Tech Tip:Integrating AfroCuban Percussion into your Band
By Miguel Ruiz
Adding percussion to your band can really light a fire under your group's live show. For an example of state-of-the-art in percussive artistry in a Latin rock setting, check out Santana's current touring band with the extraordinary drummer Dennis Chambers augmented by conguero Raul Rekow and timbale player Karl Perrazo. The massive groove and percussive fireworks generated by these three ace players is a wonder to behold.
Carlos Santana took his cue from jazz innovators like Dizzy Gillespie, who is generally credited with being the first North American musician to include Cuban rhythms in his music. After Santana's first couple of albums introduced the Latin percussion sound to a large rock audience in the late '60s, rock musicians from the Rolling Stones to Jimi Hendrix soon began hiring full-time percussionists to complete their bands. These days it's not unusual to see AfroLatin percussion onstage with touring acts in every musical style.
Congas, bongos, cowbells, claves, and timbales power the time-keeping engine of traditional AfroCuban music. Most of the sinuous rhythms of this music are derived from traditional African beats. Many of these grooves mesh quite well with many formats of music besides Latin, as most modern American popular music also traces its rhythmical roots back to Africa, via the blues and R&B grooves. Don't be afraid to experiment. An important word of advice: work closely with your band's drummer when adding percussion to your music. Rhythm is your drummer's specialty, so he or she will doubtless have a lot of input on how much percussion you add and how it is done.
A good way to break into using percussion is to add a simple cowbell or shaker part to a bridge or verse of a song. Experiment with different percussive "toys" and effects. Practice accenting different parts of the beat. Listen to traditional and contemporary African and Latin American music to absorb the rhythms, and check out some of the instructional books and media on the subject. While it takes many years to become highly skilled, a little background will help you play authentic-sounding parts more quickly. Listen to master hand drummers like Giovanni Hildalgo, Candido, and "Patato" Valdez, as well as contemporary Latin Rock bands like Santana and Ozomatli. You'll discover a world of rhythmic sophistication that will amaze and inspire. You may even want to add a full-time percussionist to augment the drum set player in your band. There are more competent hand-drummers around than ever before due to the popularity of Latin music and the rise of drum circles. Again, consult with your band's drummer - he's your best advisor when it comes to adding percussion to your music.
There are a lot of beautiful and affordable instruments available to the percussionist these days. Latin Percussion was the first company to create and import AfroCuban rhythm instruments on a large scale, and their extensive selection of instruments remains one of the best. Pearl has included a wide range of percussion in their product line. Rhythm Tech makes a number of interesting and original percussion instruments. Toca and Meinl both offer a huge selection of rhythm gear. Relative newcomers like Schalloch and Casa Percussion offer a vast selection of authentic imported hand drums.