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Date: 4/12/2020
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THE KING AND I : A previously unpublished interview with Tito Puente.

(Talking about Salsa, the Fania All Stars, songo, timba, latin jazz, the old times and the future of latin music).

The late great Tito Puente, unanimously declared “The King Of Latin Music”, was a frequent visitor in Greece from the late 80s till his death, in 2000. All in all, he must have played around ten times in big theatres and prestigious establishments of Athens and the country’s major cities, always being a favourite of the greek audience and invariably capable of attracting big crowds to his concerts. I was lucky enough to witness almost all of his live appearences in Greece, and since I knew the promoter of his concerts, mr. Christos Tsiligiannis, quite well, I met Tito Puente in person on several occasions. In fact, I even went on the road with him and the fabulous Golden Latin Jazz All Stars back in 1994, for the whole 24 hours that this supergroup’s visit to the city of Patras, for an excellent concert, lasted (well, not much of a trip but to be sure, more than enough for me).

If I dare say so, precisely on that very brief trip I came to know Puente a little bit more, being given the opportunity to spend some time with him and even listen to him as he was quoting funny stories about the old days and the rough business of latin music, during a long, very hot summer afternoon, while everybody else was taking a nap and the “Big T.”, alone and apparently bored by the hotel’s pool, called me over for a very amusing chat. But the interview you are about to read was made under quite different circumstances : By then, it was 1997 and Tito came once again to Greece, this time with his big band and singer Yolanda Duke, to perform in “Megaron Mousikis”, the ultimate concert hall of Athens and one of the finest and most prestigious all over Europe. Having in mind the writing of a book on (what else?) latin music, which actually has never got past the first chapter, I formally asked the maestro for an interview. My request was approved and declined, back and forth, a few times, since Puente’s schedule was quite tight, till finally I was granted the interview, but on a very short notice : So, (although somewhat ill-prepared) there I was, on Friday, 21st of February, 1997, exactly at noon, waiting for the King to appear at the lobby of Athens’ “Caravel” hotel and there he came, about fifteen minutes late, flamboyant as always and in obviously good spirit. During the time this interview was conducted, I was heavily into afro-cuban percussion, studying folkloric cuban music and frequently travelling to Cuba, so it seems logical that my interests of the time inevitably affected the conversation’s agenda and produced some very interesting answers by Tito on such subjects as songo, timba (well, it was called “salsa cubana” back then) and contemporary cuban music in general, exposing some rarely heard views of Puente on these matters. Nevertheless, being always a die-hard salsero, I also discussed with Puente his much better known views on salsa music (and industry), and as you will read, his opinion was still solid and, in certain answers, quite un-diplomatic (for instance, when talking about the Fania All Stars). The interview lasted about one and a half hours and was done entirely in spanish, which Tito of course spoke fluently, although with a very thick newyorican accent. After it was over the tape went straight to my office drawer and stayed there for almost 9 years, until I launched this website and naturally thought that this should be the first interview published in . It is with great honour and fond memories that I release it, hoping to pay an appropriate tribute to the memory of one of latin music’s geniuses and certainly, one of the most influential musicians of 20th century. Please enjoy.

- Maestro, how did you get started with timbales, an instrument that around that time was pretty much limited to charanga accompaniment?

- Well, I first learned to play the drumset, which was used in the american bands, but since I got interested in latin music, the music thas was all around the neighbourhood where I grew up, I switched to the timbales. It wasn’t difficult, because I already had good techinque and stick control from the drumset and I adapted them to my timbales playing.

- You are the first musician that raised the timbales to a higher standard and gave the instrument a purely soloistic role, aren’t you ?

- Very much so. I’m the one that made the timbales an important latin instrument, at least in the United States, because in Cuba timbales were important since the early 20th century, precisely because charanga music was so important for the development of cuban music. My contribution was that I introduced the timbales to the bigger orchestra and I added more musicality to the way the instrument is played.

- Around the time you were beginning to develop your timbales chops were there any significant timbaleros in the latin music scene?

- Of course there were. I remember a gentleman called Montesino that used to live in my neighbourhood and he was an excellent player. He helped me a lot, especially with my technique on timbales.

- So, was he your teacher ?

- No, I didn’t have a timbales teacher, at least not a formal one. I had a drumset teacher but basically I learned to play timbales by myself, observing the older guys and memorizing the patterns and whatever they were playing.

