Words of wisdom from a percussion master
When young Alejandro Acuña played his first gig at a dance party in his Peruvian home town, he could not have dreamed of the path his percussive life would take him.
His musical family - his father was a music teacher who made percussion instruments, his five brothers all played - had wanted him to be something other than a musician. But Alex had other ideas.
“My mother came one day and told my father not to teach me,” he remembers. “She said, maybe he can be a carpenter or a mechanic, something else - you already have five musicians.” So my father never taught me [music]. But I watched everything he was teaching my brothers. Every lesson, I was there. They didn’t even notice I was there, they were so focussed in the lesson, I was under the table listening every time they were playing.
“Then one day my brother couldn’t go to a couple of dance parties they were already contracted to play, so they had no drummer that weekend. I was 10 by then but I already was playing for seven years, but they didn’t know. I said, ‘I play the drums.’
‘They said, ‘What do you mean, we never saw you play?’ So they auditioned me. This was the first time and the only time I auditioned - for my father and my family! It was great, but for one thing - the dance parties started about 9pm, by 11pm I was sleeping! So one of my brothers had to play the drums and finish the night.”
This first, sleepy gig was just the beginning for Alex, who eventually succumbed to the allure of the Peruvian capital city Lima, where big bands and radio were already providing a decent living for his brothers. Upon making the move at 16, Alex quickly became first-call for sessions and television and radio shows with visiting big band stars.
Alex’s days were full, and since he couldn’t drive but was making so much money, his mother hired a driver to take him to session dates in the morning, television in the afternoon, radio then back to the club - a working day that ran from 10am to 2am, every day. Naturally there were downsides for a teenage boy.
“At a very young age I had no time to do anything else,” rues Alex. “I wanted to play football and do what kids do, go to the movies with my friends, but I was working. But I chose percussion, and percussion is still a big part of my life in so many ways. It gave me a platform to be able to travel the world and it also gave me a gift that I can share with the younger generations, that’s why I try to stay healthy so I can go out and be able to share the gift and experiences I’ve had throughout the years playing with so many people.”
The Mambo King
In Lima in the early ’60s, visiting stars would hire local musicians such as Alex and his brothers to play the shows in the hotels, theatres and auditoriums, and those players would also be called to do recording sessions with the artists.
“The word got around, not only in Peru but in South America in general, so I started getting calls to go to other countries. I never went because I was too young, my mother didn’t want me to travel yet - you can hear that my mother was in charge of my life, because I was the youngest [child]!”
Alex’s big break came when he was called for a TV recording with King of the Mambo, Perez Prado, who was kicking off a South America tour in Peru, and looking for a drummer he could take with him from there all around the continent.
“The first tune we rehearsed, Que Rico Mambo, he didn’t know that anyone in the band knew the songs. But ever since I was a little kid I was a music collector of different genres and cultures, I still do that more than ever because YouTube has every instrumentalist from all over the world. So in those days I listened to a lot of Cuban music, Perez Prado, and jazz, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, all of that stuff; classical music, ethnic music, rock’n’roll.
“I knew the solos and everything, and I loved music so much, music became to me just one world, not jazz, Latin, classical - music. So when Perez Prado heard me play his music the way he recorded it, because I knew all the licks, he said, ‘This is the drummer I want for my tour in South America and I want to bring him to the US.’
“After the first song! I said, ‘Why do you want to bring me to the US? You have Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Papa Jo Jones, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Charlie Persip…’ He was very impressed that I knew about so many drummers. Because I was making good money I imported records from all over the world. And he said, ‘You’re right, they’re great players, but what you play is what what I need in my band, not what they play.”
Alex went with Prado’s band to the US, starting out in Las Vegas, where the underaged drummer had to be chaperoned through the casinos, then to Texas, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and California.
“I learned a lot about everything, about life at a very young age, especially being around older people. They took care of me. And I did the wrong things, not because I was pursuing that, but because it was part of the era. I wanted to belong so I let myself in, I didn’t have my parents or brothers to tell me anything – no curfew! It let me see the music, the people, the culture. Coming from Peru to the US it was like going to Mars. Everything was very impressive. When I went to New York I was looking at the Empire State for about 40 minutes!”
