first take Michael Spiro seems a man of many parts-most
of them contradictory:
is Jewish; but for more than two decades he has
been one of the best Latin percussionists around
with a true passion for the music.
most of his life he's been a working musician;
but his parents were both academics and he holds
a BA in Latin American Studies and an MA in Ethnomusicology.
lives on the West Coast when New York City is
ground zero for the Latin scene.
doesn't see Latin music becoming the dominant
force in pop music despite devoting his life to
playing it. He is pedagogically gifted in a line
of work-drumming-not known for producing great
you get to know him these contradictions resolve
themselves like a complex and well-structured
piece of music; but at first his range of subject
matter and forceful delivery-not to mention his
frankness-can be disconcerting.
You can get some idea of the complexity of his
personality from the following story. The wife
of Armando Peraza, the great Cuban percussionist
who anchored the Santana rhythm section for nearly
twenty years, once asked how Michael could be
so into Santeria-voodoo to the man on the street-when
he was obviously intelligent and educated. Michael
answered that when he was 11 years old he saw
something at a religious drumming ceremony in
Mandalay, Burma that he never forgot. A woman
went into a trance and was said to be possessed
by a strong male spirit. Her voice changed to
a deep, very masculine timbre; and though slight
herself, the woman picked up two much larger men
and held them aloft for some 3 minutes. Ever since,
he has been a believer in some things not accepted
by Western science. Some years later he became
an active participant in the religious practices
of Santeria, and was mentored by one of its well
known figures, Regino Jimenez.
Martin Cohen sat down to interview Michael there
was a great degree of sympatico, not only because
they have known each other a long time, but because
both have been integral to the growth and development
of Latin music and both share a Jewish heritage.
When they first met it was at the Mission Cultural
Center in San Francisco where Michael was playing
an Iya, a type of bata drum. Martin's comment
on Michael's playing on that occasion was, "You
really smack that drum". Michael's reply,
"That's what they pay me for".
asked Michael about his thoughts on succeeding
as a player today, both artistically and financially.
How did Michael deal with the money versus art
conundrum that has habitually plagued most musicians?
Particularly, what advice would he offer to the
away from casuals-what you call 'club dates' in
New York-because casuals are non-musical events.
Nobody plays any music at a casual. 'Do you know
Proud Mary? Can you play Hava Nagilla? Can you
play whatever the latest Gypsy Kings is or the
latest meringue? All the real musicians I know,
the last thing they want to do is play a lot of
casuals. You try to do a couple per month because
they pay so well. You may make $500 at a casual
as opposed to a gig where you can really play
and if you make $80 it's a big deal. I don't think
any musician who wants to play music wants to
play casuals because it's death. And those are
the guys you see in their mid-fifties maybe, who
gave up really playing music, and they're sitting
in a bar in a tuxedo making good money. But if
you talk to those guys on a break they never talk
music. They talk golf, they talk their new car,
they talk whatever their hobby is."
music industry is changing and Latin music seems
'poised to become the next big thing', as one
magazine recently put it. And it certainly seems
to be true if you go by the frequency of media
pronouncements to that effect plus recent events
like the debut of the Latin Grammy Awards. But
Michael has a knack for seeing the bigger picture.
have interviewed me since the late 70's. And of
course one of the reasons they've interviewed
me is, Oh, you're the white guy, we're interested
in your perspective-and that's completely legitimate.
But the thing is, about every five years Latin
music is supposed to take over the world. I can't
remember what the first one was, but I remember
when Ruben Blades was supposed to make the whole
thing go crazy. And then the film The Mambo Kings
was going to make the whole thing go crazy. Then
it was the lambada, then it was Carlos Santana
winning 59 Grammies and he's going to get elected
president and there'll be a rumba in every pot
or whatever. But my experience has been that it's
still music sung in Spanish-end of story. Yes,
we know the Latinization of the United States
of America is true, certainly in California. But
most of the Latinos that live in California-unlike
New York City-are not from the Caribbean, they're
not really from South America. They're from Mexico,
from Guatemala, from Central America. They have
their own music they listen to. The truth is that
my career and the careers of most of the players
I know are doing no better or no worse because
Carlos Santana won Grammies and the Buena Vista
Social Club sold a million records."
music is, after all, a business, and the high
profile of Latin artists and Latin music means
that business is good and getting better all the
time. Sustaining and expanding the popularity
of the music implies an audience that will continue
to grow as well. Where will that audience come
interesting that you raise this issue. As you
note in your introduction to our conversation,
'Mike is a friend of LP'. And I am a friend of
LP. That's very true in a lot of different ways.