- Do you play any other percussion instruments ? For instance, do you play congas ?

- No. I mean, I know how congas are played but I can’t really say that I play that instrument.

- Talking about percussion, you were one of the first, if not the very first, to record purely percussive afro – cuban music back in the 50s. How did that happen ?

- I don’t believe I was the first. Recordings of that kind had been made long ago in Cuba, but I was definitely the first to record three entire albums of afro–cuban percussion.

- “Top Percussion”, “Puente On Percussion” and…is there a third one ?

- Yes, “Tambo” .

- Okay, but “Tambo” is kind of a fusion, heavy on percussion but also with an orchestra…

- Yes, but its concept is percussion-based, isn’t it ?

- Indeed. How was that kind of music received back then ?

- It wasn’t very popular, that’s for sure. But anyway, I wasn’t completely devoted to afro–cuban folkloric music, my main thing has always been latin dance music played with a full orchestra. Nevertheless, I did those afro-cuban records seeking experimentation, even though my record company didn’t want to invest any money in that kind of a project. I kept insisting for a long time and eventually, I proved them that the drum is an instrument that can transmit a message to the people. Either I convinced them, or they just wanted to get rid of me, so finally they booked me a studio and made an arrangement to record whatever I wanted during some very late night sessions, mostly after midnight. It was crazy because the studios were totally deserted when we got there. I called the best guys around to play with me : Julito Collazo, Mongo Santamaria, Patato and Francisco Aguabella. We would put a bottle of Havana Club rum in the middle of the empty studio, we would place our instruments around it and we would start playing and recording. You know what ? It was kind of difficult, because if you record a 100% percussion album you have to have a lot of variety in your soloing in order to keep the interest of the listener, so we had to deal with this accordingly.

- During the 60s you went back to record some afro–cuban tracks that you included in your dance albums, such as “Alma con Alma” that you did with Celia Cruz.

- Now , that was a great record ! It’s a shame that our company didn’t promote it at all. Those guys thought they knew everything, but they didn’t know nothing. Albums like “Alma con Alma” were too good for them, because all they cared about was money. Back then it wasn’t easy to make a record, as it is now. But you see, I have made 108 records to date and people still remember the music that I wrote in the 50s, things like “Dancemania” and “Cuban Carnival”. These records were so ahead of their time that today’s youth listen to them and they go “wow !” That’s why they still sell, even four decades later.

- Looking back, we can see that the 40s and the 50s formed an era of general experimentation in music, isn’t it so?

- Absolutely. Those were the most creative years because you had to be a first class musician and also, to be aware of what was happening around music - wise, plus to try to lead the way. The great musicians of the environment that I came from and matured in were individuals with loads of creativity, talent and, very importantly, knowledge.

- So, what changed ? Did creativity dry out or did the development of the music industry reduce the amount of experimentation?

- I think that the generations that followed just started to copy the old guys and today, essentially they don’t create any more. To me, the music that is played today is totally backward. You know, the music that they call salsa now, which I always say it’s an ingredient for spaghetti and not a kind of music that I know of.

- You have said that many times and no one can deny that Salsa music was initially based exclusively on cuban rhythms. But didn’t it turn out to be a unique musical and even social movement that today should be conceived outside the strictly cuban context ? For example, do you regard Ruben Blades as an artist of cuban music ?

Ruben Blades is an very talented artist, a very significant composer and lyricist, he can sing and he can improvise, but yes, what he plays and sings is still cuban music. You can call his style newyorican or panamanian or whatever you wish, but his music is the same cuban music we were always playing. No new music was invented, neither a new rhythm emerged to have us search for a new name. The term “salsa” was created to fit the marketing needs of the record companies in order to sell more records. That’s why if you go, say, to China and ask the Chinese about salsa, immediately they’re gonna tell you (he makes a funny immitation of the sound of the chinese language) “ching, chang, chong, salsa!”. See what I mean? But musically it’s nothing new.

- Yes, but the older cuban music, say the mambo and the cha cha cha that you have played extensively, can be considered as much latin styles as international dancehall trends, given the fact that they came to be known in places like Australia, Japan and Greece. On the other hand, salsa music – that you criticize as a record company gimmick – has long been assosiated with the barrios, the poor people and an almost exclusively latin american audience. How do you explain this?

