we listen to.

JIC: Having spoken to George Delgado, I know he's got a similar mentality to you. Therefore, through you as new leaders, could we be seeing a return to traditional values?

CN: Absolutely. It's a business man. You want the group to look good, sound good, and on top of it all, you want people to be wowed. Not only by your sound, but also by your looks and your presence. I would say that the first impression is everlasting.

JIC: I really appreciate you speaking to me. Good luck with your forthcoming dates. Thank you very much for your time.

CN: John, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Thank you man.

© and John Child, producer and co-host of the the totallyradio show Aracataca , contributor to the Latin music website and MusicWeb Encyclopedia of Popular Music, and Penguin and Guinness Encyclopedias of Popular Music

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