|After imprisonment and
years of obscurity,
Cuban musician Perico Hernandez gains his rightful place as a master musician in the CD
By lory Farr
When he left Cuba 29 years ago there were two things
he never forgot: the humiliation he endured after Fidel Castro came to power and the
magical music he’d played and loved since his youth.
“I can’t forgive what they did to me. After the revolution, I went from musician
to prisoner,” Jose Caridad “Perico” Hernandez says, his eyes as heavy as
bullets. “They sent me to Camaguey, far, far away from my wife and six children, to
cut sugar cane. For six years — I will never forget that. The pain is in my heart still.
That’s why I have never returned. But Cuba lives inside of me. It runs through my blood. I
never forgot the music. When the rhythm is inside your body, you never lose it,”
Sitting in the living room of his small Eagle Rock house, Perico looks younger than his
60 years. He has a large, majestic head, broad shoulders, smooth pecan toned skin and deep
brown eyes that normally sparkle like a child’s.
These days he plays with Son y Clave, a band he put together a few months ago that
plays the full range of Afro-Cuban music. But for years he’s been a musician’s musician,
performing on records and film soundtracks and playing gigs with other better-known Latin
Before Son y Clave, he led a Charanga-style band called Charangoa, where he played
congas and sang at Hollywood nightspot El Floridita. There, on Friday nights, many a great
musician would stop by to see the master at work. Poncho Sanchez, who recorded a couple of
albums with Perico some years ago, including a Grammy-nominated song Perico co-wrote,
“Guajira Para La Jeva,” calls him “a great, great” conguero,
“Perico plays with his own original style. He knows all the early Cuban rhythms
and how the music fits together. But he’s also a terrific singer and writer, not to
mention a beautiful, humble person. The only reason he’s not more visible is because it
takes so much else, besides musical ability, to make it in this business.”
But that will change when “Caravana Cubana” (Dreamer Music) hits record
stores in late May. Recorded last summer, the CD features an all-star lineup of Cuban and
Latin musicians – everyone from the Grammy Award winning Cuban pianist Jesus Chucho Valdes
and the singers in Bamboleo to Miguel Anga Diaz and Jimmy Bosch.
Most of the songs were written and arranged by
Perico. And it’s his soulful criollo voice, elegiacally sad on some songs and ecstatically
transcendent on others, that takes you by surprise.
Listening to the CD is like driving cross-country through Cuba with the windows
rolled down. The mesmeric drumming of a guiro and bata conjure up the orishas,
the gods of the Afro-Cuban religion known as Santeria; a dazzling comparsa summons down
the spirit of Carnival, and along the way we’re plunged into street rumba,as well as son,
changui and descarga.
“Caravana Cubana” began life as a tribute to the late beloved Cuban DJ,
Emilio Vandenedes, a key figure in popularizing Cuban music in Los Angeles and Miami
during the 1980’s and 1990s. But as word of the project spread, more and more world-class
musicians became involved.
“I’ve known Perico for 18 years and I’ve always considered him one of the
underrated players and singers in the city,” says Alan Geik, who produced the
forthcoming CD and co-hosts “Alma Del Barrio,” a Latin music show broadcast
weekends on KXLU (88.9 FM), a Los Angeles area college station, with Nina Lenart, a
co-producer on the recording.
“When I asked him if he would be interested in working on this project, a tribute
to Emilio that would use a number of musicians in Los Angeles who really made a
contribution to the music, he immediately said ‘yes. I knew he had written lots of music.
But I didn’t realize how rich it was until we started to plunge into it.”
Perico grew up in a small town called La Palma, in Pinar del Rio, Cuba’s westernmost
province. His calling was clear at age 8 when he tested out as the most musically gifted
student in his class. By the time he was 12, he was playing congas in a band that imitated
the then-popular Conjunto Casino. Two years later, he says laughingly, he was playing with
“We would finish up at 4 a.m every night. Then we would have parties and continue
drinking until the morning,” Perico says, shaking his head and rolling his eyes in
wonder at the memories those days still summon. “Everyone was playing Havana then:
Benny More, Celia Cruz, Chapottin, Sonora Matancera.”
