Q&A; with TITO PUENTE : The Mambo King: ‘My Chops Are Still Good’


Few stars in the world of Latin music are better known and loved than Tito Puente.

The 71-year-old New York-born percussionist, bandleader and composer has recorded 104 albums since the late 1940s, ranging from simple salsa to complex Latin jazz and covering virtually all the many Afro-Cuban rhythms.

Although the two-time Grammy winner is best-known for his hits “Para Los Rumberos” and “Oye Como Va” (popularized worldwide by Santana in the early ‘70s), he is much more than the “Mambo King.” Puente’s challenging spirit and energetic versatility have been an inspiration to those who know the dance part is only a fraction of the magic of Latin music.

On Saturday, Puente and 17 other artists will appear at Hollywood Bowl in the “La Combinacion Perfecta” (“The Perfect Combination”), an all-star concert based on the 1993 RMM Records release of that name featuring salsa duets by some of today’s best soneros, singers known for their improvisational skills.

In a recent interview, Puente talked about his career, the state of Latin dance music and his plans for the future.



Question: Were you ever uncomfortable with the title of “Mambo King”?

Answer: It doesn’t bother me to be associated with mambo, but I’m not the king of anything (smiles). I’ve played all kinds of styles with all types of musicians, and all I ever wanted to do was to become a good musician and create good music. That’s all.

Q: What’s your impression of today’s tropical music?

A: Colombia is producing very good salsa orchestras like Niche and Guayacan. Puerto Rico has advanced greatly in arrangers and recording quality. But the New York orchestras are different, more exciting, and I don’t know why. Puerto Ricans are good but lack what Americans call the d-r-r-r-r-ive , when the mambo picks up and everybody feels it. Puerto Ricans are lighter, more subtle. In New York it’s different, maybe because of the presence and influence of jazz. Now, the Cubans . . . what else can I say about them? Orchestras like NG La Banda, Los Van Van. . . .

Q: Those Cuba-based orchestras seem to be miles ahead of everyone else.

A: Way up! They sound like Weather Report! When things get solved in Cuba, the Cuban musicians will scare a lot of musicians from here. I always tell everybody: As soon as the Cubans come, a lot of people are going to have to go back to school all over again. In Cuba it’s different--there they really study music. If you are a musician in Cuba, that’s all you do. Brazilians also play a lot of jazz, but I think Cubans are the more advanced in both jazz technique and rhythm.

Q: In the last few years you’ve concentrated on Latin jazz instead of dance music, and now you’re playing with the Golden Latin Jazz All Stars, a sort of Dream Team.

A: You can’t get much better than that. Every time we play with any major Anglo jazzmen, as Americans say, “We put ‘em away.” It’s because we are playing Latin jazz, and it gets very interesting for the congas and all that. We beat everybody because we have the clave (the distinct rhythmic pattern essential for Afro-Cuban rhythms). That’s why I say Americans can’t and will never be able to play Latin jazz properly.

Q: That’ll be hard for many American players to digest.

A: But it’s the truth! I have never heard any good American Latin jazz orchestra, never . You can know lots of music, but the clave is something you can’t learn anywhere. I go to universities all over the place for Latin jazz workshops and I see that. They don’t even know what a drum is.

Q: What about the idea that music is a universal thing, that you can feel it no matter where you come from?

A: I only talk about what I see. Of course there must be exceptions, but in America I still haven’t seen it.

Q: Who is your favorite sonero (salsa singer) today?

A: I think (Venezuela’s) Oscar D’Leon is the best of them all. He is much superior to all others.

Q: After 104 albums, what’s left for you to do?

A: I have a crazy dream--to stay alive in the year 2000 and have the first Latin orchestra to play on the moon (laughs). I’ll put my timbales instead of the flag. My chops are still good, but performing is the most difficult part--it gets harder every time. You go around the world and find more and more people who can play better than yourself. But I still have enough for a couple of more years. After that I’ll give my timbales to the younger generation and concentrate on producing.

* Puente, Celia Cruz, Oscar D’Leon, Marc Anthony, India, Cheo Feliciano, Ray Sepulveda, Ray De La Paz, Domingo Quinones, Van Lester and others appear on Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., 7 p.m. $66.50-$11.50. (213) 480-3232, (213) 850-2000. Puente plays tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, 8 p.m. $9-$32. (714) 556-2787.