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Born in Peru to a family of musicians Alex Acuña joined the great Perez Prado's big band at eighteen. He later played with such diverse luminaries as Elvis Presley and Diana Ross, until he joined the groundbreaking jazz group Weather Report. Since then he has recorded with countless artists including Joni Mitchell, Whitney Houston, Chick Corea and Herbie Hanckock. In 2000 Acuña was nominated for a Grammy in for his album Alex Acuña y Su Acuarela de Tambores: Rhythms for a New Millenium.

The following interview with Alex Acuña was especially conducted for my Master of Philosophy in Music [By Research] thesis titled The Conga Drum: Development, Technique, Styles, Improvisations and the contribution of Master Drummer Ramon ‘Mongo’ Santamaria which I completed in 2008 at the ANU in Canberra. The thesis documents the conga drum’s historical development, investigates basic hand techniques and current technical hand developments, as well as the enormous contribution of master drummer Ramon 'Mongo' Santamaria, arguably the most influential player in the history of the instrument, exploring his percussive output as well as his ensemble, composition and arranging proficiency. I conducted this interview with Alex Acuña via telephone.

PERTOUT: I wanted to start by asking you when you started playing.

ACUÑA: I started playing when I was four years old and professionally and by that I mean with groups and touring when I was ten years old.

PERTOUT: Your family was musical?

ACUÑA: Yes my father was a music teacher and my brothers all played professionally but I must tell you that they didn't really teach me to play.

PERTOUT: Which instrument did your father specialised in?

ACUÑA: My father played a variety of instruments, he was a secondary school music teacher. He played saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass, drums, a little bit of all the instruments.

PERTOUT: And so what instrument did you start playing?

ACUÑA: Always percussion instruments, it was a natural progression for me, and by the time I reached my tenth birthday I took up the trumpet, and then piano which I did to developed my theoretical skills. My brothers used to teach me. I also used to watch my dad teaching them and learned a lot that way.

PERTOUT: And so when did you discovered the Afro-Caribbean sounds?

ACUÑA: In reality I always loved those sounds. There was a house closed by that had a radio and there was a program from midday to two o'clock in the afternoon that featured Peruvian folkloric music, as well as what it was called then tropical music, and so I got to hear the Sonora Matancera, Celia Cruz as well as jazz and classical music. And so I was exposed to all types of music, and that influenced me enormously. And I enjoyed everything, and to this day I not only play tropical music, but everything. For me music has always been one word only, music. But I have to tell you though that in Peru when I was young and playing, the bands did play a lot of tropical music as it was so popular at dances. In 1963 Perez Prado toured Peru. I got to play with him and then he invited me to go to the US. I ended up with him in Venezuela in 1963 and then on a US tour in 1964 which lasted nine months.

PERTOUT: And so when you played with Perez Prado did you play drum kit or congas?

ACUÑA: I had a drum kit set up the way drummers do it nowadays with timbales on the side.

PERTOUT: And who was playing alongside yourself in that band?

ACUÑA: At that time there were two conga players in the band. Lee Pastora who has since passed on and used to play with the orchestra of Don Ellis and the other was player who is still around but does not play anymore, his name is Joe Baerga. They were both at that time quite busy in the Los Angeles scene. The Perez Prado band at the time was put together in Los Angeles for the US tour. After the tour Perez Prado went back to Mexico which is where he lived and so I decided to go and lived in Puerto Rico due to my musical interests there and also to continue my US residential visa. And so I arrived in Puerto Rico in 1965. There I found a teacher in Munchito Muñoz who used to play with Tito Puente and actually taught players such as Ray Barretto. He was also the timbalero with Tito Rodriguez. And Monchito who heard me in Puerto Rico told me that although I played very well that I sounded ‘South American’. So he took me to his house, gave me the records of Los Papines, Los Muñequitos De Matanzas and started to explain the clave and the technique required to play congas, bongos, timbales. He played everything extremely well. I learned so much with him. He was the one that showed me the base of the Caribbean rhythms.

PERTOUT: How influential for you was the work of Mongo Santamaria, did you get to hear much of his work at the time?

ACUÑA: The first time I heard Mongo Santamaria was on a record when I was in Peru. A record that he made with Tito Puente called Top Percussion, with Willie Bobo on bongos and Mongo on congas. And then there was the other one that Tito made called Tito Puente Con Jazz also with Mongo. I always liked his sounds and the patterns he played, great player. At that time though, the preferred conguero for us was Tata Güines. But because Mongo was in the US, played well and had a great style he was popular. Tata to us sounded a lot more modern, due to his great technique, beautiful sound and strong use of rolls and patterns.

PERTOUT: In talking about congas and sounds, what drums do you prefer, fibreglass, wooden?

ACUÑA: I love wooden drums for recordings, for live settings I like fibreglass congas and specially with the new heads made of plastic, like the ones made by Evans. I especially enjoy using those skins live, great projection. But I must say that most of the instruments I see around nowadays are very well made. I also feel though that the player is the one that gives the sound through the hands, and via the tuning he or she hears on a particular instrument, the player is the actual instrument in reality.

