By guest writer Michael Schwartz
I grew up in the Bronx during the period of time that the Bronx was going through an evolution. This is in the late 50’s/early 60’s. The neighborhoods were predominately Irish/Italian/Jewish, but were then starting to have an influx of Cuban, Puerto Rican and Afro Americans. My particular block, had a new Latin flavor, with the increase of Puerto Ricans, from the Island, and some that had migrated from Lower Manhattan. With the new neighbors came great food, great looking women, and Latin music that I soon learned, was called “Salsa”.
Actually, my first introduction to Latin music actually was while I was in high school. During an art project, our assignment was to design a cover for an LP of our favorite artist.(LP was a 33 1/3 record, not the LP company). My classmate, Nathan Archibald, made a cover for Cal Tjader. I asked Nate who that was, then he went into an animated discussion of Cal’s music. The next day, Nate loaned me the album, “Latino”…….I was hooked! Nate by the way, went on to become one of the greatest NBA basketball players, Nate “Tiny” Archibald. One of our other classmates was Willie Colon, the great Salsa trombonist.
I attended college down South, but the Latin music that I had just been introduced to me, kept playing on my mind. I was an ROTC college student, so after college, I had the required active duty service. I was an officer stationed in Vietnam, and when some of the Puerto Rican soldiers in my unit started to “play congas” on drums, pans, and wood boxes, the memory of the Bronx rhythms came right back, even all these miles away from the streets of the Bronx!
When I arrived back home, I bought a conga, and started playing with some of the guys from the projects that my wife grew up in. We formed a pretty tight group of players. Every once in a while, younger kids would want to sit in with us “pros”, but the standards were difficult. There was these two brothers who were the sons of a local singer. Because of their father’s reputation, we allowed them to join in. One of the kids, Jerry, was developing into quite a conga player. His brother, Andy, had a great feel for clave. Both of these guys ultimately surpassed all of us Baychester Avenue conga players, and went on to make music history with Manny Oquendo and his Orchestra Libre. Jerry and Andy Gonzalez. Actually Jerry enhansed his conga playing while nursing a broken leg, and borrowing a conga drum from Jose “Papo” Navedo.
I went through a lot of different drums in the following years. Starting with LP’s classic’s made in Palisades Park. I then went to Cuban style wood drums, but can’t remember the maker. Back to LP’s when the Hidalgo series drums came out. Found them a bit heavy, and a bit too tall, so I bought a set of LP Salsa’s. Wood drums, great sound, wide belly, and 28” height. I had Caly Rivera of JCR put on some of his great imported skins on the drums, and was pretty satisfied……….although Congueros, are never really satisfied!
Caly introduced me to the drums of Pete Musser, PM Percussion of Petaluma, California. I had Pete make a Requinto for me. The drum was AWESOME! Incredible workmanship, with fine detailing. Pete used the aged wood of old wine barrels, coupled with the mastery of “Cuban bands”, from his Heritage Series. The drum was so great, that I asked Pete to make me a conga and a quinto. All came in with the same great quality, all to my height specs, all with Pete’s interior baffle, and all with great bull skins. I know that Michael Pluznick rated these PM drums high on his evaluation………but playing them regularly, you have no idea how great they are. It’s the truest sound of a conga that I have ever heard.
I have had the fortune of sitting in with many New York, New Jersey groups. Last year I Co-Produced a song with Ray Rodriguez,”Salsa P’al Mundo Eterno” that was a great hit in Puerto Rico, as well as the NYC Metro area. I also had the fortune of meeting the great Cal Tjader, many years ago, and having him, and his conga player, Michael Smithe, as guest at my home. Prior to one of his gigs in Manhattan, Cal, Michael and myself had an impromtu jam on my congas, timabales, and an antique marimaba that I own(The marimba was made in the early 1920’s by Gretsch. It still sounds great) Definitely one of my best musical moments.
I’m retired from business now. I still sit in with some local Latin and Jazz groups. Music is forever. It has outlasted a few wives!