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In terms of recording, did most of the tracks go down on tape live?

Yeah, most of my records, that’s the way I do it. I’ve got like 27 recordings out now and almost all of them have been done live in the studio. I like to record live with all the guys in the studio. Of course, we’re baffled-off or we’re in separate rooms but we can all see each other. I always like to record in a big studio. We used to record at Capitol or Yamaha and recorded the new album at Henson Studios which is the old A&M Records’ studio down on Le Brea. It’s a big studio and we put the piano in a separate room and closed the sliding glass door but you can still see the piano player. So we had everything separated but we all could see each other when were playing live. We’re usually all facing each other: we’re not in a line, we’re around a room but I always tell the engineers: “make sure I can see everybody.” They usually put me towards the centre so I can see everybody because we give signals with our faces and our hands, our eyes and our heads. We give little signals to give a heads up about what’s coming up next or the end of a solo or something, because for me recording it live like that in the studio, it’s more for real: it sounds more real and it’s not so mechanical. So we do all our records like that and just save the overdubs for the vocals – I do all the vocal overdubs after and then sometimes I’ll add some hand percussion stuff like maybe maracas or the guiro or the bell or something. So that’s how we normally do it.

You’re originally from Texas.

I was born in Laredo, Texas, way down south. I moved to Los Angeles, California, when I was four years old. And here in Los Angeles is where I learned about all this music and then I moved back to Laredo, Texas, and went to junior high school there; that’s where I got to know where I was from a little bit and hung out with my cousins and aunts and uncles but we were only there for a short year and then we moved back to Los Angeles again and I’ve been here ever since. So I grew up in Los Angeles and learned about this music in Los Angeles.

Did you come from a musical family?

No. There were eleven of us; six sisters and four brothers and I’m the only musician. But my sisters were the ones that got me into this music. It was by accident I guess. As a young boy, what happened was when we came to Los Angeles California, my older brothers and sisters got a hold of the radio and over here there was a lot of stations on the radio. They got into a disc jockey by the name of Chico Sesma. He was actually a musician himself – a trombone player – but he was the first Latin disc jockey on the radio in Los Angeles. He played what they call salsa music nowadays. He also played mambo and cha-cha-cha music on the radio for people here in Los Angeles in the early 50s and so my brothers and sisters started listening to that station and then they found out that he would announce the dancers; they used to be at the Hollywood Palladium and they used to call them The Latin Holiday Dancers. And so my brothers and sisters got excited and there used to be dances once a month and they used to bring in bands from Puerto Rico, Cuba and New York and also they brought Cal Tjader’s band down from San Francisco to play in Los Angeles.

My older brothers and sisters would buy the records of all these great salsa and Latin jazz artists and so I grew up listening to the music of Machito, Tito Rodriquez, Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Mongo Santa Maria and Dizzy Gillespie in my house. I was just a little kid in third grade at the time but I loved the music. It’s funny because when I played the music for my friends they would just make faces and say: “why do you like that music? It’s for old people.” Some of those guys are still my friends today – the ones that are still alive – and they tell me, “you know what Poncho? You were way ahead of your time. You knew about that music way before we did. And you were trying to teach us but we wouldn’t listen.”

So how did you go from listening to records to becoming a percussionist then?

I’m self-taught, man. I just loved the sound of those drums and I bought a conga drum at a pawn shop and my father bought the other one. I knew you were supposed to have two of them. I didn’t know much more than that.

How old were you at the time?

I was at high school. I think it was in ninth-grade so I think I was about 14, 15 years old. I got a conga drum and went in my mother’s garage and put on my brothers’ and sisters’ old records – you could hear the conga drum being played – and I just put my ear to the speaker and started playing along. I could hear the patterns and I could hear that there was a pop or a flat tone and then there was an open tone. So I could at least hear that much and I tried to get those sounds out of the conga drum. I started smacking it and then tightened the skin up to make it sound a little tighter and drier. I just figured it all out step-by-step by myself.

Is it true that (percussionist) Mongo Santamaria was a big influence on your playing?

Yeah. I went to see him play at the old Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California – a very famous place – many times. I’d watch him play and then go home and try to do what he did. Every time he came to town, I would watch him, because he was from New York, and we were living in Los Angeles, California. So he’d come about two or three times a year and I’d go and pay a couple of dollars and go in and watch him play. It was the only club that would let minors in but you had to sit in a certain section drinking cherry cokes and sodas. One day I got enough courage and guts up to go talk to him as he was sitting at the bar on his break. I told him in Spanish: “Hi Mongo, my name is Poncho and I really love your music and he said “yeah, I’ve seen you here a couple of times.” He was real dry – not super friendly yet. I said: “Mongo, I want to ask you: is this the right way to play the mambo pattern on the conga?” I got my hands on top of the bar and started drumming. He looked at my hands and then I stopped and then he looked at me. He said: “Mas o menos.” That means more or less. So I waited for more instructions. I thought he was going to say maybe you should do this or maybe do that. But that was it: “mas o menos” and then he turned the other way. Then I went “thank you maestro, thank you teacher, thank you Mongo,” and I meant every word of it. He just said okay and I walked away. My friends said to me: “what did he say?” I said: “mas o menos.” And it’s funny, many years later I really got to know him very well. As a matter of fact, Mongo was one of my best friends at the end and I named my oldest son after him. He’s going to be 39 years old next month. So that’s how much I loved and respected Mongo.