PERTOUT: And what about the skins, are you meticulous in choosing the type of thickness for example?

ACUÑA: I have never been that particular when it comes to the skins of certain instruments, whether it is a conga, bongo or timbal, as long as they sound well in the tuning one hears I feel it is sufficient. I have never been that meticulous when it comes to this as there are so many variations as well. There are many players who are like this and they end up carrying congas to all sorts of places. Francisco Aguabella for example only plays ‘his’ congas, that’s all. I have never been that particular about the skins.

PERTOUT: The popularity of Afro-Peruvian styles around the world is enormous nowadays with instruments like cajon found in many genres, do you recall the Afro-Peruvian sound as a popular style when you were in Peru?

ACUÑA: The cajon was played in the south, there was a family called Familia Ballembrocio de Inka de Pisco, in reality from Chincha in the south of Lima, and in the north where my father was born in Chiclayo. There they played styles such as tondero, and the marinera which developed from the Chilean cueca. In reality a Cuban was one of the first to record a disc of Afro-Peruvian styles, where Nicomedes Santa Cruz from the family Santa Cruz featured. The rhythms were Peruvian but were played mostly by this Cuban player known as ‘El Niño’, but the cajon was not used that much on that particular recording. Later the Familia Ballembrocio gave the cajon to the Familia Campos and they started the ensemble Peru Negro and with that they started to popularise the cajones around the 1950s and 1960s. In reality the cajon was played in Peru only by the Afro-Peruvian population, it was the real Afro connection. The ensemble Peru Negro started to develop all these styles and the players that joined to play cajon had to also learn to play bongos, congas, learn the zapateado and play a little bit of guitar. Nowadays everyone plays the cajon, kids, women, and there are many Afro-Peruvian ballet ensembles always developing the styles and also modernising the styles. There are some great cajoneros in Peru. Now there is a young Italo-Peruvian player who plays with Eva Ayllon, his name is Leonardo ‘Gigio’ Parodi and he is possibly the best contemporary player to emerge, very modern and solid. He is featured with Campos and others on my Acuarela De Tambores release.

PERTOUT: I wanted to ask you about that release, how did you co-ordinate that project, did you record the Afro-Peruvian tracks in Peru?

ACUÑA: I went to Peru, it was the only way to do it, and if I do it again, I will have to go back to Peru or bring them all over to the US to record, because in reality that Afro-Peruvian sound has not been explored that extensively worldwide as yet, it’s so different to the Afro-Cuban sound.

PERTOUT: Was the rest of that particular recording recorded in a studio live setting?  Was there anything overdubbed later?

ACUÑA: All of it was recorded together and many of the pieces are improvised with players such as Paulinho Da Costa, Anthony Carrillo and others.  It was nominated for a Grammy.  I am really happy with it.  In a way is part of what the Top Percussion legacy is all about.  When I was sixteen, seventeen years old I was listening to that record and it was one of the biggest influences for me when it comes to Afro-Cuban percussion, timbales, congas and bongos. In some ways it was like a tribute to Tito Puente.

PERTOUT: In terms of the construction of congas what do you think of the development of the instrument in the last twenty years or so?

ACUÑA: It has changed a lot in terms of the look, there are many manufacturers worldwide, I have some congas here at home made in the Amazons made from one piece of wood, there are congas in Venezuela, Peru, Puerto Rico, in New York companies like the Timba, also drum manufacturers like Pearl and DW are making congas, these companies have actually acquired old companies and are developing that product like the old company Gon Bops for example. I believe that today the conga is an instrument very precious, very musical and will stay on as it can be used in any musical form.

PERTOUT: And how do you feel about the development of the technique on congas in the last twenty years?

ACUÑA: It is incredible, every day it gets better, I believe the individual responsible for this development is Giovanni Hidalgo, he has the precision as well as the sound and the ‘flavour’. As a matter of fact I am currently recording a disc with Giovanni Hidalgo's teacher. I have to say though that Giovanni had a gift, a divine gift but one of the people that guided him is a man called David Ortiz ‘La Mole’, he lives in Puerto Rico and I am recording with him. He is a tremendous conguero from Puerto Rico, he used to play many years ago with Cortijo Y Su Combo. In Puerto Rico the conga drum is an extremely popular instrument. Right now the younger generation admire Giovanni as a hero and so the standard is set, and they are starting there. All the youngsters are starting to play in Giovanni's style.

PERTOUT: The technique has certainly changed, but you were also incorporating double strokes and other non-conga techniques long ago.

ACUÑA: Well what I would say is from my point of view the drummer helps the conga player and the conga player helps the drummer. If one applies the conga beats to the drum kit, they are very interesting rhythms, and also the drum kit beats and the drum kit technique applied to the congas as Giovanni and Changuito have done, as well as Tata Güines, Patato and Ray Barretto, all great congueros, it all helps, I think all of it is a rudiment applied in different manners and in a musical way as well. And that makes it that the new techniques stand out, especially the double open rolls, the paradiddles, the paradiddle-diddles on the congas, it’s all very beautiful. But what is beautiful about the conga drum in reality is the sabor. There are many individuals that can play congas but if you don't have the feel, the understanding of the Afro-Cuban sound, the sound of the Caribbean, you know it is an instrument that is foremost flavoursome, you have to have the feel with lots of rhythm and taste. Well now with the new techniques that are being developed it all sounds more modern, but Los Papines and Los Muñequitos De Matanzas have been playing in that style for a long, long time.

