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Richie Gajate-Garcia

There's no doubt that Richie Gajate-Garcia is one of the most successful and esteemed percussionists performing today. He is also a wonderful teacher with a knack for being able to inspire others to pick up an instrument. Back at the beginning of the 90's, when he was teaching at PIT in Los Angeles, he met Martin Cohen and made an instructional video for LP®. It was not only the first ever released by the company, but, largely due to Richie's talents, one that acquired cult status over the years. This collaboration between a talented individual and a forward thinking corporation was a strongly positive move for both. LP® is a company whose products more or less define an entire market. And the number of people who have been turned-on to the Latin sound through their educational efforts is hard to estimate. But anyone who fails to realize how important such collaborations and instructional products are is not seeing the big picture. Since that first effort, Richie has done hundreds of LP® sponsored percussion clinics all over the world. He combines a user-friendly teaching sensibility with an entertaining and unique style of expression. The result is something that cuts across race, economics, and geography to communicate universally.

Martin Cohen caught up with Richie after the Latin Grammy's and asked him to talk a bit about his background.

"I was born in Queens, New York and raised on East 110th Street not far from where Tito Puente grew up. I remember my aunts and my uncles used to be very active in whatever Latin events happened in those days. Then my family packed-up and went back to Puerto Rico, and I stayed there until I graduated from high school. My stepfather whose name I have, is the one who influenced me music wise because he used to play congas in San Francisco. The big gig he did was once playing with Xavier Cugat. But at that time he met Armando Peraza and helped him get work. He gave him half his salary so he could work with this particular band in San Francisco. It's something to ask Armando about, how my dad helped him until Armando got known. Then the rest is history."

After high school Richie came back to the States and enrolled at Springfield College in Illinois.

"When I came to Springfield, Illinois, I was the only one who spoke Spanish. Even the Spanish teacher was an American and so I didn't understand his Spanish. And people would make fun of the accent and make fun of me when I talked. So I started taking the tape recorder and recording myself. And my buddy Hal, who I lived with in Springfield, helped me with the pronunciation. So as time went by things just got better. At first I studied Business Administration because my father was a big businessman in Puerto Rico. He was the Director of Tourism there. And one of the things I learned that I think helps me in my clinics, is I saw him give speeches all the time. And I know I picked up a lot from him. But business was not my thing. So I transferred to Chicago to the American Conservatory of Music and that's where I got my BA in Music Education."

After graduation he hooked up with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and went on tour. The band ultimately relocated to southern California where Richie has remained. After leaving Frankie Valli he began to work locally, quickly making a name for himself . Twenty years later he can look back on a career that has already encompassed everything from soundtracks to education to the highest-profile gigs.

One of the most unusual was a tour last year with Phil Collins organized around the release of Walt Disney's "Tarzan".

"It wasn't an extensive tour for long periods, we'd only go out for 2 or 3 weeks. We went to Japan, we went to Germany, we did special venues in the States because they were geared towards, for example, all the theater owners in the country, or all the radio programmers. And these people didn't even know we were there. Supposedly they were coming to see the movie before it was released. And as soon as it was over they raised the curtain and we were there to play all the music. So it was really a great experience."

Knowing he'd struck a rich vein, Martin asked Richie about other highlights in his career.

"Once, on the VIDA Awards I got to back up Celia Cruz, and that was incredible. Another time on another TV show, I backed up Tito Puente playing bongo. And when I played drums on the Paul Rodiguez show, I got to play with a lot of great Latin stars. Another gig that stands out was when I played with Juan Gabriel at the Universal Amphitheater, unbelievable the talent this man has."

Then there was the tour in France with Veronique Sanson where he and Martin were being driven to Paris at 110 mph and stopped by the gendarmes. And then there was the seeming incongruity of playing Latin percussion with John Denver.

"When I first started playing with John we'd do a 2 hour show and the majority of the songs were written by him. Other people had the hits with them but he wrote them. I didn't know that. The ecological things that he was involved in made it an honor to be around a man who was trying to save our environment. Another thrill for me was doing a fundraiser for the Democratic Party. I got to sit in on a panel and speak directly with President Clinton and Vice President Gore. I got along great with President Clinton. I then got to play for them. I was sitting on stage next to Art Garfunkel and the President was sitting in front of the stage. He leaned to the side, ignored Art and waved to me. I again spoke with President Clinton after the performance and got pictures. He spoke to me like I was an old music buddy. But really, I have to say that doing the clinics has been one of the most rewarding things for me. I went to Columbia to do the first clinic there and 600 people came. And I'm thinking, Why are all these people coming to see me? They have all the music they could ever want. And they said, Richie, thanks to you and your video, I was able to start. And so it's amazing if you can reach people and inspire them, even if it's just to play a cowbell you know you've reached them and that's the great reward of the videos. They've been out a long time and they've just kind of stood on their own." [lpmusic.com to order].

LP® started its educational efforts back in the early 70's with the release of "Understanding Latin Rhythms Vol. One" which gave people who weren't from the culture something to hang on to. Since that time it has been the leader in this area and is gearing up to address a whole new generation of young players. Martin asked for Richie's thoughts on the future of these educational projects.

"Right now the Latin players are getting more and more mingled with the American market. So not only do Latin players have to learn to use the instruments, they have to learn to use them in an American environment. So now the learning of Latin percussion instruments has to be geared towards both worlds. Actually, I have a book out on Warner Bros. That's going in exactly that direction. I'm covering all the foundation and basics that anyone would need to play, but also getting into how to apply that to the American environment and make it valid in the context of more modern music."

Martin commented that doing both, growing the traditional audience for more traditional sounds and informing the pop sensibility with a Latin influence, was the right combination to keep everything evolving and vital. In light of his experience did Richie see channels coming together?

"Well the one area that I've seen all this come together is in the dancing aspect. I've been playing more Latin music lately than I have for awhile because people of all races are getting into the dancing. Every dance I play now, always has a dance class before the band goes on. And in every club I play I see as many Anglo-Americans as I see Latinos dancing and dancing great. With some of the dance steps these people do, I'm gonna have to go and take lessons".

LP® and Richie Garcia-a tried and true combination that makes the future of Latin music look a little brighter.

All quotes taken from an interview conducted by Martin Cohen.

All Rights reserved. 2000.

Written by Jim McSweeney.

To learn more about Richie Gajate-Garcia, CLICK HERE.