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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 was.

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 school orchestra.

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.

RR: 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 players?

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?

RR: 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 Style.

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.

© Alex Pertout. All Rights Reserved.