Latin Percussionist Newsletter Issue 10 Winter 2000
by Victor Rendón
Covering a career of over 25 years, drummer/percussionist Johnny Almendra has been the anchor for many of New York City's top bands from Típica Ideal and Fajardo to the bands of Willie Colón, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, and Isidro Infante, to name a few. Founder of his very successful group, Los Jóvenes del Barrio, Johnny continues to perform and teach others the value of respecting and studying the history of Latin music and it's masters.
∞ Interview ∞
VR: Johnny, let's start with your background and how you got into percussion.
JA: I was always influenced by music because of the radio. My parents also listened to a lot of records. We listened to a lot of radio because we didn't have television or anything like that. We had "La Hora Hispana" on every day. On that hour they played tons of great music. That's how I got into it. It was a great environment that influenced me plus I knew a lot of musicians. We originally lived in El Barrio, then we moved to DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn. My mother used to go to the Palladium and in those days people used to go to the theater on Sunday. We would see a Mexican movie and there always used to be a show. It would be César Concepción, Machito, or anybody else like that so it was easy to be attracted to the music. I had a game. Whatever I heard I would imitate with sounds. I guess that was my way of escaping especially since I didn't speak English then (not that I speak English now). I also knew a lot of people that were involved in music. My father was a composer, writer and also played guitar. We heard all the great singers like Bobby Capo, Daniel Santos, Mirta Silva y todo el mundo (everybody).
I used to listen to (Félix) Chappotín when I was a kid. A woman named Trina used to take care of me during the day. There would a lot of great music in her place. She and others would be dancing all the time. It was a big party all the time in an innocent way. You couldn't help becoming influenced. I knew that I liked the music but I didn't know that I was really going to play for a living until I was already grownup. In my family, to play music was a joke. My mother used to say, "Tú vas hacer eso, cualquier hace eso," (You're going to do that, anybody can do that). Anyone in my family could pick up a frying pan or something and play it. Even my brother could play and he didn't even practice. They would hear something and they could do it. So, I didn't really take it seriously because of that stigma put on you.
To make a long story short, I became involved with music. I was always researching, and became a collector of records. I used to know Louie Bauzo when I was a kid and we used to trade records. This is like the 1960's. By the late 1960's I was already playing with small groups and really getting off playing and escaping into this world. I was living in a horrible project building. So, the music was an escape. I kept on going and playing from one band to a better band. I really didn't know the correct way of playing, reading or anything else like that. I was playing everything by hear but everyone else was like that except for the masters like Tito Puente and Machito. The Gene Krupa Story movie was another influence. It made me want to have a life in music. I didn't go to school to study music. I studied other things like printing and graphic arts.
VR: Did you have any teachers?
JA: Oh yeah, the first guy that I went to was Lynn Oliver. He scared the hell out of me. At that time, I didn't know anything about notes. My first book was the Ralph C. Pace book. If you haven't seen it, look at the first page. For somebody's first lesson, I looked at it and I went, "Ugh." I also went to Joe Cusatis and Charlie Persip (prominent jazz drummers). Later I took lessons with Bob Bianco who passed away. He was a great teacher. He used to teach me the Schillinder system, permutations, and theory. Another book I studied was the music theory book, Elementary Training for Musicians by Hindemith. Those are books that they recommended, but when I looked at them I said, "Pero que es esto?"(What is this?). It was very hard. It took me years to figure that shit out.
VR: Did you ever meet Ubaldo Nieto, the timbalero with Machito?
JA: I took one lesson with Uba. I had a friend who is still around. His name is Johnny Santana who used to play with Tony Pabon. He was a great reader. There was another guy named Marty Cartagena that played with Hector Rivera who was also a very good reader. I was a pretty good reader at the time. I did not know too many cats that could read music. Ubaldo Nieto was known as the man who did all that stuff. He used to work with Machito, Percy Faith, and all these legit groups so that we said, "How can I get to do that?" By the time I went to him, I already knew how to read. The reason that I went to him was because I wanted to meet him plus he was like a god to us. When I went to see him he was pretty old. He was watching a Yankee's game on television. I took my timbales out in his living room. He did some weird stuff like taping my drums with masking tape. He said, "Esto está afinado (this is tuned), put the book down and let's watch the game." He said that I was doing OK. He tuned the drums great. I never believed in putting tape. Years later, all the disco drummers were putting tape on the drums. I never liked it, but I did leave that tape on the drums for many years because they sounded so great after he did that.
