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Ruben Rodriguez has been recognised as one of the leading Latin bass players in the US. He has worked with an array of artists including Mongo Santamaria, Eddie Palmieri, Grover Washington Jr, Roberta Flack, Willie Colon, Dave Valentin, Hilton Ruiz, Johnny Pacheco, Jose Fajardo, Machito, Tito Puente and Celia Cruz. Along with producer Sergio George, Rodriquez has been credited for revolutionising the sound of contemporary salsa music.

The following interview with Ruben Rodriguez 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 Ruben Rodriguez via email.

PERTOUT: Could you describe your experiences as a member of Mongo Santamaria's band?

RODRIGUEZ: For me, it was a school. I thought I could play 6/8 but in Mongo's band is where I learned to play the real deal.

PERTOUT: How did he conduct rehearsals? Was he well versed in his explanations of the tunes, or the rhythms employed in particular tunes or was someone else the musical director?

RODRIGUEZ: While Mongo didn't talk too much on stage he was in charge of the music all the time.

PERTOUT: Did you get to play some folkloric styles in your time with him at all?

RODRIGUEZ: I guess I would classify Afro Blue as a traditional 6/8 based on folkloric styles. We did some cha cha cha, son, guaracha. He had arrangements by Marty Sheller that were always interesting musically. We also played Latin jazz, ‘mambo instrumental’ as Tito Puente used to call it, guaguanco, along with the r&b and funk elements which John  Almendra and I provided.

PERTOUT: Was he a loud player on stage?  How does he measure in terms of sound, control and overall rhythmic push compare to other conga players you have worked with?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, the late great Bobby Rodriguez, my hero, used to tell me that there was no conguero who hit harder then Mongo in his day.

PERTOUT: Did you ever discuss traditional styles with him?

RODRIGUEZ: He used to tell stories about back in the days in Cuba and the US, but I can't recall ever having a conversation about this specific subject.

PERTOUT: What about Afro Blue did he guide you through in terms of the style required?

RODRIGUEZ: What he wanted to hear on Afro Blue, and every other tune we played from me was what was written. I, like everybody else in the band wanted to be creative, after all we were playing creative music. But he wanted the bass to stay on the chart and not deviate from it. It would drive me crazy, so after a year of it, I left the band.

PERTOUT: Was he well versed in some other Afro American folkloric traditions?

RODRIGUEZ:   Well, we did play some r&b, funk and soul tunes, but he played them Mongo's way. Once in a while he could groove to those authentically, but he played them his way.

PERTOUT: Did he ever discuss any clave direction issues with you? I spoke to Milton Cardona several years ago and he said that he told Mongo that the B section of Afro Blue was on the wrong side of the clave.  I noticed that in the later years Mongo changed the clave in the B section (the way you play it on the video) the only problem is when it comes back to the next A it comes in on the wrong side of the clave with that arrangement, did that ever bother you?

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah that's right, but who am I to tell Mongo that? We just played it!

PERTOUT: In your opinion what were his strengths?


PERTOUT: I read that he studied violin as a youngster. 

RODRIGUEZ: I don't know about the violin. I don't think he was schooled.

PERTOUT: How did he compose? Singing possible melodies to a piano player? Was he able to write charts or throughout his career relied on others to do the musical director tasks?

RODRIGUEZ: As far as I know, he sang melodies to arrangers.

PERTOUT: Did you tour with him a lot?  What were those experiences like?

RODRIGUEZ: I worked with him less than a year from July 1988 to March 1989. We started with the European tour that included the Quasimodo club performances and a bunch of dates on the West Coast. It seemed like we were there every month.

PERTOUT: I obtained a copy of a performance by Mongo Santamaria at Quasimodo.

RODRIGUEZ: Wow! Quasimodo in Berlin. Haven't played there since, that was in July 1988. That was a good band with Ray Vega, Bobby Porcelli and Mitch Frohman playing horns and Johnny Almendra on drums, Bob Quaranta on  piano and I can't remember the percussionist, could have been Eddie Rodriguez. I probably played a solo intro to Para Ti it was the only bass feature on Mongo's gig. I would like a copy someday. Anyway, I’ve got a funny (now!) Mongo story that basically sealed my fate in the Mongo organisation. On my first rehearsal with the band, Mongo calls out Afro Blue, so me trying to be funny asked Afro who? now Mongo didn't have a sense of humour and didn't like mine one bit. From there on it was downhill for my non-comedic self. I left on my birthday (March 6) in 1989 after playing the now defunct Village Gate club in New York.

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

RODRIGUEZ: As a conguero he was a pioneer. His work in 1955 on Cuban Carnival with the Tito Puente Orchestra is to me tasty, creative while always grooving, especially on Para Los Rumberos. But where I think he really made his mark was in being a band leader. He took Latin music to the next level commercially speaking. Others did it as well, but he did it with an ensemble not an orchestra.  I feel he was the first real ‘crossover’ artist, way before Santana!

Email Interview. 6 June 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.