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Johnny Almendra

Johnny 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.

Born 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.

"Since 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."

Like 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.

"Playing 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."

Some 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.

"I 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 do this."

He 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.

"I 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."

Today 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?

"What 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?"

Los Jovenés falls into the category of a traditional charanga band but with a New York twist.

"I 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."

Catch Johnny Almendra and Los Jovenés del Barrio--if you can--and give them a listen.

All quotes taken from an interview conducted by Martin Cohen for MPR.

Story by Jim McSweeney

Listen to Johnny discuss his career and check out a video as well.

To learn more about Johnny Almendra, CLICK HERE.