Carlos Caro: Afro-Cuban Evolution

Carlos Caro

San Francisco’s Latin music scene has contributed its own matchless innovations to the genre for as long as New York’s and Miami’s. In fact, San Francisco’s Club Puertorriqueño is the oldest Latin cultural organization in the United States. The Bay Area has been home to many world-class players since the early ’50s, when Cal Tjader started his first Latin jazz band. To fortify his rhythms, Tjader brought percussion masters Armando Peraza, Mongo Santamaria, and Willie Bobo to the Bay Area. Cuban musicians have made a major contribution to the city’s Latin community ever since. Percussionist, teacher, composer, and bandleader Carlos Caro is a prime example of the Cuban cross-pollination that continues to enrich the Bay Area.

From Cuba To The Bay

When Caro came to San Francisco in 1996, his prowess on a wide variety of percussion instruments immediately made an impact. Rita Hargrave, the director of The Last Mambo, the forthcoming documentary that details the history of Latin music in San Francisco, says Caro has made an invaluable contribution to the scene since he arrived.

“Carlos plays with six different groups on the Salsa de la Bahia CD, the soundtrack album we put out to complement the film,” Hargrave says. “He’s an adventurous and collaborative musician, with a profound knowledge and expression of Afro-Cuban roots. He’s aware of jazz and hard driving dance grooves and you always know there’s going to be an infectious tempo in store when he comes in and sets up.”

Caro’s prowess has contributed to the sound of many of the Bay Area’s best bands, both on and off record. On Salsa de la Bahia, he plays timbales and contributes lyrics to Orquesta La Moderna Tradición’s “En el Tiempo de la Colinia,” adds guiro and Vibra-Slap to Anthony Blea y Su Charanga’s “Virgen de la Cariad,” and inserts a heavy dance pulse with an R&B flavor to Avánce’s “A Bailar con Avánce.” He also lays down a hard driving timba rhythm on congas and maracas with his own band Vission Latina on “Mira a Elena.” He’s adept at everything from the slightly archaic swing of the 19th century danzón, to the futuristic timba and Latin jazz pulse he supplies with his own group. He respects tradition and is familiar with the entire panorama of Cuban music, adding hints of son, cha cha, charanga, and other styles into his own music. “I sat with him and his band at a recording studio one afternoon,” Hargrave recalls. “We started talking about the evolution of Cuban music and he demonstrated the progression of complexity from changui, to son, to timba on piano and percussion. It was fascinating.”

Carlos Caro

Caro’s Setup

Drums LP Matador Raul Rekow Signature Series Fiberglass Congas
1 11" x 28" Quinto
2 11.75" x 28" Conga
3 12.5"x28"Tumbadora
4 14" x 8.5" Tito De Gracia Timbales
5 7.25"/8.625" Galaxy Fiberglass Bongos
6 Cajon

Cymbals Zildjian
A 16" K Dark Crash Medium Thin

Percussion LP
B Jam Block (medium pitch)
C Jam Block (high pitch)
D Black Beauty Senior Cowbell
E Sergio George Salsa Cowbell

Carlos Caro also uses Remo heads for congas/bongos, evans heads for timbales, and Vater timbale sticks.

The Music Of The Streets

While Caro was born in Havana in 1967, he grew up in Guanajay, Cuba, a little town known for its rich musical heritage. It was the birthplace of Maria Teresa Vira, the famous trova singer and composer of the standard “Veinte Años,” most recently recorded by Omara Portuondo on the debut album of the Buena Vista Social Club. “It’s a country town and when I grew up, there were still a lot of traditional musicians living there,” Caro says. “There was a lot of interaction between them and the community. You could hear music coming out of almost every house when you walked down the street.”

He recalls the festivities that took place from December 3 - 10 every year to celebrate the foundation of the village in 1650. The most popular bands in Cuba would travel to the town and play free concerts, both at the local theater and on the streets. The shows would go on all day and long into the night. Music filled the air and lifted his spirit, reinforcing his desire to be a musician when he grew up.

Caro was drawn to percussion at an early age. Like many future hand drummers, he began by beating out rhythms on tin cans and the pots and pans in the family’s kitchen, and was surrounded by music when he was growing up. “[My mother] used to collect records,” Caro recalls. “She had an old record player and loved all the music from the ’50s and ’60s – Orquesta Aragón, Nat King Cole, Orquesta de Enrique Jorrin, Los Van Van, and traditional Cuban music. She had 78s, 45s, and LPs.”

