Cuban-born drummer Armando Peraza, a self-taught musician who transformed himself from a homeless orphan in Havana to a world-recognized bongo and conga expert who performed with Carlos Santana for nearly two decades, died Monday in a South San Francisco hospital.
The cause was pneumonia, said his wife, Josephine Peraza. Peraza had also battled diabetes for many years.
Officially, Peraza was 89, but he admitted that he made up a birth date to give to authorities when he came to the United States in the late 1940s and was never sure of his exact age.
Peraza, who also played with George Shearing and other jazz greats, was known for combining a blindingly fast drumming technique with a flamboyant style that audiences loved. “When he played, he would move his hands in a dramatic fashion in dance-like moves,” said John Santos, a San Francisco bandleader who organized concerts in tribute to Peraza in recent years. “A lot of players concentrate on efficiency of motion. Armando could pull off the moves without the technique ever suffering.”
In a 2011 radio essay, , National Public Radio producer Felix Contreras said that he not only liked to watch Peraza play the drums, he also marveled at how the drummer moved across the stage after a long solo. “He walked with a deliberate stride, his back was straight, his head held high,” Contreras said.
“It was in that regal bearing that I felt a strong sense of Africa, of his ancestors and of powerful, endless rhythms that are almost as old as a human heartbeat.”
Peraza was born, according to public records, in Havana on May 30, 1924, though his wife said it could have been as early as 1919. When Peraza was 3, his father died of pneumonia and at the age of 7 he lost his mother to liver failure, according to a 2004 account in Latin Beat magazine. He stayed with relatives until he was 12 and then was out on his own, selling fruit and vegetables on the street.
“I was sleeping on the street,” Peraza told Latin Beat. “I grew up with a lot of violence.”
As he grew older, he played semipro baseball and taught himself to play drums. “I never had a chance to learn everything,” Perez told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009. “In the streets, nobody showed us nothing.”
His break came when a baseball teammate’s brother, a singer with a pivotal group called Conjunto Kubavana, was in sudden need of a conga player and gave Peraza the chance to perform. He later played alongside percussionist Mongo Santamaria for a dance troupe known as the Black Diamonds. “A big specialty number would be a dance solo with Armando’s playing following the moves of the dancer,” Santos said.
In the late 1940s, Peraza made his way to New York, but his flamboyant playing didn’t fit with Latin dance orchestras of the period. “The attention was supposed to be on the lead singers,” Santos said. “What he did overshadowed them.”
Instead, Peraza gravitated to jazz ensembles, joining groups headed by Shearing and Cal Tjader. Over the years, he also performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Charlie Parker and Art Tatum, and eventually with pop music stars such as Aretha Franklin, Linda Ronstadt and Eric Clapton.
His relationship with Santana began in the early 1970s. “He knew Carlos’ father before he knew Carlos,” Josephine Peraza said. Santana’s father, Jose, was a mariachi musician in San Francisco.
Among the Santana recordings on which Peraza played are “Caravanserai,” “Blues for Salvador” and “Freedom.” Peraza traveled extensively with Santana’s band until about 1990, when his diabetes made life on the road too difficult. He continued to perform on recordings, including Linda Ronstadt’s 1992 “Frenesi” Spanish-language album, and at occasional concerts.
Even with his health declining, years fell away when he performed for a crowd. “He brings a dignity to playing the drums,” Santos told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1995. “He carries himself with an air of royalty, and it’s translated into the music.”
Besides his wife, Peraza is survived by a daughter, Traci Williams of Fort Worth, and three grandchildren.