Playing with the King
After the gig with Prado, Alex set his sights on Cuba, to soak up more of the Latin percussion for which the country was famous.
“I wanted to learn how to play all the Latin percussion, just to be able to touch the wood, touch the drum heads with my hand, just that connection I had since I was a little kid, and I wanted to be able to play the instruments the right way. But my mother said, ‘But Fidel is there, you can’t go, you already have a residency of the US,’ and I was also pursuing my citizenship.”
Instead, Alex went to Puerto Rico aged 20 and spent a decade there, studying and becoming a father, doing club and television sessions before deciding to return to the US in 1974 - the home of his beloved jazz. But on finding that the New York scene was all-too ready to box him up as a Latin player, he returned instead to Las Vegas where he became the drummer at the Hilton International, at the time Elvis Presley was playing there regularly.
“Elvis would come every three months to do three weeks - when Elvis came to Las Vegas, everything lit up. Elvis is in town, everybody wanted to see Elvis. So the conductor in [the Hilton] band also conducted Elvis’s music. He told Elvis, we have a drummer and percussionist - I know you have a drummer but maybe he can play some percussion with the band? He had strings, choir, it was a big band.
“He said, ‘I’ve got no use for a percussionist,’ but [the conductor] Joe said this kid, he’s going to play what is right, so he said okay.”
Alex’s first stint in Presley’s band was uneventful, and when Elvis returned the next month, he noticed his percussionist was AWOL from rehearsals.
“I sent somebody to rehearse his music, because I thought, I’m not playing that much, I don’t need to go to the rehearsals, so I sent somebody to cover for me. And Elvis comes, he says, ‘Hey, Joe! Where is the Indian?!’ So Joe calls me: ‘Elvis is looking for you!’ So I got in the car and went over, and Elvis goes, ‘Hey, you don’t want to play with me?’ I said, ‘No no, I had family issues so I sent someone to cover, but now I’m here!’
“So he goes okay, and we became friends! He would invite me to his parties. At the Hilton they gave him the whole floor of suites, for him, his band, the singers, he had the corner three rooms, then they had a place where they invited guests. Every night, every single night - I can say this now because he’s not here with us - I saw Elvis sitting in the corner, wasted. I don’t know if he was tired, drunk, passed out, and the guy said don’t tell anybody! I said, is he always like that? He said, ‘Yeah, you’re going to find him a few times sitting in the corner on the ground, like [snores].’
“But he did a show for about three hours [a night] and the people who were there loved him. He was an incredible showman. He was a simple guy, a happy guy, a straight kind of guy, but the people who were around him put up like a wall, but Elvis said, ‘I want to talk to Alex!’ Ronnie Tutt was the drummer for Elvis, amazing in those days, in 1974, he was playing two bass drums and a lot of drums, everything Elvis did he covered, and a great band. So I played with him for a couple of years, ’74 and ’75. A great experience.”
The kings of jazz
But jazz was still calling to Alex. Fate would have more than a hand in what happened when, with the Hilton house band, he played with a little-known Australian singer called Olivia Newton John.
“She’d just come from Australia, a little hillbilly… so I’m playing with Olivia because I’m part of the band, these country and western songs and then this beautiful voice, she was timid, never spoke to anyone, but when she sings… She was opening for the Temptations.
“So I finished playing the drums with Olivia Newton John and I switched to playing congas with the Temptations, and one night some musicians that played with Miles Davis were in town playing with Lou Rawls [including] Don Alias, the conga player – jazz musicians that play in New York. They came to see the Temptations, and they saw me. Don Elias says, ‘There’s only two drummers in the US that play drums really well and play congas really well, one is Walfredo de Los Reyes Sr, he’s 83 now, and the other one is Alex. That has to be Alex!’
“So he waited for me. We became friends, we hung out. He said, ‘Alex, I just made a record with an incredible bass player, his name is Jaco Pastorius. I said, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard a bass player sound like that!’ He was playing Portrait Of Tracy - it sounded like a Rhodes, it sounded like an electronic keyboard. Don said, ‘Alex, would you like to play some jazz with us?’ So I quit the Hilton.
