Catching Up with Percussionist, Composer, Arranger Samuel Torres

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Interview #2 conducted October 2, 2010 by Tomas Peña (by telephone)

“Music was always the main communion between the members of my family, my friends and me. It also helped me find out who I am.”

TP: Congratulations on the release of Yaounde, your third recording as a leader.

ST: Thank you.

TP: Do you come from a musical family?

ST: My grandfather, Manuel Martinez was a trombone player. He came from a small town in southern Colombia near Ecuador. At the age of fourteen he escaped from the Ecuadorian army and he traveled throughout the Caribbean during the 1930s and 1940s. Before returning to Colombia he picked up a lot of musical influences. My grandmother was a self-taught musician and my uncle, Francisco Martinez, who is the father of (pianist, composer, arranger) Edy Martinez, played the saxophone.

TP: Tell me about Edy Martinez.

ST: Edy came to the United States as a teenager in the 1960’s and rose to fame in the New York City salsa scene in the early 1970s as a pianist and arranger for Ray Barretto’s conjunto. My uncle Juan followed him. He was a drummer and sideman with the Tito Rodriguez orchestra and Machito and his Afro Cubans among others.

My grandfather (Manuel) had a great collection of jazz and Afro-Cuban LP’s (records) that he picked up during his travels and because of Edy I have a collection of Ray Barretto and Fania (Records) recordings. When I was a kid I was fascinated by album covers. My favorite album cover was (and still is) Ray Barretto’s Indestructible.

TP: The cover depicts Ray unbuttoning his shirt and removing his Clark Kent-styled glasses to reveal a Superman costume underneath. Indestructible and The Other Road (1973) are two of my favorite albums of all time.

ST: Eventually I got around to playing the record and I fell in love with Ray’s music and his energy, he was my idol. When I finally met Ray I mentioned that one of my favorite recordings was Barretto Live: Tomorrow (Koch Records, 1976). Suffice it to say he did not feel that it was one of his best recordings.

TP: I also idolized Ray and grew up listening to his music. It was Ray’s work as a sideman with guitarist, Wes Montgomery that sparked my interest in jazz.

ST: Through Ray’s music, which contained a lot of jazz elements I started listening to jazz, Cuban music, the Fania recordings and Latin jazz. Then in 1989 my cousin went to Cuba and returned with recordings by Irakere and Los Van Van. At the same time there was a big musical community in Bogotá and a nightclub called Salomé, where music lovers and collectors gathered. On Friday night after the bar closed, the serious music lovers would stay behind and listen to music until seven AM. That’s how I was exposed to music that was not considered mainstream in Colombia. After that I started studying music formally. I studied classical music by day and listened to Cuban music by night.

TP: The last time we spoke you mentioned a number of other recordings that were influential in your musical development.

ST: Actually, there were two: Tito Puente’s Cuban Carnaval (1956, RCA) and Santitos Colon’s De Mi Para Ti (1964). I listened to those albums over and over. I even listened to them while I slept.

TP: Today we call that “downloading.” What prompted you take up the drums?

ST: There was a popular commercial on TV for Cerveza Aguila in Bogotá that began with a simple conga pattern (mimics the patterns by mouth). Basically, I started out by copying the basic patterns. Then I graduated to cookie cans, a pair of old bongos, a pair of new bongos, an old conga drum and finally a new conga drum.

TP: Did you take formal lessons?

ST: Yes, I took about four lessons with a great conga player from Colombia named Luis Pacheco. He was the original conguero with Grupo Niche and Orquesta Guayacan.

TP: He taught you the basics.

ST: Yes. Also, when Cuban musicians performed in Colombia I went to see them and invariably we would talk about music and share new ideas. In 1993 my uncle Edy returned to Colombia and formed a band. Also around that time a lot of Cuban musicians moved to Colombia and I learned a lot from them.

TP: How old were you when you started playing semi-professionally?

ST: I was about fifteen years old.

TP: You also studied composition. The following is a direct quote: “Since I began playing Latin percussion, I felt there was a pervading bad attitude about percussionists. People would laugh and say, ‘there are musicians and then there are conga players.’ One of the things that I wanted to do was to help change that incorrect impression. I believe that composition is one way to do that. Composition is a big tool to help one understand music. It enables you to express many feelings that it might be difficult to communicate otherwise.”

ST: When I told my professor that I wanted to be a professional conga player (percussionist) he asked me if I was willing to forego a career as a classical percussionist and I said “Yes.” Later the Dean of Music became involved and he offered me some very solid advice. He told me that I needed a major and suggested that I should study composition as a way of learning to make a difference and develop my own sound. He also taught me another interesting lesson. That is, in order to break the rules you have to learn them.

TP: What is his name?

ST: His name is Guillermo Gavinia. He eventually went on to become Colombia’s Minister of Culture.

TP: By all accounts you were very successful at an early age. In fact, by the time you were twenty-one you were already an established musician as well as a director and arranger for some of Colombia’s most highly regarded telenovelas (soap operas) and films. In spite of that you packed your bags and moved to the United States.

ST: I knew that someday I would come to the United States. The music that I fell in love with as a child (Salsa, Latin Jazz) was created in New York.

TP: Did your uncle Edy (Martinez) play a role in your decision to move to states?

ST: At the time he was living in New York and performing with Ray Barretto’s conjunto. I knew that coming to the states was something I had to do. With respect to my career in Colombia, I was working a lot, making lots of money and playing with some of the best musicians on Colombia’s music scene but I was only twenty-one, still young enough to start a new career. When my mother moved to Miami (1998) I sensed that life was telling me what to do. I followed her one year later.

TP: Shortly after arriving in the U.S. your career took a dramatic turn when you were tapped by trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval to join his group. You spent four years touring and recording with Arturo. Tell me about that period in your life and what you gained from the experience.

