Living Life In The Fast Lane

Richie “Gajate” Garcia, Kevin Ricard, & Darryl “Munyungo” Jackson

Atlantic, Capitol, Elektra, Motown, Geffen, Universal, and Warner Bros. They’re all in Los Angeles, along with an army of smaller labels, booking agents, publicists, producers, managers, and lawyers, all stirring the cauldron of popular culture. This heady recipe creates a magnetic pull of pure, unadulterated commerce that draws thousands of musicians from around the world, each vying for even the tiniest slice of that tasty pie.

Smog, gridlock, population density, stiff competition, gangbangers — they’re all in Los Angeles, too. Face it; it’s not a normal workplace. It’s dog-eat-dog. It’s highly political. It’s every single stereotype that you’ve ever heard. And it takes a very special kind of person to live, work, and thrive in that kind of pressure cooker. We wanted to find out exactly what it takes to be a major player in the Los Angeles percussion community, and turned to three luminaries to trade war stories.

One of the most versatile percussion players today, Kevin Ricard has recorded with Joe Zawinul, B.B. King, Shelby Lynne, Marc Anthony, and many others. He can be heard on the hit CBS sitcom King Of Queens and the weekly pre-record for Fox’s reality series American Idol. Beginning his musical career as a classical pianist, Darryl “Munyungo” Jackson switched to timbales at age 17, and subsequently performed with Miles Davis, Willie Bobo, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, and Anita Baker. Voted one of the top rock percussionists by DRUM! magazine, Richie “Gajate” Garcia has performed and toured with the likes of Sting, Celia Cruz, Phil Collins, Tito Puente, Diana Ross, and Don Henley.

They all gathered at our photographer’s studio in the heart of Hollywood, just below the fading Hollywood sign and blocks away from the Capitol Records building. It doesn’t get any more “L.A.” than this.

DRUM!: Welcome, everyone. Let’s start by talking about the first well-known artist you had the opportunity to play and tour with. Did you have to audition for the spot?
Garcia: For me it was with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. I didn’t have to audition, I just happened to be playing in a club with Barbara Eden — “Jeannie.” It was one of those stories of being at the right place at the right time. They saw me play and said, “Do you want to come do some gigs with us?” I ended up doing it for five years.

DRUM!: Kevin, what about you?
Ricard: I guess the first tour that put me out in the world was as a result of this man [gestures to Jackson]. It was with the Temp-tations. The night before I got the call, I showed up to my salsa gig and another timbale player was setting up. I was supposed to be on the gig. The next morning Munyungo called and said, “Hey man, you want to do this Temptations gig, because I’m getting ready to go out with Miles Davis.” The next afternoon I met the guys, rehearsed and left two days later. I did that gig for two years.
Garcia: To add to that, Luis [Conte] recommended me to Phil Collins.

DRUM!: So there was no audition for Phil’s gig?
Garcia: Nope. Luis said, “Just call Richie.” I went in and that was it. They went on his word like they went on Munyungo’s. That’s actually a great feeling to have guys say that and you can just walk in and do the work.

DRUM!: Munyungo, what about your first big tour?
Jackson: Audition wise, I’ve never got a gig that I auditioned for. You never know. Some people get gigs they audition for.
Ricard: I’m in that boat.
Jackson: My first tour was back in the ’70s with a group called The Supremes. The Supremes, can you believe it!
Garcia: That was thanks to Kevin and I! [laughs]
Jackson: Yeah, at the time I was playing with a guy named Big Black — a legendary master percussionist, drummer. I was playing timbales in his band. My roommate, bass player Joe Harris, was the one that hooked up with the Supremes. He asked if the drummer, Quentin Dennard, and I could do it. It wasn’t an audition, but it was another one of these “get turned onto” kind of gigs.

