Karl Perazzo & Raul Rekow: Stoking Santana’s Flame
Look up the phrase “rhythm section” in the Encyclopedia Britannica and you’ll see their pictures – the prestigious percussionists who have shared the stage with one Devadip Carlos Santana. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Mexican-born guitarist’s collective of San Francisco-based musicians fused Latin and rock like none before them. The 1969 debut-album rhythm section of percussionists José “Chepitó” Areas, Mike Carabello, and drummer Michael Shrieve are the beginning of a long lineage of legendary percussion sections.
Santana’s current battery is no different. In the Vol. 10, #6 issue, our illustrious Jared Cobb eloquently wrote, “Simply put, Karl Perazzo is a badass.” He ain’t lyin’. Perazzo’s ten years with the group were preceded by stints with everyone from Andy Narell to John Lee Hooker to Prince to Pete and Sheila Escovedo. And conga master Raul Rekow? We don’t really even need to go there. One number should suffice: 27 – as in, years with Santana. Take Cobb’s quote, replace the name, and add “Old School.”
We also probably don’t have to say much about the “new” kit drummer who at press time has recorded several songs for Santana’s upcoming album (tentatively titled Shaman), and is currently on the road with the band. We’re talking about Dennis Chambers. His credit list is equally daunting: John Scofield, George Clinton and P-Funk, Mike Stern, David Sanborn, Stanley Clarke, Bob Berg, etc. Take Cobb’s quote, replace the name, but call him a “Baltimore badass.”
On an afternoon of rehearsals in Marin, California, one can’t help notice the palpable family atmosphere. The band, the crew, everyone treats each other with a supreme amount of respect. And when the music happens, duck or grab something solid, because it’s on. You’d think Karl, Raul, and Dennis had played their whole lives together, such is their collective fire. But passion is nothing without direction and cooperation, and the musical intuitiveness between the three is awe-inspiringly uncanny.
We tried to find out what the secret is, and while there may not be any one boiler-plate answer, you will notice an underlying trend in the interviews that follow, one to take to heart: the eyes don’t have it, the ears do. When it comes to Karl, Raul, and Dennis, these are six titanic ears. There’s not much to do but, as these guys would say, listen.
The Big Machine
DRUM!: Do the two of you have a method for working out your percussion parts when you learn new songs?
Rekow: It changes with every song, the circumstances really kind of dictate what happens. It’ll either come from a song that already has something on it – in other words, if we receive a demo that has something that’s good, then we’ll go after that. Otherwise, it’ll be Karl or myself, or Carlos that will come up with the ideas.
DRUM!: Does Carlos ever give a strict roadmap, or is it usually pretty open?
Rekow: He gives us some leeway to create our own parts. He has big ears, and he sees the overall picture a little bit better than I do sometimes. In other words, I concentrate on my part, and try to be cool and hip with my part, but sometimes I don’t realize that that might interfere with something else in the song. And Carlos has a little bit more vision with that. Sometimes he’ll say, “Listen, that’s a little too busy,” or “that’s not enough,” or “maybe we need to change the pattern,” and he’ll give us a chance to come up with something. But if we don’t, then he’ll have some ideas as well.
(Left) Karl Perazzo
DRUM!: What’s a good example of that?
Perazzo: Well, like in “Smooth,” for instance, how he had Raul change the conga part.
Rekow: Actually, that came from the demo.
Perazzo: Oh, did it?
Rekow: Yeah. I pretty much copped what I heard on the demo, which I thought was cool. So I mentioned it to the producer, who was also one of the writers on the song. He was there in the studio, and I went up to him and said, “Listen, I kind of like what you had on the machine, so I’d like to try to cop that because I think it works well.” He said, “That’s cool, but feel free to change it as well.” So I kept that in some parts, and changed it in others.
DRUM!: Is there a good example of a part that both of you came up with on your own, and then brought to Carlos?
Perazzo: On the latest record that’s going to come out, we all did some writing together. Once we’re in a writing mode, then everyone is in a listening mode. We kind of just borrow of each other. If it’s a certain groove, and Carlos says, “Hey, can you guys come up with something, or a chant?” Then Raul and I will come up with a vocal thing, or a rhythmic thing, and it kind of works like that. He gives us that opportunity right there on the spot. It’s really up to us at that point to produce. But the door is always open. As far as the musical vocabulary between Raul and I, it’s so strong, we can just hop on. It’s like, “you do this, I’ll do that.” It becomes like a big giant machine after a while.
