"Play...only when you have to"
Throughout my years, I've been able to perform alongside some of the most recognized artists in the Tropical Latin Music scene. I've also been blessed to share the stage with some of the most talented and virtuoso musicians this music has had to offer. Out of all of those musicians, there is one in particular that has left a lasting impact on me as a musician and on my playing, Sammy Garcia.
Sammy is one of the most influential conga players in Salsa music and has been a driving force for quite some time now. Sammy's humble beginnings start in the Bronx NY, and have led him all the way to venues such as Madison Square Garden. He has performed and recorded with just about everyone! Celiz Cruz, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Victor Manuelle, Willie Colon, Ricardo Arjona, Olga Tañon, Cheo Feliciano, among many others.
I first met Sammy sometime back in 2003 or 2004. During that time he was the musical director for Moncho Rivera (Ismael Rivera's nephew). I still remember the day I found out my uncle's band was going to be backing up Moncho and he would be bringing Sammy with him as his MD. I was pumped! Although still a youngster, I knew who he was and used to see his name in the credits of some of my favorite salsa albums.
Over the course of time, we've been able to see and talk to each other on many other occasions, to where today, I consider him a mentor and a friend. In each instance, Sammy has always treated me with the same class and genuine respect that he demonstrated when I first met him.
I remember one day we were having a text message conversation and I asked him something - which I can't even remember now what I asked, but I'm sure it was something he always gets asked - and his response was, "Just remember, play... only when you have to."
Those words have stuck with me and are represented in my playing. Sometimes as percussionists, we do too much and tend to overplay a section, part or song - even when it may feel right to us. Sometimes what may feel right and what we may think will sound great in a particular song, does not. I've played with many percussionists who do not respect the singer or sonero, and launch out of pocket and do their own thing or play overly aggressive.
I've always said, "you have to adjust yourself to the music and style at hand". If the music is more up tempo and aggressive and calls for you to be so, then go for it. But if the song is more subtle and romantic, you may want to consider your approach before hitting that crash cymbal numerous times and possibly taking over the show.
So, when do you play? That intuition comes with time, experience and by studying some of the greats. But in all cases, it's always best to play the style of music the way it should be played, all while adding your own flavor, touch and feel.
But when in doubt, like Sammy says, "play...only when you have to".
Favorite Sammy Garcia recordings:
Puerto Rican Power: Wild Wild Salsa
Rey Ruiz: Mi Tentacion
Gilberto Santa Rosa: Esencia