BY DAVID A. BRENSILVER | PHOTOS BY FRANCIS GEORGE | FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S MAY 2018 ISSUE
Percussionist Karl Perazzo refers to Santana’s rhythm section as “The New Machine.” While Perazzo’s been a member of the iconic guitarist’s group since 1991, conga player and longtime pal Paoli Mejias, as well as drummer Cindy Blackman Santana, are relative newcomers, joining the ensemble in 2013 and 2015, respectively. For Perazzo, it’s always been his dream gig, “and I’m living it,” he says.
The dream is currently playing out in Las Vegas, where the band is in residence performing a show called “An Intimate Evening With Santana: Greatest Hits Live” during parts of May, September, and November at the House Of Blues.
Perazzo grew up in a musical family in San Francisco’s Mission District — where Carlos Santana also began making music in the late 1960s — listening to the Fania All-Stars, Ray Barretto, and Mongo Santamaria, among other artists. He started playing music around age two, and early on focused on Afro-Cuban percussion. “My first instrument is bongos,” he says. “Then I went to congas and then after that I got into timbales and I just kind of stayed there.” Perazzo found influence in the work of Barretto, Tito Puente, Nicky Marrero, Armando Peraza, Francisco Aguabella, Buddy Rich, and, “believe it or not, man, even Desi Arnaz, just watching the show [I Love Lucy].”
His introduction to Santana’s music came by way of family. “My cousins sat me down, my older cousins, because I was already playing in Mexican bands,” he says, “and they said, ‘Hey, listen to this, learn these songs.’ They were adamant.” What he heard, he says, was “a beautiful conglomeration of colors, of blues, Latin, rock, and soul. In other words, anybody can identify with this music, no matter where you’re from, no matter what your heritage is. There’s a place for you in this music.”
Perazzo started playing with Jorge Santana’s band, Malo, and got a big break as a member of Sheila E.’s band when she opened for Prince on the 1984–85 Purple Rain tour. He then recorded for Windham Hill Records, working with steel drum player Andy Narell and other high-profile musicians. Then came the call from Carlos Santana: The dream gig was his.
“I was so inspired by the band that sometimes when we play some of the [early] stuff, I do the solos note for note,” Perazzo says, mentioning percussionists Michael Carabello and José “Chepito” Areas, and drum set player Michael Shrieve. “That’s about paying respect, because I do honor [Santana’s] music and his vision because it was such a big influence on me, and it really fueled my passion even more to practice. And to me, that music was perfection. So, that’s what I practiced — I practiced perfection.”
While playing with Santana was Perazzo’s childhood dream, for Mejias, the opportunity wasn’t one that even crossed his mind growing up in Puerto Rico, where he’d immersed himself from an early age in Latin jazz.
“Everything I play with Santana is very, very new for me,” Mejias says, explaining that the gig has informed his own practice and the way he views his instrument. “I changed the way I tune the congas in the group. I need a deeper sound,” he says, offering an example. “I’ve changed a lot… and I’ve learned a lot.”
From an early age, Mejias was drawn to progressive music that fused jazz with Caribbean traditions. Like Perazzo, he grew up listening to the likes of the Fania All-Stars and Ray Barretto, as well as Tata Güines, Carlos “Patato” Valdes, Batacumbele, and Eddie Palmieri. He was also drawn early on to the congas, which he started to play at age eight. A self-taught player, Mejias was soon working with Palmieri, Puente, Marc Anthony, and other salsa and Latin jazz groups. He also devoted much time to his own music, recording original tunes, and eventually touring. It was thanks in part to a 20-year friendship with Perazzo that he got the call in 2013 from Santana.
The first work he did with the band was recording tracks for Corazón (2014). “I tried to let them lead me,” Mejias says, modestly, of the other members of the ensemble. “Santana knows what rhythms he wants.” Since then, Mejias has worked in Santana’s band with three drum set players — Dennis Chambers, Jose “Pepe” Jimenez, and, now, Blackman Santana. “Every musician is very, very professional,” Mejias says. He speaks warmly of his percussion counterpoint, Perazzo. “He’s played a lot of years with Santana, and he knows what sound we need,” he says. “He understands everything. He is a great, great musician. I respect him a lot, and Cindy too.”
Perazzo says a big part of what makes the rhythm section work well together is communication. “We all speak the same language,” he says. “It could be in a different dialect, but we’re on the same page.” That includes bassist Benny Rietveld, with whom Perazzo played in Sheila E.’s band, and Blackman Santana, a new addition to the band.