Rekow: This might be a little bit off the point [turns to Karl], but last night after I talked to you, I broke out some video tapes that were sent to me, and I was enjoying some of our old solos. I mean, solos from ’92 up until now. Man, there’s some incredible stuff there, Karl.
Perazzo: Yeah, I’ve got to see that.
Rekow: I mean, we did some duets that have to rival Orestes Vilato and these cats – I swear to God. Wait until you see this. Especially when we did the [starts singing], you were playing the cascara on the side of the congas, playing quinto with your left, it sounds like ten people. We’re singing the chorus, the lead vocal, holding time, and improvising, all at the same time together. The difficulty, the complexity of that, it’s almost impossible.
Perazzo: But it was fun! [laughs]
Rekow: But it’s not only like patting your head and rubbing your stomach…
DRUM!: …and doing the “Riverdance.” [both laugh]
Rekow: Yeah, and doing a dance, and singing at the same time. That independence is pretty phenomenal.
Perazzo: I think one of the things that made it a little bit easier for me to come in and kind of find my place in this band was that I listened to Raul, and the players before Raul when I was a kid. I always thought that when they made that switch to Raul, he added that fire. I kind of knew what my place was immediately. Again, you don’t really know until you’re there, how incredibly it gelled.
Rekow: That’s what was amazing to me about the videos that I was watching. When Karl and I play together, we really hear each other. We know where we are in the bar. That only comes from time and listening and a certain chemistry. I mean, some guys can play together for their whole lives, and not have the same chemistry that Karl and I have. Last night I was just thinking how thankful I am to have met Karl, because he’s a part of me. He’s my right arm, and I’m his right arm.
Perazzo: [nodding approvingly] Likewise, for me. My family, all my cousins, they’re always bragging about Raul, like “he’s the man!” [laughs]
DRUM!: There was a moment while you were rehearsing when you two looked at each other at precisely the same instant. You just seemed to say something significant right then.
Perazzo: We had spoken to each other. There is an inner language, and if you’re humble enough, you can understand the language. You can understand what Dennis said to me as he went to the cymbals. So I look over at them and it’s like, “I got it.” And they’ll smile at me or wink. Raul and I are to a point where we say the same thing at the same time. We’re almost twins now.
Rekow: This happens to us a lot. That’s chemistry. Basically, any musician in the Santana band has to have big ears. You have to listen to the soloist and support the soloist. There’s a couple ways of doing that. You can do it, first of all, by holding the groove. The second is to embellish behind them without getting in their way. There’s another thing too where sometimes it’s a call-and-answer. Sometimes Carlos will ask a question on his guitar and either Karl or myself will answer it. And it just so happened that a little while ago Carlos asked a question, and Karl and I gave the same answer at the same time. That’s why we looked at each other.
DRUM!: How long does it take to get to that point?
Perazzo: It takes years of listening, and years of submission. I mean, look. I’m Karl Perazzo, that’s Raul Rekow, and that’s Dennis Chambers. I submit to those guys, and vice-versa. There’s no “I’m the leader over here.” That’s not going to fly. I think that’s what makes the magic. After a gig in Seattle Dennis said, “I don’t know why so many drummers have a hard time. All I’ve got to do is sit back and listen.” That’s Dennis Chambers saying that. And Carlos told me one time, “That’s why God made the world round, so that everybody could have center stage.”
DRUM!: When did you two know you had something special, playing together?
Perazzo: To be frankly honest, the very first day, in 1991. And I’ll tell you why. I grew up listening to Raul, I’m a fan. Before a brother, I was a fan. You’re talking to a student.
(Left) Raul Rekow
DRUM!: Raul, do you agree? Was your connection that immediate?
Rekow: Definitely, it was. And I can take it back further than that. Just before he came into the Santana band, I was doing a gig over at Caesar’s Latin Palace in San Francisco, and Karl was substituting one night. Right from the very beginning, the first note, we knew that we were compatible. It is something very special that Karl and I have. To be able to play in synch, first of all, is one form of independence. Karl and I have worked out routines where we play the rhythm, improvise on top of the rhythm, sing the chorus, and then sing the lead as well. To put all that together with two people, we’re covering the ground of at least five or six people. So to be able to carry that big a load, and not drop it, is incredible.