DRUM!: Why do you think so many tours originate out of Los Angeles?
Jackson: What people think about Hollywood. This is a major industry here.
Garcia: I think the fact that though some live elsewhere they come here to record. Their management seems to be here. The record companies, the main studios, they’re here and I think it means something. Like Munyungo said, if you say Hollywood, if you recorded in Hollywood, you got musicians from Hollywood, it must be happening.
Ricard: That’s true. This is the place everybody wants to come to make their dreams come true. There are a lot of great musicians concentrated in Los Angeles. We might play with a Brazilian band on Monday, salsa band on Tuesday, funk band on Wednesday, a rock-and-roll band on Thursday because we have that ability to go into different situations. That’s what draws people here, they know musicians here can cover a lot of styles well.
Garcia: We have the versatility. That’s the thing.

Kevin Ricard

Kevin Ricard’s Kit

Drums: LP Galaxy Fiberglass
1. 11 3/4” x 30” Conga
2. 12 1/2” x 30” Conga
3. 7 1/4” Bongo
4. 8 5/8” Bongo
5. 14” Chrome Timbale
6. 15” Chrome Timbale
7. 7” Percussion Table

Cymbals: Sabian
A. 18” Evolution Crash
B. 20” Ozone Crash
C. 10” Ozone Splash
D. 12” Ozone Splash

Electronics: Roland
E. KD-7 Kick Trigger
F. SP-D20 Multi-pad
G. PD-7 Trigger Pad

Kevin Ricard also uses Regal Tip sticks, LP drum stands, Gibraltar cymbal stands, and Gibraltar pedals.

Richie Garcia

Richie “Gajate” Garcia’s Setup

1. 20" Remo Surdo
2. 22" Remo Surdo
3. 11" x 30" LP Galaxy Conga
4. 11 3/4" x 30" LP Galaxy Conga
5. 12 1/2" x 30" LP Galaxy Conga
6. 7 1/4" LP Galaxy Bongo
7. 8 5/8" LP Galaxy Bongo
8. 15" LP Tito Puente Timbale
9. 14" LP Tito Puente Timbale

Percussion: LP
10. Bass pedal with large cowbell
11. Bass pedal with Cyclops tambourine
12. Percussion Table
13. Mambo, Chacha bells, and Woodblock

Cymbals: Sabian
A. 16" HHX Crash
B. 14" HHX Crash
C. 18" El Sabor or Evolution Crash

Electronics: ROLAND
D. Handsonic
E. Handsonic Foot Trigger

DRUM!: So do you think stylistic versatility is more prevalent in L.A. than in cities like New York, Chicago, or Nashville?
Garcia: I think in any major city you’ll find versatility. I remember hearing that you think of New York musicians as jazz musicians, concentrated in one style, more than here, where for percussionists like us the main advantage is we play so many different styles. When a producer calls you out here they call you because they know one minute they can ask you to do something Brazilian then something African then something … whatever. I found east coast musicians more specialized. Not that there’s not guys who can do it all, but it just seems that way.
Ricard: Which is why when you go to New York and you see the guys who play in a salsa band or Brazilian band, they play with such intensity and ferocity. That’s all they play, most of the time. My heart is in Brazilian, Cuban, and African music — all three of ours are — but we can’t always just do those specific things. We have to make a living.
Garcia: And that’s one of the reasons why we play all styles and get into everything because that’s how we keep ourselves working. I love Afro-Cuban and all that stuff, I mean I love it, but there’s times when a ton of months go by that I don’t play it because I’m out doing other stuff to keep living. Kids, house, mortgage, cars, insurance — that takes up a lot of money.
Jackson: There are so many people coming here from all over the world. There’s so much music, so many places you can go in L.A. to study a lot of different types of music. There are so many percussionists, so many musicians coming here and sharing their music.

DRUM!: Given the ethnic diversity in Los Angeles, there’s no shortage of percussion players these days. Has this affected the expectations of music producers and music directors?
Ricard: I think music directors and producers expect you to be able to get the job done and they call on you because of that. They know you have the experience and the knowledge of a multitude of rhythms. To come up with a rhythm that works for a particular track, that’s what they expect. [They expect] you to make them, their production, or show sound good. Like Munyungo said, people come from all over the world, so all those styles are brought into the pot. We’re thrown in different situations and we have to create.

