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Percussionist on a Mission

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Samuel Torres at Brooklyn Studio Loft 360

SAMUEL TORRES
Percussionist, Composer, Arranger
From the JDP Archives, (2010)

“Music was always the main communion between the members of my family, my friends and me. Also, it helped me learn who I am.”

Biography

Torres was born September 4, 1976, in Colombia’s bustling capital city of Bogotá and was nurtured in this culturally sophisticated metropolis where jazz and classical music share the stage with salsa and an infinite variety of Colombian folkloric idioms.

His earliest exposure to music came at home, thanks to an extended family of musicians and ready access to a wealth of Colombian music genres, from the infectious rhythms of the cumbia and vallenato to styles which reflect a range of African, indigenous and European influences, including the porro, bambuco, and pasillo.

By the age of 12, Torres was performing with various Bogotá ensembles, developing techniques that allowed him to quickly adapt to the demands of jazz, pop music, and salsa. A classically trained percussionist, he earned a degree in Music Composition from Bogotá’s esteemed Universidad Javeriana. Before departing for the U.S. in 1999, the resourceful young artist had become an established figure on Colombia’s hectic music scene, backing leading Colombian performers while serving as an arranger and music director for his country’s highly regarded telenovelas (TV soap operas) and films.

Shortly after arriving in the U.S., he was tapped by famed Cuban trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval to join his group.

Over time, he would perform and/or record with a veritable “who’s who” of the jazz, Latin pop and salsa world, including such luminaries as Tito Puente, Paquito D’Rivera, Chick Corea, Alejandro Sanz, Ricky Martin, Don Byron, Richard Bona, Lila Downs, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Angelique Kidjo, Marc Anthony, Rubén Blades, Fonseca, Andrés Cepeda, Thalía, and his country’s own international superstar, Shakira. His talents have also been featured in concerts with classical orchestras as Berlin Symphoniker, City of London Sinfonia, Boston Pops, Bogotá Philharmonic, Medellín Philharmonic, Delaware University Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Nashville Symphony.

Rounding out the Colombian musician’s résumé are his show-stopping performance for the 2000 edition of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, where he placed second, and his association with Latin Percussion, Inc., for whom he produced the DVD Drum Solos Revisited. Martin Cohen, the founder of LP who has collaborated with
most of the Latin world’s finest percussionists over the past four decades, lauds Torres as the most talented arranger and producer he has encountered in over 25 years.

In 2012 Torres was awarded a New Jazz Works Grant by Chamber Music America, for which he wrote a profoundly deep ten-movement suite that addresses a tragic issue occurring in his beloved native country. His new release for the Zoho Label, Forced Displacement is dedicated to the victims of the violence in Colombia caused by the ongoing conflict.

INTERVIEW

Congratulations on Yaounde, your third recording as a leader.

Thank You.

Tell me about family and growing up in Colombia.

My grandfather, Manuel Martinez was a trombone player. He came from a small town in southern Colombia near Ecuador. At the age of fourteen, he escaped from the Ecuadorian army and traveled throughout the Caribbean during (the 1930s, 1940s). Along the way, my grandfather picked up a lot of musical influences. He was a self-taught musician. Also, my uncle, Francisco Martinez, who is the father of (pianist, composer, arranger), Edy Martinez, played the saxophone.

Edy has made quite a name for himself. Particularly, in Latin circles. 

He came to the United States as a teenager during the 1960s and rose to fame in the New York City salsa scene and rose to fame during the 1970s as a pianist and arranger for Ray Barretto’s conjunto. My uncle, Juan followed him. He was a drummer and sideman with the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra and Machito and his Afro-Cubans among others.

My grandfather (Manuel) had a great collection of jazz and Afro-Cuban LP’s (vinyl) he picked up during his travels, and because of Edy, I have a collection of Ray Barretto and Fania covers. My favorite album cover was, and still is Barretto’s Indestructible.

Who can forget the album cover? It depicts Ray as Clark Kent, removing his glasses and unbuttoning his shirt to reveal an “S” (for Superman) beneath his clothing. It is one of my favorite recordings, as well.

I played the record and fell in love with Ray’s music and energy. He was my idol. When I finally met Ray, I mentioned that one of my favorite recordings is Barretto Live: Tomorrow (Koch Records, 1976). He didn’t feel it was one of his best recordings.

I too idolized Ray. In fact, it was Ray’s work as a sideman, with Wes Montgomery that initially sparked my interest in jazz and Latin jazz.

Through Ray’s music, which contained a lot of jazz elements I started listening to jazz, Cuban music, the Fania recordings and Latin jazz. In 1989, my cousin went to Cuba and returned with recordings by Irakere and Los Van Van. At the same time, there was a big musical family in Bogota and a nightclub called Salome, where music lovers and collectors gathered. On Friday’s after the bar closed, the serious music lovers would stay behind and listen to music until 7 AM. That’s how I was exposed to music that was not considered mainstream. After that, I started playing music formally. I studied classical music by day and listened to Cuban music at night.