ST: Arturo taught me so much. Among other things he taught me about the Cuban element. The way Cubans speak, their expressions, the way they walk, the way they eat, the way they dance. You have to understand the culture in order to understand their music.

TP: In retrospect what was the most significant lesson that Arturo taught you?

ST: When I arrived in the U.S. I was very critical of myself, I was very self-conscious and I had a tendency to over intellectualize my playing. Arturo taught me how to loosen up, to be more spontaneous and to connect with the audience. I can still hear Arturo saying, “Stop worrying, you are a great musician, play from the heart and transmit that feeling to your audience.”

TP: Considering the source that is quite a compliment.  While you were with Arturo’s band you attracted the attention of Tito Puente, Paquito D’ Rivera, Chick Corea, Michael Brecker, Claudio Roditi, Richard Bona, Lila Downs and Shakira among others. As a result you participated in many recordings as a sideman. In 2006 you stepped out on your own and recorded Skin Tones, your first recording as a leader.

ST: While I was living in Miami I wrote a lot of music and worked at developing my sound but it wasn’t until I moved to New York (2002) that I found a voice for my compositions.

TP: How so?

ST: All of my idols live in New York! While I was in Miami I saw a lot of bands that gave me great ideas. Groups you don’t often see in New York and I started thinking about the kind of sound I wanted to create. When I arrived in New York I met vocalist Julia Dollison, whose voice is like an instrument. I collaborated with her and trumpeter Michael Rodriguez on a demo and started thinking about the possibility of creating a career and making a living with my music. Shortly thereafter, I recorded Skin Tones.

TP: You assembled an all-star cast for the recording: Bassist John Benitez, pianist Hector Martignon, harpist Edmar Castaneda, drummer Ernesto Simpson, trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, saxophonist Mike Campagna and vocalist Julia Dollison among others. How was the recording received?

ST: Very good!  From my perspective as a Colombian living in New York it was a very gratifying experience. Unlike other recordings where percussion is used to provide shades and colors, the drums are the centerpiece, everything revolves around the drums.

TP: And the reviews were excellent.

ST: I am grateful for the positive feedback and very happy with the way the recording turned out.

TP: Your association with African guitarist, Richard Bona and a recent trip to Africa (Cameroon) ushered in a new chapter in your life. Moreover it provided you with a new appreciation for the manner in which the music of your native Colombia evolved. Tell me about your trip to Africa and the connections between African and Colombian music.

ST: The first connection is geographical. Climate wise it is very similar to Colombia. Also, the music is very similar. The African influence is very strong in Latin America.

TP: In spite of that, the African influence is often denied in Latin America.

ST: It happens. In Colombia, after the slaves were freed they built their own cities (Palenque’s) on the Pacific coast and segregated themselves economically and socially. Similarly in Cameroon there are no roads. People get to where they want to go by boat or by plane. Interestingly over the last ten years it has become very fashionable to learn about Afro-Latino culture and Black music. The African influence is strong in Latin America and there is no denying that fact.

TP: It’s gratifying to see a growing Afro-Latino movement throughout Latin America. While you were in Africa you discovered some intriguing similarities between the music of Colombia and Cameroon.

ST: Yes, the use of the marimba and the way the people dance. The music of the Pacific Coast region has indigenous influences, which makes it sound more Latin however rhythmically the music of Cameroon is quite complex.

TP: When you returned from West Africa you embarked on your second recording as a leader.

ST: Actually, I had no idea of what to call it!

TP: In the end you named the album after a song you composed, which is named after Cameroon’s capital city (Yaounde). Tell me about Yaounde.

ST: It’s Latin jazz with a Colombian groove, a New York vision and the spirit of West Africa. Ernesto (Simpson) and John (Benitez) lived in Colombia and they have a deep understanding of the music. And of course the rest of the band members are all superb musicians.

TP: Stylistically, it is more adventurous than anything you have done before. And once again you assembled an all-star cast of Puerto Rican, Cuban, Jewish, Colombian and South American musicians who are well versed in jazz and Latin music: Joel Frahm (tenor and soprano saxophones), Anat Cohen (clarinet), Michael Rodriguez (trumpet, flugelhorn), Manuel Valera (piano, Fender Rhodes, Nord keyboard), John Benitez provides (bass), Ernesto Simpson (drums) and Sofia Rei Koutsovitis (vocals).

How was the recording received?

ST: The reviews have been very good. More important the critics seem to understand the message I am trying to communicate.

TP: It must be very gratifying to know that the critics “get it.” What’s next on your agenda?

ST: I have a number of things coming up, the biggest is a cultural festival in Bogota (Colombia) in October (2010). It’s the world premiere of Concierto para 8 Congas Y Orquesta (Concert for 8 congas and orchestra) with the Bogota Philharmonic followed by a concert in Germany on December 15th.

TP: Good luck with the performance. Do you have any plans to record the event for posterity or perform the concierto in the states?

ST: At the moment there are no specific plans to do either. However, I am open to the idea.

TP: Before I close I should mention the fact that you placed second in Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition for Hand Percussion. Moreover, you produced the DVD, Drum Solos Revisited for Martin Cohen’s Latin Percussion, Inc., which features fifteen New York City percussionists showcasing beginner, intermediate and advanced solos on congas, bongos and timbales.

More important you have succeeded in dispelling the notion that “there are musicians and then there are conga players.” As one reviewer wrote you are a “fully developed musician in the true meaning of the word – an artist who passionately follows his intuitions, ever broadening his horizons while further honing his wide-ranging, world-class skills.”

ST: Thank you for your kind words.

TP: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me and much success with your upcoming concert in Bogota, Colombia.

ST: Thank you, Tomas.

For Additional Information on Samuel Torres visit www.samueltorres.com

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