Terry Santiel: Keep It Simple & Serve The Song
The current Justin Timberlake tour, Terral "Terry" Santiel says from a stop in Detroit, "is not like any tour I've ever done." That's pretty remarkable considering some of the artists with whom the accomplished percussionist has hit the road, including, in recent years, Mary J. Blige and Janet Jackson. Earlier in his decades-long career — to put his comment in perspective — Santiel and his band, Rose Royce, did a tour with Bootsy Collins and George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. "I got to see the Mothership land every night," he says, laughing. "It was pretty epic."
Epic is a word one could use to describe Santiel's career as a studio and touring musician. He's played percussion — primarily bongos and congas — with more acclaimed artists, on more notable recordings, than most percussionists could hope to shake their sticks at. His introduction to hand drums came by way of the men in his family. Santiel grew up in Los Angeles, where, on weekends, the porch of his mother's house played host to hand-drum jam sessions, with several generations hanging out and trading rhythms on bongos. He was about ten years old when his uncle Robert Santiel — who later changed his first name to Pondaza — inspired him to nurture his interest in drumming and develop his technique.
"He was pretty much my first influence," Santiel says of his uncle Pondaza, who "never was really, really successful" but "could play his ass off" — and still does. Pondaza Santiel, it should be noted, did enjoy some measurable success. He played percussion in the late 1960s and '70s with a group called Friends Of Distinction, and later with Jeffrey Osbourne and his band L.T.D.
Growing up, Santiel says, "We used to listen to Mongo Santamaria. He was the guy at the time. And all of the things he would play, you would try to mimic. Then this other guy came along. His name was 'Big Black' [Daniel Ray]. I don't know where Big Black was from, but some of his undercurrent rhythms, he would play kind of like Giovanni [Hidalgo] does now, a little, but with different kind of flavor to it. And it was different than what everybody else was doing, so that was an inspiration, too.
Coincidentally, Santiel would spend countless hours practicing along with a recording artist with whom he'd soon find himself working. "I had one single conga that I would play," Santiel says, asking, rhetorically, "And you know what song I would play over and over again? 'Could Nine' by The Temptations." That song introduced him to another early influence.
"Eddie 'Bongo' Brown played on that song," Santiel points out. "I would play that song over and over and over and I got really good at one rhythm. I could pretty much do what I wanted to do within that rhythm. And every time I would come back to my cousins and brothers and those guys, I would be a little bit better than them." Notwithstanding the influences that he found in his uncle Pondaza and in "Bongo" Brown's playing on "Cloud Nine," Santiel explains, "I'm pretty much self-taught." Early on, he got into the habit of recording his practice sessions and learning from what he heard when he listened back to those tapes. Initially, Santiel's teacher was a reel-to-reel machine. Then cassettes came out.
"Before I left to come on this tour with Justin, I was in my studio and I found all of these old cassettes," he says. "And I found some stuff of me playing when I was really young. It was amazing, the stuff that I was playing back then, at that age." Clearly, those tapes showcase the unique musical personality Santiel has developed and continues to bring to his playing.
"The way I end up getting a lot of the gigs that I do now is because, stylistically, I don't play like anybody [else]," he says. "And I don't try to. I love listening to everybody else, but I don't play like them." The Motown producer who'd be largely responsible for launching Santiel's storied career encouraged that authentic approach. "My first record coming out of the block was with The Temptations," Santiel says. "I did the 1990 album with The Temptations. And the producer's name was Norman Whitfield. Norman's philosophy was always to be the innovator — be the one that everybody wants to be like."