Mrs. Caro loved jazz and American pop music as well as Afro-Cuban sounds. She played maracas and sang, although she never became a professional performer. His father sung in a worker’s choir, an amateur singing group that performed at parties, parades, and holiday celebrations. His paternal grandfather was a musician who sang, played tres – a small Cuban guitar with three double strings – and composed décemas, a kind of folkloric music with origins in Puerto Rico.

“He played musica campesina, the typical music that the workers in the fields played,” Caro says. Musica campesina is an important building block of the son, connecting modern Cuban music to its rural past. His grandfather on his mother’s side was a singer from Asturias, Spain. “He was always singing around the house. I think the joy he found in music was a big influence on me.

“When I was young, I tried playing guitar and took piano lessons with a local teacher, but I was in love with percussion. I attended an elementary school that was almost a mile from my home. Every day, I’d walk to school and I’d never pass a group of rumba players without stopping to see what was going on. I was captivated by bongos, tambores, and the clave.”

Discovering The Rhythm

Caro’s parents noticed their son’s obsession with percussion and supported his musical aspirations. When he was nine years old, his father bought him a small quinto. “For about a year, I played by myself without any supervision, exploring the instrument without falling into any particular rhythm, but I could feel the music and I could feel the beat. I used to dance a lot when I was a kid. I think that helped me connect with the rhythms I was playing.”

As luck would have it, Caro’s father knew a carpenter who made drums and had a full set of congas made for his son. “My grandpa used to work in a tannery. He brought home the skin to make the drumheads for my child-sized congas.” Caro continued practicing on his own for several years, playing along with his mother’s records. At school he took some elementary classical training on snares, timpani, bass drum, and percussion, but it was the dance music that filled the streets of Guanajay that captivated him. “The school of the street is where I really learned, although I believe you need both. The great pioneers like Beny More and Arsenio Rodriquez never went to school.

“I developed my technique practicing on my own for many hours and by asking for help from the older, more experienced bongoceros. I still played other kinds of percussion, but bongos became my passion. I used to hang around the older musicians, watching the way they played and listening to the stories they told about their lives. I’d ask them about the patterns they played. They taught me the rudiments of stick control – how to use both hands when you’re playing traps or timbales – which was really useful for my technique, but I was really looking for my own sound and style.”

While attending the World Youth Festival in Havana in 1978, Caro got his first chance to perform in public. He was part of his school’s Comparsa – a group of drummers and dancers that perform traditional music and dance. When they got to Havana, the teachers realized that several of the group’s drummers were missing, including the boy who held down the clave on cowbell. “I told [the teacher] I could play percussion,” Caro says. “I demonstrated some of the rhythms and changes and they let me hold down the time. You need a lot of stamina because the tempos are all medium to fast, and you have to play for several hours, but I was able to do it. It was my first time playing for a large audience.”

After that formative experience, Caro began playing with local bands and at- tending classes at the Alejandro Garcia Caturla Conservatory in Havana. “I was just finishing high school. My father would take me to Havana so I could take classes in music theory, technique, and elementary training on the drum kit.”

Carlos Caro

The Early Days

After graduating from high school, Caro attended the Escuela Nacional de In- structores de Arte (National School of Art Instructors) for two years, where he took a full academic course of study in addition to classes in music theory, drumming, and sight-reading. He was thinking about becoming a teacher, but dropped out and spent the next four years with singer Puly Hernandez in his band Clave. Caro played bongos and contributed to the band’s high-energy show by taking a cowbell to the edge of the stage to interact with the audience.

During his time with Clave, he experimented with the tri-bongo, a three-headed bongo drum he designed himself. “I built [the tri-bongo] with the help of a welder in Havana,” he says. “The inspiration came from feeling a necessity to add another tone to my bongo to get more sonorous options. I played it for a while in Clave, but eventually went back to the regular two-headed drum.”

Clave had a brief, but very high profile career playing festivals and touring with bands like NG La Banda, Dan Den, Adalberto y su Son, and Opus 13, which asked Caro to join the band as their first bongocero. Opus 13, led by singer Paulo Fernandez Gallo, was one of the best timba bands of the ’90s, known for its intricate rhythm arrangements, and Caro’s playing was an important component of their sound. When Paulo left the band to start Paulo y Su Elite, he took Caro with him. The band backed singer Jaqueline Castellanos on her EGREM (roughly equivalent to a Cuban Grammy) winning album La Dama del Son.

