Almendra is one of the most dynamic and versatile
musicians/bandleaders working the contemporary
scene. It's his ability to get inside the music
and tailor it to for both dancers and listeners
that brings the fans out in droves. And it's not
just as a player that he's made his mark: He has
been both a teacher and a student of some of the
great names in Latin percussion and has been associated
for over twenty years with the Harbor Conservatory
of Music in New York.
in the Bed Sty area of Brooklyn on DeKalb Avenue
to Puerto Rican parents, he grew up poor in some
ways but rich in the culture of music.
I was a little kid there has always been music
around. My mother played the music of Puerto Rico
and Cuba and we listened to Latin radio every
day. I heard Beny Moré, Cortijo, Mon Rivera,
and all the other beautiful music that was coming
through at the time. And there was such variety,
from big bands to trios to folk music, all mixed
together, not like it is now. So I was influenced
by that variety, it always stuck in my mind."
other kids growing up in a home with a beat, he
kept time on various household objects. But it
wasn't until he was 16 that he began to take playing
seriously. It was bongos first, then congas, then
on to the instrument he is best known for, the
timbales. In the beginning he was self-taught,
listening and learning from records and watching
players in the bands he went to see whenever possible.
He was working in a series of local bands by now,
building his chops, but still self-taught, still
doing for himself.
Chano Pozo or Dizzy Gillespie records, because
of the way there were made, you'd just hear the
right hand mostly, they weren't using tuneable
drums. So listening to Tito
Puente or Tito Rodriguez or Machito that's
what you would hear and you'd imitate the sounds.
Watching the different great drummers, watching
Mongo, watching Carlos
'Patato' Valdez or Candido
Camero. Candido was a great help, and I was
able to eventually play with all these great musicians,
which was a blessing and a privilege. But that's
how I learned, little by little."
musicians find a place where they are comfortable,
where they have enough chops and experience to
get by, and they just stay there. Then there are
those who are always looking to improve, to learn,
to push themselves and evolve. Johnny belongs
to this latter group.
taught myself how to read music. I went to school
eventually but first there was this book that
I got by Howard Shannet, Learn How To Read Music.
I was about to go and study music but I wanted
to be prepared. I made sure I knew what a whole
note was, what a quarter note was, what all these
things were, before I went to study with these
masters. I studied with Freddie Waits, Joe Cusatis,
Henry Adler, all these great teachers, and I didn't
want to appear ignorant. That was part of the
fear as well to break out of, coming from a family
where there was no money to go to schools and
colleges to be educated. I knew I had the rhythm,
now I wanted to show how I could interpret and
was learning the traditional drum kit from these
mostly jazz teachers, and it forever changed the
way he approached music. When he went back to
the timbales everything was different. He began
writing out all the things he was playing. By
then it was the early 70's and he had a group
called Tambo which gave him the chance to stretch
out and put into practice all he'd been learning.
didn't know what I was doing really. But we were
paying homage to our influences, and of course
the biggest influence in my life was Tito Puente.
When I first saw him in a theater in Brooklyn
I said, That's what I want to do, that's going
to be my instrument."
of course Johnny is known for his group Los Jovenés
del Barrio. Currently a twelve piece ensemble
including 3 violins, they are considered by many
to be the premier Cuban style band working in
this country. When Martin Cohen interviewed Johnny
he asked him what made the band so special to
people? What was he doing that others weren't?
happened was I studied the masters. Tito Rodriguez
for example, always used different arrangers.
And I noticed that when bands used the same arranger
all the time the sound got monotonous. Because
in reality, if you're not a genius, how many ideas
does one person have. You look at Frank Sinatra,
at the different arrangers he used. The variety
and the sound he had was very special partly because
of the different arrangers he worked with. And
I look for that because I realized right away,
How many different ideas was I going to have?"
Jovenés falls into the category of a traditional
charanga band but with a New York twist.
was born in New York and I'm going at a pace,
we are going at a pace, that other cities don't
have. I've even tried to live in other countries
like Puerto Rico where my roots are, and come
back running because the pace is way too slow
for me. And the variety is here as well. If you're
in New York you're hearing the Drifters or Charlie
Parker or Aretha. You got James Brown or Metallica.
There's a variety of influences that you should
let get inside you. Otherwise it's like having
a blindfold on. And that's the New York advantage,
being quick to the step, quick to the pace, and
it's reflected in the music."
Johnny Almendra and Los Jovenés del Barrio--if
you can--and give them a listen.
quotes taken from an interview conducted by Martin
Cohen for MPR.
by Jim McSweeney
to Johnny discuss his career and check
out a video as well.
learn more about Johnny Almendra,