A DAY WITH RAUL REKOW
With the latest Santana album Supernatural a major hit around
the world and nominated for ten Grammys, it is hard to turn the radio on
and not hear Smooth with that Latin American cha cha cha feel and Carlos’
signature sound all day long. The fine conga playing comes courtesy
of Raul Rekow who is clearly one of the outstanding exponents of the conga
drum in the world today, and the leader of his generation. To this
day I can still remember listening to the first songs on Santana's Festival
(1977), the arrival of Raul Rekow was quite startling and incredibly inspiring. Since then he has become a mentor, teacher and friend. More than
twenty years later his playing is as inventive and exciting as it ever
AP: Tell me Raul what inspired you to take up congas.
RR: Well I saw the Santana Blues band in 1967.
AP: That was before Carabello and Chepito were the percussionists
in the band?
RR: Yes before them. There was a conga drummer named Marcus
Malone. He is the one that helped write Soul Sacrifice, he brought Jingo, and he was a wonderful player. When I saw that band it inspired
me to play congas. I was playing French horn at the time, in the
AP: So did you have any drumming background?
RR: I had a pair of drum sticks and I had a practice pad.
I wanted to play drums, but I could never really afford to buy a drum set. When I saw the congas being played in popular music, it inspiring me, and
I went out and bought a conga drum for $30. I started playing with
a couple of friends who were also inspired by the Santana band — Jorge Bermudez
and Leo Rosales — who ended up playing timbales with Malo. The three
of us used to get together and play and practice all the time. And
at the time everyone was buying a conga. Everybody was inspired by
the whole Santana sound, especially in the Bay Area. Any park there
had twenty or thirty guys with congas. Nobody really knew how to
play. We all would go there and just beat on a drum. Then I
joined a group called Soul Sacrifice, which was an all Philipino band
that played Santana covers.
AP: What about your involvement with Malo? This San Francisco
band was another outstanding example of the latin rock genre that was developing
there at the time.
There was a group called the Malibus at the time which was kind of
our rival group, they were our competition. They wanted me to join
them because they had a record contract. That group became Malo. I eventually joined them. I ended up playing with them for about
two years. I left after recording two songs on the Malo Dos album. Right after I quit Malo I met John Santos. We became very close friends,
like brothers really. Everyday I was at his house, five days a week. I get there about 9, I'd eat breakfast there everyday, and we would listen
to music, we would transcribe traditional songs, try to figure out the
rhythms, and then we would go to the park, Dolores Park. We would
add those songs to our repertoire and try to play things traditionally.
That was our love, Afro Cuban music. From that point we started getting
a reputation as some of the guys that knew something, and so we started
teaching. We conducted classes around and people like Giovanni came
in, when he was a young kid.
AP: Were you guys mainly transcribing? Did you approach
players and try and get lessons?
RR: We did a lot of transcribing. You know in the United
States we have like four masters of Afro Cuban drumming, actually there
are more than that, but we would call these the big four; Mongo Santamaria,
Armando Peraza, Carlos Patato Valdez and Francisco Aguabella. I approached
Francisco about trying to learn some things and he was reluctant to show
anything to anybody. It was the same with all those guys, that old
school. They were afraid to teach you something, they were afraid
they might lose their gig to you eventually.
AP: What about Armando, was he around the Bay Area at the time?
RR: Yes he was around then, but I never actually got to cross
paths with him. Except for one time when Richard Kermode who was
then playing with Santana, brought me into a rehearsal. I got to
meet him, he and I talked and hung out. That was when the King congas were around, and Armando was helping them promote them. At time John
Santos and I got into an Afro Cuban folklore group with a guy named Marcus
Gordon, along with some others good players from the Bay Area. There
were two leaders of the band, Marcus Gordon and a guy named Jose De Lorenzo. Jose came from the National Folklore Troupe of Brazil, he joined them when
he was eight years old, a tremendous player for all the Afro Brazilian
music. Marcus was an African American who came from New York where
he had played with Gene Golden, the only one playing bata drums in the
Bay Area at the time, a real good player. So that was kind of the
foundation for John and myself.
AP: When did you meet Milton Cardona and other New York based
RR: They would come to town and John would invite them to his
house for something to eat. Like that we met Milton Cardona, Jose
Mangual Jr, and Chucky Lopez and Eladio Perez who were both playing with
Eddie Palmieri at the time. We would then fine-tune our folkloric
chops, we would ask all the questions we had, how do you play this? how
do you play that? These guys were able to give us little tips on
how to do it. And John and I were studying everyday. I was
also playing in a group called Sapo at the time which was an offshoot of
Malo, and also with John in a group led by Eddie Soleta which was one of
San Francisco’s first salsa groups. John switched to playing timbales,
so that he and I could both play in the same band.