As I was growing up as a teenager I used to go to the after hours and hang out. What they don't have now, they had then. You could go to several clubs a day if you wanted to. You could go to Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx. Musicians didn't have to travel so much in so those days because we had a lot of work in New York. As I got better, I started working in coatrooms of different clubs just to see the bands. I would go to big dances at the St. George Hotel. I also went to the Palladium in 1964 when I was about twelve dressed like an adult. "Parecia un bebe dentro un traje de hombre" (I looked like a baby in the suit of a man). Plus, my sister was a great dancer. We used to dance in the house. That was another thing. My mother and sister danced great. We used to have house parties. In those days the Latin communities were tighter. If you were on the train and you saw your friend Omar, you might say, "We're going to have a party tonight. Come, bring the beer, he will bring the ice cream, and so and so will bring the cake. I will bring the "arroz con gandules." That night you would have a party at your place. So, you're not only hearing the music but also the ambiance of your culture.
VR: You worked with Willie Colón. Tell us how you got in and it's experiences.
JA: I was already playing with some known charanga bands. I had already been through Charanga 76, Novel, and subbing in Orquesta Broadway. There was a good band called Típica Ideal. That band was a killer. They used to play at the Corso every week. The timbalero before me was this Cuban guy named Elisaldo who is still alive. Elisaldo was a timekeeper and very critical. Whatever he would hear, he would go, "No, no, eso no es charanga, eso no serve" (No, no, that is not charanga). He was like real strict. I mean, he saw Orquesta Aragón. He tells me, "No, eso no es lo mismo" (No, that is not the same). I said, "Jesus Christ"(laughs). He was the timbalero and Tommy Lopez was the conguero. I was scared of Tommy Lopez. I played with Tommy the first day at the Mariposa on 179th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. Chino Melao and all these groups used to play there. Later, Tommy left because he was going to be a truck driver. He was starting a new life outside of music. Milton Cardona replaced him. He was another guy that I was scared of because of the way he looked. Cardona used to play with a group called Flamboyan. He also played with a lot of kiddie bands "de la calle que parecian unos matones" (from the street that looked like killers). His face is like a gangster but he's the sweetest guy in the world. It turned out that we became very good friends. He's asking me like "Where you've been. How long have you've been playing." I said, "I've been playing about ten years. He said, "Ten years, I don't even know you." When Milton came into the band they put charts and we sight-read the whole book. The band swung so incredibly that it felt so right. It was really sounding good and we did some trips. We started hanging out a lot because we were working a lot.
Milton was also playing with Willie Colón at that time. He tells me one night, "Let's go to a rehearsal," which turned out to be Willie Colón's band. This was in the beginning of The Good, The Bad, The Ugly record. It was also Ruben Blades' beginning with Willie. I think Jimmy Delgado was already playing with them. Willie didn't know me and when we went to the rehearsal it was actually a gig. It was all the music from the Siembra album. I sight read the whole thing and Willie asked, "Who's that guy? Let him keep the gig." At that time they were paying $225 per gig. In the 1970's we're talking about good money. That was a special group. Great band. They started traveling and I did something like eight straight years with them really learning a lot.
VR: You also worked with Mongo Santamaria. What was that like?
JA: I started with Mongo in 1984 and stayed with him for about 13 years.
VR: An interesting point of these two bands is that you were always switching between timbales and drumset. Do you see a big difference between a timbale and drumset approach in this type of music?