Caro left Cuba for Mexico City in 1992. He met up with a group of Cuban musicians that helped him find work, and broadened his rhythmic chops by play- ing in various merengue bands. He soon landed high profile gigs with La Rumban- tela, a quartet with Cuban pianist Osmany Paredes, and Orquesta 40 Grados, a band put together by Barbaro Perez, former bass player of Son 14. He also played with the Mexico City Philharmonic directed by Cuban pianist Gonzalo Romeu.

California Dreamin’

While he was living in Mexico City, Caro met the woman who was to become his wife. She was visiting her family and her aunt was married to Jonatan Maldonado, the Columbian piano player in La Gozadera, one of the many bands Caro was playing in. “We fell in love and, after she finished her university studies in the United States, she asked me to join her,” Caro says. A year later, in 1997, Caro moved to Modesto, California, and started a family.

One of the first musicians Caro met after moving to Northern California was Jesus Díaz, another Cuban expatriate. “My wife and I went to see Los Van Van when they came to San Francisco and I introduced myself to Jesus. I knew him from the trio he had with Michael Spiro and David Garibaldi called Talking Drums. He told me to come to Sacramento and attend a clinic he was giving.” Díaz was playing with Conjunto Cespedes and introduced Caro to Anthony Blea, John Santos, Wayne Wallace, and other members of San Francisco’s Latin jazz community. Caro was soon playing with Avánce, Orquesta La Moderna Tradición, Anthony Blea y Su QBA, and various other Mexican, Latin, and merengue bands.

By 2002, in addition to playing with several ensembles, sometimes as many as three gigs a night, Caro taught percussion in Merced. “The producer of a small festival asked me to put together a band. Since they didn’t have a big budget, I couldn’t bring people down from the Bay Area, so I got a piano player from Modesto who didn’t have much experience playing Latin music and hired a couple of my students. When they asked me what the band was called, I said, ’Vission Latina.’ It came right off the top of my head.”

Vission Latina

Caro liked the sound of his impromptu band and set about hiring people to properly play his compositions. Bass player Saul Sierra and pianist Marco Díaz were early members of the group and still play with the band. “When I get an idea [for a com- position], I go to Saul and Marco and we establish the structure. They’re also good composers and arrangers.”

Vission Latina has cut two records since their inception – Kitikimba Pa’ti (2004) and Sonando Como un Cañon (2010) – albums that show off the diversity of Caro’s musical ideas, with arrangements ranging from the traditional sounds he grew up with, to the modern rhythms of timba. In the past few years, he also created the VL Trio with Sierra and Díaz, a more laid back format that plays Latin jazz arrangements of classic American tunes from the ’50s. VL Trio has made one album, Tradicionando, and hopes to have their second record out by the end of 2013, if time and money permit.

“We started a production company, VL Sounds, and we handle all our projects: the Vission Latina big band, the Vission Latina Sextet, and the VL Trio. With the help of Saul and Marco, we manage and book the bands and run a recording studio and production company that can write songs and produce demos, or finished albums, for other artists. We do some publicity as well.”

His ability to sight-read, coupled with the technique he picked up on the streets of Guanajay, made Caro aware of the importance of education. He contributed percussion to Rebeca Mauleón’s instructional DVD/book Muy Caliente! (Sher Music Company) and is at work creating a series of instructional books on playing bongos for Kevin More of timba.com.

Following the example of his own parents, he encourages the musical interests of his children. His 15-year-old daughter Odalys plays classical and Latin jazz piano and played keys on “Que Sabor Tiene Odalys,” a track on Vission Latina’s album Sonando Como un Cañon. His son Osmany plays violin and trombone in the Modesto Youth Symphony.

Caro played bongos in the band that appeared in the HBO film Hemingway And Gellhorn and currently stays busy teaching sporadic percussion classes, while playing in eight other Bay Area bands including Mazacote, La Moderna Tradición, Anthony Blea y Su Charanga, Avánce, and Los Cenzontles. When asked if he ever sleeps, he laughs. “Sleep? I try to, but with everything I do, sometimes it’s hard.”