Victor Pantoja - Latin Groove Pioneer
A musical tribute to legendary Latin percussion
Victor Pantoja ÔÇô Latin Groove Pioneer by Vicente Mercado & Jose Sierra
Published on LatinoLA: March 29, 2010
On the morning of March 12, 2010, Latin percussionist Victor Pantoja lost a long battle with cancer. Victor was most widely known as a conga drummer, but also performed professionally on timbales and other percussion instruments, including bongo (his instrument of choice in later years).
Pantoja was a swaggering street dude with a heart of gold: no-nonsense, but with a sense of humor and ready smile. As news of the man's passing spread, there was an outpouring of grief and affection from music aficionados and from the musicians who had shared a stage with him and given him the nicknames "Booby" and "El Negrito." Victor's quick glance on stage conveyed warm approval or firm instruction to his bandmates. He became a mentor who took many young musicians under his wing, players who came to know him as "Papa." Pantoja never released an album under his own name. He was a supporting player throughout his career, but the reason that he deserves more than a footnote is that he was a pioneer in the evolution and hybridization of Latin music.
The book "Voices of Latin Rock," by Jim McCarthy with Ron Sansoe, has Victor being born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York. During his youth in Spanish Harlem, Victor formed a lifelong friendship with another black Puerto Rican percussionist, Guillermo Correa, better known as Willie Bobo, who once introduced Victor as his "alter-ego" and someone who he had known "since diapers." The twosome studied music by masters of Cuban music and jazz, such as Arsenio Rodriguez, Mario Bauza and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as that of Tito Puente, who would become their boss. Besides accompanying Puente, Victor's early years included stints with La Orchestra Cachao, Tito Rodriguez, Machito, Mongo Santamaria, and the Harry James Orchestra, and he is said to have toured Europe with jazz flutist Herbie Mann at the tender age of 15.
As the 1960's dawned, Jazz and Latin music were undergoing big changes centered in New York City, and Victor Pantoja was in the thick of things. The Bobo/Pantoja duo's Big Apple upbringing found expression in a new stripped-down Latin jazz sound incorporating streetwise vocals in English. A jazz guitar (sounding both fresh and reminiscent of the Cuban "tres") replaced the usual Latin piano. The Willie Bobo band including Pantoja struck a chord with urban hipsters and Latino youth and enjoyed a long recording run highlighted by popular albums on the Verve label such as "Uno, Dos, Tres / 1-2-3," "Spanish Grease," "Bobo Motion, "Juicy" and "New Dimension." Pantoja was also becoming prolific as a jazz session player, playing on records by Jimmy Smith, Duke Pearson, Les McCann, Hubert Laws, Nat Adderley, Dannie Richmond and Cal Tjader.
In the meantime, hard-bop drummer Chico Hamilton had hired Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo, whose unusually soulful playing echoed the Gypsy music of his homeland. By 1965-66 Hamilton and Szabo's partnership had led them toward avant-garde Latin influenced sounds, and they soon tapped the Bobo/Pantoja percussion tag team to help realize their ideas on landmark albums such as Hamilton's "El Chico" and "Szabo's "Spellbinder." Michael Shrieve, Santana's original drummer, points out that the Hamilton/Szabo group with Pantoja and Bobo became "the blueprint" for the Santana sound. Santana conga drummer Michael Carabello was himself deeply influenced by Pantoja's playing (and would become his friend).
Santana turned that blueprint that Victor Pantoja helped establish into huge worldwide success and the birth of a new genre, "Latin Rock." Tunes from the Bobo, Szabo and Hamilton songbooks such as "Evil Ways," "Gypsy Queen," "Conquistadores," "Fried Neckbones And Some Home Fries," "Spanish Grease" and "I Don't Know," all from original recordings featuring Victor Pantoja, became part of this new movement in the hands of not only Santana but recording acts such as El Chicano and Malo. Several other Latin Rock groups would release records in the 1970's: Sapo, Chango, Tierra, Dakila, Macondo, Yaqui, Benitez, Seguida, Bwana, Cesar's Band, plus many more in the years to come. These all owed a debt to Victor's seminal recordings on Verve Records with Bobo and on the Impulse! label with Szabo and Hamilton, as did Latin-tinged African-American bands such as WAR, Earth, Wind & Fire and Mandrill.
By 1971 tensions and artistic differences in the original Santana band were tearing the group apart, and toward the end of the year Victor, who had come to San Francisco while playing in Wes Montgomery's band, sometimes found himself onstage as their conga drummer. This was a time in which Santana members began to explore musical directions outside of the band in the company of friends in the California jazz and R&B scenes. Victor was there to lay down the groove for many of their projects, including: "Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles ÔÇô Live!," "Giants" (Michael Carabello's album project featuring members of Santana, WAR and Sly & the Family Stone), and trumpeter Luis Gasca's "For Those Who Chant," made up of extended improvisations featuring much of San Francisco's Latin Rock community plus jazz heavyweights such as Joe Henderson, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White. Victor appeared on local TV with Gasca and many of the same players in televised jam sessions at Andre's nightclub in San Francisco's North Beach. Victor had known Gasca and timbalero Coke Escovedo from the Santana band's last days and the Santana/Miles record, which had brought Pantoja's name and conga patterns to rock 'n' roll audiences around the world. Now producer David Rubinson, at work on Malo's debut album, brought these three seasoned studio veterans in to augment the young group's sound. Pantoja, Escovedo and Gasca brought added punch and production value that contributed to the success of the album, which spawned the classic hit single "Suavecito." The musical relationships Victor formed in Malo would continue, although his stay in the band did not.