JA: It depends on the concept that you have behind the driver's seat. You can think like a bongo player behind a drumset or like a conguero. It also depends on what kind of music you're playing. If you're playing "Watermelon Man" you might think more like an R&B drummer doing the backbeat while the band is playing the montuno or tumbao. Other tunes like "Salazar" or "Come Candela" were played on timbales. If I played drumset, it didn't matter. I would just approach it more like a timbale player. You're not going to do big drum fills. It's going to be more abanicos and keeping time with the conguero and bongocero. I played drumset with Mongo but I also played drums with Willie. On Maestra Vida, that was like a 60 piece orchestra. That was one of the best things we did. In Willie's band, we used to record at La Tierra studio. It was a great studio but the equipment was not that great. We tried to make with what we had. Besides, I'm not really a drumset player per se. I'm a percussionist. Little by little I tried to make it happen. I was never able to apply any jazz. That I did on my own with trios and quartets. I was able to do more stretching out on drumset with Mongo.
VR: You once told me a funny story of how you asked Mongo a question about clave.
JA: That was when I was new in the group. We were rehearsing a tune in which the clave was ambiguous. It could have gone either way. So you know, you try to find out and be cool. That's one of the times that I stuck my foot in my mouth. I said, "What clave is this in Mongo?" He used to hate questions like that. He looked at me kind of funny especially since I was new. He said something like, "You have clave o you have no clave?" That's what he told me. "You feel it o you no feel it." I said to myself, "OK keep it shut."
Mongo had a lot of good ways of teaching you without saying a thing. Same thing with Candido(Camero). I played with Candido for many years. All those old guys, they show you a lot of stuff. And, there were many others like Julian Cabrera who played güiro and timbales. Those guys showed me how to do the cinquillo of the danzón. I used to do it on my own. But those guys taught me the right way to do all that stuff. Candido, Julian Cabrera, and Papaito as well. Those guys were really nice. We used to go to this guy's house, Querido. He was an old guy from the 20's. He had an apartment across the street from the Latin Quarter. He used to compose also. He recorded a couple of songs for a charanga called Orquesta Sublime. Orestes Vilató used to hang out there. In between sets we used to hang out. We used to go in there and all the musicians would be there.
I would go to this guy's house and hear all these guys talking. It was like being in a museum. I would listen like to Vicentico Valdés, Kako and many others. I was the youngest guy and I would just listen. In those days, Cuban records were not coming to the U.S. at all. So if we heard a new Cuban record it was like "wow." It was a big thing. Orestes always had a way of getting those records. It was through him that I first heard Pacho Alonso. That was where I heard music and learned. We sat and listened to a lot of stuff. I would also hang out at Louie's house and listen to every version of "Son de la Loma" ever recorded. There was a lot of jamming too. We jammed with Freddie Lugo, Louie Bauzo, and all those rumberos from the Lower East Side. We were new guys. We wouldn't sit down unless we were sure. If you sat down and couldn't play, it got rough. But little by little we did it.
VR: You've taught hundreds of drummers at the Harbor for many years. How do you feel about teaching and yourself as a teacher?
JA: I think that I should have been playing a lot better. I didn't dedicate as much time to myself. It's great to teach and I love to share information. You do learn and you also practice when you're teaching someone. In the beginning, I didn't feel that I was a teacher. I collect information and if I can relate it to somebody, that's cool. I've always learned from others so I always felt that I had to give something back. In reality, music kept me from being in gangs and other bad situations. My brother was head of a gang and all this other heavy stuff. My thing was to investigate and learn. I really enjoyed it and still do. At my age after playing all these years, you start to see your limits and how far you can go. You also see that you can improve. It's a process that never ends. People pass their peak but there's always a way to keep improving no matter how old you get. A good example is Joe Cusatis who at his age can still play. Buddy Rich was one of the greatest drummers even in his sixties. Those kinds of drummers maintain their chops. Of course, these are "nine hour" practitioners. I was never that. I was just a guy that liked the music, had talent for it, and just enjoyed it.
VR: What made you decide to form your charanga group, Los Jóvenes Del Barrio?
