Latin Percussionist Newsletter Issue 4 Summer 1996
by Victor Rendón & Armando Rodríguez
José Madera: arranger/ percussionist, has long been a driving force behind the bands of many artists including the Machito and Tito Puente Orchestras. A top arranger in the Latin field , he has written over 300 arrangements for the likes of Machito, Puente, Fania All Stars, Louie Ramirez, Pacheco, and Willie Rosario to name a few. Coming from the timbale tradition of Ubaldo Nieto (Machito's timbale player for many years) he continues to pass on the tradition with live performances and with his teaching at the Boy's Harbor Performing Arts Center in "El Barrio" of New York City.
∞ Interview ∞
LP: José, let's start with your background and how you got started.
JM: I guess I became interested when I was about six or seven years old. We used to have records at home. My dad was a working musician with Machito and he would bring records home of dates that they had done. My first records were the Tito Puente 78's that had been put on LP by the Tico label. They were a bunch of 78's compiled into an album titled Cha Cha Cha For Lovers. I also had things like Cuban Carnival, and some early Machito albums on the Tico label. I was not aware of some of the earlier recordings until I got older. That's really how I got started by listening to those records. This might sound like a cliché but I learned by just playing them over and over.
LP: What years were those?
JM: This was like the late 1950's or early 1960's. Just playing the records over and over, you can hear things. Of course now I play them and I hear other things that I did not hear then. As a kid I was impressed by all that and that's really how I picked up a lot of things. It wasn't until a little while later that I saw some of it played live.
LP: Tell us a little about your father, José Madera Sr.
JM: My father was one of the original members of the Machito band before Mario Bauza. All those early recordings of "Sopa De Pichón," "La Paella", "El Muerto Se Fue De Rumba", "Que Vengan Los Rumberos", "Rumbantela" which I later rearranged for Machito were originally my dad's arrangements. He wrote arrangements for Daniel Santos and for Vitin Aviles that were big hits like"La Televisión." He also did quite a few things for Tito Rodríguez including a ballad on the album Palladium Memories which was "El Último Fracaso." This was when Tito was with Noro Morales in 1947-48.
LP: When did you actually start playing with bands?
JM: We had a bunch of kid bands. When I was about fifteen years old along with Louie Bauzó, we had these little bands for which we would go around and play. We would earn twenty bucks and some nights we were lucky to get paid. The scene really hasn't improved much. Guys are still playing for one hundred dollars a night which is not any kind of money to make. To produce a certain amount of talent and play in front of a crowd takes a certain amount of discipline.
LP: Did you particularly study with somebody?
JM: I learned by observing Uba Nieto (timbale player with Machito) for many years. He gave me my first cowbell and cymbal. Eventually I went out to play with Machito. Watching Uba and the band play live impressed me so much that I guess subconsciously I decided to become a musician. On hearing the three bands (Machito, Puente, and Tito Rodríguez) there is no comparison to the Machito band. As well as Tito played and as well as Tito Rodríguez sang, there was no comparison to the Machito band.
LP: How did you eventually get to play with Machito?
JM: We had a band called La Orquesta Son which had a hit in 1969 titled "Tender Love". It was pretty hot. I did one project called "I Regret" for Orquesta Capri. When I split with the guy he took the tune and gave himself credit. Anyway, one day I got a call from Mario Bauza and he asked my father to speak to me. He didn't have a timbale player for that weekend. At first I said to myself, "It sounds great, I don't know if I can or not". But I said to Mario, "Yeah I'll go, I'll try and do what I can".
LP: How old were you?
JM: I was seventeen or eighteen, more or less. The gig was at the Concord Plaza Hotel and I remember walking on the stage and seeing these guys. They had four saxes, three trumpets, piano, and bass. The conga player was Julian Cabrera and Henry Rosa was the bongo player.
LP: So is this still in the late 60's?
JM: This is like 1969 or 70. I just played. I don't remember much about the night except that I had a good time finally playing with a bunch of professional musicians. For me the arrangements were no problem because I knew all those tunes having grown up around them. I had a good time. I remember we did the weekend and then Mario asked me if I wanted to stay and play and I said, "Well yeah, why not". So, I stayed for a while. What I learned in that band was invaluable. That is like the Latin band of all time.
LP: Was this after Uba?
JM: This was after Uba, Frankie Colón, and a few other guys that had played at the time. I'm not positive but I think maybe Frankie had taken the job at the Roseland doing seven nights because at that time in the scene you worked two or three days a week and it wasn't that good. Naturally, musicians have to look for steady work where ever they can find it. I did it for a couple of years and I had a great time. It was an invaluable experience hearing that band. Having sat in that band and played, having sat in Tito Puente's band for many years and playing Tito Rodríguez' music, Machito was the best experience. It's like the Count Basie band.
LP: How did you get in writing and arranging music?
