Founder of Latin Percussion Music Group, the foremost manufacturer of Latin percussion instruments.
Interview: A Visit with Martin Cohen Of LP Music Group
by David Carp
Right now, my narcotic is work. The more you do, the higher you get. The more you feel fulfilled, the more you want to do. You just get such satisfaction Ďcause you have a business ó as itís evolved for me, there was no blueprint.--Martin Cohen
During the early 1960s Latin music was still thriving in the clubs of New York City. As passionately as it was enjoyed by Latinos, African-Americans and white ethnics, it barely registered on the meter of the music business world. In 1964, a Jewish Latin music addict from the Pelham Park area of the Bronx first challenged this putative fact of business life. From his first modest deliveries of bongos to the Palladium Ballroom in brown paper bags, Martin Cohen developed Latin Percussion Music Group, an operation that changed the manufacturing of Latin percussion instruments from a cottage industry to a global business phenomenon. If success can be defined as fulfillment of personal goals, LP chairman Martin Cohen is a uniquely successful individual. His company represents the actualization of his love of Latin percussion and his attraction to the culture that produced it. A recent visit to Cohenís New Jersey home found him enjoying the fruits of his success, but not easily accepting the above pat definition. The intensity, drive and curiosity that launched LP thirty-odd years ago continue to dominate his personality.
David Carp: Youíve spoken often with great fondness about what must have been your first Latin jazz experienceóI think it was at Birdland in 1956 and included Jose Mangual on bongos. What do you remember about this session?
Martin Cohen: Mangual had a lookóit was just his body language when he leaned over. Not only did he have an incredible sound ó the only one who has a sound like that is Armando Peraza ó but he was beautiful to see. This black man with his black bongos and his body language bespoke a certain elegance, and to this day heís elegant. Heís been somebody I have adored and I owe a great spiritual debt to him for the inspiration he gave me with that look that communicated a mastery of an instrument. You know, in everything that preceded this in my evolution nobody spoke of greatness. You know, my teachers in school, they were OK ó but there was no role model... nobody that would make me say, ďThatís a baad motherfucker!Ē. There was just nobody that exemplified fuckiní greatness. Somebody who didnít look over their shoulder, somebody who had self-confidence. Thatís what I saw in Mangual in that body language and then went on to see in Patato in just his insanity and his self-confidence and his self-assuredness. And thatís what I wanted to be, somebody who had that mastery of something.
DC: You studied engineering at whatís now known as Lehman College. What was your first job?
MC: It was at the Bendix Corporation. I think they were gearing up for the Vietnam War. I had no idea what Vietnam was. I worked in the instrument department and Bendix at the time had five different buildings. Part of where they park airplanes at Teterboro airport was employee parking, they had so many employees. I didnít have much to do and, somehow, in my off time, I had gone to Johnny Pachecoís house to look at a pair of Cuban bongos. I took pictures of them and made drawings and I pretended that they were something else and I sent Ďem into the model shop to be produced for meóand it took forever. So at the Bendix Corporation, which was working on Vietnam, I made the hardware out of stainless steel for the first pair of bongos that I made. I was fired.
Bruce Polin: Did they fire you because they found out that you were doing this on company time?
MC: I donít know why. I knew that I was not fulfilling a real need there, and I never really did fulfill a need at any job until I started my own company. I think itís [because of] my personality and I think it must have started with Mangual and looking at badness and looking around myself. I mean nobody ever made a statement. If you make a statement in industry to this day ó and I have to prevent that attitude form creeping into my company ó you know, donít make no fuckiní statements, the boss makes the statement. In a jazz group it generally happens that in each tune, at one moment, you have a chance to shine. In a corporate setting you donít shine, the boss shines. Youíre showing your support, and it pissed me off. At least Mangual, in each tune and not just the solo point ó if you listen to the Machito recordings ó is wailing throughout the whole thing.
DC: Can you comment on the willingness or lack of willingness of individual players to share information or even to just show you their equipment? Who was open and who wasnít?
MC: I frankly feel that at that point in time they all recognized that I had nothing. They all dressed better than I did. I didnít have enough money to put together one fuckiní suit! It was an era when everybody dressed in suits and ties and looked sharp...I couldnít look sharp. So it wasnít like I was somebody from the corporate suite coming into the nightclub and stealing their shit. I was a poor guy. Like Mongo, who as my company evolved grew to hate me and despise me. I think there was a radio program on which he said, ďI liked him when he was nobody, but now heís got this big company.Ē I mean there was like some justification for it in his mind, that I stole. And Eddie Palmieri has said that Iíve stolen from Latin music and I donít give back. You know, that I took what they do and I made this big company. And to some minds, thatís what I do. Other people think I provide opportunity and employment. But there was a growing resentment as my business took off in some people. But it was always behind my back that I would hear these things, it was never directly. And I think when you become obsessed and you have a mission you donít want to hear, and donít hear, the negative stuff thatís going on. I think people who eventually succeed develop a filter for filtering out negatives. Youíre only thinking about the positive stuff, planning your contingencies, but you can be in an environment where thereís hostility. To this day, I just walk into crowds and people that others might find hostile. Iíve gone in and just talked shit and so far I have survived.
