Alex Acuña: Command In All Directions

Alex Acuna

The setting was perfect. Sear Sound Studios in Midtown Manhattan, pianos and music stands keeping company with a whole host of percussion instruments, including congas, cajon, dumbek, ganza, darbuka, and caxixis. And, oh yes, a smart-looking drum set in one of a number of rooms sealed off from the main floor. The occasion was the weeklong recording of music for Miles Espagnole, arranger/conductor/bandleader Bob Belden’s latest larger-than-life musical extravaganza celebrating the Spanish flavors of Miles Davis’ music, injected with an equally large dose of original material brought in by some of the artists on hand, including Chick Corea, John Scofield, and Jack DeJohnette.

And on hand to play all these instruments were, among others, a score of top-drawer percussionists, including one whose name is synonymous with percussion. In fact, he’s this year’s winner of DRUM! Magazine’s Percussionist Of The Year Drummie award. The irony, though, is that the legendary Alex Acuña first made his name as a trap set drummer more than 35 years ago. Back then, he was a member of the groundbreaking band Weather Report, appearing on 1976’s Black Market and, the following year, Heavy Weather. Initially hired as a percussionist, by the time the platinum-selling Heavy Weather hit the stores, Acuña was manning the drums.

“I never separated the two of them from the very beginning,” Acuña says, relaxing in one of the studio’s back rooms. “Playing percussion and playing the drums is the same thing for me.”

Indeed, Acuña has always been comfortable doing either. “It was a beautiful thing for me to be surrounded by my father, who was a great teacher and musician,” Acuña recalls with his trademark beaming smile. “He was able to teach my five older brothers music on many different instruments. My father knew all of them. But he heard from my mother not to teach me because my mother didn’t want me to be a musician; I was the youngest one. My mother wanted me to be a carpenter, a mechanic, or something else, but not a musician, because she already had five other sons playing music. So when my family used to rehearse, they had a big band and played all kinds of music. I was there listening, just sitting under the table. That’s how I learned.

“And then one day one of my brothers, the drummer, wasn’t available, so they didn’t have a drummer for the band. I was ten. And they said, ‘Who’s gonna play drums?’ And I said, ‘Me!’ And they laughed at me. And I said, ‘What do you mean? I play drums!’ ‘We’ve never seen you play,’ they said. I never played because I respected my mother because she didn’t want me to play.”

Did this mean Acuña had never touched any instrument before? “I did, but nobody saw me. I was sneaking around. My mother knew that I was playing. So I started gigging with my father’s band. And that’s when my mother came again, and she said, ‘Well, he’s the youngest one, but he has to make the same amount of money that you guys are making.’”

Different Yet Similar

And so Acuña started to play at a very early age, never separating drumming from percussion, practicing, and playing them both. That relationship between the two helped him discern how different and how similar they are. “I would say that being a drummer makes it easier to learn hand-drumming faster,” he states, “because many of the drums’ rudiments are also many of the Latin rhythms’.

“Of course,” he goes on to say, “the only thing needed is to practice with the proper hand techniques to be able to get the right sounds. For example, with a double-stroke roll a drummer can play many different grooves on the congas, like cha-cha, son, montuno, salsa, rumba. The paradiddle is a bomba beat from Puerto Rico. The paradiddle, which a drummer uses so much when playing jazz, can be played on congas as a 6/8 rhythm. Likewise, the percussionist can also learn these rudiments and apply them on the congas, bongos, cajon. I personally have gained a lot from moving between the percussion and drums, and one of the main things is the great feel from the percussion to the drums, now called Latin drumming. Finally, no matter whether you’re playing drums or percussion, jazz, Latin or any other styles, you should always be able to dance, feel the rhythms.”

