This week on American Routes Shortcuts, we hear the mambo and rumba sounds of the late Puerto Rican percussionist, Tito Puente. Tito was born in New York City in 1923. After a youth of dancing, playing drums, and hearing Cuban musical influences, his great break came when he joined Machito’s big band as a teenager in the early 40s. He formed his own band a few years later, and literally brought his instrument, the timbales, to the foreground by moving them from the back to the front of the stage. Puente went on to compose and perform some of the most important tropical dance music and Latin jazz of the last 50 years. He’s known today as El Rey de los Timbales and the King of Mambo, but he never forgot how he started out in those childhood days in Spanish Harlem.
Tito Puente: I started about 7 years old studying piano at 25 cents a lesson. I’d walk a few miles and all that once a week. My parents were very poor naturally. We were up in Spanish Harlem there, it was around like 110th Street, around there. And I developed a lot of street music sounds because jazz was involved there, you know with Dizzy Gillespie and all them people, and then we got the great Machito band at that time so that’s where most of my roots came for jazz and Latin music.
Nick Spitzer: What do you think it was that got you to take the percussion part of a band and bring it out front?
TP: What happened was in the old days, all the rhythm sections were always in the back. All the pretty boys were in the front, you know the sax players and the trombone players and the trumpet players, so my boys had to look back towards me to get a cue to go on. So then one of my men, his name is Jimmy Frisaura, he was the one that suggested to me to go in the front and it’d be easier for them to get their cues, to go out into the coda or to the mambo, and I just picked up the timbales and went out to the front by accident. It wasn’t planned you know. And I’ve been there for over 50 years now.
NS: It sounds like a good thing that happened accidentally to you.
TP: Yes accidentally. And all the bands do that now, all the rhythm sections are all in the front. Actually I’m glad because that’s what people dance to is the rhythm anyway, they don’t dance to the saxes or the trumpet or the trombone, they dance to the drum, the conga drum, the timbales, the bongo, whatever has the real basic rhythm of it. So I’m glad I’m in the front now.
NS: Now for somebody who has never seen the timbales, tell me what the timbales are as percussion instruments.
TP: Well original these were kettledrums. They come from France, and when they came to the Caribbean area, Cuba particularly, they cut off the bottom like a half a drum, half a kettle drum, small kettle drum which you play with the sticks. It’s a very powerful instrument because that’s the one that keeps the band together and the other percussion men together like the conga players or bongo players. So it’s a very important instrument, and I’ve been playing it for so many years that they call me the King of the Timbales, which I’m very happy that they keep calling me that because the day they call me the Queen of the Timbales, I’m going to have to hang up!
NS: Let’s talk about some of your music that’s made it out into the big popular world. A lot of our listeners know Santana and “Oye Como Va.”
TP: Right well Santana naturally he recorded that 12 and a half years after I did, but her really put the tune on the map. He did it as a rock and roll thing. Naturally he had the drummer, his guitar, the organ, and by taking my tune, he really opened up Latin rock around the whole world. And he’s made me a bigger name naturally. People don’t know I’m the composer, they think that he is, but he mentions me all the time, and he plays that on all his concerts, and I get the royalty checks.
NS: How does his version differ from your version? What should we listen for that’s different from your version?
TP: Well he’s got a good version with the guitar and all that, really good version. Mine is a little bit more typical, like a cha-cha-cha type of rhythm and Latin feel, see.
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