DC: We know that your first product was bongos, admittedly not the greatest seller during the pachanga craze of the early Ď60s since theyíre not part of a typical Cuban charanga.
MC: Yeah, the instrument that I started with was no longer used. I had no market for it. From the negative you can go so often to positive, and I had to go outside the traditional market. Bob Rosengarden was making stereo percussion oriented recordings and was busy in the studio. I went to Bob and he kind of pointed me in the right direction. He was one of the first people I made a bongo for. And Specs Powell, from the Ed Sullivan Show, was doing a lot of studio work. Specs was probably the person most responsible for my success. He was always envious, as were so many black people, of the rhythmic ability of Cubans. It was very sophisticated compared to this other side of music. He said, ďGet out of those Latin dance halls and get into the studio and put the bongos on a stand!Ē I said, ďNo, Specs, you canít, itís gotta be between your legs.Ē Specs said, ďNo, you put it on a stand Ďcause I have to play mallets and then I have to play the bongos.Ē And I made my first bongo stand because of Specs Powell. He told me, ďIf you want to do something with your life, you go see Bob Rosengarden, not these Latin guys.Ē Bob Rosengarden had put all these recordings together with the bongos. Bob was so enthusiastic about my bongos, and I said, ďBut what more can I do to make a living?Ē He told me, ďWell, you just make a jawbone that doesnít break.Ē I think what he wanted was out already, Ďcause I know I heard it on one recording. I had never seen a jawbone. He said it was a jaw, you hold it by the chin and teeth rattle. Thatís how my Vibraslap was born. I never saw the jawbone until after it was developed.
BP: Were you the first person to use fiberglass in the (conga) body construction?
MC: No, Iím the first one to really have an orientation toward mass producing it. The first one was produced by Frank Mesa, who was a bass player, I think, and quite a clever guy, who had a unique style of making the drums and tuning the drums but not an orientation toward mass producing and marketing them. So he deserves credit for having been the originator, but Iím the one who had to survive off of it.
DC: When you began using mass production, were there a lot of players who said, ďOh, this is mass produced, it canít be as good as a hand-crafted item?Ē
MC: I think that I filled a need that precluded anybody saying that. Our fiberglass conga has essentially become the standard of percussion in the dance world. You know, itís fiberglass, itís not like organic and itís not like Cuba. Well, these guys have to go out and kick ass in the bands and these bands are thirteen piece bands with full brass sections; that conga drum has to be heard. The fiberglass conga with its overtones is the only drum that will cut through. As the bands have gotten louder the fiberglass conga has become the standard.
DC: LP has always been a pioneer of clinics. Have they paid off or is it hard to say?
MC: I think of them as very long term investments and, of course, it is very critical to be able to have a sizable quality audience. Thatís sometimes been our companyís failing, that weíll do a clinic...Iíve paid over a thousand dollars for Alex AcuŮa to appear in Paris and for reasons that were beyond my control they just cancelled the clinic and Iíve had to pay Alex to go in and shake hands with the store owner and a couple of clerks. It really has to be a well-orchestrated effort on the part of sales and marketing and artist relations so that when the event comes together we have a quality audience. What I have tried to teach people to doóand itís a skill you have to learn and itís very subtleóis to be able to listen carefully to people who arenít accustomed to expressing themselves verbally and to pick out of that what theyíre trying to say and not put words in their mouth. And one of the problems you have in dealing with Latinos is that they donít want to say anything negative. You know, they are very charming people. Marc QuiŮones says it like it is and he doesnít give a fuck about whether heís charming or not. Most people will just say ďitís OKĒ and that OK could mean ďitís greatĒ or ďitís shitĒ and you donít want to down the wrong path and make something. So itís been quite a challenge to ask the same question fifteen different ways to see if the results show that they really said what you thought they said.
BP: Do you think musicians are using your instruments to their fullest potential today?
MC: You know, to be very honest, the answer is ďnoĒ because I donít think thereís a lot of work. Thereís not a lot of recording studio work, thereís not a lot of tour work. Thereís a need for a rebirth in live music and I donít know what itís going to take to be reborn. But when you think about it, with the absence of venues to play in, why the hell should anybody become a musician? The years that I was forming my business were some of the busiest in terms of dance clubs. There were probably fifteen different dance clubs of significance in the New York metropolitan area. Now there are maybe three. I do hope that there will be a rebirth in the kind of music that I find so exciting even if itís in a different incarnation. But our business is solid, not because of professional use but because of the lifestyle uses of the products we make. People that may have a day gig and come home and they just want to play bongos for the hell of it. And I think music therapy is also an acknowledged growth area. Itís not as much fun as hanginí in the Bronx with Patato and those late night jam sessions. It always amazed me that as loud as they played none of the neighbors ever complained. Thatís all I can say about the subject of Martin Cohen and life in the percussion lane.