- Look, I’m gonna ask you again : What is salsa ? You don’t tell me what salsa is, so I’ll keep
telling you that salsa is nothing. Something you put on your pasta, maybe. Latin music has always been categorized according to the rhythm that accompanies it. You say, this is a mambo, that one is a cha cha cha, the other is a bolero and so on. So, what is salsa? Nothing. Just kitchen stuff. The other day I walked into a record shop to take a look around. They had a bunch of records, mexican, south american, everything. I ask the guy, where is the salsa department ? He says, right in front of you and he shows me the records I was just looking at. Each and every one of the latin music genres had been put under the salsa category.

- It seems to me that you put down a whole musical movement that specifically under this name produced some magnificent music. Aren’t there any salsa artists that you respect?

- I didn’t say that. What I’m telling you is that the name salsa, the term, doesn’t mean anything, because anybody can give something whatever name he wants. Right now I can tell you (pointing his finger to a car passing by outside) “hey, look what a beautiful salsa just passed”. I’ve discussed this many times with Celia Cruz and other people of knowledge and they share the same view with me. Of course, I may say to an audience “and now, we’re gonna play a salsa for you” and they all start applauding and cheering, and guess what I play them : Ton – tin – ton – tin, ton- tin – ton – tin (he sings a tipical cuban montuno). You know how I call this ? I call it fo – fi. And when I tell them about it, they ask me “Tito, what’s fo – fi ?”. And I answer “fo – fi, fo – fi, fo – fi fo- fi” (he sings again the same montuno), that’s my salsa, the fo – fi. And I put an end to the conversation. Cubans have been playing this stuff for ages.

- I wonder whether this very strict view of yours has to do with the fact that salsa music was strongly associated with Fania label during a period of time that you seemed to be somewhat marginalized in terms of record contracts and general exposure. For example, why weren’t you featured in the Fania All Stars?

- But I was a bigger star than the whole Fania All Stars put together. I jammed a few times with them and that was all. I mean, who was a real star out of them ? Ray Barretto ? He is a very good conguero, no doubt about it. Johnny Pacheco? He’s my friend, my brother. Papo Lucca? Tremendous piano player, naturally. But those were just the musicians that were under contract with Fania records and they put them together for promotional reasons and they called them “All Stars”. I tell you, Tito Puente was bigger than Fania and all of their so called stars. So, what reason did I have to be part of them ? You know how Eddie Palmieri used to call them ? The “Funny All Stars” ! Palmieri has this sense of humour. But look what’s happening now : The Fania All Stars no longer exist, but I’m still around and so is Palmieri. I lead the Golden Latin Jazz All Stars and these guys are legitimate stars on their own. Dave Valentin, Giovanni Hidalgo, Hilton Ruiz, they all have their personal careers and they do great. You know, every one of them can take a solo and the audience will go “wwooooooow !!!”. But the Fania All Stars, what were they ? Just a group that was playing a little mambo every now and then, with a bunch of singers in the front to make a bit of a show and basically, that was it. My manager, Ralph Mercado, was also the promoter of Fania All Stars and whenever we talk about them, we laugh. Because it’s for laughing, nothing more. Alright, I know they were very successful in South America, particularly in Colombia and Venezuela, where people regarded them as gods or something, but individually they could never be compared to my musicians.

- I see. Around the time you were emerging as a musician what kind of latin music was popular in New York?

- “Tipico” cuban music, mainly. Charangas, conjuntos, orchestras, you name it. Keep in mind that I started to play professionally around 1939.

- Can you remember the very first song that made a strong impression on you ?

- Of course I can. “Dolor Cobarde” by the Casino de la Playa orchestra. That song was driving me crazy ! It was a cuban single record from the time when Miguelito Valdes was the singer of Casino de la Playa, and “Babalu” was on the flipside. You know, in “Dolor Cobarde” you can hear the first piano solo ever recorded in latin music, played by Anselmo Sacasas and I got so obsessed with it that I learned to play it exactly as it was in the record. I mean, even wrong to the clave, as Sacasas played it ! When Sacasas came to work in the U.S.A. he had that guy named Pato playing the drums and Pato was a great drummer, but for some reason couldn’t make it for a contract, so Sacasas called me to play drums with him for some gigs in Chicago. We were playing seven days a week, eight hours a day, from eight in the evening till four o clock in the morning. It was exhausting. We stayed for twelve weeks, cause the club was owned by the mafia and no one dared to leave without their permission. So, one day I went over to Sacasas and told him that I could play the piano solo from “Dolor Cobarde” exactly as he played it. The funny thing is that he had forgotten it, but I had completely memorized it. As a matter of fact, I still can play it. Imagine how greatly impressed I was from that little record! And that little record opened my eyes to the concept of the big band, the full orchestra, which has been my own musical path since then. You know, back then all the great latin bands were real orchestras, because today people put together a couple of trumpets and a saxophone and they call it an orchestra, but in reality most of today’s “orchestras” are nothing more than conjuntos, little tiny orchestras. Nowadays, there’s only one legitimate latin music orchestra and it’s my orchestra. There’s no other to speak of.

