Paoli Mejias: Santana's New Conguero
Paoli Mejias doesn’t only play music; he is music. Standing behind his beloved congas or moving around the stage to add rhythmic accents to the music on one of his “toys” – the name he gives to his battery of smaller percussion instruments including cowbell, shekere, and chimes – the man is never still. You can see the rhythms percolating in his bloodstream before they’re made manifest in his playing. With a style that’s noted for its mastery of dynamics, speed, and tone, Mejias has already played with some of the biggest names in Puerto Rican folkloric music, Latin pop, salsa, and jazz, including José Nogueras, Marc Anthony, Dave Valentín, and Eddie Palmieri.
A Call From Santana
Late last summer, on a hot, beautiful Tuesday morning, Mejias was at home, basking in the warm Puerto Rican sunshine and talking about his latest gig as conga player with the Santana band. He was personally invited by Carlos Santana to join the group and his tenure with the band will only further validate his status as a first class musician.
The Santana organization put up an announcement on its website welcoming Mejias to the band. They called him a master percussionist and praised his ability to fuse “straight-ahead jazz with African, Mediterranean and Caribbean folkloric rhythms to create a new dimension of Latin jazz that is global, energetic and modern.” Mejias says he’s flattered by the description and chuckles frequently as he talks about joining the band, speaking with the same enthusiasm and humor that marks his playing.
“My fist gig with the band was in September,” he says. “I played with them at the House Of Blues inside the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas. [Santana] lives in Vegas now and invited me out to see what the vibe was.” The current show is called “Santana: Greatest Hits Live Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow” so Mejias was sent tracks from Santana’s studio albums, as well as some live recordings of the band, so he could familiarize himself with the material. “I was able to spend time and practice in my house to get ready for the gig. I do everything by ear and, except for two new songs, most of the things are older like ’Oye Como Va,’ ’Black Magic Woman,’ and ’Jingo.’”
When Mejias arrived in Vegas, he went straight to the sound check and then played the gig, an unorthodox audition, to say the least. “It was a baptism by fire,” he says. “I had to perform that first night with no rehearsal.” After the gig, he was formally invited to join the band and record the new album Santana is working on. He started his job by playing with them during their eight-day residency at the House Of Blues in November. “They’re going to put me up in the Mandalay Bay while I’m there. It’s great to be able to stay in the same place for a while. It makes the gig a bit easier.”
The Santana Connection
The Vegas audition gig marks the second time that Mejias has played with Santana. His wife Sarah is from Seattle and Mejias plays there often with his Latin jazz quintet. In 2012, the city’s Experience Music Project, an interactive art and music museum, gave Santana their Founder’s
Award for his contributions to popular music. Michael Shrieve, the drummer on Santana’s first eight albums and the legendary Woodstock date, lives in Seattle and put together a band to play at the Experience Music Project tribute concert they put on in Santana’s honor. Shrieve personally selected Mejias to be the band’s percussionist, perhaps familiar with his yearly residency at Cornish College Of The Arts. “I already met [Santana] when his percussionist Karl Perrazo invited me to one of his concerts in Puerto Rico in 2005,” Mejias says, “but we didn’t get to speak until the concert in Seattle. He’s a good person and likes to talk to people and connect on a very human level. [Since joining the band], we hang out like a family. Everybody in the band and all the people that work with the band are very warm and open.”
The current Santana group includes three drummers and percussionists: Mejias on congas; Dennis Chambers, known for his strong funk feel and work with John McLaughlin, Maceo Parker, and Parliament/Funkadelic on traps, and Karl Perazzo, a longtime Santana associate, on djembe, timbales, bongo, handheld percussion, and vocals. “I’ve known Karl for 20 years, and everybody else in the band has played together for so long that there are no rehearsals. During a sound check, if we’re going to play new music, or if we’re going to change something up, it becomes a rehearsal.”
Mejias said he had no trouble fitting into the band. Santana is a generous bandleader and everyone gets a moment to solo during their sets. “Every night, something new happens. We always let ourselves be led by the music and the momentum. There’s a lot of communication going on within the music.” Mejias is a quick study and picked up on the nods and hand signals the other drummers used to communicate changes in tempo and direction. Since there are no written charts, there’s a lot of freedom in the arrangements. “I’m hoping I can stay with the band for a long time. They treat me like a brother and everyone is really professional. It’s the most incredible gig I’ve had in my life.”