Dennis, The Third Right Arm
DRUM!: Now that you’ve got Dennis Chambers behind the kit, has he changed your approach to collaborating together as a unit?
Rekow: It doesn’t really change what Karl and I do, so much. It actually makes our job easier.
Perazzo: Yeah, it frees us up a little bit. We don’t really have to play as much, wouldn’t you say?
Rekow: Absolutely. It makes it easier, because we’re all carrying the load equally. It’s distributed equally. That’s another thing about that tape I was watching the other night, because I saw Graham Lear on drums, and [José] Chepitó [Areas]. And I’m thinking back about the drummers in the band. Rodney Holmes, Walfredo Reyes, Billy Johnson, Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, Ricky Wellman, and now Dennis Chambers. I mean, that lineage of drummers, we’re so honored to have played with all of these incredible drummers. Each one of them is, for me, within the top five or ten drummers in the world, you know? Playing with Dennis is definitely something that Karl and I have looked forward to. We had our first real opportunity to play with him on Let’s Set The Record Straight by Tom Coster.
DRUM!: Did you rehearse much with Dennis before doing sessions for the album? Did you feel him out a little?
Perazzo: We had a couple days of rehearsal, but not to feel him out. We wanted to oblige him, you know. We’re not saying, “When you come here, this is how it’s supposed to be.” I mean, we have to change for him too, you know. But we felt that his playing and timing was so strong, we had maybe a day and a half of rehearsal and went right into the studio. And we recorded a number of tunes, and they all came out great. I think a couple of them will make it on the record.
DRUM!: What impresses you most about Dennis’s drumming?
Perazzo: His tone is so big, his sound is like … man. That’s one of the first things I noticed. Obviously, he comes from Parliament, so that carries all of that.
Rekow: The other thing is, the Baltimore trio – Carter Beauford, Ricky Wellman, and Dennis Chambers – those three have a big sound. The kick drum and the snare, there’s no question as to where the time is, for all three of them.
Perazzo: Yeah, those guys are brutal, man. And I learned right away just how easy it is to play with Dennis. He’s a big listener. He has a good sense of when Raul and I are going to do a fill, he has a really good insight into that. Or he’ll just say very humbly, “You take it.” And I’m like, “Dude, you’re Dennis Chambers. You can do that one-handed.”
DRUM!: Dennis has done all of this amazingly complex stuff with other artists, and it’s all from memory, it’s all ears. No chart reading.
Perazzo: I think that’s just the gift of God, the ability to hear like that. That’s how Raul and I study. We’re not big readers.
Rekow: On that same note, Buddy Rich couldn’t read music either. Reading music is definitely an advantage, but then again, you can make it a disadvantage. Some people choose not to make it a disadvantage; Dennis is one, Carlos is another. Myself, I don’t read – well, I can read, but not very well. I can’t sight read. I have to sit there and decipher things. So it’s easier for me to just listen to it and learn it that way. And Dennis is the type of guy, kind of like Buddy Rich, if you play him the song one time, the next time around he’ll hit it and he’ll catch all the punches, all the fills, all the breaks. [sighs] Incredible ears.
Perazzo: I read. I’m kind of a mediocre reader, but it’s something that I want to do. I went my whole life not knowing a lick of music. People ask me, “Man, what is that? Is that in seven? What are you doing?” I don’t know. I just play, that’s it. Now that Raul and I are doing more clinics, and we have a video coming out [Supernatural Rhythms and Grooves], I felt that I needed to challenge myself and take some classes on reading, and maybe dip into melodic piano and all that.
DRUM!: How do you describe what makes a rhythm section really cook?
Rekow: You have to really listen hard. It’s difficult to play in a section and not step on each other’s toes. Once in a while it’s going to happen where both of you will want to do something at the same time, and if that happens it can be a mess. So trying to listen and understand where the other person might be doing their fills, and try to do your fills somewhere else.
