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Edwin Bonilla

Edwin Bonilla is the all-around percussionist for a woman who's short listed as one of the world's most acclaimed Latin artists ever, Gloria Estefan. But when he was growing up in New Jersey, it was Motown, not Latin, he listened to.

At age 11 he took drum lessons before switching to percussion in high school. When Martin Cohen interviewed him for MPR, Edwin recalled the beginnings of his musical career.

"I got into timbales listening to Ray Barreto back in the 70's.  Orestes Vilato was one of my inspirations, Nicky Marerro, and Tito Puente definitely. I started listening more and more to Latin music and not so much to the Motown. From there I got into congas, bongos and everything else.
I started playing in bars when I was 13, 14, playing timbales. My first gigs as a timbale player were with Puerto Rican trios. I also played Latin rock. Whatever bands were in town, I'd get my gear and go rehearse with them. And that was mainly my practice."

One of the strongest influences on his career was playing with the group Charanga Casino.

"When I started playing with Charanga Casino I began to understand the depth music, of Cuban music. I got into listening to the older material: Sublime and Arcaño And that's how I picked up my danson chops. Which has helped me now to do work with people like Cachao and Arturo Sandoval".

Cachao is an 80 year old Cuban bassist and living legend who frequently calls Edwin for studio sessions.

" First of all, it's a very great honor to be working with a living legend. He's been one of the greatest inspirations in my life as far as playing Cuban music is concerned. And it's an art that's been lost.  A form of music that hasn't been kept up with and danson is a very important part of our music, Latin music, Cuban music"

He's also recently begun working with Stevie Wonder, which required him to adjust a bit musically.

"I don't play as much percussion with Stevie as with Gloria. With Gloria I have to be more versatile and play more rhythmically. With Stevie it's more funk. I've done a few local gigs with Stevie before and that's how I got the gig."

As if this weren't enough to keep him busy, he also just released a CD that's getting major airplay around the world. Martin Cohen asked him about a rumor that the recording was completed in just 3 days. How was that possible?

"Okay, I have a compadre, a very talented guy, whose name is Jesus Perez. He plays piano, bass, flute, and arranges-he's a great arranger. Anyway, we got together once in Montreal when I was there with Gloria and he had this song about Cuba and Puerto Rico together and how they swing. And I said why don't we just do a demo. So he got a studio and we went in and in a few hours we put that down. Then we called in a trumpet player from Montreal, Eduardo Sanchez, and he did a great job--we got four tracks out of him. It was a 1940's style, very simple, nothing fancy, every thing straight down the pike for the dancer. And I played it for Emilio (Estefan) and he loved it and said can you bring me more like this. But he had me busy with other things. Then I let music producer Roberto Torres hear it--his fundamental has always been Cuban songs--and he said Wow, this sounds great. If you'd like to finish it I'll help you. So I took a few days off and went back up and we wrote and recorded all the material in 3 days doing 12 hour sessions.
And it's getting airplay all over the world."

As is the case with all great musicians, Edwin feels that he will never stop learning and growing musically. Throughout his career he has continued to hone his skills on a variety of percussion instruments from around the globe.

"Right now one of my favorite drums is the djembe. I really had to master that with Gloria. She loves that instrument and so does everybody else in the band. I think I became pretty good at it on the tour, and I feel very comfortable on that instrument now."

Cuban and Brazilian instruments like the pandeiro and shekere are also part of his arsenal. Gloria Estefan's current hit, Santo Santo, features Edwin on djembe, tambourine, pandeiro, repenique, surdo, and congas. With the mix of ethnic music becoming ever more prevalent, percussionists must be fluent on a range of styles and instruments. Given this trend toward rhythmic and percussive music that shows no signs of slacking, and because we are standing on the threshold of a new millennium, it was only natural that Martin ask Edwin for his thoughts on the future of Latin percussion.

"Well, this is the perfect time for us Latin percussionists because of all the crossovers that are happening. Santana was one of the first, and Gloria as well, definitely. Now you have Ricky Martin, Cheyenne, Marc Anthony and all the others. Marc Anthony has got a nice tune out that brings the Latin element to the forefront. I did a song with Jennifer Lopez on her latest CD--which is a great CD, the production is great--and it's one of her best tunes, "Let's Get Loud". That was a tune I originally did for Gloria. It's a cha-cha-cha, disco tune but it's got Latin percussion. It was done for Gloria but Gloria gave it to Jennifer. And I think when that tune comes out it will put Latin percussion even more in the forefront."

"The last thing I'd just like to say is Hello to all the fans out there at Congahead.Com.  And to all the people at LP as well, they're the greatest."

All quotes taken from an interview conducted by Martin Cohen for MPR in October 1999.

Story written by Jim McSweeney.

Listen to Edwin talk about his career.

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