Learning By Listening

It took a long time, however, for Acuña to reach such musical wisdom. In 1960, 16-year-old Acuña left his hometown of Pativilca, Peru, for the capital, Lima. When he arrived, his brothers were already there, working in television, recording studios, and radio. Fortunately for Acuña, his brothers had a network of connections in the music industry, and used to recommend him to a lot of bandleaders: “‘My little brother is a great drummer and he can read music,’” he recalls them saying. “I learned how to play trumpet and piano, my brothers showed me; just by sight and figuring out things. So I got into the jobs immediately because in those days not too many drummers could read music. And then, I was doing two channels on television. I had a show in the evening, and that’s where Perez Prado came and saw me play. And when I was 18, he offered me a tour of nine months to come to the United States to play with him, as a drummer playing a 4-piece drum set with timbales.” When they finished the tour in 1965, Prado went to Mexico, and Acuña returned to visit family in Peru.

Soon after, Acuña was to make a significant move to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he stayed from ’65 to ’74. Among other milestones, he got married there, and studied classical percussion at the conservatory. “I went to play marimba a little bit, to know the timpani, learn sight-reading, and to know how to play in an orchestra with a conductor.” Pursuing a formal education on his own, he studied for three years. Acuña was playing in San Juan in big bands, playing shows in hotels. And it was here that he met Elvin Jones, who was already his favorite drummer.

“The reason why I loved Elvin Jones so much,” Acuña recalls, “was because when he played the drums with John Coltrane I was able to dance when he played; he was able to move me [verbally and with his hands demonstrates a classic Jones medium-tempo swing beat]. ‘Wow! That’s the jazz I like!’ He opened my eyes and my ears. And we became very close friends. He and Tony Williams. I liked Tony’s freshness, his ride cymbal, the tuning of his drums, and his being able to play with a lot of freedom but knowing where he was all the time. He had a command, conviction. Tony came out of the school of Roy Haynes. That was my bread and butter in those days. So, if anyone asked how I learned to play jazz, it was by listening. I envy the younger players of today because you can physically see all those players, like on the Drum Channel. I got to see other players. I got to see Charli Persip, Jimmy Cobb, Sol Gubin – not too many people knew about him – Joe Morello, Don Lamond.”

Acuña’s story about why he moved to Puerto Rico reveals much about his musical passions of the time. If he had to point to one reason, he’d say it was his love of ethnic music that led him there. “I am from South America, there’s a lot of great music ... Brazilian music, Uruguayan music, music from Argentina, Columbia, Venezuela, Peruvian music. But I wanted to understand Cuban music. And the reason why I couldn’t go to Cuba was because it was closed. Fidel, blah, blah, blah. So the reason I came to Puerto Rico was because I wanted to learn the Caribbean music, the Afro Cuban music, the conga playing, the timbales playing, the bongos playing, the batá playing, the cowbell playing, what they call the clave.”

His eventual move back to the States was a practical one. “I came in 1974 back to Las Vegas,” he says, “because I had a family. And I needed a steady gig, a steady paycheck. I went there with 1,500 dollars, my car, my wife, and my three kids!” [laughs]. A month later, he became the house drummer at the International Hilton, playing for, among others, Paul Anka, Diana Ross, Elvis Presley, The Temptations, and Ike and Tina Turner. At times there would be a rhythm section, and he’d play percussion.

“And the next year,” Acuña says, “Don Alias and Miroslav Vitous came to Las Vegas looking for me. Don Alias wanted to form a band with somebody who played drums and percussion, because he also played drums and percussion. So he invited me to form a band with Miroslav, David Liebman, and Richie Beirach for three months. I quit the Hilton and we toured out West. For me, it was really a change of life. But my family was able to understand that: I went to the United States to play music, to play jazz. The group split up, and I went back to Las Vegas. I had no gig, but people started hiring me to play the lounges, small things.”

A week later Acuña got a call from Los Angeles. “This is September ’75,” Acuña remembers. “It’s Joe Zawinul. He says, ‘Alex, would you like to play with the band?’ And I say, ‘Who is this!?’ ‘It’s Joe Zawinul.’ ‘How do you know me?’ ‘David Liebman, Miroslav, Don Alias; they told me who you were and they gave me your number.’ He said, ‘You’ll be playing percussion because Chester Thompson is playing drums.’”

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