Legacy: Richie & Roland Gajate-Garcia
Indeed, Richie’s pedigree runs deep. Along with Peraza, who gave Richie his first set of LP bongos growing up (which he still has), Puente remained a family friend. He adds, “In my book, Play Congas Now, there is a photo of Doel playing congas with a local San Francisco Latin orchestra called Havana Madrid. He also played with Xavier Cugat. My stepfather was the director of tourism for the Island of Puerto Rico, and he was a businessman. I grew up playing drums and percussion in Puerto Rico but never considered it as a career until I was in college.”
Richie began work that led to degrees from Springfield College in Illinois and The American Conservatory Of Music in Chicago. At the Conservatory during the ’70s, he went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in music education along with his teaching credentials.
As a youth, Richie says, “I first began on congas, then bongos, then timbales and hand percussion, including cowbell, guiro, maracas, and, lastly, drum set.” But things inevitably took on a new dimension when he entered academia, including his future career as an educator. “While at The Conservatory Of Music, I learned classical percussion. My professor James Dutton offered jazz studies after the regular school hours. He then asked me to teach Latin percussion, which was not being offered in those days.”
No doubt one of things that son Roland has picked up along the way is father Richie’s unique style of combining different instruments. “My dad is known for playing multi-percussion instruments simultaneously, which sparked me to be more creative and find my own style pushing my musical boundaries.” Richie lays claim to being one of the first to start playing a combined hybrid kit long before it was “the thing.” “My nickname is ‘El Pulpo,’” he says, “which means ‘The Octopus.’ I’m known for covering both the drum and percussion chairs simultaneously. I did that for John Denver as well as Art Garfunkel for many years.” This is what led Richie to help design the well-known Gajate Bracket by LP, which is famously used for playing cowbell with your foot.
This was around the time Richie was finishing school and entering the world of being a full-time professional musician. The arc of Roland’s career would eventually parallel his father’s. “In Chicago,” Richie remembers of that time in the mid- to late ’70s, “I started emerging as a musician who could play percussion, play drums, and read music ... especially in the Latin community. At this time, Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons hired me to do some local shows, which led him to offer me my first recordings and world tour. This required me to move to New York and later to California. I’ve been working ever since.”
Roland closely followed suit. “I used to teach Frankie Valli’s son private drum lessons when I was sixteen,” Roland recalls, “and when he needed a percussionist he hired me. We played a private event for Donald Trump at his Mar Largo estate in West Palm Beach.” Roland, who received his bachelor’s degree in music from California State University Northridge, followed in his father’s footsteps when he held the percussion chair for Patti LaBelle and for Diana Ross. And, also like his father, Roland’s first gig was with Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons.
Like Father, Like Son
Like his dad, Roland went pro inadvertently. “My career has evolved from something that started more like a hobby into something that I have made into a career,” he says. “When I first started I was focused on learning drum set, but the older I get the more I gravitate to learning new instruments to open up my ears and see the bigger picture.”
Having grown up watching it work for his father, Roland also sees that, purely from a business standpoint, being responsible and reliable are as crucial as being musically flexible. But nothing can replace individuality. “I’ve been able to let go of the thought that I had to please everybody,” Roland says. “The great thing about music is that everyone can have their own individual voice.” Noting players like Gregg Bissonette, Alex Acuña, Jeff Hamilton, and Gerry Brown have also been mentors to him besides his father, Roland wisely says, “When you are younger, you try to imitate your favorite players, which I feel is important, but as you get older you keep that spirit and create your own.”
Among the many factors in his being hired to the American Idol band, and in a similar way mirroring a process the Idol band goes through, Roland recalls the training he received playing with Patti LaBelle, which he calls “one of my biggest learning experiences. I started playing with her when I was 19. Everyone in that band was a close unit and I really learned how to complement a great drummer — Eric Seats — as a percussionist. We would record the rehearsals and listen back as a band in the hotel. I feel that recording yourself can often be your best teacher, and we would point out little intricacies.”
A big plus for being hired for American Idol came from working with other legends. “I’ve had the privilege of playing with Diana Ross,” Roland says proudly. “She has an extensive catalog of hits. Motown is such an important era of pop music. And touring with drummer Gerry Brown exposed me to a more linear approach to R&B drumming.”
The highlight thus far of the father/son career trajectory that has defined Roland’s life was traveling the world with Persian singer/actress Googoosh. “I was able to tour the world with my father,” he says. “He was the drummer while I played percussion. I was able to travel to such amazing places like Turkey, Dubai, Malaysia, these experiences opening my eyes to world music. It was challenging to stylistically learn new feels and rhythms, primarily 6/8 Persian rhythms.”
Since he majored in jazz drum set performance at Cal State University Northridge, Roland makes the connection that “learning jazz gave me a very strong foundation to learn any style of music.”