JM: I guess I started fooling around as a kid back when I was fifteen or sixteen. I didn't know my key signatures that well, transpositions of instruments and all that kind of stuff. I tried to learn with two trumpets. You couldn't really mess with two or three trumpets too badly. Whenever I would have a question I would ask my dad and he would tell me. Also all the years of playing, looking at scores, and analyzing things like that eventually developed into whatever I am now.
LP: I guess growing up in your family was quite an education.
JM: My whole family are musicians. All my uncles are musicians and my dad obviously. Of all the people in my family I am the worst musician. If I knew one quarter of what my father knows, I would be a millionaire in Hollywood now. Those guys were great musicians--transposition, arranging, sight reading, everything.
LP: You play a little bit of piano also.
JM: Yes, I know the keyboard from writing. But, most of those things I've learned on my own including the experience of writing for strings. There're things that you learn as you write. You can go to school all your life and take arranging courses. But, arranging is not learned until you actually go stand in front of thirty guys, tap 1-2-3-4 and start playing the arrangement. Those are the things that a school cannot teach you. That's what we have here at Boy's Harbor Performing Arts Center. We have a workshop where people play and you can bring your arrangement in and hear it played. Years ago we didn't have that. You have an arrangement, bring it in. There's a wrong note. What chord is that? Who has that wrong note? Those are things that you learn as you progress.
LP: Eventually you wrote a lot for the Machito Orchestra. Didn't you arrange a whole album for him?
JM: Yeah, I did a lot of it. I also rewrote a lot of it. Actually it was the one on Mericana. The name of it is plainly Machito. Tito Rodriguez was the A&R man. It was done back in 1970. From then on I went to write for a lot of artists on the Rico and Fania labels.
LP: I remember you wrote some things for Willie Rosario and Tito Puente.
JM: I had Willie's last three hits, "La Pelota", "Lluvia", and "Negra Linda". I just did a tune called "On Green Dolphin Street" for Tito (Puente) and Maynard Ferguson for a new album that is coming out. I must have written at least three hundred arrangements that have been recorded and/or played. It's been a long haul. A lot of notes.
LP: So what are you doing now?
JM: Right now I'm on the road a lot with Tito Puente. I'd say that we've come back to about 100 dates a year. We used to do about 150. We do less now which is fine with me because I'd rather be home now. I've had all my fun moving around the country entertaining strangers all my life.
LP: You've been able to make a living from just playing music.
JM: I've never had to work in anything besides music. I've done this (teaching at Boy's Harbor) because every time I leave, Ramon (Rodríguez) eventually asks me to fill in for somebody. So I do it to help out the school. I've never had to do anything like sit in an office. I've just gone out, playing on a drum or cowbell. It paid my rent (laughs).
LP: What recommendation do you have for students here at Boy's Harbor and percussionists in general to prepare for what's out there?
JM: The only thing you can do is take your lessons and practice a lot. Join some kind of workshop where you can actually play with other people. That's really how you learn to play. By sitting with twenty other people you learn dynamics, what to play and what not to play. Someday someone might see you and decide to give you a call. All the spots are taken. It's kind of hard to break in anywhere.
LP: Do you recommend that drummers study other instruments.
JM: I think they should study all of the percussion. You can't play all of them great. It's impossible. You should be able to play one very well and the others well enough to cover the job if you're called for it.
LP: What is your main ax?
JM: Timbales is my main instrument. I play congas because when Madamo (who is my substitute here) moved to California they had no conga player in Tito's band. So they moved me over. Tito said, "Go get a conga and start playing". I had never played the drum in my life. I learned on the job. Then I brought Louie Bauzó in and he played bongos for a couple of years.
LP: I always see a "pressing touch" when you play the bell. A lot of players bounce the stick.
JM: That pressing is from Uba (Nieto). That is what keeps the time together. He didn't need a conga player because he had a great left hand. He would take that band (Machito's band) and carry it where he wanted. He had a great bell. Until this day I wish I could have gotten my hands on it when he passed away. I don't know what happened to any of that stuff.
LP: Did you have any mentors that you looked up to?
JM: As far as writing, my favorite arranger is René Hernandez (pianist and arranger for the Machito Orchestra). He's been dead now about eighteen years. With all due respect to people like Tito Puente, Harold Wegbreit, and Ray Santos he was the best. René was the standard that I tried to emulate.
LP: What about players who influenced you?
JM: I would have to say my favorite big band drummer was Uba still. My favorite band was Machito's band not just because my dad and I played in it but because I just like the way it sounded.
LP: That's about it José. Is there anything else you want to add?
JM: I would say that anyone that's involved in the arts can't really expect to make a lot of money. Only about twenty percent are making the money and the other eighty percent are just struggling. That's the way an art form is. You can't let that get you discouraged. Just keep plugging away because you never know who's watching. Somebody might get impressed and say, "I'm going to hire this guy/girl". You might have a better shot in the American scene because there is more variety but even that scene has been cut down a lot. A lot of the recordings have gone to the wayside. It's just a bad cycle that we're in. I don't know if we are going to recover or not. I've been lucky that I've been paid to play and see the world. I can't ask for anything more than that.