“My wife knew that I came to the United States because I wanted to play jazz. And in those days luckily enough, instrumental music was huge and especially fusion - Headhunters, Chick Corea - and so I left and got a great experience playing jazz with these great musicians. [Afterwards] they left for New York, and I went back to Las Vegas and I had no job, but I had an incredible feeling and conviction in my heart that something was coming, like somebody whispering, ‘Don’t worry everything’s going to be fine…’”
Sure enough, word got around that here was a fantastic player and lover of jazz, and it wasn’t long before Joe Zawinul, keyboard player and composer with jazz fusioneers Weather Report came to call.
“Joe came over to meet me. He came in a period I wasn’t working so he never saw me play. So you know what he did? I went to pick him up, and he said, ‘Alex, let me see you walk,’ I said, ‘Why? I walk like a normal person!’ ‘No, let me see you walk!’ So I walked, and he said, ‘Yeah man, you can play! I know by the way you walk that you can really play!’ Wow, that was my audition, great! He said, would you like to play with the band? I said, are you kidding, I have your records, I listen to them every day, I know every piece, every song, Weather Report changed my life. I told him I came to the United States to play with Weather Report, because I wanted to play jazz and fusion, because that’s my calling!”
Alex joined the band to play percussion alongside Chester Thompson and Narada Michael Waldon, and appeared on the album Black Market. But the band was about to morph into their most successful line-up and period. Bass player Alphonso Johnson was quitting the band, and Alex recommended his jazz rhythm partner Jaco Pastorius to fill the role.
“In those days, Weather Report in the US wasn’t big, we were playing the colleges, the small clubs, it wasn’t like in Europe. We played in Paris five nights, Weather Report in Europe was huge. Jaco and I roomed together and became very close. One night I’m playing the brushes on the table and he’s playing his bass, he put the neck of the bass on the wall just to listen acoustically because it was an electric bass, and he was playing these Miles Davis tunes.
“He said, ‘You play drums, and you know the tunes!’ ‘Yeah man, I followed Wayne and Miles and Coltrane and everyone since I was a kid.’ ‘Let’s go tomorrow, just you and I play for an hour before the rehearsal. So we played just drums and bass. And Zawinul came early. Chester Thompson had a big drumset, like eight toms, but he’s taller than me so the toms were covering my face, and the cymbals.
“Joe says, ‘Who’s playing the drums?’ He got close, ‘Alex! I didn’t know you played drums! Why didn’t you tell me?’ I said, ‘Chester is the drummer, I have respect, this is his chair…’ I’ve always been very conscious of those things. Respect. He said, ‘No, we’ll get you a drumset, I want you to play drums and percussion, you and Chester too! And Jaco said, ‘Nuh-huh, I want Alex to play the drums.’ So, it’s very sad to say, they fired Chester.
“But Chester was good because he joined Phil Collins in Genesis! But the relationship never broke down, we stayed friends, it wasn’t about that. It was about the music, Jaco said, ‘I play better with Alex.’ So we did Heavy Weather with me playing drums.”
Heavy Weather would become Weather Report’s biggest selling album, and their signature. It was a winning combination of Zawinul’s contemporary fusion keys with Wayner Shorter’s virtuosic jazz saxophone and something extra-exciting in the way Jaco flew around his bass, in close rhythmic partnership with Alex’s superb, instinctive drumming.
“That really changed a lot in the music industry because we were playing very contemporary, but great tunes and sounds and approach and concepts. That album, there are five platinum albums in jazz, one is Ella Fitzgerald, the other is Duke Ellington, then Dave Brubeck, then Miles with John Coltrane, then Heavy Weather.
“And my kids, when they started finding out who I was, who I played with before I was in Los Angeles doing sessions, they went and bought the jazz encyclopedias, and in every picture of Weather Report it’s Heavy Weather, and I’m in it with Manolo [Badrena, percussion], Jaco, Wayne and Joe. ‘You’re in the history books of jazz!’ And I say, yeah, I played with Weather Report, I was lucky! It was a great experience.”
