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Growing up in Puerto Rico, Richie Gajate-Garcia was constantly surrounded by music. "Puerto Rican culture and the environment there is full of music," he says. "My stepfather (Doel R. Garcia) played professionally when he was younger. During the holidays he would pull out his congas and bongos, and instruments were always around the house."
His stepfather's friends included Santitos Colón, Tito Puente, and other respected Puerto Rican musicians who dropped by, inspiring him to become a percussionist too. After earning a B.A. in Music Education from the American Conservatory of Music in Illinois, he toured and recorded with several Grammy-Award artists, and contributed to numerous film scores. When Richie became a father himself, he exposed his children to music early and often. All four became musicians with son Roland following directly in his footsteps.
"I remember going on tour with dad," says Roland. "Seeing the life of a musician, getting to travel, and hearing all that music played by some of the world's best musicians caused me to fall in love with music. I had all these drums at hand, so it became pretty obvious what I wanted to do."
Richie elaborates: "Some parents force their children to practice, but I just guided them. Roland asked me to show him how I did things, and then he asked me to hook him up with other musicians. He really wanted to learn."
After earning a degree at Cal State Northridge, Roland quickly enjoyed success working with artists including 50 Cent, Gloria Estefan, J. Lo, and Stevie Wonder. He's currently in American Idol's house band.
The Gajate-Garcias are happy to pass along their knowledge too. Richie taught at Hollywood's Musicians Institute and hosts seminars and clinics for Audix, DW, Gibraltar, Latin Percussion, Remo, and Sabian. He authored the popular Play Congas Now instructional guide, as well as Play Timbales Now and Play Bongos & Hand Percussion Now. He also made the Adventures in Rhythm, Volumes 1 and 2 videos (now on DVD). Roland teaches classes at the Los Angeles Music Academy in Pasadena.
"The Play Congas Now book was based on my instructional video," says Richie. "That was my first instructional DVD. If anybody comes to Guitar Center and wonders where to start when they want to play congas, the DVD is the solution."
Nicknamed "El Pulpo" (The Octopus) for his ability to play several instruments at once, including using his feet, Richie designs products to help percussionists do the same. The Latin Percussion Gajate Bracket lets you play drum or percussion instruments with a bass drum pedal, freeing your hands, while the Multi-Stem Gajate Bracket allows three percussion instruments to be mounted on one stand so you can quickly rotate between them.
"I first presented the idea to Martin Cohen (Latin Percussion) during the disco era," he says. "I designed it out of necessity because I needed to play percussion and cowbell at the same time. I built myself this contraption from bass drum pedals and wood and nails. He thought it was a good idea and decided to build a better version of it that was adjustable, could mount to a variety of different things, and was easy to carry."
Richie's association with Latin Percussion started in 1975 after his first professional gig working with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. "When I was growing up, every professional player I saw played Latin Percussion," he says. "To me, LP was the symbol of professional instruments for professional musicians. The quality and the variety of instruments that they make is still the best."
Roland, who also endorses Latin Percussion, agrees: "The company and the people who work there are dedicated to creating something new. They're always trying to improve and reinvent different products, which makes our jobs more fun and creative."
Recently, Latin Percussion introduced the LP Accents Garcia Wood percussion instruments¬¬—a 12-1/2" tumbadora, 11-3/4" conga, 11" quinto—and the LP Generation II Accent Richie Garcia Wood bongos. They feature custom graphics by Hector Garcia, a former student who did the artwork for Richie's Mis Tres Hijos CD, and reflects the colors, family and Caribbean environment Richie grew up in.
While Richie uses a more traditional percussion setup, Roland incorporates electronic pads and samplers to mix in modern sounds. "On American Idol I'm using a Roland SPD-SX Sampling Pad," says Roland. "It's perfect for the show because I can sample sounds from the original albums if I need a specific sound. I want to take electronic percussion to the next level because electronic music is a big part of my generation."
However, Richie isn't entirely opposed to using electronics. He regularly uses a Roland HPD-15 Handsonic. "When I'm on tour, there are always authentic instruments that I wish I had brought with me, like an oudo, or something like that," he says. "The Handsonic has given me the option and freedom to add instruments to my setup that I can't carry with me otherwise."
Even though father and son have taken slightly different approaches to percussion, they remain each other's biggest fans. "I always love the creative ideas that my dad comes up with," says Roland. "He's always picking up a new instrument and adding it to his setup. His ability to play several instruments at once is always amazing."
"When I started playing several instruments at once, I was encouraged by David Garibaldi (Tower of Power)," says Richie. "He loved the way that I played congas and timbales and other things all together. He told me to keep playing that way because there are tons of timbale players and tons of conga players but not that many guys who played them all together. That inspired me to develop my own voice. Roland has followed in those steps as well, and I'm proud to see that because it's a reward for him also."