The last time you and I spoke you mentioned other recordings that influenced you. 

There are two: Tito Puente’s Cuban Carnaval (RCA, 1965) and Santito Colon’s De Mi Para Ti (1964). I listened to the albums over and over, even as I slept!

You were “downloading.” What prompted you to take up the drums (percussion)?

There was a popular commercial on TV fo Cerveza Aquila in Bogota that began with a simple conga pattern (mimics the pattern by mouth). I started out copying the basic patterns. Then I graduated to cookie cans, a pair of old bongos, new bongos, a worn conga drum and eventually a new conga drum.

Did you take formal lessons?

I took a few lessons with a great Colombian conga player named Luis Pacheco. He was the original conguero with Grupo Niche and Orquesta Guayacan. Also, when Cuban musicians performed in Colombia, I went to see them. Invariably, we talked about music and shared ideas. In 1993, my Uncle Edy returned to Colombia and formed a band. Also, around that time many Cuban musicians moved to Colombia. I learned a lot from them.

How old were you when you started playing semi-professionally?

I was about fifteen years old.

You also studied composition. The following is a direct quote: “Since I began playing Latin percussion, I felt there was a pervading negative attitude towards percussionists. People would laugh and say, ‘There are musicians, and there are conga players.’ One of the things I wanted to do was to help change the incorrect impression. I believe that composition (composing) is one way to do that. Composition is a big tool to help one understanding music. It enables you to express many feelings that might be difficult to communicate otherwise.”

When I told my professor that I wanted to be a professional conga player he asked me if I was willing to forego a career as a classical percussionist and I says, “Yes.” Later, Guillermo Gavinia (who went on to become Colombia’s Minister of Culture) the Dean of music became involved, and he offered me solid advice. He told me that I needed a major and suggested that I should study composition as a way of learning to make a difference and develop my sound. He also taught me another interesting lesson – to break the rules you have to learn them!

By the time you were twenty-one, you were an established musician as well as a director and arranger for some of Colombia’s most highly regarded telenovelas (soap operas) and films. In spite of that, you chose to move the States.

I knew that someday I would come to the United States. The music I fell in love with as a child was made in New York.

Did Edy play a role in your moving to the States?

At the time he was living in New York and performing with Ray Barretto’s conjunto. I knew that coming to the States was something I had to do. On my career in Colombia, I was working a lot, making lots of money and playing with some of the best musicians but I was only twenty-one, still young enough to start a new career. When my mother moved to Miami (1998) I sensed that life was telling me what to do. One year later, I followed her.

Shortly after your arrival your career took a dramatic turn when trumpet virtuoso, Arturo Sandoval asked you to join his group. You spent four years touring with Sandoval. Tell me about that period in your life and what you gained from the experience.

Arturo taught me so much. He taught me the Cuban element, how Cubans speak, their expressions, the way they walk, eat and dance. You have to understand the culture to understand their music.

What was the most significant lesson?

When I arrived in the States, I was very critical of myself. I was very
self-conscious, and I had a tendency to over-intellectualize my playing. Arturo taught me to loosen up, be more spontaneous and connect with the public. I can still hear him saying, “Stop worrying, you are a great musician, play from the heart and transmit that feeling to the audience.”

While you were with Arturo you attracted the attention of Tito Puente, Paquito D’ Rivera, Chick Corea, Michael Brecker, Claudio Rodito, Richard Bona, Lila Downs and Shakira, among others. In 2006, you stepped out on your own and recording Skin Tones, the first as a leader.

While I was living in Miami, I wrote a lot of music, and I worked at developing my sound. But, it wasn’t until I moved to New York in 2002 that I found a voice for my compositions.

How so?

All of my idols lived in New York! While I was in Miami, I saw a lot of bands that gave me great ideas. Groups you don’t often see in New York. I started thinking about the kind of sound I wanted to create. When I arrived in New York, I met vocalist Julia Dollison, whose voice is like an instrument. I collaborated with her and trumpeter, Michal Rodriguez on a demo and I started thinking about the possibility of creating a career and making a living with my music. Shortly after, I recorded Skin Tones.

For which, you assembled an all-star cast including bassist John Benitez, pianist Hector Martignon, harpist Edmar Castaneda, drummer Ernesto Simpson, trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, saxophonist Mike Campagna and vocalist Julia Dollison among others. How was Skin Tones received?

Excellent! From my perspective as a Colombia living in New York, it was a gratifying experience. Unlike other recordings where percussion is used to provide shades and colors, the drums are the centerpiece. Everything revolves around the drums.The reviews were excellent. I’m grateful for the positive feedback and pleased with the way the recording turned out.

