Here’s one more millennium question you probably haven’t been asked, and it’s multiple choice. Who was the most influential Latin percussionist of the twentieth century? Was it A) Alex Acuña? B) Tito Puente? C) Pancho Sanchez? D) Mongo Santamaria? E) Airto? F) None of the above?
If you picked F, you win! The most influential Latin percussionist was not known for his technique, recordings or his compositions. He was Desi Arnaz. Seriously – name one other person who brought Cuban music into virtually every American home and has done it continuously since 1951, the year I Love Lucy premiered on network television. I Love Lucy has since become the most popular and longest running (rerunning) sitcom in television history, starring zany Lucille Ball as Lucy opposite her real-life husband, Cuban bandleader Desiderio Alberto Arnaz III as Ricky Ricardo. Though the show was full of slapstick, including some of Ricky’s musical performances (who could forget “Babalu?”), the Cuban music was superb.
Arnaz acquiesced to the show’s producers by occasionally inflecting humor into the band’s performances, but when the band was showcased, he demanded the best from each of his sidemen. Those infectious Latin rhythms went beyond the burgeoning Cuban communities of Florida and New York City – Arnaz brought his native music to the small towns and communities of rural America. As a result, Latin music was no longer a novelty; it became a widely accepted musical form.
Drum companies responded. Timbales, congas, bongos, claves and maracas were quickly added to every full-line catalog. The occasional listing of a Latin instrument gave way to an entire section devoted to Latin percussion. Larger drum sets included a set of bongos, either mounted on the bass drum or a floor stand. Prior to the late 1940s, only a few Latin percussion instruments were listed in drum catalogs. Ludwig’s first catalog, published in 1912, listed cowbells and castanets, however, they were marketed as "special effects." In 1932, maracas were introduced, and claves making their appearance in 1934. It wasn’t until 1941 that a full page was devoted to Latin instruments, which included tunable timbales with wooden shells and fixed-head bongos.
In the 1949 Ludwig catalog, Latin American percussion instruments were truly embraced at a professional level with tunable bongos, copper shell timbales, even the introduction of a hybrid “Bongales,” which looked like bongos but had rims that were high enough to be played with sticks, thus offering a timbale sound. By 1953, two pages were devoted to Latin American percussion instruments including tunable congas.
Many of these instruments were not true to their Cuban ancestors. In an effort to maintain a unified product appearance, congas and bongos were wrapped in the same pearl finishes as the drum sets. Even the shells were made with the same ply construction as the snares, toms and bass drums. This Americanization of Cuban instruments was the bane of die-hard Latin percussionists. They were forced to import instruments from Cuba. The Bay of Pigs ended all that. The resulting embargo meant percussionists either accepted the inferior American-made instruments or searched for used drums.
In 1964 that all changed. A young engineer by the name of Martin Cohen was frequenting every Latin nightclub in New York. His passion for Latin music went beyond audience level. He befriended the percussionists who drove those infectious rhythms, and they told Cohen of their plight. He responded as any engineer would: ”I’ll make them for you.” He brought them prototypes of bongos and congas. They responded with suggestions and within a few years Cohen was sitting on the world’s largest hand percussion instrument company: LP (Latin Percussion) Music Group.
For those of us who were infected by the Latin bug prior to LP’s emergence, the sight of a pair of bongos like the ones pictured here is a flashback to our first experience with Latin rhythms. Fortunately, this music plus the “beatnik” generation sent aspiring hand drummers to music stores by the droves. Today, you can expect to pay between $100 and $500 for a pair of vintage tunable bongos, depending on their age and condition. If you happen to find a percussion instrument in need of new heads, as I did with these Slingerland Radio King bongos, may I suggest you try Haight Ashbury Music Center in San Francisco? They have a repair facility that can do most anything. Ask for Steve La Porta.