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Raul en la Habana

This great shot was done by my brilliant friend, Dave Allen.

This article appeared in LA Jazz Scene Magazine - January 2000

Raul Rico, Jr.'s life is intensely dedicated to music, sharply focused upon it, always goal-oriented and committed to jazz, especially Latin jazz in particular. All of this exemplified by his conga playing with the Estrada Brothers Latin Jazz Sextet, for which he also acts as manager, as well as his disc jockey work at KCLU, 88.3 FM in Thousand Oaks and 102.3 FM in Santa Barbara.

   Born in Oxnard in 1954 as a second generation American, he recalls listening to his parents' records when he was only four years old: the big bands, Sinatra, Louis Jordan and others. They also loved Latin music and enjoyed dancing to it. So for him, the musical die was cast early.


   This and other facts of his life were revealed during my recent interview with Rico in my home office. He is an affable, rapid talking man, his fringe of brown hair compensated for by a close-cropped beard. He communicates easily, the result of his many years on the air at KCSB in Santa Barbara and his current five years at KCLU, where as the authority of Latin jazz, he conducts a Thursday evening program of that music in addition to a salsa music program on Saturday nights. His father and mother, Raul Sr. and Dora have operated Raul's Liquor in Oxnard for forty years. He is one of four children in the family, which includes Jamie, 43, Rosalie, 41 and Patricia Covarrubias, 35.


   By the time Rico was in high school, his musical tastes were, as he says, "eclectic." Along with the music he "ingested" as a child while listening to his parents record-playing, he also listened to the Beatles, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and "all that stuff." He says, "I was trying to find my own little musical niche with the Rock and R&B thing." Then a high school buddy played his eight-track recording of the first Santana album for him, bringing immediate transformation. He said, "When Santana came along, it completely changed [everything for] me. The Latin rhythms became so infectious. It did something to me - I don't know what it did. Opened up Pandora's Box, probably."

    For his high school graduation in 1972, his parents gave him a set of timbales that ultimately led to his transition to the congas, which he now plays with the Estrada Brothers. Speaking of those days, he recalled, "We had so many friends that used to listen to Latin music. My parents would have parties and a few of their friends would bring over and exchange records. That's when I heard about this stuff from New York, what people were starting to call "Salsa" and eventually I became completely immersed in it. I, in essence, contracted, "Salsa Fever". "I used to go to Los Angeles once a month with about fifty, sixty dollars and come back with an arm full of albums. Everything brand new. I just bought anything that came out of New York. I kinda look at it as a good investment. I could have been doing drugs, but I didn't. I was a vinyl junkie."


   Then in 1979, for the first time, he heard the Irakere band from Cuba. He said, "That's a group from Cuba founded by Chucho Valdes, Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D'Rivera [and other musicians from the Cuban Modern Music Orchestra]. They were students at a school in Cuba. It was basically an experimental band, and they went to and took it to the next level. They became the rage. Probably, that band seemed to change not only my life but, I think, Latin jazz".


   "You know, all those years we weren't getting any Cuban music. All those years, the island was totally isolated from us, but the music was evolving. They were listening to jazz. They were incorporating jazz and their Afro-Cuban rhythms. You know, one of the pros of socialism - and I'm not a very political person - in that particular scenario, if you are a musician in Cuba, the government supports you and sends you to school. They send to the conservatory. In essence, you're working for the government, but they give you the best. In other words, the jazz musician or musician per se, eats and sleeps music. It can't get any better than that. Can you imagine a jazz musician here, if the government would support him? Can you imagine what the level of the music world would be like here? That would be incredible. That happened in Cuba".

   Rico continued: "The people here didn't know that, because we are isolated from there. So when you hear [that] guys like Chucho Valdes are, all of a sudden, prodigies, geniuses - they've been doing that for years. They took music to another level. They set new standards for jazz, for music. People and musicians are looking up to these guys, like Gonzalo Rubalcaba, a total genius. Mid-thirties, probably. Total genius. I just got his new album. He's playing with bassist, Jeff Chambers and Cuban expatriate, Ignacio Berroa, for many years Dizzy's drummer and they do this outrageous version of "Caravan." In fact, I played it on my show last night. The guy [Rubalcaba] just plays with the phrasing and melody. The guy's a genius. I cannot believe it. This man has just mastered it [music and the piano]. If I was a piano player, I would probably throw my piano away."


   One of the highlights of his broadcasting career was his interview with trumpeter Arturo Sandoval in 1989, when Sandoval and his Cuban band appeared at a World Trumpet Guild Conference at UCSB. Referring to the Cuban musicianship in general, he exclaims, "It's inspiring. The way they were able to marry jazz and Cuban rhythms, that whole merger, that whole marriage is just incredible, and there's nothing like it."

    Rico has been playing congas with the Estrada Brothers since 1976. In the early eighties, he enrolled at Ventura College to study music theory and piano. During his final days there, one of his teachers told him he was never going to make it as a musician. Even though he was already a professional and had been playing for years, he said of his teacher's remark, "You don't know how bad that hurt me. You talk about being deflated, literally slapped in the face. [However], I used that [incident] as motivation. I said to myself, "You don't tell me that". It just made me stronger, a character builder. From that moment on, my whole outlook toward music changed. At the time I was also playing with different bands, but this one local band in particular, "Canela", we were doing a Latin rock type of trip. We recorded some things, and I was starting to get my feet wet in production. I then started my own band. I wanted to express myself [through music]. I wanted to expand my musical boundaries".