Talking about Mejias’ place among the conga players who’ve played in Santana’s band, Perazzo says, “Raul [Rekow] left a huge, huge fingerprint, and Armando Peraza left a huge fingerprint. But Paoli brings this modern energy. This guy is phenomenal. He’s very strong, he’s very creative, he’s very passionate, and he has an incredible sense of African roots.” Perazzo went so far as to place Mejias in the pantheon of hugely influential conga players that includes Giovanni Hidalgo, Anthony Carrillo, and Richie Flores.
Beyond Santana, Mejias’ musical home is his quintet, which has three recordings to its credit: Jazzambia (2008), Transcend (2006), and Mi Tambor (2004), which earned a Grammy nomination, and a live concert film called De Jazzambia A Mi Tambor El Concierto (2012). Mejias writes lyrics and conceives melodies for the group’s music, and he and his bandmates create arrangements together. But given Santana’s heavy touring schedule, he admits he hasn’t been doing too much with his own group lately. Perazzo also leads his own groups — salsa bands Avance and Conjunto Karabali, the latter a project with fellow percussionist Michael Spiro — and runs his own production company.
As their schedules allow, both Perazzo and Mejias teach and do clinics through the companies whose products they endorse. Mejias has worked as an artist-in-residence at the Conservatorio de Música De Puerto Rico and at the Cornish College Of The Arts in Seattle, Washington. Both endorse and play instruments made by Latin Percussion, and in January the company released products designed by each of the percussionists. Perazzo’s signature line of timbales is comprised of black nickel with chrome hardware. “It’s going be part of what I call right now the Sugar Skull Line. It’s based off of the Mexican heritage of Dia De Los Muertos,” he says.
Mejias spent eight years designing a look for the congas that bear his name. “I designed the conga when I recorded my CD Jazzambia, and this is the name of the conga, too,” he says, explaining that he worked with a graphic artist to incorporate elements from the album art into the design. “It’s very different,” he says. “It’s very artistic.” It’s fair to say that both Perazzo and Mejias are fully immersed in the world of percussion they’ve been exploring since childhood.
Much has changed since Perazzo and Mejias started playing, beginning with the availability of a vast amount of information on the Internet. Mejias calls it an “incredible tool,” mentioning that he’s been exploring different online courses. But it’s a different way of learning than he grew up with. Like so many from the generations before him, he would drop the needle on his record player to play along with a solo over and over again to figure out by ear what was happening rhythmically. Today, he points out, YouTube and other websites offer musicians the chance not just to hear, but to see what a player is doing, often from different camera angles. One can even slow down a track to hear more clearly what’s being played.
It may be easier to learn now with the tools available online, but still, Mejias says, “It’s a little bit different when you have a student and you play with the person, because the most important thing is how they feel when playing with other people.” Imparting and applying knowledge is also, obviously, quite different in a face-to-face environment.
“YouTube opens up the third eye to a world of what you can see and what you can hear,” says Perazzo, but he also believes that learning is, in part, about direct exposure. The way music is often consumed today — streaming and downloading, without liner notes — erases some of that. “Like anything,” he says, “we start by mimicking. Oftentimes you might play what you hear and you don’t play what you know, and therein lies the problem for me, because I think that by not reading the back of a record cover and [seeing] who the artist was, who played that, you’re losing part of the root.”
On the other hand, watching a live performance, in-person or on video, can expose people to artists with whom they hadn’t previously been familiar. “Paoli gave me a great [example] of that,” Perazzo says. “It was one of his first gigs with Eddie Palmieri, and he said he was going to the club and this guy stopped him and said, ‘Man, is Richie Flores playing congas?’ Because that dude wanted to see Richie Flores. He said, ‘No, man, it’s just me.’” The ticketholder didn’t get to see Flores but did get exposed to Mejias.
Perazzo has had similar experiences. When he first saw and heard Ralph Irizarry play, he says, “I was like, ‘Who is that dude?’ And I waited for him to come off the stage and I talked to him. I said, ‘I’ve never seen anybody like you. I’ve never seen anybody play that kind of stuff before. You’re so different than anyone I’ve heard.’ And he said, ‘Man, I really appreciate that.’ And we’ve been friends ever since.”
The connection that Perazzo and Mejias have enjoyed for two decades connects them in turn to a legacy whose soundtrack is rich in percussion, and now has them sharing the stage with Carlos Santana. For Perazzo, the dream gig is an extension of himself. And for Mejias, the Santana gig is an opportunity for him to share his playing with new colleagues and a massive audience. “Every place we go is sold out, around the world,” Mejias says. “It’s amazing.”
Were he not one of the musicians onstage, part of “The New Machine” delivering music from a catalog that spans 50 years, Perazzo might be one of those ticketholders in the crowd. “I’m still a fan,” he says. “I still look down and go, ‘Man, that’s Carlos Santana.’”