Richie & Roland Gajate-Garcia

Richie Gajate-Garcia

Richie Gajate-Garcia

It doesn’t happen every day. Yes, we’ve all heard it before: The family that plays together, stays together. And, as a certain musical group used to sing, in response, we say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Well, in the case of father Richie and son Roland Gajate-Garcia, no truer words have ever been spoken. In fact, the father-and-son tandem doesn’t necessarily stop there. The rest of the clan, which includes mom (who has sung on select recordings) and two more boys and a girl, all seem to have taken something from dad’s book as a creative musician. In the case of Richie and second-eldest son Roland, however, the story at present contains more sparks, highlights, and fanfare.

How does such a thing happen? Is it genetics? Is a sense of rhythm, or business sense, inheritable? Did dad and mom drive them to become music-loving musicians, and, at the risk of driving them all crazy?

The answers to those questions and more will be revealed in good time here.

All In The Family

When Richie and his wife, Mary, started a family, the choice to include the kids in dad’s oftentimes-busy work outside the home was an obvious one. “When I became a husband and father, my wife and children, including Roland, would often travel the world with me,” Richie says. “We would go to Asia and Europe and South America.

“Roland grew up with Alex Acuña, Justo Almario, Wally Reyes, Pedro Eustache, and Abraham Laboriel Sr. rehearsing in our home, to name a few,” Richie adds. “We traveled with Diana Ross, John Denver, Hiroshima, Phil Collins, Art Garfunkel, and Sting. With Roland, I’ve always tried to be there for him as his father, as his friend, and as his mentor. It isn’t uncommon for us to be watching basketball and practicing our rudiments while Tristan and Devin practice their basses.”

Tristan and Devin, two of the other three children in the family, have both taken on musical lives of their own. “My eldest son Tristan plays bass and trombone and performed with me on the most recent Latin Grammys with Gilberto Santa Rosa and opened for Earth, Wind & Fire last year. Tristan, Roland, and I perform in a band called L.A. Carpool together. Tristan plays electric bass on some John Denver tribute symphony dates. We just returned from performing in Kansas.” Rounding out the family are bassist Devin, age fourteen, and Lisette, age nine, who plays keyboards.

“My wife, Mary, loves the music more than all of us,” Richie adds.

For Roland, things took off really early. “I became interested in drumming when I was about three years old,” he remembers. “There were always drums around the house and I would go bang on them. I started taking lessons when I was five. Both my older brother and I took drum set lessons from a local teacher.”

But what started it all? Simply put, Roland says, “My dad was my motivation, influence, and inspiration.” For Roland, who most recently landed a gig as the percussionist in American Idol’s house band, looking up to his dad was easy.

“My father was raised in Puerto Rico and was surrounded by Tito Puente, Armando Peraza, and these great Latin players,” Roland recalls. “When I was growing up people like Giovanni Hidalgo and Alex Acuña were at my house playing and working on different projects. I would always be curiously watching ... and seeing these great musicians with my dad inspired me to play.”

A Father’s Reach

Having already established himself many times over, Richie was, indeed, The Man, by the time Roland was born. His career as a percussionist and drummer had included work not only as a regular session and/or touring artist with such heavyweights as Tito Puente, Sting, Phil Collins, Diana Ross, and Celia Cruz, but also on film and soundtrack work (recent credits include The Mummy Returns with the London Symphony, Mr. & Mrs Smith, Mission Impossible, I-Spy, and Disney’s Robots) and gigs as an clinician, educator, and published author of music books.

This should come as no surprise given Richie’s impressive roots. “I am Puerto Rican — born in New York, and raised in Puerto Rico from the age of seven,” he says. “Gajate is my birth last name and Garcia is my stepfather’s last name. Doel Garcia, my stepfather who raised me, was a conguero who gave Armando Peraza his first work and a place to live in San Francisco when he came from Cuba before meeting my mother.” Perhaps creating the template that would continue with Richie’s own kids, he recalls, “My biggest influence was my stepfather, Doel, who loved all music and would bring me to the clubs at a young age in Puerto Rico to hear the local bands. His closest friends were musicians: Armando Peraza, Tito Puente, Monchito Muñoz, among them. I would sit in at clubs and parties and learn on the spot.”

{pagebreak} Roland Gajate-Garcia

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.”


As for that prestigious American Idol gig, Roland recalls with pleasure and familial pride that “the new American Idol band had already been chosen when the percussion chair audition opened.” Dad came to the rescue, playing an instrumental role, literally, when push came to shove. “My father covered for me with Diana Ross so that I could stay in Los Angeles for the audition,” he says. In a job that covers part of the year for Roland, and involves extensive rehearsal time learning the charts of the countless songs the band plays for each show, he recalls with fondness, “Diana Ross sent me an email wishing me good luck. I among many other top percussionists who I respect auditioned for the chair. As I was about to board the flight that night to go to Chicago to perform with Diana Ross on Oprah, I received the news that I had landed the American Idol gig and would begin early the following morning. Thank God my father was able to cover Oprah for me as he was already in Chicago.”

Sometimes it clearly helps to have an octopus for a dad. “I’ve done the same with my kids that my father did with me,” says Richie, “exposing them to all types of live music, bringing them with us whenever possible, exposing them to other languages, cultures, and giving them a chance to sit in whenever possible.”

As far as Roland is concerned, this arrangement has served him just fine. “It was as if this is the way it was meant to be,” he says.

Richie Gajate-Garcia

Richie’s Setup

Percussion LP Richie Garcia Signature Congas And Bongos
1 11.75" x 30" Conga
2 12.5" x 30" Tumba
3 12.5" x 25" LP Djembe
4 7.25" & 8.625" Bongos
5 Kotz Cajon Gajate
6 LP Gajate Multi-Stem bracket with Jam Block, Cha-Cha Cowbell, and Cyclops Tambourine
7 Prestige 14" & 15" Timbales
8 Mambo Bell, Salsa Bell, and Jam Block
9 Percussion Table includes wind chimes, bell tree, caixixi, finger cymbals, triangle, pandeiro, and shakers.

Cymbals Sabian
A 14" HH Mini Chinese
B 16" AAX El Sabor Picante Hand Crash
C 12" HHX Evolution Splash

Electronics Roland
D HPD-15 Handsonic
E KD7 Kick Trigger

Richie Gajate-Garcia also uses DW hardware and pedals, Remo heads, and Vater Sazon Gajate signature timbale sticks.

Roland Gajate-Garcia

Roland’s Idol Setup

Percussion LP Accent Congas And Bongos (Lava Finish with gold hardware)
1 11.75" x 30" Conga
2 12.5" x 30 Tumba
3 11" x 30" Quinto
4 7.25" & 8.625" Bongos
5 13" & 14" LP Prestige Timbales
6 Percussion Table with assorted LP toys
7 LP Cowbell on LP Gajate bracket

Cymbals Sabian
A 16" Vault Artisan Crash
B 18" HHX Stage Crash
C 19" Vault Artisan Crash
D 17" HHX Legacy Crash

Electronics Roland
E HPD-15 Handsonic
F SPD-30 Octapad
G KD7 Kick Trigger

Roland Garcia also uses DW cymbal stands and DW 5000 pedals, Remo Skyn Deep heads or Remo Fiberskyn heads, and Vater 1/2 Timbale Sticks and Vater T-5 Mallets.