Drumset percussionist Steve Berrios, Jr.
Profile: Steve Berrios Breaks Loose With Son Bachéche
by Eddie Bobé
El Comecandela, Stephen Ramón Berrios, is, beyond a doubt, the most emulated drumset percussionist working in Latin music today. Born in El Barrio, NYC, and of Puerto Rican descent, he is one of the few blessed to have been born into a truly musical family. He used to stay with his grandmother on 112th street between Madison and Park Avenues at a time when a who's who of Latin music lived in that community. Puente, Mongo, Joe Cuba, Cheo, Machito, Mario Bauza were all neighbors. "My grandmother and Willie Bobo's mom were tight", says Steve. His father, a drummer for Marcelino Guerra, Noro Morales, Pupi Campo, Joe Loco and other musicians of the 40s, used to take him to Tito Puente's rehearsals at the Palladium Ballroom when Mongo, Willy Bobo and Bobby Rodriguez were with the orchestra. Jimmy La Vaca and Uva Nieto were some of Steve's early influences, but it was Willie Bobo who made a profound impression on the young Berrios. According to Steve, "To play a Criollo bongo solo and then play the jazz drumset...I have to take my hat off to him." The solo he's referring to is "Ti Mon Bo" (standing for Tito - Mongo - Bobo) on Puente's Top Percussion album. "That record was like the Bible to me: I knew it backward and forward." Absorbing influences from other artists like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Stan Kenton and Ramito from his father's record collection gave Steve a broad and varied musical perspective.
In 1954, his father brought him to see Katherine Dunham's dance company where he saw Julito Collazo perform. He got to meet him later when Collazo and Berrios Sr. played the same gig at the Havana Madrid. Later, in the 1960s, Steve began studying Cuban ceremonial drumming with Collazo. "For about a year I was an apprentice packing up the drums, getting the drummers rum and towels. But I learned the sequence of songs and rhythms this way. I'd go to take a lesson and end up watching a boxing match. I believe that when you hang out with your elders you capture a part of their essence. So, when I have a student, he has to have a drink with me, watch me set up my drums, and converse about all aspects of life. A person's vibe rubs off on you. Music for me is a life experience. It's not like I'm a musician at 9pm for the first set and when I get off the bandstand that's it. It's something you have to live while you're brushing your teeth or while you go pay your telephone bill."
Steve's approach is anti-set and not to prepare routine settings. "It doesn't lead to creativity. Looseness has spirit!" Bandleaders, more than often, ignorantly request that he overlap the maraca pattern on the highhat. He emphasizes the importance of musicians studying and having a thorough knowledge of each percussion component and their function. "I can tell how a drummer thinks by the pattern he's playing on his bass drum. I don't look at the drum as an instrument - it's a deity. My drumset is alive to me. I even have names for my drums: Ho is my bassdrum and Hi-De is the small tom. They're not ashtrays or tables. People sitting on them offends me."
At fifty years young, Berrios is now often stopped on the streets to be congratulated for his debut record. "People ask me what took me so long. I haven't been hiding. I'm on over 300 records! Finally producer Todd Barkan had enough foresight to give me the opportunity, without limitations, to do what I wanted to do my way." Son Bachéche is the name of the band and First World is the title of the CD. The recording is a This-Is-Your-Life episode, a statement of Steve's eclectic makeup. Some of the artists on the record were chosen for their similar backgrounds. Others are longtime friends who have worked with Steve throughout his career. Tired old Latin music forms won't be found on it. It reflects Steve's depth. "It's some valid music - probably more spiritual and honest than some other things out there."