DRUM!: You have to come up with the goods.
Garcia: Exactly, because the producers who call you already have an idea. They call you because they already know what you do, or if you’re recommended they know that you’re coming from a reliable source.
Jackson: This guy from Senegal, he plays a talking drum called a tama. I love they way he plays. To take that music and put it into something like R&B or funk, he’s not comfortable. A lot of people feel comfortable doing what they do from where they’re from. But here in the United States it’s a big circle of a lot of different cultures. To come here they have to stretch their musical experiences. It’s nice to share what they have but it has to work in different musical areas.
Ricard: This is a business we’re in. You have to bring a business sense to everything you do. You can’t think you’re just going to hang out and jam, because it doesn’t work that way. In a studio situation where you’re there for three hours, they want you out by the end of those three hours; they don’t want to pay overtime. They hire you because they know you’re going to get it done in one or two takes. Some players don’t get it. To make a living in this town they have to learn that business sense.

DRUM!: There seems to be fewer groups touring and those going out have smaller bands or even use prerecorded tracks. What affect has this had on touring and percussion in Los Angeles?
Garcia: I believe the reason these changes are happening or have happened is just the general world situation; economically, the war, what’s happening in Iraq, all that. A lot of people are actually afraid to go out. Secondly, the economic situation of the record companies in general. For percussionists, I remember hearing years ago that whenever bands needed to cut down, one of the first positions they would lose would be the percussionist.
Ricard: Then the sax player.
Jackson: The trombone player.
Garcia: I think that’s made us also become educators. I write books, I have instructional material and clinics in order to keep a balance of my income. Tours, the younger percussionists that are playing, it’s a different situation from when I was playing in bands and things like that. I know there’s some changes and a lot of it has to do with the general business of music that has made tours and that kind of stuff not happen.

Munyungo Jackson

Munyungo Jackson’s Setup

Drums: LP
1. 14” Timbale
2. 15” Timbale
3. 11 3/4” x 30” Conga
4. 11” x 30” Conga
5. 12 1/2” x 30” Conga

Percussion: LP
6. Songo Cowbell
7. Tri Bell
8. Downtown Timbale Cowbell
9. Bongo Bell
10. Cyclops Mounted Tambourine
11. Shekere
12. Bar Chimes
13. Percussion Table
14. Granite Blocks

Cymbals: Paiste
A. 14” Signature Thin Crash
B. 12” Rude Splash
C. 15” 2002 Ride
D. 12” Signature Splash
E. 10” Signature Splash (Top)/12” 2002 Power Splash (Bottom)
F. Accent Cymbals
G. 10” 3000 Bell
H. 21” Gong (Hanging under table)

Munyungo Jackson also uses Remo heads and shakers.

DRUM!: Munyungo, I have to ask you what it was like to get the call from a legend like Miles Davis?
Jackson: I was with Joe Zawinul the year before I was turned on to the Miles gig. I didn’t ever think I would be playing with Miles; it was a surprise to me. The month rehearsal was a real lesson. Miles would walk around the rehearsal studio playing his horn. He’d come back to the band and say if you don’t hear me playing then we’re not playing together. If you’re not listening to everybody then how can you be playing together? If we’re having a discussion and everybody’s saying something and you’re not paying attention to this person but paying attention to that person, then you’re not playing together as a band. That was ear training for me. The thing about playing with Miles, you don’t play hard, you don’t play loud, but you play intense, and listening to every instrument, to everybody in the band. There was so much to learn with him.
DRUM!: On the other side of the musical spectrum, Richie, what was it like playing with pop icon Phil Collins?
Garcia: That was so fantastic. Having followed his career, then all of a sudden I’m playing with him. The first time I played with Phil, Luis [Conte] was also playing. So there were drums and two percussionists. It was a learning experience because I had to do everything Luis wasn’t [doing]. I didn’t even know what to bring. They said bring your gear, so I brought congas and timbales. Then they said, see everything Luis has, we want you to play everything different from him. It was the Tarzan tour so I brought big surdos, djembes to compliment, like overdubbing his parts. You know how when you overdub a bunch of stuff, but when you play live you can’t play them because there’s only one guy?
Ricard: Unless you’re Richie Garcia and you play 12 things with two hands and two feet!
Garcia: A great thing about Phil is that he’s a drummer. He really appreciated what the percussionist did because he understood what the percussionists were doing. I got to do it again but without Luis. By doing it myself I got a chance to play how I play, which Phil loved my independence stuff. That was a rewarding feeling.