    But the big thrust in his musical life always was the Estrada Brothers band, led by vibist Ruben Estrada. In the middle eighties, Ruben's brother, Bobby, the drummer, suffered a heart attack and was unable to keep playing. Ruben's 13 year old son, Cougar, already an accomplished drummer, took over the job and continues in that position to this day, in addition to working with various other bands. In 1985, the Ventura Music Festival contracted the Estrada's to perform in a concert preceding Stan Getz. At the time, noted conguero Luis Miranda temporarily played the congas for the band, with Raul shifted to the timbales. The Estrada Brothers band is diverse in its talents, playing for corporate functions, weddings, whatever, and featuring everything from straight-ahead jazz to polkas, if called for. After opening for Getz, Rico declared, "I said to myself and told the band that we have to do Latin jazz.  We have to concentrate more on it because, you see, I was already programming over at KCSB, I started in '84, and I was getting a feel for the music and the fact that it was becoming a popular musical genre". Finally in 1989, he produced their debut recording, simply entitled, "The Estrada Brothers.

   As the manager, producer and agent for the band, Rico was in a position to get the band on record. He was, to quote Josef Woodard of the Los Angeles Times, the "band's catalyst". After a shaky outing with a New York Latin record company, by whom he was contractually bamboozled, he and the band then commenced to work on their "About Time" recording, which took over two years to produce, finally coming out in 1995. He shopped it around to several record companies, unsuccessfully, and eventually decided to market it himself. "So I formed Rumba Jazz Records," he said, adding, "This [recording] was to beautiful to be sitting there and nobody being able to listen to it." So he promoted it amongst his network of DJ friends, and got some good response, but he lacked the distribution.

   He asserted, "I just wanted to get the CD out and figured that somewhere along the line, something would pan out. It took a lot out of me. I was completely burned out. It was a major endeavor. It was, like, my life for two years: notes, changes, notes, changes: this, that, and I'm a Virgo and one of the traits of a Virgo is perfectionism. And it drives me nuts sometimes. So, in June of '95, I went up to San Francisco for some R&R (rest and relaxation)." His R&R turned out to be guesting on his longtime friend and fellow DJ, Chata Guteirrez's radio show at KPOO in San Francisco and promoting, About Time. He followed with a guest shot on Jesse "Chuy' Varela's Latin jazz show at the now defunct, KJAZ. While there, he met John Rodgers, national radio promotions manager for Fantasy records and also a radio programmer at KJAZ, and gave him a copy of the CD, and the upshot was a call from A&R man, Eric Miller of Fantasy Records and a recording contract followed.

    "Now, this was surreal," Rico mused. "This is not happening," but it was and it did. "The funny thing," he said, "while we were doing "About Time", I told Ruben Estrada that we were going to be signed by either Concord Picante (Cal Tjaders last record label) or Fantasy. It was a total gut instinct. I felt it. You don't know how happy, how elated [I was]. It was a dream and here I was in the middle of a dream about to become reality."

    The reality was that the recording session took place, and the CD, "Get Out of My Way," came out on Milestone, a Fantasy Records subsidiary. It was released in 1996 at the time the record industry did a belly flop and didn't do well enough for options to be exercised. However, the Estrada Brothers relations with Fantasy has remained good, and there could be potentials for future work under it's banner.

    Meanwhile, late in October, the Estrada Brothers recorded their next album during a two-night session at Steamers Cafe in Fullerton, and Rico, with his hard-earned expertise, will hopefully achieve the level of distribution and promotion that will bring the band the recognition it deserves.

    Says Rico, "You know, the beautiful thing about doing these productions is that they are like my children. It's like having kids, from conception to realization: these productions are going to outlive me." The recordings are important to him, and he explains, " Years ago while rehearsing, I used to tell Ruben that we had to document this unique, beautiful sound that we have. We are Tjader influenced, because of the vibes, but Tjader is Tjader, Puente is Puente, Mongo is Mongo, Poncho is Poncho, but we have our own sound. We have been very fortunate. There is not a band to my knowledge, and I know because I listen to ton's of music, that sounds like us".

    In addition to leader, vibist Ruben Estrada, and son, Cougar on drums, brother Henry plays the saxophones and flute, Joe Rotondi, Jr. is the pianist, Malcolm Ian Peters plays the bass with, of course, Raul Rico, Jr. at the congas.

    A single man, he states, "Like Duke [Ellington] said, "music is my mistress", and it has been. I may get married, I may not. I almost got married when I was 26, but my lady said, 'You know, you love music so much - I would want to pull you away from it, and I couldn't do that.'"

    Rico declared, "I've been very lucky. I have been very blessed, thanks to my family and friends, and very, very fortunate. My motto is - and I'll never forget this one: I was watching a video on Dizzy Gillespie. He was in Europe, and they were asking him if he was ever going to retire, or take a rest, and he said, 'I'll rest when I die.' I'm taking that to heart. You know, I haven't had a vacation in years; don't expect a vacation because it's unimportant, for me anyway. What is important is getting the music out there, making sure people listen to and are educated about the music that I love through my radio programs and Estrada Brothers performances. I feel that's my mission and calling in life".

by Bob Agnew

LA Jazz Scene - January 2000