John Santos and his quintet rolled quietly into Duke’s Nelson Music Room on Yom Kippur. Word of the event, sponsored by the Hispanic student group Mi Gente, barely made it outside campus, but some local drummers boosted turn out. Bradley Simmons, director of Duke’s Afro-Cuban and Djembe ensembles, loaned Santos some beautiful LP Giovanni series congas and other percussion instruments. Santos, also a music teacher, gave a one-hour clinic before the show on the topic “Afro-Caribbean Music as Identity and Resistance.”
The quintet, based in the San Francisco Bay, included John Calloway on flute, Saul Sierra on bass, Marco Diaz on piano and Orestes Vilató on bongos and timbales. The Cuban-born Vilató is a legendary timbalero who started in charanga and shaped salsa’s tipico style while working with Ray Barretto and the Fania All Stars in the”70s. He eventually moved from New York to the West Coast and joined Santana in 1980. He has since recorded with pop artists from Aretha Franklin to Willie Nelson. Recently, he has gravitated to smaller ensembles specializing in Afro-Cuban jazz and folklore, such as Cuba L.A. and Santos”larger group, Machete.
Vilató has the physique of a spark plug and a calm, playful demeanor. His thick mustache is striking, distinctively trimmed and deep black, a trademark that has remained constant across the decades. His family moved from Camaguey in the mid-’50s when he was an adolescent, but he refuses to give his real age, noting gleefully that history books have it wrong.
But Vilató does have both the discretion and valor that come from years of experience. Musically, he doesn’t overwhelm with a cinquillo or backing rhythm, but like a matchstick, he is ready to strike up fire the instant candela is needed. His performance is never tense but occasionally possessed. His timing relaxes and excites the listener by turns. When all drummers enter an otherworldly state, their faces alter into masks. But when Vilató solos, he wears tragedy’s grimace and comedy’s grin as one.
After the performance, Vilató chatted off the cuff about his instrument, the timbales, and how the tipico tradition bounced from Cuba to New York and back again.
ORESTES VILATÓ: When I moved to New York, there was one style of timbales: Tito Puente. I went [in a] different [direction], and everybody followed what I was doing.
INDEPENDENT: What’s the difference?
VILATÓ: Very hard to say in one word, but Puente’s more of a drummer playing timbales. I come from the charanga. The only one that’s keeping up a bit of that in Cuba right now is Amadito Valdes.
Amadito and I are very good friends. When I went to Cuba he took care of me. He said, “I like the way you play, I listened to all of the Ray Barretto tunes.” All the guys there know “Cocinando.” Changuito knows all the [Barretto] tunes by heart. I don’t even know that until I met Changuito. He wakes up with “Arrepientete,” “Cocinando,” “Quitate la Mascara,” all those things from Ray Barretto. See, this is the way it happened: Cuba went to New York, we did this, and it went back to Cuba, and they kept it on.
UNIDENTIFIED FAN: You can really play the hell out of those bells. The bells go straight to my heart.
VILATÓ: Thank you. I’m proud of the bells. I have a lot of bells, they’re custom-made. I have a crazy guy over there and when I get him, [I say], “Make me a bell, do this, do that…”
FAN: I’ve heard [the Afro-Cuban deity] Ogun has a ceremony that’s all bells.
VILATÓ: Yeah, there’s a lot of things. Also in comparsa, there’s a lot of different bells.
INDY: What do you think about Eddie Palmieri’s timbalero?
VILATÓ: Manny [Oquendo]? Manny’s the last of the Mohicans, in New York, of the traditional style. But he also comes from the charanga. He used listen to charanga also … Pascualito, all those guys that we grew up listening to.
INDY: I think of your style as minimalist in the sense that you’re not afraid of the empty spaces.
VILATÓ: This is one of the 50 things I’m doing. If I play with Santana, you gotta play different. I’m not only a charanga player: I can play Latin jazz, I can play with Aretha Franklin, I can play with Jackson Browne. You know I did background vocals for Willie Nelson on a record? But I’m saying, it’s not just doing one thing. If I work with a different type of band, then I transform myself to a different style. And then I forget a little bit about the tipico. But that’s where my heart is, the tipico stuff, so I always come back there.
INDY: Amadito Valdes says in Buena Vista Social Club about timbales as an instrument, there’s a minimalism to the instrument itself.
VILATÓ: It’s a very simple instrument. The thing is, if I were to play it simple, I would be starving right now. So I started like that, but I knew I had to do flashy things so that I was noticed and to compete out there with other flashy players. See what I’m saying?