Your relationship with the African guitarist, vocalist Richard Bona and a trip to Africa (Cameroon) ushered in a new chapter. Also, it provided you with an appreciation for how the music of your country evolved. Tell me African, Colombian connection.

The first connection is geographical. Climate-wise and music-wise it is very similar to Colombia. The African influence is strong in Latin America.

In spite of the definitive proof, some Latin American countries still refuse to acknowledge the African influence. 

It happens. In Colombia, after slavery, the slaves built their cities (palenque’s) on the Pacific coast and segregated themselves socially and economically. Similarly, in Cameroon, there are no roads. People get to where they want to go by boat or plane. Interestingly over the last ten years, it has become very fashionable to learn about the Afro-Latino culture and Black music. There is no denying the fact that the African influence is strong.

While you were in Africa, you discovered similarities between the music of Colombia and Cameroon.

Yes, the use of the marimba and the way the people dance. The music of the Pacific Coast region has indigenous influences, which makes it sound more Latin but rhythmically the music of Cameroon is complex.

When you returned, you went into the studio and recorded Yaounde, your second as a leader (named after Cameroon’s capital city).

It’s Latin jazz with a Colombian groove, a New York vision and the spirit of West Africa. Ernesto Simpson and John Benitez lived in Colombia. They have a deep understanding of the music. The rest of the band members are all superb musicians.

Stylistically, it’s more adventurous than anything you had done up to that point. 

The reviews are good. More important, the critics seem to understand the message I am trying to convey.

What’s next?

The biggest is a cultural festival in Bogota in October (2010). It’s the World Premiere of Concierto para 8 Congas y Orquesta with the Bogota Philharmonic.

With regard to your style of playing, I’ve noticed that you place a lot of emphasis on melody and harmony.

The importance of melody and harmony is a huge topic. I’ve heard old and new generation percussionists say they do not tune their congas to notes. That they tune them to their “heart.” That’s a beautiful statement, and it’s true that we should play with our deepest and sincere respect; however, congas are defined as unpitched in the orchestration books. That has to change. Today’s technology allows the conga drum to be tuned to specific notes and plastic heads keep the drums tuned for extended periods of time. As percussionists, we have to be prepared to interact with all aspects of the musical language, including rhythm, melody, harmony, sound, and form.

Perhaps the most melodic conguero I have ever seen, or heard is Carlos “Patato” Valdes, although he was known to spend the better part of the performance tuning his drums. 

Patato was a significant influence. The first recording that hooked me into Patato was Just Like Magic (LP Records, 1979) by The Latin Percussion Ensemble with Tito Puente and Johny Rodriguez. If I’m not mistaken, before Patato played the tumbadoras he played the tres. His playing imitates the sound of the tres and the bass. His tone was rounded and clear, and when it came to dynamics and sound, he had great ideas. He could play soft or loud; his playing was about musicality.

Candido Camero was another great master who did the same. There are so many ways of developing the instrument that there is no right or wrong way to play. We just have to try. Some people will like it and others will not, but diversity is what creates a big musical world. Now, more than ever it’s important to take hand drumming to the next level.

I commend you for dispelling the notion that conga players are not full-fledged musicians. Also, as a reviewer wrote, you are a “fully developed player in the true meaning of the word – an artist who passionately follows his intuitions, ever broadening his horizons while further honing his wide-ranging, world-class skills.”

Thank you for your kind words.

Well deserved!

Post Script

Samuel’s most recent effort, titled Forced Displacement (Zoho, 2015) is a 10-movement suite that addresses a tragic issue occurring in his beloved native country. “I decided to write a piece dedicated to the victims of violence in Colombia caused by the ongoing conflict between guerrillas, paramilitary groups, and the national army, especially the Afro-Colombian community that is usually in the most afflicted areas of violence in the country.” For this career-defining work, Torres draws on his classical training and mixes in jazz harmonies and improvisation while retaining the folkloric foundation for a stimulating and thought-provoking statement.

Also, see the documentary film, Tempo RubatoExploring the Roots of Musical Inspiration. Directed and Produced by Noelia Santos. The film was awarded Best Issue Documentary at the New York Jazz Film Festival (2016).

The film depicts the creative origins and rhythmic roots of a new jazz composition by the acclaimed New York-based Colombian percussionist and composer, Samuel Torres. His album, ‘Forced Displacement,’ written as a tribute to the victims of the Colombian conflict, takes him on a journey to the roots of Afro-Colombian music and the communities in which it plays an important social role.

Learn More About Tempo Rubato: www.temporubatofilm.com
Artist Website: www.samueltorres.com

Selected Discography
Skin Tones (ONE SOUL RECORDS, 2005)
Yaounde (BLUE CONGA, 2010)
Forced Displacement (ZOHO, 2015)

Photo: Emra Islek

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