PERTOUT: And so do you think that Giovanni is the one that has the greatest influence worldwide?

ACUÑA: Yes I would say Giovanni and Changuito, for their perfect technique and sabor. Giovanni though has also great sound and velocity, the consistency. Giovanni can play a rumba for an hour and is not tired. And you know the conga drum is a very physical instrument. Giovanni is one of the top players in that line. In Cuba that must be quite a few that I am not aware of, but with Giovanni is also the musicality, a very melodic player, strong rhythmically, he has all the qualities, not only technique.

PERTOUT: You influenced players around the globe with your work with Weather Report.

ACUÑA: Yes, the beautiful thing is that when I lived in Puerto Rico my diet consisted of Latin music but at the same time I was studying jazz and classical music. And so when I moved to the US I was already prepared for work. I also had strong intentions of playing jazz, with some band like Weather Report, because when I first heard the band I felt so inspired by the compositions, the harmonic language the band was employing and eventually I did get called and enjoyed a time with them in which the compositions were written for the group and so one had a chance to feature. The combination of musicians was excellent, we understood each other well.

PERTOUT: What type of work are you pursuing nowadays?

ACUÑA: Well I am producing my records. I have a company called Nido Entertainment to produce my own releases. I released a record of Peruvian music called Los Hijos Del Sol. A beautiful record, nice melodies and musica negra. You know Peruvian music is divided into three areas, musica criolla, musica negra and the musica Andina, and I use them all.

PERTOUT: And who plays percussion with you in the record Los Hijos Del Sol?

ACUÑA: In Los Hijos Del Sol I play it all! (laughs), I did all the percussion and the drum kit, overdubs.

PERTOUT: And who else does it feature?

ACUÑA: The Stagnaro brothers who are Peruvian musicians, Cocho Arbes another Peruvian musician from the Las Vegas area, my family, my wife, daughter and son who plays the piano, my nephew singing as well, also invited as special guest Wayne Shorter, Paquito D'Rivera, Ernie Watts and Justo Almario, as well as the singer Eva Ayllon, the best South American singer from Peru. I should also tell you that it is Joe Zawinul's favourite record at the moment. Last year he took the group for a week to his club in Vienna because he loved the music so much. Nowadays I am not following a career of going out with groups on tours any longer, I am comfortable here, doing some soundtracks, recent ones include The Incredibles. Next week I am to play in Mr & Mrs Smith, playing lots of percussion, also because I also play classical percussion, I can read, and so I can cover all the percussion and also work with other percussionists. But what I am dedicating myself more and more is to work on my own productions. I have studio facilities at home and I am about to do a new album called Latin Gospel.

PERTOUT: Has the live scene changed a lot for you?

ACUÑA: Well in reality I don't play in clubs any longer. I did it for many years, my life has really changed a lot, I do lots of masterclasses around the world, I also visit lots of churches and help the younger generation of musicians who are developing. There are many incredible musicians coming out in that scene and I enjoy the lyrics and the music which has an r&b flavour. I am developing music in that style along with some Latin sounds. I have quite a few songs which I am about to record. This is what I am enjoying nowadays, more than anything. I also really enjoy the drumming events. I took part recently in an event called Drummers For Jesus, we get together in Dallas, an array of Christian drummers, and we get to put on a concert with a large orchestra, very beautiful event. These are the things that I am really enjoying and I would like to devote my time more and more to these events.

PERTOUT: Are you involved with educational institutions?

ACUÑA: You know I am building a music school in Peru called Alex Acuña, it will be in Lima. I was there recently and I witnessed so much young talent that I felt in my heart a real need to help. I will send many instruments, I was there recently and gave them a couple of drum kits, congas, timbales, cymbals, and I will continue sending containers of instruments. Peru is such a musical place, when you hear the album Los Hijos Del Sol you realise how precious this music is. The music hasn't got a lot of conga as I don't want to put those sounds on every production but is beautiful music. I have a group called Tolu with Luis Conte where I get to play more Latin jazz style material, with lots of congas, but as I don't want to do the same on every production, too much conga tends to sound Afro Cuban and I am in reality not only Afro Cuban. Music for me, as we have discussed earlier, is extremely wide ranging, jazz, classical, South American, ethnic, everything.

Telephone Interview. 2 April, 2005.

© Alex Pertout. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior written permission from the author. This article forms part of the thesis ‘The Conga Drum: Development, Technique, Styles, Improvisations and the contribution of Master Drummer Ramon ‘Mongo’ Santamaria’ which was submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Philosophy in Music [by Research] Faculty of Arts, Australian National University.

© Alex Pertout. All Rights Reserved.