AP: How did your Santana involvement began?
RR: I got a call from Santana management in 1976. They
said that they might want me to record on a new album on one or two songs. They asked me to come down, to check me out and see what I sounded like. I went to the rehearsal studio and it was just Carlos and Tom Coster. They asked me and Leo Rosales to come in, so Leo and I went over there. They loved both of us and they wanted both of us to join the band. Leo was hooked up with some religious cult and was not allowed to leave
town. So he passed on it, which he regretted later. They had
requested that Leo came in with me, and so when Leo left I took the opportunity
to say well listen I have this good friend of mine, why don't you try him
out, that was John Santos. He came in and he had the gig, but then
producer David Rubinson came to listen to us, along with a bunch of other
musicians that they were putting together, and the producer wasn't really
happy with some of them. He felt that the musicianship was not up to the
level of Carlos, Tom and myself.
AP: And so they called Chepito back?
RR: They had an open audition, everybody that could play timbales came through there. All the guys that I knew and grew up with came
in and tried. But they weren't happy, so they asked Chepito to come
back for the Festival album and tour.
AP: What about Armando and Orestes, how did that powerful percussion
section with them developed?
Carlos approached me, he said "listen Armando (who was quite ill for
a time) is better now, would you mind if he came back and played with you?” I said are you kidding? Would I mind? I would be honored, it
would be the greatest thing in life for me, to be able to play alongside
Armando Peraza. Then Pete Escovedo who had replaced Chepito on timbales left after a short period and Carlos asked, "which timbalero would you
guys like to play with?" we said Orestes Vilato, he is the guy. Carlos
called Orestes talked him into moving out to San Francisco and playing
with us. I was in complete heaven then. You know they were
very nice to me. I know that I am not at the level of musicianship
as either one of those guys. Both of them are innovators, they changed
the instrument, both of them. Yet they were nice and gracious to
me. They never looked down at me. I've always respected them
for that, the fact that they were so nice to me. And now I am great
friends with both of them. I don't get to spend as much time as I
would like to with Armando, but I do get to spend a lot of time with Orestes,
thank god, he lives three blocks away.
AP: That was a great rhythm section, a fantastic period.
RR: Yes. Tito Puente when he heard that rhythm section
said it was "the greatest percussion section in the world" at the time. That's a hell of a compliment coming from Tito Puente, because Tito doesn't
like to really give up to many compliments. That was after a gig
in New York at the Pier, and Tito, Nicky Marrero, Eddie Palmieri, all the
cats came out to jam with us. You know Orestes and Armando are very
territorial, and myself as well. I've kind of learned that from them. People come up to sit in at your gig. There is a bit of competition
that goes on, so you have to play your ass off. You got to give them
everything you've got. You can't let someone come up and play better
than you. So that day at the Pier we kicked some ass, and it was
after that show that Tito made that comment. After that we got kind
of tagged with that, as being the number one percussion section in the
world. And even though that is covering a lot of ground, you know
I am sure there were a lot of great salsa percussion sections that at the
time were as good or better or whatever, but what put as apart was the
fact that the type of music we were playing was for one easily accessible
to the people worldwide, we basically played for more people than any other
section in the world.
AP: Raul you’ve had a wonderful career which keeps on growing,
congratulations. Thank you for your friendship and for keeping myself
and many others inspired around the world.
I feel fortunate to live the life that I have. I just told my
son the other day, Raul (Jr) if I were to die right now I would die a happy
and satisfied man. Because I've lived a wonderful life, I've been
able to do things I've dreamed of, and I've been able to realise my dreams. Not to say that I think I've made it or anything like that. In a
humble way I say that I have been a very lucky man, I have been at the
right place at the right time and that I have been able to have so many
beautiful things happen for me. I can die and I can die with a smile
on my face. Being able to travel around the world, I've met some
wonderful friends, acquaintances that have turned into friendships that
will last a lifetime.
For a musical transcription
of Raul's playing please refer to the article CONGA IMPROVISATION Raul Rekow
VCA, Melbourne - March 2003. Image by Peter Grech
© Alex Pertout. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior written permission from the author. This article was first published in Drumscene magazine.