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Tito Puente Maintaining a Steady Beat


Four years ago, New York-born Latino band leader and percussionist Tito Puente announced that he planned to cut back on touring and performing and would, instead, begin to take it easy.

After all, at 63, Puente's sensible side argued, how could he keep up the pace that he had set in the late 1940s, the era in which fans dubbed him "El Rey" (The King)?

But his sensible side didn't prevail: Slowing down doesn't seem to be part of the ever-energetic Puente's repertoire.

Now 67, the indefatigable three-time Grammy winner recently completed a 14-city European tour followed by a stop in Los Angeles in August, where he performed at two concerts and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

He is currently back in New York recording his 100th album, composing music for the upcoming film "The Mambo Kings" and serving as Coca-Cola's national spokesman for the Latino market. He will return to Los Angeles in November to headline with salsa queen Celia Cruz at the Universal Amphitheatre.

"Every few years I say the same thing: I plan to retire soon. But the music has become very popular worldwide and--they're asking for me," Puente says in a tone of mock vanity.

Indeed, Puente--who began his musical career at 13--seems to be adding new and younger Southern California fans to his established audience.

"Their parents were the ones that introduced them to Latin music," Puente said.

And his younger fans will soon get a fresh dose of the kind of sounds their parents listened to a few decades ago. Puente's next album will feature some of the singers he played with in his early days, a kind of return to his salsa roots.

"It's going to be the real typical music like I used to do in the old dance mania days," he said.

Puente, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, grew up in Spanish Harlem hearing Caribbean rhythms at home and big band music on the radio. Seeing his early love for music, his parents enrolled him in piano lessons when he was 7. But it was his constant tapping and banging on anything that could be pounded that steered him in the direction he would eventually take. He began getting paying jobs as a drummer in his early teens and by 18 was playing with the Afro-Cubans of the legendary Machito, another popular Latin ensemble.

After serving in World War II, during which he taught himself to play saxophone, he studied at the Juilliard School of Music.

Through it all, his love for Latin salsa rhythms and for the jazzy big band sound grew. He developed a style that fused the two musical traditions.

"I'm trying to maintain a marriage between Latin music and jazz," he said.

UCLA music professor Steve Loza, who lobbied to get Puente a star on the Walk of Fame, said the percussionist has become a symbol to the Latino community in Los Angeles as well as New York.

"He is such an important man in this town," Loza said. "I feel that he is the Latin artist of the present that has accomplished the most in terms of preserving a very important musical tradition and progressing on it."

And the music seems to appeal to a diverse audience.

"Chicanos have always been very faithful and loyal and really tuned in to Tito Puente," Loza said. "Now you have a lot of Puerto Ricans and Cubans here (in Los Angeles) too, and he's also popular with a mainstream audience."

Despite his leading role in the development of Latin-flavored jazz, Puente does not like to hear his music labeled "ethnic."

"It's not ethnic music; it's good music," he says with a shrug.

He also rejects being characterized as a "crossover" success, the notion that his music has crossed over from a strictly Latino audience to a multiethnic audience.

"I always tell people, 'I'm not crossing over. I'm on my way back,' " he says in his trademark raspy-voiced staccato.

Puente is credited with introducing the timbales (a kind of kettledrums played with sticks) in dance settings.

It is his role as a pioneer in Latin dance music that has made Puente a sought-after figure on the seminar and lecture circuit as well as in the concert hall. UCLA's Loza plans to bring Puente to the university for two weeks next year to discuss Latin percussion with music students.

Puente is enthusiastic about talking to students and sponsors a scholarship at Juilliard for Latino music students. He also has donated instruments to various performing arts high schools in New York.

It is this social conscience that has driven him to denounce a controversial rap group's use of one of his most famous songs, "Oye Como Va." The well-known chorus of the song is used in the background of a rap tune recorded by the group 2 Live Crew on its latest album, "Banned in the U.S.A." Puente considers the song, which discusses the sexual appetites of Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican-American women, demeaning to Latinos. Songs from a previous album by the rap group were recently ruled obscene by a Florida judge.

Puente sees himself as a kind of role model to young Latinos and worries about any association with a group whose music has been labeled obscene.

"I'm a family man, and it disgusts me what they're doing," he said. "Now what I'm afraid will happen is when I play my 'Oye Como Va' people will think I'm copying them."

Though the rock group Santana made a big hit out of "Oye Como Va," the veteran bandleader is not enamored of hard-driving rock 'n' roll.

But that is the genre that most appeals to his 21-year-old son, Tito Jr. The younger Puente plays in a rock band called Monoxide, his father said.

Puente mocks the amplified sounds of the electric guitar and complains that when his son's group practices, "it feels like an earthquake hit the house."

"That music," he says with a sigh. "I never know where the downbeat is. . . . There's no salsa, no cymbals."

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