Perazzo: Yeah, just controlling your emotions, you know? I stress practicing, and I don’t mean practicing mama-daddy and all that. You’ve got to go there too, but practicing and learning about yourself and what makes you happy musically. And learning different types of music; don’t stay on one thing. That can make you miss a lot of work. When a percussionist asks me, “How do I play with a drummer?” I always tell them to learn to control their emotions. Like Raul said, listen. Just because you know everything, doesn’t mean you have to play everything. Just because you feel it or hear it, doesn’t mean that it has to go there. I just think that kind of stuff is important for young kids. I remember being there, man. At a young age and just … really built-up energy. It’s like [clenching fists] n-n-n-ow! But over the years, you learn how to play the music within the music.
Rekow: At the clinics, I try to use the analogy of, think of a gumbo. You’re going to make some gumbo, and that’s going to be your style. You have to study the greats before you, study your idols, try to learn from them as much as possible, and take a little bit from each one of them. And those are the spices and the ingredients that are going to go into that stock that’s going to make that gumbo. But the most important part of that is the stock. Are you going to use a fish head, or a pork bone? That’s really what’s going to give that whole thing the basic flavor. That’s you. You can’t forget that you are the most important ingredient. And try to develop something that’s new and different than everybody else. Armando Peraza, the very first year that I had the pleasure of playing with him, I mean I was in awe. I’ve idolized him my whole life. And I was a bit tentative, to say the least, but also excited. So when he came in, he took me to the side and said, “It’s a pleasure to be able to play with you.” And I said, “Are you kidding? It’s an honor to be able to play with you.” And he said, “Raul, I want you to know something. You have a sound that is unlike anyone else I have ever heard. Don’t ever forget that. Don’t ever lose that.” That was the biggest vote of confidence that I could have ever gotten in my career. It made itself apparent to me one night [at a] tribute to Armando Peraza at the Masonic Auditorium. Francisco Aguabella was there, Emil Richards, the bass player from back then Al McKibbon, all the great players were there. There was an intermission, and after the intermission I was asked by John Santos to come up and play conga. I went up there and started playing, and my wife was out in the audience. And after it was over my wife told me that Armando came running out when the band started, and stood behind me with this big grin on his face. He told me afterward, “Raul, I was back there talking to Francisco, and I heard you play. And I knew from the very first note that it was you.” For me, that’s the biggest honor, that my tone is distinguishable from someone else’s. Some people work their whole lives for that. I’m still trying to work on my tone, I still have a long way to go. Karl has an incredible tone on congas and timbales, and bongo drums – anything he picks up, he has a real pure tone. Actually, I’m still trying to work up towards his tone. [smiles]
Perazzo: You’re crazy. [laughs]
Rekow: No, I’m not crazy. Your tone is very clean and crisp. I’m a little bit more primitive in my approach. If I don’t know how to do it, I’ll struggle and fight my way through it and get there, one way or the other.
Perazzo: But that’s the wonderful thing, man. When you’re there, you know it. You feel it. It’s like a reward. It’s like digging, and digging, and digging, and finding that gold ring, you know? I mean, I’m a student too.
Rekow: We’re students for life.
Perazzo: Just because, hey, I play with, you know, doesn’t mean anything. I still go home and practice. I practice because I still have that hunger to learn. You can’t lose that, that’s the most important thing.
Perazzo’s Percussion Setup
- 1. 12" Remo Mondo Snare Drum
- 2. LP 15" Timbale
- 3. LP 14" Timbale
- 4. LP Bongos
- 5. LP Galaxy Quinto
- 6. LP Galaxy Conga
- 7. LP Djembe
- Cymbals: Sabian
- A. 18" Hand Hammered Thin Chinese
- B. 12" Hand Hammered Regular Hi-Hats
- C. 14" AA El Sabor Crash
- D. 18" AA El Sabor Crash
- E. 15" AAXtreme Chinese
- F. 8" AAX Splash (bottom)/6” AAX Splash (top)
- G. Percussion Table
- H. LP Jam Block
- I. LP Cowbell
- 1. LP 12.5" Galaxy Tumba
- 2. 11.75" Galaxy Conga
- 3. 11" Galaxy Quinto
- 4. Djun Djun
- Cymbals: Sabian
- A. ThunderSheet Gong
Dennis Chambers: The Other Side of Santana’s Rhythm Section
Dennis Chambers, with two broken arms and a sprained ankle, is a rhythm section. Known more for getting his funk and fusion on, Chambers now finds himself as the kit-anchor to Santana’s mystical rhythmic gumbo. And despite any differences going into the gig, Dennis – who has worked with Don Alias, Mino Cinelu, Manolo Badrena, and Larry Vitangelo – knows as well as anybody about the power of listening.
