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Pianist, composer Bob Quaranta was a member of Mongo Santamaria's band for over ten years.  During his tenure with Santamaria he also composed for the band and served as its musical director. Quaranta is a graduated from Philadelphia College of Performing Arts receiving his Bachelor of Arts in Music. He has performed with an array of artists including Dave Valentin, Willie Colon, Ray Barretto, John Scofield, Tommy Igoe and Angel Canales among others.

The following interview with Bob Quaranta 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 Bob Quaranta via email.

PERTOUT: I wanted to start by asking you about your experiences in developing rhythmical skills to be able to play and understand tunes such as Afro Blue.  Were you always aware of the 6/8 pulse in two?  Did Mongo help you in your development of these styles?

QUARANTA: I think I became aware of  the 6/8 pulse in two from listening to McCoy Tyner with Coltrane on songs like My Favorite Things and Afro Blue and other jazz waltzes that Coltrane played emphasizing 2-3. Also, Chick Corea’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs recording was a big influence. However, I think playing with Mongo was the biggest influence of all in regard to playing 6/8. He didn’t say anything specific but it was mainly from continuous playing.  I think that he felt when you joined the band you were ready although I felt like a beginner. As far as the actual patterns it was from a piano guajeo that Marty had written for Mongo’s version of Virtue that I first became familiar with the 6/8 bell part in that the piano part that Marty wrote was a melodic version of the bembe bell rhythm.

PERTOUT: I am extremely interested in your experiences also in analysing the various sections of the tune in relation to clave, was this discuss at rehearsals? How did you develop the tune? 

QUARANTA: There was no discussion of the clave concerning my role in Afro Blue. I was basically following the script. It wasn’t until later that I realized that parts of the melody started on the ‘three-side’ and parts started on the ‘two-side’. It was the quarter notes in the main melody in bars eleven and fifteen versus the dotted quarter notes in Coltrane’s recording that I had to get used to. Also, I think because of the strict 3/4 character of the bass part I may have initially felt the time more in three than in the 6/8 two bar phrase in two. So at that point clave wasn’t really influencing me but there was no discussion as far as my part was concerned.

PERTOUT: The first version that I am aware of is the one featured on Mongo's Afro Roots album which does not contained clave direction changes.  The second version is the one Mongo employed with later bands and included a change of clave into the B section but not a properly executed change back.  Marty Sheller (whom I interviewed) pointed out that it was ‘out of clave’ coming out of the B section but that Mongo said it was right as it felt fine musically, How do you see that?  Incidentally in the arrangement that Tito Puente played with his Golden All Stars (which featured Mongo recorded live in NY in the 90s) they actually do add that extra bar after the B, are you familiar with that arrangement? 

QUARANTA: The second version of Afro Blue is the one that I am most familiar with and this is the version that I played during my time with Mongo and had the opportunity to record with him on Live at Jazz Alley. However, around 1985 Marty Sheller put a band together to play for a reunion at Columbia University in New York. This band included: Mongo Santamaria, Ignacio Berroa, Frank Malabe, Andy Gonzalez, Lew Soloff, Barry Rogers, Bobby Porcelli and me. For this occasion Marty did an arrangement of Afro Blue which includes the extra bar after the bridge. There is a home video of this gig which I’m hoping to get a hold of and hopefully will include this arrangement. I use this version in my teaching at The Collective in New York.  I think Mongo’s saying it felt right in the second version without the extra bar reflects, what I assume is , his sense of clave being something that should be felt and not policed. I had a conversation with Lincoln Goines about this subject recently and his view is that the concept of ‘in clave’ was more a result of African folklore coming into contact with European instruments and the need for organisation to create musical arrangements for dancing.

PERTOUT: Where did you learn about clave and about arranging and playing in clave? Did Mongo help you in this regard?

QUARANTA: Marty Sheller was a big help to me in understanding Mongo’s music and Latin music in general and I consider him a good friend and mentor. Playing with Mongo was extremely helpful in learning to play in different styles because the songs were style specific. A song could be a cha-cha, afro, guajira, mambo, son montuno, son, 6/8 both 3:2 and 2:3, and non Afro Cuban rhythms such as samba, bossa nova and soca. Mongo taught me by example. When I first started playing with him if I played something he didn’t like he would give a devastating look. Eventually the looks stopped which was great. I last played with Mongo in 1994 and last spoke to him around 1998 but we continued to exchange greeting cards at Christmas time until 2002. He would always ask about my wife and children and when he died it was like losing a family member.

Email Interview. 8 July 2007.

© 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.