Paoli Mejias: Santana’s New Conguero

Haiti And Beyond

When he’s not touring with Santana, Mejias is busy working on a new recording, an album he hopes to release this year. The still untitled set is collaboration with his friend Jafet Murguía, one of the best percussionists in Puerto Rico.

Murguía is currently doing missionary work in Haiti and his descriptions of the music he was hearing in the churches there inspired the new project. Mejias traveled to Haiti with a portable recording studio and a video crew and met up with Murguía to record Haitian singers, church choirs, and folkloric performers. Mejias and Murguía each wrote songs that the artists translated into Creole so they could do their own treatments of the material.

“The videos capture the artists in their natural setting and we’ll include some of that footage with the package,” Mejias explains. “I’m taking the [vocal] tracks and adding music and percussion by local Puerto Rican musicians.”

The finished album will be a fundraiser, with all the money going to the people of Haiti and the missionaries working with them. Mejias is also working on a new Paoli Mejias Quintet project. He’s creating complicated rhythms and patterns using djembe, congas, timbales, and other percussion elements. Like his last three CDs, the music will incorporate diverse elements taken from Asian, Greek, Flamenco, African, and other world music sources.

“When I was on tour with Eddie Palmieri and other bands, I heard music from all over the world. I started to have the desire to explore new creative outlets for jazz because the music of the world is very rich in rhythms. I wanted to break out of the traditional constrictions that sometimes keep artists from moving to the next level, without abandoning the rich Puerto Rican folkloric rhythms that are the root of my music.”

Puerto Rican Roots

The roots Mejias speaks of run deep. He was born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. His first band experience was playing in a parranda (a singing and percussion group that goes from house to house to serenade their neighbors at Christmas time), on homemade instruments, mostly pots and pans borrowed from the family kitchen. He didn’t consider himself a musician, but everybody that heard him play, even before he was a teenager, told him he had a natural talent for music.

Although they weren’t musicians, his parents loved music and filled the house with the sounds of Patato Valdes, Batacumbele, Irakere, Hector Lavoe, Eddie Palmieri, Ishmael Rivera, and Tito Puente. “I sold newspapers and used the money I made to buy a broken pair of bongos for three dollars. I used the parts to put together a small set of baby congas that I still have.”

Mejias started playing by trying to copy the sounds he was hearing on the records his parents played. He’d practice for hours every day and, when he saw other players in concert, or on the street, he’d try to memorize their patterns, then go home and reproduce them on his homemade drums. Early on, he realized that every drummer had an individual sound and tone and he worked hard to develop his own identity. “I had a passion for percussion, especially the congas. They were my first love and that’s how I still express myself best.”

When he was young, he didn’t think of himself as a musician, but anyone who heard Mejias play was impressed and the word soon spread through the neighborhood. Every weekend, he’d participate in jam sessions on the streets and beaches of San Juan. In the plaza of Loíza, he met drummers that were involved in the Yoruba religion, people who still had the feel of African music in their playing. They accepted Mejias as one of their own and he started winning the trophies they awarded at their yearly competitions. The African tinge he picked up has remained an important part of his sound.

He landed his first paying gig, playing congas in a steel band that performed six days a week at hotels, while he was still in grammar school. “I was able to buy my clothes and schoolbooks with money I made at my gigs,” he says, laughing. “I bought a set of professional congas too, but it was never work for me. I was happy playing and practicing.”

A local batá master, José Ramírez, saw Mejias playing rumba in the street and asked him to join his batá group. He quickly learned the patterns and rhythms and was soon playing for Santería ceremonies and rituals, which added another layer of rhythmic knowledge to his style. “I was not in the religion of Santería, but I love music and participated as a musician. I learned a lot with them. Like the Yoruba, they have a lot of unique patterns in their music.”

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