Rebound Man: How Pablo “Chino” Nuñez Climbed Back From Rock Bottom

As the old adage would have us believe, you’ve got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues. Turns out that the same is true for salsa musicians. Pablo “Chino” Nuñez will be the first to admit that he never did much in the way of dues paying – gigs came his way easily since before he could shave – but in 2002, after a career that had already spanned 30 years and had seen the acclaimed percussionist perform with the likes of Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Marc Anthony, Ruben Blades, Johnny Panhreco, and Victor Manuelle (the list truly goes on and on), Nuñez, an explosive, expressive, and highly versatile player, with chops so prodigious that one would never expect him to be out of work anytime or anywhere, joined the ranks of New York’s homeless.

A confluence of negative events – a diminishing live and studio music scene along with the post-9/11 Manhattan economy – conspired to bring Nuñez to his knees. And a messy, acrimonious divorce didn’t help. “It was the weirdest thing,” says Nuñez. “For years and years I had tons of work. I was playing with the greats all the time. Money was usually never a problem. I was never rich or anything, but I had enough – plenty, in fact. But right around the time of my divorce, everything started drying up. And the thing is, you can’t force a gig to happen. You can’t will it to appear. It’s all about timing.” One thing drummers and percussionists can appreciate is timing, and they’re the first to know when it’s off. “Mine wasn’t just off,” says Nuñez. “Mine was stopped cold.”

Nuñez took to living in his car, a 1986 Caprice Classic, which he parked in a gloomy, industrial section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “At night I had to keep the car running just to try and stay warm,” he says. “A friend loaned me a coat. I managed to stay alive in that car, but man, it got cold, even while running the heat.” Nuñez now manages to laugh at the memory of the vehicle he once called home. “What a piece of crap, I tell you. It was brown and beige, but there was some bodywork done on it, and it had some rust, so it was something of a five-tone. The muffler was such a mess – you could hear me coming a mile away.” Still, the Caprice served a vital function, keeping Nuñez from having to live in a homeless shelter. “That was the one thing I refused to do. By hook or by crook, I wasn’t going to go to a shelter.”

For Nuñez, the experience of living in his car, while bad, and at times downright terrifying (“gangs banging chains on the hood when you’re trying to sleep, cops shining their lights on you and making you move”), didn’t compare with the shame of having to return his 13-year-old daughter Maggie to her birth mother (whom Nuñez never married). “My daughter had always lived with me,” he says. “Her mother had a history of substance abuse, which is one of the reasons I was awarded custody in the first place. But when I wound up homeless, I had to take Maggie to her mom and tell her I couldn’t care for her anymore. It was the worst thing I’d ever been through. Talk about an arrow through my heart.” Maggie’s mother not only opened her home to her daughter, she invited Nuñez to stay there as well until he got on his feet again. But the percussionist declined. “I just couldn’t do it,” he says. “My main concern was that my daughter was okay. As for me, I went back to my car, back to the streets.”

Nuñez ended up getting a low-paying job collecting money for a gas company. “At first I couldn’t afford an apartment so I had to stay in the car,” he says. “I had to wash my face and brush my teeth in the bathroom of a McDonald’s. And I was always trying to make sure my car didn’t get towed. But I was so happy to have that job and to be collecting a steady paycheck. It was only $500 a week, which meant that, after taxes, I was bringing home something like $300 or $350. I managed to get an apartment again, which cost me $800 a month – about as cheap as you can get in the New York area. I was always a buck or two shy when the landlord came around.”

Although Nuñez tried to remain positive, he admits that there were times when he’d sit in his apartment “with just one light on, no food, no TV, no nothing, and I’d think some very dark thoughts. How could you not?”

Slowly, however, Nuñez’s luck began to change: A friend who owed him $1,000 came through with double that amount. And then the real break came: Oscar Hernandez, who founded the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, managed to track Nuñez down. “I’d just gotten my cell phone turned back on,” says Nuñez, “and suddenly there was Oscar’s voice saying, ‘Hey, I got a gig for you.’” A year earlier, Nuñez had played on the Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s debut album, Un Gran Día en el Barrio, reviving the rootsy salsa sounds of Ray Barretto, Willie Colon, and Eddie Palmieri, among others, and now that the record was being released, Hernandez was lining up a tour, 60 dates in all, and he wanted Nuñez.

“I turned him down flat,” Nuñez dryly says. “It’s not that I didn’t want to play – on the contrary, I was dying to play – but didn’t want to lose my day job.”

Hernandez, however, wouldn’t take no for an answer, at least not so quickly. Calling Nuñez “crazy,” he faxed him the dates and told the percussionist to just “look them over and think about it.” Nuñez took the itinerary from the fax machine and sat down at his desk. His eyes started to fill with tears. “I didn’t know what to do. Do I take a chance on music again, or do I stay with my day job, a steady thing? It was really hard thinking that music might be over for me. Tears were literally coming out of my eyes, because I knew in my heart what I wanted to do, but my head was telling me something different. So my boss came by and saw the piece of paper. ‘What’s that?’ she said. I handed her the paper, and she looked at it and then she looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here? You’re a musician. Go. This is what you need to do.’ Thank God she told me that. She made the decision easy for me.”