JA: The group started out as a workshop here at Boys Harbor. It was a good idea because there were not too many charangas around. It's important to teach that style on timbales. I was getting comments from students like, "Why do I need to learn the baqueteo?" Well because in this style of music this is what exists. The baqueteo is just a pattern of sticking. Little by little I thought it would be nice to have those traditions at the school. We have a son band, big band, jazz band, but we didn't have a charanga band. We should study that music because it is a legit style. From the danzón and mambo comes the cha cha chá. These things come from those types of flute/string orchestras called charanga. We shouldn't neglect that. I think that's what is lacking in Latin music. With the variety that we have in New York it's limited compared to the rest of the world. This is supposed to be the most sophisticated place in the planet. Now, my mother who only went up to the third grade, used to tell me about Charlie Parker and Marcelino Guerra. I thought she was the hippest lady there is. The younger people, I just don't get it. The kids today have to have their music. But, they also have to look at the past because everything that we do has to do with the past. There's nothing here that's new.
VR: That brings up my next question. Is there any advice you might give to an upcoming player?
JA: Learn as many styles as possible. Learn the vocabulary of every band. If you hear Machito, one might say, "That's old and corny." No, listen to it. The reason you don't like it is because you don't understand it. In the beginning when I used to listen to jazz, I didn't like it because I didn't understand it. There was big band swing that I loved but then we got into the avant-garde period. I was like, "What's that?" The reason I didn't like it was because I wasn't listening. Then all of a sudden, I was getting into it. So, that's what I say to young people. Learn as much as possible about the folklore and the past. And then do what is necessary to get the gig. Also, try to stretch it by combining different things. That is the trend today. My style of playing has changed from a straight-ahead timbal approach to playing the parts of two people (bongocero and timbal). Willie Bobo used to do that and Changuito did it afterwards with Los Van Van. Willie and those guys were experimenting. The charanga that Mongo had in the 1960's was already like a jazz charanga. They were soloing and Willie had a drumset and timbales. He was doing a lot of different things. The thing about them is that they had such a good rapport between them. They read each other's mind incredibly. They were pretty amazing. That is one of the top rhythm sections in Latin music history. I would say the rhythm sections of Machito, Mongo, and Puente were tops. The rhythm section with Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo is a whole study in itself. Editors note: check out the classic recordings Top Percussion and Puente In Percussion. When you play a lot with a certain person you get to read his/her mind. Like with Louie, he does all these crazy patterns and it doesn't bother me at all because he knows where he's at and we meet at some point.
Pazcual Villaronga: I once saw you in the Louisiana Café playing a washboard and congas with a Cajun band. How did that come about?
JA: You have to be open minded because I didn't do music just to play Latin music. I figured, if I'm going to make a living at this I've got to learn as much as I can. You have to try to learn all styles of music.
VR: What are some of the special memories or experiences that you may have from your music career?
JA: When I saw Tito Rodríguez play. What impressed me was going to Ochenta's and watching the band. That was the first time. I saw them many times. That was when he left and he came back on the scene. He had moved to Puerto Rico and there was a void because you had Machito's band, you had Puente but Tito Rodríguez was something else. When I saw that band I thought I was watching a movie. The same thing with Machito and Puente. It was too heavy. I think that was one of the big important things. I could mention so many.
I saw Willie Colón with Héctor Lavoe when they were kids. They kind of didn't sound too good. But, little by little they got better and then they were kicking ass. I said, "Damn, I want to play with those guys one day." And, eventually I got to play with them. Also seeing Mongo and Puente for the first time was a big thing because I knew that I wanted to play those instruments. Puente's tempos were so ridiculous. It was scary. I once saw a video of Puente playing three pairs of Leedy "Humberto Morales model" timbales on Channel 2 in Puerto Rico. He's playing by himself. But man, brrrrrrrr (imitating a roll). He was fast and technical. I sometimes hear weird remarks of disrespect from young people about Puente. They don't know what that guy has done. First of all, he's the first guy to put the timbales in front of the band and play standing up. He brought that instrument out of the closet and into the spotlight.