And talking about LP helps tie together all I've
been saying: Your company will always sell product
in the barrio because the barrio is where your
instruments are traditional needed. But every
successful rock band has some percussionist on
a riser with lots of LP gear on it because that's
part of the visual show. And my argument has always
been that if LP wants to be around thirty years
from now and grow as a company, it's precisely
the white kid in a rock band who represents the
expansion of your market. The conga drum in the
barrio is always going to be there."
a music teacher himself for many years, and an
esteemed and respected musician, Michael can offer
a unique perspective on the benefits of education.
It's something he strongly believes in. It's one
reason for his long association with LP who, as
anyone in the business knows, has been the leader
and innovator in musical education since its beginnings.
Even when it might not have made sense from a
profit standpoint, LP has believed strongly enough
in the future of the music to take the long view
and underwrite a variety of educational projects.
think you and LP® may have been one of the
most important elements in advancing the cause
of Latin Music." ---Michael Spiro.
he doesn't see his fortune being made riding a
rising wave of Latin music, what does Michael
Spiro see in his future. And specifically, Martin
asked Michael, who is a devoted family man with
a son, How do you go about creating security for
yourself and your family in a business as uncertain
the $64,000 question. And I wish I could be really
clear with a well-defined business plan that would
answer your question. But I'm not sure that I
can, except insofar as to say that that's what
my whole teaching thing is about. I teach at a
couple of different schools and I know you don't
make any money teaching at an institution unless
you're a tenure-track professor. But if I stay
home and teach I can make a lot more money than
I can go out of my house. I don't charge what
a lawyer charges, but if I don't leave my house
and teach 3 one hour and fifteen minute classes,
I'll make close to three times as much as if I
went and played a gig that night. And I don't
load any equipment, I don't get home at three
in the morning, and I don't drive all over town
to do it. The flip side of that is I'm a player-that's
my love, that's my joy. I mean, I didn't do this
to become a teacher. But it costs quite a bit
of money to send my child to private school."
brought an interesting response from Martin, who,
as the founder and driving force behind LP, tries
to balance creativity and commerce. He pointed
out that he could expand what he does because
it's done by many people, not just himself. But
only Michael does what he does, the way he does
it and the only way he could expand would be to
have his own school. Had Michael ever thought
about his own school?
And in fact I'm out actively looking to do something
like that. I have so much respect for the Boys
Harbor School (of Music in New York). What a spectacular
place that is, as an archive, as a teaching center,
as a performance center-that to me is the ideal.
I would like to start a Harbor West if you will.
And in an ideal world a sugar daddy comes along
and says, You find me the space, I'll bankroll
the space. What do you need there? But it's the
same old story--who do you get to write the grant
for the Rockefeller Foundation to get $400,000?.
And say you get a $400,000 grant-and outside of
Stanford or Harvard, who gets grants like that-you
can't even find a space for a school for $400,000.
But this side of the country really needs something
like Harbor. The West Coast has contributed an
enormous amount to Latin Music. Armando, Francisco
Aguabella and Cal
Tjader, and we could go on and on. But the
point is, it all comes back to money and where
will it come from. Ultimately I'd like to start
a Cuban Studies Department of which music would
only be one part. I want to have an historian,
an anthropologist, a dancer, poetry, literature,
because I'm one of those interdisciplinary guys
who thinks if you're going to understand the rumba
you have to know where it came from. So, I'm looking,
and if I find, I'll let you know."
Martin remarked, it's hard to imagine anyone better
suited to heading up a school than Michael, with
his probing intellect, his forceful personality,
encyclopedic knowledge, and, most important of
all, his livelong love and devotion to this music.
Martin, twenty-five years from now, when you're
trying to find your teeth and I'm going, 'Can
anybody hand me my cane', a guy could still make
a living as a New York salsa percussionist. The
music will still be here, people will still be
dancing, people will still be going out at night."
cane or no cane, Michael Spiro will probably still
be slapping a drum.
quotes taken from an interview conducted by Martin
Cohen in September, 2000.
by Jim McSweeney.
learn more about Michael Spiro, CLICK
HERE or visit www.michaelspiro.com.