- During that time did you already have a good knowledge and understanding of cuban music?

- You bet I had. I was listening to Arsenio Rodriguez, Antonio Arcano, Ernesto Lecuona, Nino Rivera, I mean I was deep, deep into that music and I knew all about it. I had all the records in 78 pm format and after some time I started to travel quite often to Cuba. I must have been there at least ten times, until 1960 that is.

- Being one of the icons of the mambo era, what can you tell me about the legendary competition between artists at the time? Was the rivalry between you and Tito Rodriguez a fact or was it just another historical exaggeration?

- What rivalry ? I was playing with my band, he was playing with his band and Machito had his own orchestra, that’s all. These are stories that you journalists have invented in order to sell newspapers or books, as in
your case (laughs) . Besides, I can’t speak about Tito Rodriguez because he’s dead and I’m alive, so he can’t defend himself. But anyway, we were friends, good friends, practically we grew up together and when he got ill I was one of the first to visit him at the hospital and when he passed away, I was one of the first to attend the funeral. There was a natural competition, but nothing more than that. People like Max Salazar have written a lot about it, but the only thing that was actually going on, and if you want to call it a problem you may do so, is that Tito always wanted top billing because there was a time when he was selling a lot of records. If you ask me, I consider the whole thing insignificant. Besides, Tito Rodriguez was not a musician, like I am. He was a very good looking guy, he was a singer, he knew the clave and could play a little bongo, but generally speaking, he was copying the greatest of us all, who of course was Machito. Machito was always the hottest guy around and he was my mentor, he and Mario Bauza. When I was young I played with his band and I knew him almost all my life. Machito was my departure point and from there on I evolved in what I am today, adding my own experience along the way, which is a sort of experience that cannot be obtained through books but directly from the street.

- A very important aspect of latin music is precisely this combination of good technical ability , the street experience that you just mentioned and a certain knowledge of tradition. So, how difficult is it to play this music from a strictly musical point of view?

- It depends on the style and the level of the musical piece and of course, the level of the musicians that perform it. You have to understand that there are a lot of latino musicians that still play atravesados , they don’t have the right sense of the clave.

- Are you talking about professional musicians?

- Absolutely professionals. Didn’t know that ? The clave is the most important element in our music, that’s why whenever I give a lecture to a school, university or college the first thing I point out is the importance of the clave. This is why jazz musicians will never be able to play latin music really well : They have no concept of the clave. But latinos can play jazz, see? Think about it : Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’ Rivera – can’t they play jazz ? You bet they play it and they play it darn well ! But which jazz musician can play what Paquito plays in a latin piece? No one, that’ s the truth.

- You played mambo, you played latin jazz and you also made a good deal of recordings accompanying female singers. To your opinion, why is it that women played such a limited part in the development of latin dance music?

- Because there are not so many soneras around. In the old days, there were great soneras in Cuba, like Celina Gonzalez, Paulina Alvarez and others… Today we can see a lot of young female singers coming out but none of them is a true sonera. Apart from Celia Cruz, there is no other with a proper dominion of this art.

- How was it working with La Lupe ?

- W
ell, La Lupe was not a sonera as such, but she possessed great charisma. An incredible singer, no doubt about it, and it wasn’t until she passed away that people truly understood how great a singer she was. Let me tell you, my friend, that La Lupe was the only singer that I know of that was able to interpret six different latin american music styles in the very same album. I know it because I arranged it. But at the time no one could understand the significance of such an accomplishment. Man, she could sing the boleros like no other. She could sing rumba. She could sing afro. She could sing joropo. She could sing in english. She could sing everything.