It’s testament to any drummer that they can operate in such lauded musical company, but Alex’s eclectic tastes and broad study of music was the perfect fit for Weather Report.
“I grew up listening to every kind of music. Jaco, Joe and Wayne were the same, they listened to everyone. Joe was a classical pianist, could play anything, and Wayne played with everybody in New York, Miles Davis; Jaco liked Jimi Hendrix and James Brown and Tower Of Power, it was a fusion thing. But I learned at that time that music was the star, music is the one that has to be shining, not the egos. We can damage the music.
“So let’s play the music very transparently, to what we are capable of now, at this time. We’d have conversations like that, Wayne and Joe and Jaco and I. They’d talk metaphorically for me to approach music that way, so I don’t have to question, ‘How do you want me to play this, what should I do here?’ We rehearsed about a week to do that album. When we rehearsed, we’d approach it in many different ways.
“We could play the same song, if we played it 10 times it was going to be different 10 times. The form is there, but around the form the improvisation is going to be different, that’s when we have the liberty without escaping out of the picture of that song. This was mainly my focus. In that album they have pop, they have ballads, they have latin, fusion; they have even one tune, The Juggler, that is almost classical music.
“I know a lot of musicians didn’t like that album… I think they didn’t like it because they could not play it or understand, not because it was bad, because it’s a great album. I still listen to that album and I am touched, because Jaco is not here any more and Joe is not here any more so those guys really were a big force in music.”
The cajon king
Following Weather Report - he was the only drummer to have quit the band, all the others were fired - Alex went on to work on albums by Lyle Mays, Chick Corea and Paco de Lucia and, now based out in LA, Alex is called to play on many of the biggest movie soundtracks - most recently La La Land, Sing, Zootopia, Jungle Book and Star Wars: Rogue One.
Alex also has his own signature line of percussion with legendary percussion brand Gon Bops, as he explains.
“Gon Bops were the first congas that were made in the US in 1955, in California by a Mexican family, Bobadilla, they copied the congas from Cuba that Mongo Santamaria used to bring on his trips when he came to Mexico. So the Gon Bops congas are copies of the Cuban congas from the 1950s called Vergara congos.
“But the most famous players were living in New York because of the migration of Cubans and Puerto Ricans and the Latin music in Los Angeles wasn’t as huge as it was in New York: Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, all those big names on the Latin music scene, Machito, Celia Cruz.
“So the migration of players went to New York, and then LP came 10 years later. At the beginning of LP, Martin Cohen who was making those instruments, he came to my house in Puerto Rico and I became an LP artist.
“But about 12 years ago Don Lombardi the owner of DW bought Gon Bops and he hired an incredible luthier, Akbar Moghaddam, a guy from Iraq, and Akbar made all the instruments that we have. I helped sonically, the shapes and the sizes, the heads, I designed that cajon - when they signed me up I had to have a line, and inside the line we have an instrument that is beginning to be [popular] in the world of percussion, the cajon, but we would like the cajon to be made in Peru because we have the knowledge, we have been making cajons longer than everybody else.
“So the Gon Bops Alex Acuna Special Edition signature is probably the cajon that is selling the most in the whole world - very popular, looks beautiful, sounds great, massive volume. One thing that I always like is that you should make an instrument with incredible quality of sound, but also volume, it should be LOUD! Because you can tame it. But if you have an instrument that is not loud, you’re not going to get any sound from that thing.
“However hard you hit, it’s not about that either. So that’s been my concept, for the timbales, the congas, the bongas, the cajon and the djembes.”
On the rise in popularity of his native percussive instrument, the Peruvian cajon, Alex says, “It was about time for that instrument. But [flamenco artist] Paco de Lucia had a lot to do with it, and I honour him. He went to Peru in ’78 and somebody gave him two Peruvian cajons.
“He brought it to Spain and they started to make their own Flamenco cajon, which is a great contribution to the music as well – while we keep a cajon for South American music. Right now it’s an instrument that came to stay. Like the congas are there forever, timbales, bongos, cowbells, there forever. Now the cajon!”