DRUM!: What advice would you give up-and-coming percussion players in Los Angeles? Any steps they should take to find themselves and to work?
Ricard: You have to be nice to people, not fake. People appreciate that you are a good person and that you treat them with respect and expect that in return. That goes a long way in this town because people don’t want to deal with attitudes. Be as versatile as you can and meet as many people as you can. I think that’s one of the main things about getting the call. Everybody’s got ability, but it’s got to be that something extra. If you love what you’re doing, you’re going to be happy. That comes out in your playing; it’s genuine, it’s not a fake thing. You want all that when you’re trying to make your way in this business.
Jackson: Feel good about what you’re doing and learn. As long as you’re alive on this planet, every day is a new learning situation. The other thing is the business. Learn the business, understand the business, and understand a lot of different rhythms from a lot of different places. Good to know what you know, but as a percussionist, the reason why these guys [Ricard and Garcia] are working is because they know a lot of different cultures. They know a lot of things from a lot of different places. Have patience. Love what you’re doing, play your butt off, don’t get frustrated and things will start to come to you.

DRUM!: Any final comments?
Ricard: For me, bass, drums and percussion are the foundation on which everything is built. We’ve all been blessed to play with some of the world’s greatest drummers. When you play with a drummer who knows how to drive the bus it’s the best feeling. You don’t have to worry. You can breathe, relax, find your space.
Jackson: If a regular drummer plays with two feet and two hands, the percussionist would be as if the drummer grew two more arms. Or in Richie’s case, the drummer would grow two more arms and two more feet.
Ricard: And if he could use his head, he probably would!
Jackson: Three things in your life complete a circle: one, take care of yourself. I’ve seen a lot of great musicians who didn’t last long because of drinking, smoking, whatever. It’s their business, but number one is yourself. With health you bring the second, which are your abilities. What you do, your music. You learn the music, you study and put a lot into that. If it’s fun to do, you’re always going to be doing it. You’re going to play music and develop your skills. Third is financial. Look at your financial thing — it’s not about being rich, but to have this whole circle work together.
Garcia: I remember when I was young, it was fun, you know? If we were in Las Vegas or whatever, a casino, let’s go here, let’s go there, blowing money all over the place. If you’re making good money right now, then save. Prepare for the future. A lot of musicians unfortunately don’t have that part of their life together. Everything has become, shall we say, just drums, drums, drums, and the rest of their life, they haven’t given it the attention they should. All of us will become old and what we do now is either going to make our lives later easier or more difficult. I’m saying this for the younger guys. Think about that and your life later on will be much easier.
Jackson: When I get older, I do not want to worry about my phone ringing. I don’t want to worry about finances. I think at an early age, yeah, do right with your money, save your money, don’t just spend it, don’t just “this and that.”
Ricard: One of the main reasons that people call you back for work is because you’re responsible. Being responsible means showing up on time.
Garcia: Well, I guess I’m out!
Ricard: Richie blew that a long time ago! If you get called for a session, or an audition at 2:00, don’t show up at 2:00. Show up at 12:30 or 1:00, so you can see what’s going on, make sure your stuff is set up. When you’re on tour, the only thing you have to do is be on time. And the same thing applies here in town. Make sure you have everything you need. Being time conscious, which is something a lot of people have a problem with, is really important. And people respect that.
Garcia: First impressions are very important. The fact that you showed up on time, your gear looks great, you’re a nice person and all that … so you don’t get that gig. This is Hollywood. Producers and all that stuff, they only think about what it’s going to look like, what they want, or the star may just not like what this person looks like. That happens. That’s just reality.