- Celia Cruz also sang a fair variety of song styles during that era, things like “Aquarius” or “Sahara”, afro – cuban music, boleros…

- Sure, but Celia never sang the boleros as La Lupe did. Of course she could sing the boleros in her own personal style, but Celia was essentially a sonera, not a bolero singer.

- Let me ask you : What do you think about the music that has been developed in Cuba since the Revolution? Rhythmic styles like songo, although big in Cuba , never actually caught on in New York or Puerto Rico, even though they have been hailed as important improvements and additions to the latin music’s rhythmic arsenal.

- Yes, there is no doubt that songo is a modern rhythm. The problem is that outside Cuba, the musicians never really learned how to play it. Take me for instance – I have no idea how this rhythm is supposed to be played. Of course I know personally Changuito and most of the members of Los Van Van and I have almost all of their records. The way I see it, songo is still another variation of the old rhythms, it just incorporates the use of the american drum kit along with the percussion instruments. Okay, so it’ s nice, it’ s groovy, it transmits a certain amount of excitement but I just can’t see anything really new and original, say a new dance style, coming out of it.

- Nevertheless, the songo concept gave birth to a whole new movement of cuban groups and artists that are now registered under the term of “salsa cubana”.

- Now, what do you know? They call it salsa, but ten years ago they hated this word with all their guts. They refused to even acknowledge it and now they call their own dance music “salsa”. You put on the television in Cuba and the first thing you see, a band playing and some huge letters reading “SALSA”! You know, I’m very updated about what’s happening in Cuba, because I have friends in Europe that send me everything, CDs and videos and whatever music material available, so I know what’s happening over there.

- Okay, but don’t you agree that certain groups like N.G. La Banda, with their fusion of afro – cuban music, salsa, jazz, hip hop and funk actually did create a totally new style, including a new dance?

- I agree. But they did it in Cuba. Not here, nor anywhere else. And this is where it’s going to stay, in Cuba. Besides, you can see that this kind of music is already reaching a dead end in Cuba, that’s why the true soneros reappear, as in the case of Issac Delgado, who naturally has his own personal, modern style but you can see that he keeps alive the classic cuban spirit and the youth dig him. Anyway, generally speaking, cuban music is still cuban music and that means, simply put, the roots of almost every latin american rhythm.

- Since most of the salsa musicians are of puerto rican origin, why do you think original puerto rican music never managed to influence latin dance music to a greater extent?

- To begin with, we Puerto Ricans are the ones that saved and preserved cuban music in the United States and throughout the world since Cuba closed its borders. Now, in Puerto Rico we have the bomba, we have the plena, our typical puerto rican rhythms that hold an important cultural value, but I have always said, even if a lot of people disagree with me, that these rhythms are not so exciting as the cuban rhythms, which are much more syncopated and interesting. Okay, the plena has its own distinctive rhythm, it’s kind of funky but it never really took off in the United States, so the people have never actually identified with it. So I can play bomba and plena but to be honest, I never liked them very much and I couldn’t compare them with a beautliful mambo or a smooth cha cha cha, which are very rich styles in terms of rhythm and melody. Paquito D’ Rivera has put it very well : If it wasn’t for us Puerto Ricans, cuban music would have died in the memory of the world, because there would have been no one left to play it and keep it alive. Think about it : Who was the very first that brought latin music to the United States ? Who placed it so high in the esteem of the public ? Who used to be the ultimate number one latin artist ?

- Well, who?

- Xavier Cugat. You know, the guy that initiated the “rhumba” craze (he sings one of the melodies that Cugat used to play on the violin), the stuff that he played in motion pictures made in Hollywood and exposed americans for the first time to latin music. But I come from El Barrio and over there we played a different kind of latin music, more authentic, more tipico and finally, we were the ones that really preserved this music. Even today, c’mon, tell me which cuban orchestra exists in the United States ? No one. Can you think of a cuban artist playing cuban music in the United States today?

- Gloria Estefan!

- (laughs) Okay, but Gloria Estefan belongs to a different music category. I mean I respect her, I even play in her album “Mi Tierra”, along with the great Cachao. Poor Cachao, he had to play the piano in restaurants for decades in order to survive. Nobody knew who Cachao was till Andy Garcia, the actor, took him out of there and gave him the opportunity to record once again. He even shot a documentary on Cachao.

- Yes, Cachao had been practically missing since the two great albums he recorded for Salsoul in the 70s…

- For Salsoul, huh ? Donna Summer used to record for that label.