Sharing the rhythm role comes easily to Dennis. “Oh yeah, it’s very easy,” the cigar-puffing Baltimore native explains, “because I like to think of myself as a very giving musician. When I come into a band or recording situation, it’s not about me. It’s about us. Which means you respect everyone there, and you give everybody room. When you’re playing with rhythm sections, whatever the configuration is, you have to listen. Whether you’re a drummer, percussionist, or a bass player.”
This time he has to listen to two burning percussionists at once. It’s actually the first time he’s ever been asked to do that. “It’s interesting to see two guys that work so well together,” he says. “There’s no ego or any problems between [Karl and Raul]. They’re fun to watch every night. Last night they broke into a solo, and they were just dealin’. They were having a good time over there.”
And is Dennis having a good time? He takes a drag from his cigar, “I haven’t hit that consistently hard, for that long a period of time, since P-Funk. It’s killin’, man. I’m havin’ a blast.”
Rekow & Perazzo List Their Favorite Rhythm Sections
We asked Karl and Raul to discuss a few of their favorite rhythm sections. Here’s their Top 10 in alphabetical order.
Ray Baretto. “In the ’70s, with Orestes Vilato on timbales,” Rekow says. “Orestes took timbales to the next level, back then. On bongos was Johnny Martinez. They probably had more chops than the others at that time.”
Cachao. “His conga player back in the ’50s was Tata Guines,” Rekow says. “Changuito, Giovanni, myself, we all listened a lot to Tata Guines. On timbales was Guillermo Barreto, and on bongos was Yeyeito. They were so tasty, and had chops.”
Diga Rhythm Band. “Growing up in the early ’70s, this was one of the first things I heard, Zakir Hussein’s band,” Perazzo says. “I couldn’t even tell you how many people were in the band, maybe 20. That was like the hybrid of tabla with fusion. Oh my God, that was unbelievable.”
Pete & Coke Escovedo. “They were the local guys,” Rekow says. “Pete took a few of us under his wing, and would allow us to come and sit in when they were playing. That was some of the best schooling I ever had. From that opportunity I gained a lot of confidence.”
Dizzy Gillespie. “With Chano Pozo,” Rekow says. “That was the beginning of Cubop in the U.S. Another rhythm section was Chano Pozo’s band in Cuba. It was called Cojunto Azul, which means ’the blue band.’ It was Chano Pozo on congas and Mongo Santamaria on bongos.”
Eddie Palmieri. “In the ’60s he had Manny Oquendo on timbales, Tommy Lopez on congas, and Jose Mangual on bongos,” Rekow says. “In the ’80s, Endel Dueño played timbales, Anthony Carillo played bongos, and Giovanni Hildalgo played congas. He had so many great rhythm sections.”
Mongo Santamaria. “When he had Armando Peraza and Carmelo Garcia, who played the timbales, in the ’60s,” Rekow says. “They had so much fire, just between Armando and Mongo was enough, but Carmelo could actually steal the show from those guys.”
Santana. “Santana [with its original rhythm section] – Chepitó, Mike Carabello, and Michael Shrieve – was one of the first to bring that [Latin influence] to the forefront in rock,” Perazzo says. “As far as Santana rhythm sections, I always thought that ’80s lineup with Raul, Armando Peraza, Orestes Vilato, and Graham Lear was explosive and exciting.”
Tito Puente Orchestra. “Tito Puente is the Buddy Rich of the timbales,” Perazzo says. “He played music, not just patterns, on the timbales. He had always been a showman. A lot of people don’t have that anymore. It’s a lost art.”
Weather Report. “In the early 70s, with Airto, Alex Acuña, Manolo Badrena,” Perazzo says. “Alex’s fills were a little different than conventional fusion or jazz drummers of that era. Manolo and Airto brought a real energy to the table. It was unpredictable.”