Victor's move to California continued to be bear fruit, as he worked with old colleagues like Willie Bobo, Herbie Mann and Jimmy Smith, and performed with new ones such as Luis Gasca's Bay Area saxophone cohorts, Hadley Caliman and Joe Henderson. Victor made albums with both reedmen ("Iapetus" and "Canyon Lady"), as well as cutting two more Gasca albums ("Born To Love You" and "Collage") and joining a group of Santana and Malo alumni to back funk/rock vocalist Betty Davis.
The San Francisco Bay Area stay also brought the opportunity Victor Pantoja would treasure most: Azteca, a gigantic 16-piece Latin/Jazz/Rock/Soul band formed by Coke Escovedo. Latin Rock being a viable genre at the time, Columbia records gave Azteca a huge recording contract and the group recorded two outstanding albums. Coke had brought his brother Pete Escovedo (today an established bandleader) into the group, as well as former Santana singer Rico Reyes. Also on board were a who's-who of heavyweights that will impress today's jazz fans, including noted solo artists Tom Harrell and Mel Martin as well as Lenny White and Paul Jackson (who made their names in fusion with Return to Forever and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters). In "La Piedra del Sol," Daniel Meza's 2009 documentary film on the band, Victor exclaims "Azteca is my life! I believed in it when we did it, and I'll believe in it 'til I die." As a prominent member of Azteca, Pantoja came his closest to playing a starring role, as the band's eclectic style showcased the full range of his skills, from Latin Jazz licks to African chanting to the syncopated, funky chops that also enabled him to play with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
What was it that made Victor Pantoja's playing special? Guitarist Abel Zarate grew up listening to Victor's recordings with Bobo, Szabo and Hamilton and worked with Pantoja in Malo and the Gasca and Bobo bands. Zarate says that keeping a strong groove was paramount to the percussionist, whose credo was "Lay it right there and don't go nowhere." Zarate remembers: "The thing about Victor's playing was how tasty he was with his 'fills'ÔÇªhe'd hold down a solid swingin' beat and just place his fills where they had the most meaning." While knowing traditional Afro-Cuban forms, Pantoja was also unorthodox in technique and outlook. A subtle player with a soft touch, he coaxed all possible sounds out of his drum skins and often played unexpected melodies on his tuned congas rather than the standard drum licks. This unique approach is easy to hear during his solos on Azteca tracks like "Ain't Got No Special Woman" and "Mexicana, Mexicana."
From a creative point of view Azteca was excellent, but from a commercial point of view the band went nowhere. The first problem was that the man who signed them, Clive Davis, was fired from the label. The band lost their guardian angel and were left adrift in corporate office politics. Financially and otherwise the band was a mess, leader Coke Escovedo was voted out and eventually Victor quit as well. Victor became involved with a world-jazz band called Listen that was being started by Azteca friend Mel Martin, but ended up heading to L.A. to be with his family, recover from the financial disaster of Azteca and regain his spirit. Though he reportedly considered giving up music, Victor fought off the disappointment. Willie Bobo had a new record deal, and Victor re-joined Willie for three new albums, the last of which, "Bobo," reunited Victor with members of the Azteca and Malo bands in a group that jammed with Dizzy Gillespie and Cal Tjader at New York's Avery Fisher Hall, appeared on TV in France, and toured major jazz festivals throughout the U.S. and Europe. Even though the "Bobo" album charted in several countries, Willie was dropped by his record label, affecting his ability to keep the band going. The "King Conga" DVD, recorded in 1980 and released in 2008, spotlights a latter day version of Willie Bobo's band with Victor on congas.
Victor spent the rest of his life living in the Los Angeles area, a chunk of that time in Altadena in the foothills of Mount Wilson. As a close friend mentioned, that residence was nicknamed "the house that Santana built." In addition to the work with Willie Bobo, Victor recorded with a wide range of artists such as Delaney Bramlett, Bobby Hutcherson, Rahmlee Michael Davis,Malo, Mento Buru, Rocky Padilla and the Paul Cacia Jazz orchestra and gigged extensively with many of Southern California's top salsa and Latin jazz bands.
The influential ripples of those classic 1960's recordings of which Victor was a part continued into the 90's and 2000's in the Latin jazz of artists like Poncho Sanchez, as well as in the sampled sonic collages of Hip Hop and Acid Jazz DJs who found a flavorful ingredient in those old sessions' timeless grooves. Victor is now being heard by a new generation as those recordings are anthologized on the "Talkin' Verve" CDs, and re-imagined in recordings such as "Verve Remixed." A humble man who was reluctant to talk about his history and vital details, Victor's example as part of the 1970's Latin Rock explosion also helped the conga drums become a common fixture in all forms of popular music from the work of the Rolling Stones to some of the latest Country hits. Victor continued to play until the end. Ironically, his last documented performance was alongside Poncho Sanchez and El Chicano's Bobby Espinoza.
Please visit us at www.EastLArevue.com for a special musical tribute to Victor Pantoja Part 1 & 2 program co-produced by Vicente Mercado & Jose Sierra and hosted by Chico Manqueros
Chico Manqueros is the Host and Producer for the Gozando with Chico show on www.EastLArevue.com featuring the finest Latin Soul and Latin Jazz