- Yes but they had a very good latin catalogue, including Libre, Folklorico y Experimental and even Machito for a while.

- Yes, I know. But once again, which orchestra has a cuban leader in the United States today? There’s an army of puerto rican leaders and even an american jew, Larry Harlow, who can play very well cuban tipico music.

- You also have a jewish musician in your band : Lewis Khan.

- Yeah, and he’s an incredible musician, he can play both violin and trombone. You know, I always tease him a little bit, I present him to the public saying that he’s Mexican or Greek or whatever nationality occurs to me at the moment. But doesn’t he play great ? Especially on the violin, he plays in a very cuban way, just beautiful. So, that’s why whenever they ask me what kind of music I play, I never say that I play puerto rican music. I tell everybody : I play the music of Cuba. And of course, I play latin jazz.

- So, we enter the subject of latin jazz. We can see that since the early 80s, latin jazz has made a really strong comeback, after a long period of time (and I’m talking about the 60s and even more the 70s) of a relative decay. What do you think was the reason for that ? Do you relate the revival of latin jazz to the fall of salsa’s popularity ?

- Well, I can offer you my personal point of view, made out of what I’ve seen and experienced during all these years. The truth is, people like Machito, Noro Morales and myself had been playing latin jazz for many decades, but they weren’t calling it latin jazz at the time : They were calling it “instrumental mambo”. Now, playing latin jazz requires certain skills – you have to be a really good musician, better yet a virtuoso like Hilton Ruiz or Michel Camilo. Apart from that, you have to have a top class arranger. Do you think it’s easy to find such an arranger? Think again ! A good latin jazz arranger has to know all the secrets of clave as well as every aspect of modern jazz harmony and on top of that, he should be able to combine both elements appropriately. The
masterminds behind this mixture were, of course, Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo. Those two started everything back in the 40s. Then came Stan Kenton and everyone else and for a good period of time jazz was strongly influenced by latin music. All the top jazz cats used to go to the Palladium to see the latin bands cookin’. Then, Cal Tjader appeared and he was a very important figure, along came George Searing, but what we now call latin jazz is more a concept of the 80s and by this I mean the arrangement of basically jazz pieces over a strong latin rhythmic base, with percussion on the forefront. As I said, I’ve been doing this for ages, because had I stayed in what you call “salsa”, I would have starved to death, like all the other musicians that nowadays can’t find a gig, not even in New York. But look at me : Right now I’m in Athens, Greece and the reason they brought me here was not salsa, was it ? They didn’t hire me because I lead a salsa band but because they know I play latin jazz. And let me tell you, latin jazz has opened many doors to latin music all over the world. If you ask me, I believe that the lack of lyrics removes any language barrier, so it facilitates the music itself to reach people of every culture. Artists like Paquito D’ Rivera or Arturo Sandoval now play exclusively in concert halls or prestigious jazz clubs, which I find a very positive sign.

- Indeed, you are in Greece to play a couple of concerts in the greatest concert hall of the country, “Megaron Mousikis”, where international artists of classical music, opera and ballet are mainly presented. Do you believe that afro–cuban music can work in such an environment?

- As you said it’s a different environment but hey, we didn’t come here to play merengue all night ! I have the girl (dominican vocalist Yolanda Duke) to sing a couple of tunes, as for the audience to understand that we are latinos and this is our music and naturally, to add some variety to our repertoire, but what we basically play is latin jazz. I have a huge discography in this genre, I’ve earned awards and recognition out of my involvement in it and that’s what people pay me to play for them. See, all those old people that attended my concert last night can’t understand spanish and from what I saw, there were no latinos around. But this happens even in the United States : I play a lot of concerts with virtually no latinos in the audience.

- Doesn’t this bother you?

- Why should it bother me? I’m an international artist and such matters don’t bother me at all. Take for instance Gonzalo Rubalcaba : He plays at the Blue Note or other great jazz establishments and you know there’s a different audience there, because he’s a trully great piano player, a master of latin jazz and latin jazz is a very complex music genre which not everyone can play. On the other hand, anyone can play the “fo - fi” that I told you before ! (laughs).

- So, the average latino is not interested in latin jazz?

- No, I don’t think he is. Recently I recorded an album with the singer La India and the Count Basie Orchestra and latinos completely ignored it. They were saying “what ? who ? La India singing jazz ? Ave Maria!”. Because they don’t know. They don’t have the ear for such things. But if they get used to listening to music of this level, then eventually they do like it .