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra tour was a smash, and the money Nuñez was able to pocket, more than $40,000, (“the most bread I’d seen in years”), put him back on track. Besides increasing the bank account, there was an additional boost to his self-esteem after Barrio received a Grammy nomination. The Orchestra’s 2004 follow-up, Across 110th Street, featuring Ruben Blades on four tracks, won the 2005 Grammy award for Best Salsa/Merengue Album. The album also featured Nuñez as an arranger, which he says helped to get his name out there. “Little by little, other offers for work started coming in – paying jobs, people wanting me to do arrangements and stuff. So here I am today, out of the Caprice and back in action!”

FLYING SOLO. If what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, perhaps it also makes you more artistic. After he was financially stable and back to making music, the creative fires in Nuñez were once again set ablaze. The result was the release of his own solo album in late 2007. A year and a half in the making, Doctor Salsa might have come out sooner had it not been for a few setbacks. “Three of my singers got sick and couldn’t do their vocals. One of them, Jose Papo River, got a lung infection that became so bad, he almost died. He was supposed to sing four songs on the album, but he ended up only singing three. He’s fine now – ready to rock and roll, so to speak.”

Nuñez performed most of Doctor's arrangements, and he cowrote the songs “Te Invito” and “Hoy Les Cantamos,” but it’s the timbalero’s talent for developing an overall aesthetic, seeing the bigger picture, as it were, that is his real forte. “I embellished the CD as I went along in ways that I hadn’t planned on. I had an original vision for the record, with certain songs and a certain kind of flow, but with so many obstacles in my way – people getting sick, people’s schedules changing, all that stuff – I ended up just letting the CD be what it wanted to be. I make the analogy that I created a piece of avant-garde art. There’s no real structure to it. It has its own unique form. It means something different to each person who hears it.”

Given his recent trials, you would think Doctor would be fairly dark thematically, but Nuñez operates by a different logic. “I try to keep all of my messages positive, mostly because that’s the kind of person I am, very upbeat. But the thing is, I’ve been tested severely. I’ve been through rough times, and I believe that my faith is what carried me through all of the hardships. So if I can convey any kind of message in my music, it’s going to be about keeping one’s faith. For example, the song ‘Llego Mi Oportunidad’ is all about giving praise and thanks to the man upstairs. It’s me saying, ‘Thank you for the gift of music, the gift of life, and the gift of my family.’ You know, every day I wake up and I’m so thankful that I can go to work at a job that I love. Not that I consider what I do work. Making music is a privilege – it’s not a job.”

FOUNDATION OF RHYTHM. Born in Puerto Rico in 1960, Nuñez has a vivid memory of his first musical moment: “My sister bought me a pair of timbales when I was six or seven years old. My father told me to put them on the bed to muffle them. I didn’t have drum sticks, so I had to use pencils to play them. I had one of those little record players that kids have – the volume and fidelity was on par with a transistor radio. But music was in my blood, so I was playing everything I could get my hands on: Motown, James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone, Simon & Garfunkel, the Carpenters, Captain & Tennille – whatever was on the radio – that was the stuff I was playing on my little record player.”

Not only were drums in his future, but Nuñez’s talent for arranging, which he expressed later in his career, was apparent at an early age. “For some reason, I could pick apart the chord changes and I could analyze the arrangements: ‘Okay, they’re going to the bridge here, and they’re doing a crescendo there.’ I had no formal musical training, of course; it was all by ear.”

Even though he was influenced by the rock bands and musical trends invading America, Nuñez’ first love remained hand drums. “Percussion instruments always fascinated me. I did like the idea of a regular drum kit, but the cymbals kind of intimidated me. I think I saw one of those monster Neil Peart kits and was like, ‘Holy cow! What do every one of those cymbals do?’ It seemed overwhelming to me in a mathematical way. But then I saw some Latin percussionists augmenting their setups with bass drums and lots of cymbals, so that made me rethink the whole thing. I became less intimidated. I know a lot of percussionists who are great drummers, but I never really wanted to be a master of both. Latin percussion was always in my heart. Congas, bongos, timbales – anything I could pound with my hands or hit with some sticks, that’s what got me grooving.”

When Nuñez describes himself as a natural, it’s not a boast but a statement of fact. As a kid, whenever he watched someone play a pattern on a conga, bongos, or timbales, he not only could play it back but also improve on it. Nuñez is self-taught, even when it comes to reading music. His autodidactic bent is a gift, partly because formal education rubbed him the wrong way.

“Actually, the one time I was in a proper music class was in junior high, and it was a disaster,” he says. “I remember this one particular day when we were supposed to play the theme to Rocky. Now, I was already playing bongos for Celia Cruz – I landed that gig because I was playing with all these local bands, and word of mouth traveled and eventually Celia heard about me. But I didn’t walk around the school acting like I was anything special – not my style, you know?

