From humble origins in the Bronx to the New York City Latin jazz ballrooms, I was odd man out in
an indigenous Hispanic scene. Yet I pursued my dream, seen by many as frivolous and unrealistic,
but I formulated a successful strategy. I would create a line of
Latin percussion instruments
to replace the fragile old world instruments that populated those Latin jazz bandstands.
This was the storyline behind my recent lecture series at the University of Michigan. I was
invited to speak by Professor Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof and instructor Roland Vasquez. Entitled
"From My Basement to Bangkok: The Growth of a Percussion Industry", the lectures
described a journey that began with fashioning my first
in my basement. They were instruments that would become the benchmark in sound, quality, and
durability - and also instruments that would, within a few short years, replace their cuban
counterparts, no longer available to the US. Many other unique instruments would follow.
During the three University of Michigan lectures, I presented over two hundred slides illustrating
my experiences in the Latin music community, beginning in the late fifties.
I showed one photo of myself and
Specs Powell. Specs instructed me to
get out of the dance hall and into the recording studio. There I met Bobby Rosengarden. Meeting Bob
led to meeting
Johnny Carson - and two
of my first inventions created. Bobby suggested that I'd earn more money if I could make a jawbone
that didn't break. I responded with the now famous
Ditto for the
Cabasa - Afuche.
The lecture resonated with the university students, most of them familiar with the harsh
realities of doing business in a global economy - witnessing the decline of the neighboring Detroit
auto industry. I, too, faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles along the way. As a non-Latino, I
penetrated that community and earned its trust by producing percussion instruments that respected
traditions and were durable enough for modern use. From humble beginnings in the Bronx and a
basement workshop, I oversaw the creation of
Latin Percussion, a New Jersey company that
oversees the manufacturing of premium quality instruments in an ultra-modern Bangkok facility. The
story of these entrepreneurial exploits is as exciting as the lives of the Latin music icons who
became my peers and friends.
It all sounds like an unlikely script - Bronx Jewish upstart becomes honorary member of the Latin
community. But it delivered a powerful and inspiring lesson to the hundreds of University of
Michigan students. I found that one of the most important and well-received messages was to follow
your dream. In spite of the many detractors, I have never lost site of my mission.
This advice was later repeated during an interview with Linda Yohn on radio
station WEMU, during which
Montvale Rumba and
LP Fourth Annual Holiday CD were aired.
My son, Matthew, came along to all events to document them with his camera and to share his
Tito Puente with the radio audience.
To see PHOTOS from this event,