- For a latin jazz musician you have been quite versatile : You recently participated in the “Newyorican Soul” project, produced by Little Louie Vega and Men At Work, a team that has long been associated with contemporary dance music and the “house sound”.


- Yes I did. Little Louie is a friend of mine and he called me to record a solo over an already existing track. I entered the studio, I played my solo and that was it. One take, without rehearsal, which is not an easy thing to do. From time to time I participate in various recordings. More recently, Jose Alberto El Canario had been doing an album paying hommage to the music of Machito and he needed someone that could play an impovisation based on the old timbales technique called “baqueteo”. Well, these days there is no timbalero in the whole New York area with true knowledge of that particular style of playing, but I know it because Montesino, my old neighbour, taught me everything about it. In “baqueteo” there’s no flashy technique involved, as in my regular style of playing, but you need a certain kind of phrasing to play it right. Maybe Manny Oquendo or Orestes Vilato or Nicky Marrero have a general idea of this concept, but no one really knows it as I do.

- What do you think about the current situation of latin music?

- There’s a lot of recognition towards latin music worldwide and this can only be a good thing. Also, the technical level of the recordings stands really high. Musically speaking, it’s true that the creativity comes kind of short, but we can see that the skill level has significantly risen. The musicians are excellent, the arrangers very good and the same goes for the singers. Of course, salsa romantica imposed the figure of the “bonitillo”, the handsome young guy who also sings like a handsome young guy, but I strongly believe that this character is about to dissapear and after some time nobody will remember of him.

- Nevertheless, we are still passing through a long period of singers’ total domination that has almost eclipsed the popularity of musicians and bandleaders. Isn’t this a direct influence of american pop music?

- I agree. This is exactly what has happened. Very few of today’s latin stars are really musicians, even if they direct an orchestra. And I’m not talking about congueros or timbaleros, I’m talking about musicians with a solid education, people that possess the know–how of harmony and arrangement.

- So, what happened to all those guys?

- That’s what I’m asking you. Where are they? I mean, in Cuba and Puerto Rico there are a lot of good arrangers, but nobody knows them because they do not lead any band. What I’m saying is, no one of today’s big stars is really a musician. That said, the musicians that accompany those stars are without a doubt first class players, because nowadays almost all of them graduate from excellent music schools and universities.

- But you stated earlier that there’s no musician around, at least in the United States, that could play the “baqueteo”. All those well-schooled musicians that you’re talking about, don’t they learn the tradition?

- Generally speaking, they do. It’s simply that “baqueteo” comes from a different era and today’s musicians haven’t really any motive to learn it, because they were never exposed to it. On the other hand, I grew up in a totally different musical environment, where “baqueteo” was very much played and listen to. And even I, that managed to learn a lot about it, could never reach the knowledge and insight of the old Cuban timbaleros that played in the orchestras of, say, Jose Fajardo or Antonio Arcano.

- Where do you think latin music is heading for?

- As I said, it’s heading for international recognition. I travel a lot and I see that and I can tell you, in every corner of the world there are people that listen to our music and study it very seriously.

- We can see that latin music, and especially the music of the Caribbean, is one of the last strongholds of almost pure acoustic sound, with all these percussion instruments, horn sections etc., and we can also note the last presence of the old times’ big band tradition in it. How long do you think it can keep like this in a world that’s almost completely overwhelmed by electronic sounds and studio producers’ impact ?

- Honestly, I don’t think it can keep like this for much longer. Latin music will be forced to change, because it will have to adapt to today’s reality. If you ask me, I personally prefer the acoustic sound because I grew up with it, but I can tolerate a certain amount of electronics, especially if a good musician, like Papo Lucca or Chucho Valdes, overdubs a nice solo. People like those two can make it sound a beauty.

- But in reality, piano solos and general improvisation have been reduced dramatically in modern latin music, haven’t they ?

- That’s true. It’s not like the old days, when the montuno would kick off and go on and on, and the sonero would start to improvise endlessly – today you don’t see much of this any more. The younger generation is growing up listening to just what the radio feeds them and of course, there are not so many clubs with live bands where you could go and listen to the music and dance to it, as it was customary in my time.

- Well, are you optimistic or pessimistic?

- I am in latin jazz, period.

- I mean, about the future.