“Anyway, we’re trying to play the Rocky theme and the trumpet players were all out of whack – out of tune, off time, a total mess. I couldn’t take it. So I turned to the music teacher and I said I wasn’t going to play until the trumpet section could get it together. The teacher didn’t like that very much. To him, I was being insubordinate. I tried to tell him, ‘Look, I play with pros, and I know what I’m talking about.’ I was just trying to take a stand musically, and, in a roundabout way, I was trying to help everybody up their game, you know? The music teacher was having none of it, though. He didn’t believe me that I was playing with pros, he didn’t think the trumpets weren’t happening, and he didn’t appreciate my attitude. To him, I was just a jerk.

“The upshot was, I was sent to the principal’s office; I was suspended – the whole nine yards. That was the extent of my formal musical training. Everything else I learned on my own, playing with bands, learning from other musicians who were better than me. In the end, it all worked out. Still, I learned an important lesson: You’ve got to be humble in life. If you go around tooting your horn and being a know-it-all, chances are it’s going to bite you in the ass.”

CROSSOVER APPEAL. It’s ironic that so many of his peers view his tenure with Cyndi Lauper as Nuñez’s big break. If anything, the arrangement was more beneficial to Lauper. “She wanted to explore reggae and Latin music, which was very bold of her – to take her pop hits and transform them into a kind of world music vibe, it was a big step. And her voice, my God, I had no idea! She has this image of being a little kewpie doll, you know, doing bubblegum pop like “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” but let me tell you, she has a set of pipes on her. She can sing for days, and with power, too. A very big gift.”

Even with lighter fare such as this, it was the rigor that Nuñez brought to the proceedings that accounted for his appeal. “I got hired pretty easily. The thing that caught the attention of a lot of producers was the fact that I would always ask for charts – a lot of percussionists don’t do that. But I had taught myself to read, so it was important for me on any session I did that I knew the song inside and out. A lot of percussionists just go with the flow, which is fine and has its place, but if you want to really play music properly in a studio setting, you should know the music. If you don’t waste the producer’s time and money, he’s going to want to hire you back.”

The visibility and pay of playing with a mainstream pop star notwithstanding, it was working with Ruben Blades that proved to be the most enriching experience in Nuñez’s life as a professional percussionist. “Musically, he’s a bad dude. He’s an entertainer, he’s a showman, he’s a storyteller. He’s very loose when it comes to making music, though. He runs down the material and lets you run with it. But that doesn’t mean he won’t call you out if you’re doing something he doesn’t like; he gives you a lot of leash, but he’ll tug on it hard if you’re up the wrong tree. You have to be on top of your game to play with him. But once you master that, then it’s loose – and a lot of fun.”

GOING GLOBAL. For the time being, Nuñez is fully engrossed in preparations for touring behind Doctor overseas, with a show date already locked down for Greece. With the help of a sponsor, he will be able to take all 13 members of his band. “We’re not getting paid that much, but at least we’re getting a chance to bring the music to the people,” he says. “Summertime is going to be a better time as far as touring goes; there’s tons of salsa festivals and music extravaganzas taking place everywhere during the summer, so we’ll be taking advantage of that. Right now, the hot spots for my music are mostly in Europe. London, France, Spain – we’re big in all of those places, which is great – a nice way to be a tourist and get paid for it!”

As far as America warming up to salsa goes, it’s something of an uphill battle, although Nuñez takes comfort in the lessons of history. “It’s just like jazz, the way the European audiences were quicker to embrace it over American crowds. But the States are coming around. New York, Chicago, San Francisco, L.A. – those are big markets. And, as you might expect, we can play all through Florida – the whole state is in love with salsa music. Slowly, other cities are waking up. Salsa isn’t going away. If I can have anything to do with it, it’s going to get bigger and better.”

Nuñez’s Setup

DRUMS LP Tito Puente Commemorative Bronze
Shell Timbales

1. 14"
2. 15"

CYMBALS SabianM
A. 14" HHX Evolution Mini-Chinese
B. 18" V-Crash

PERCUSSION LP
C. Medium Pitch Jam Block (red)
D. High-Pitch Salsa Cha-Cha Cowbell
E. Salsa “Downtown” Timbale Cowbell
F. Roland SPD-S Sampling Percussion Pad with kick trigger and Loaded Wave samples

Pablo “Chino” Nuñez also uses LP Hickory 6/17 sticks

Chino’s Chops

By Glen Caruba

Timbalero Pablo “Chino” Nuñez shows off straight-ahead salsa on his latest release, Doctor Salsa. This record is a great modern example of how timbales can lead a rhythm section and kick a full horn section in lieu of a traditional drum set. Ex. 1 comes at the end of the opening track, “Te Invito,” and the over-the-bar-line unison fills are punctuated by the horns every other grouping of sixteenth-notes (represented by the accents). Keep in mind that the grooves to these selections have the foundation of cascara (playing the timbale shell), or campana (the large cowbell in a timbale set) as the underlying rhythm.

On “Permiteme Sonar,” another cool metrically deceptive horn line accented by Nuñez’s timbale kicks and cymbal crashes set up the chorus quite effectively, as shown in Ex. 2. Ex. 3 arrives at the end of the first verse on the title track. Plenty of syncopated kicks and horn stabs interlaced with the vocals make for this well-executed channel out of the section.