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Pianist, composer Larry Harlow was born in Brooklyn, New York where he graduated from the prestigious New York High School of Music and Art. He made a trip to Cuba in the late 1950s intensely studying Afro Cuban music. On his return to New York he was signed by the most important label in the history of Latin music Fania records. For the label he has produced fifty albums as a leader, two hundred and sixty for various artists and thirty as the producer and pianist for the legendary Fania All Stars.

The following interview with Larry Harlow 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 Larry Harlow via email.

PERTOUT: Could you tell me about your professional experiences with Mongo Santamaria?

HARLOW: I started playing with Mongo Santamaria in the early 1970s at the Yankee Stadium Concert with the Fania All Stars. We also toured Japan, Europe and South America after he replaced Ray Barretto in 1975.

PERTOUT: How long did you perform with him?

HARLOW: It was off and on for about five years with the Fania All Stars.

PERTOUT: Did you ever discuss which players inspired him?

HARLOW: Yes. Armando Peraza was his childhood friend and they came from Cuba together playing for a dance team. He was said that Armando was the best conguero he had ever heard.

PERTOUT: In your opinion was Mongo Santamaria a strong player of the drum? How does he measure in terms of sound, rhythmic control and overall creativity to other players you have worked with?

HARLOW: Mongo was a very heavy hitter. He played with drive and force with a great ‘slap’. He also possessed very creative ‘special licks’ that he always played in his solos.

PERTOUT: What do you feel were Mongo's strengths?

HARLOW: His strength was impeccable time and sound. He was a great leader without ego and encouraged all his band musicians to compose and contribute to the overall band concept and style.

PERTOUT: Was he well versed in explaining his tunes or did he have a musical director?

HARLOW: Mongo always had a music director. Marty Sheller comes to mind and before him Pat Patrick.

PERTOUT: Did you get to play or discuss folkloric styles in your time with him?

HARLOW: Being a santero as was Mongo, we sometimes found ourselves at a toque de santo together. We often spoke about the santeria religion as it was practiced in Cuba.

PERTOUT: How did you develop your understanding of Afro 6/8 patterns? Did you develop drumming skills in order to understand the correct feel, the two pulse?

HARLOW: I was always a frustrated drummer. I always felt 6/8 as a two pulse with triplets. I also spent lots of time listening to many folkloric 6/8 drumming recordings when I was learning Afro Cuban music.

PERTOUT: Do you know how he composed tunes, did he sing melodies to a piano player?

HARLOW: He would sing melodies to his music director or arranger.

PERTOUT: Do you have any touring recollections of Mongo?

HARLOW: Mongo was a perfect gentleman and mild mannered man. One day on a Japanese television show he was sweating a lot and bang off went some special effects, canons shoot out small white styrofoam balls. Within a minute his whole face was covered with white balls, the whole band screamed! He just smiled and continued playing as if nothing had happened.

PERTOUT: Any other aspects you would like to convey in regards to Mongo?

HARLOW: He was the most honest of bandleaders. He would mix great jazz players with Latin rhythms and create his special ‘watermelon man’ sound.

Email Interview. 12 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.