- What can I say ? I’m about to retire, you know. I’m 75 years old, I’ ve recorded 108 albums, something that no one has ever done before in latin music, and I’ve played virtually everything. I thank God for giving me the strength and health to be able to go on. I’ve established my Scholarship Foundation for the young musicians and I hope it gives them some motivation and inspiration. And if a gifted young timbalero comes out of this program, well, he’ll have to deal with me ! I mean, not because I’m Tito Puente but because I’m also a timbalero, cause as the Americans say, “you have to have your chops up there”! See, I’m very aware that at any given moment some wizard kid may appear who could really kick butt and this is very natural, as today it is much easier for a musician to develop his playing due to the abundance of schools, instructors and sources of educational material. But when I was a kid, I was poor and it was hard for me to have access to good music education, so I had to learn everything from the street.

- Which do you think has been the outmost value and quality of latin music?

- In this music, there is always something to learn. A new rhythm, a new style, especially if you play percussion – you just keep running into brand new stuff. It can be the most recent trend coming out of Cuba or it can be some weird fusion coming out of jazz music or american drumset technique. But essentially, I have to say that syncopation in latin rhythms goes much deeper than in jazz and this element is what makes this music so special.

- As far as your personal contribution is concerned, which has been your most important offer to the development of latin music?

 - I believe, and many writers, journalists and musicians agree with me, that I helped to establish a lot of respect for the percussion instruments. I was the very first to take the percussion section and place them in front of all the other instruments of the band and it is interesting to note that I didn’t do it on purpose but out of certain necessity : At the time when I formed my orchestra and started playing, the percussionists were invariably placed behind the other musicians, just as the drummers were being put far behind in the american jazz orchestras, whereas trumpets and saxes were placed in the front. That was happening in Cuba, too. But since I was the musical director, I was in charge of giving the proper cues for the musicians to introduce every new part of the arrangement, so the trumpetists had to turn their heads all the time in order to watch me and pick up the cues that I was signaling. It was then that Jimmy Frisaura, my trumpet player and best friend, suggested “hey Tito, why don’t you come over here so that everybody can see you?”. I gave it some thought, found out that he was right, I picked my timbales and placed them in front of the band. Then, I realised something was still missing. I turned to Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo and told them “you guys, pick up your instruments and come and sit next to me”. Ever since that day, percussion instruments have been placed in the front row and this is something that people should remember of me, although as I said, it happened almost coincidentally and not because I was the maestro with the innovative ideas. There is also something else. I believe that I initiated a certain style of playing and improvising, a Tito Puente school if you like, that most timbaleros are more or less following to this day. They also place the timbales in front or in the center of the band, they mount a lot of cowbells on the drums, they put the cymbals on the sides and lately, they even play on two or three timbales sets, just as I do. But I have to admit that it still gives me some trouble to play on many different timbales sets, cause my coordination isn’t right yet and I’m still fighting my way out of this problem. You know, I would like to always be able to play what I have exactly in mind but sometimes, I j
ust can’t. I place the timbalon on one side, I put two regular timbales sets in the middle and on the other side, I put the timbalito. The thing is, you have to play every kind of timbales set in its proper style, for example if you play the timbalito, you have to think Sonora Matancera. What I’m trying to do is to combine them all together. I keep the basic groove with my left hand on the timbalon, going like bom, bom, bom, and then I improvise with the right hand on the timbalito, pa–ku , pi–ku ! See ? But sometimes it gets hard. Of course, it depends on the tune or arrangement, but I know that I haven’t quite reached the level that I can regarding my multiple timbales playing. Anyway, it looks spectacular, people go crazy when they see me doing it, not only because I play what I play but also, cause I was the first to paint the timbales in different colors. My musicians used to tell me I was going nuts, but I was adamant in that people that pay to see me must be impressed not only musically but visually as well. I mean, what should they come to see me doing ? Playing another timbales solo ? But I’ve been doing that for a hundred years ! So, I want them to go “wow, see this ? Did you see those colors on Tito’s timbales?”, If you think of the american drums, they have been always looking so gorgeous in the rock bands, so why should we stick to the same old “pailitas” ? I like people to see me playing on four sparkling colourful timbales sets and say “man, this guy is really cool”!

 Well, I think that’s all. You have a whole book in it (he points to my tape recorder) !

- Thank you maestro, it’s been a great honour.

- Alright, thank you too.

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