In 1958, Perico was asked to play with the best musicians in Havana to open the Hotel
Capri. It was the gig of a lifetime and a memory he savors.
“We practiced for three months– I’11 never forget that. We opened on Nov. 28,
1958, and we were sold out every night. I was making 60 a week in Cuba, which would be
like — I would say, like $3,000 a week today.”
And then came the revolution, the closing of cabarets and casinos and exile to
Camaguey. By then, Perico and his wife, Esperanza, already had six children.
Geik is tall and lanky, with dark hair, a moustache and Mediterranean features that
could pass for gypsy, Greek, Italian or Spanish. He grew up in the Bronx and came of age
in the late 1950’s and early ’60s, when New York City was a musical paradise and pop music
hadn’t been transformed into a pure commodity.
“Tito Puente would play with The lonious Monk at the Apollo,” he recalls.
“Or I’d go to Birdland on a Thursday night and see a double bill of Machito with Duke
Geik studied economics In London as the Vietnam War raged an experience that led
him to become a fierce anti-war agitator. But he ended up working in television and film
as an editor. He loved Latin music but never gave a moment’s thought to being a DJ, much
less a record producer, until he phoned Eddie Lopez, a local DJ for a show called
“Latin Dimensions,” then broadcast on KCRW(89.9 FM).
“I knew Eddie and he happened to be looking for someone to take over the show. I
said what about me? And he said,’You’d be fine,” Geik recalls. “And that was a
turning point. I really blundered into this.”
That was 1979, when almost no DJs were seriously playing Latin music. “Latin
Dimensions” eventually gave way to “Alma Del Barrio.” And the knowledge of
Latin American music he amassed down the years prepared him for making “Caravana
“I had to use nearly two decades of friendships I developed in the music business
just to make people confident I could pull this off,” Geik says. “And amazingly,
they trusted me.”
With Perico as musical director, Geik set about luring pivotal musicians. Bassist Al
McKibbon who played with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo and Mongo Santamaria,
was a natural. And so was Francisco Aguabella, the great Cuban percussionist who brought
the bata drums to America and played with such influential bands as Eddie Palmieri’s.
“I’d heard Raul Rodriguez perform at a guiro, an
Afro-Cuban religious ceremony, where he played the conga,” Geik remembers. “Raul
is the brother of Arsenio Rodriguez, a legend in Cuban music. Raul played with Arsenio’s
band for many years and lives here in LA. Anyway, Raul played at ithis guiro with such
power and feeling that I knew I had to have him record one for the record as well as play
The first two songs “Solo y Triste” and
“Una Rumba Con Dos Tres,” tapped the singing talents of Lazaro Galarraga, Perico
and Bamboleo and turned out so well that Geik immediately thought of another collaboration
– an instrumental jazz piece that would feature piano and percussion.
“I knew Chucho Valdes was coming to town, and I was emboldened. So I called his
manager and they both agreed to do it,” Geik says. “Perico knew Chucho – they
grew up together in Havana, and this would turn out to be one Of many reencounters.”
The result, “Chucho Carabali,” is a subtle masterpiece of AfroLatin jazz.
Hearing the entire record recently, Valdes said by phone from New York: “This is
wonderful, original music. For me, it was a reunion. Perico is a very great musician and a
childhood friend. Yet we never had the chance to play together.”
Recording “Romanza Guajira” turned out to be a defining moment. Most guajiras
are romantic songs about the struggles of the poor Cuban workers and farmers. But this
one, recorded with flute, tres, trombone, trumpet and three sections of improvisation, had
a deeper significance.
“This song comes from my soul,” Perico says, recalling the events that led
him to write it. “I lived that song while I was cut off from my family. When I was
cutting the sugar cane, I suffered like the peasants and saw how hard it was to survive
with almost nothing to eat, in the freezing cold, shivering under a blanket. But there was
beauty there, too, in the land: beauty and great suffering at the same time.”
“Cuban music is made of many elements,” Perico said one night recently, after
playing a set at El “Floridita with Son y Clave, gypsy singing and melodies from
Andalusia, which makes people excited. But it also has powerful African drumming and jazz.
This recording we’ve made is a mix of old and new, of ancient and progressive sounds. It’s
music I’ve had inside me for a long time, and now it’s finally come out.”