Private Lessons

Growing up in the historic Old San Juan section of Puerto Rico's capital, Giovanni Hidalgo didn't dream of becoming a musician. He didn't have to. "I've been playing since I was three," he explains. Hidalgo was one of the founders of the groundbreaking Puerto Rican group Batacumbele, and he has since become a celebrated conga player with a worldwide reputation. Now 35 years old, Hidalgo lives in Orlando, where he plays with his own band when not on the road giving workshops or touring and recording with top Latin jazz or dance groups. "My grandmother, Luisa, was a dancer; they called her La Cubana," he says. "My grandfather and my stepgrandfather were musicians. They were always playing, and they were always giving me instruments to play: bongos, maracas, congas. Yeah, I grew up with all that, but that was another era."

Today the weekend jam sessions that were once tradition in many Latin households have largely gone the way of the vinyl LP. Hidalgo, who is divorced, is intent on teaching his ten-year-old son to play the drums. But it is through sales of his instructional videos, not personal contact, that he has been able to reach an extended family of more than 10,000 aspiring musicians worldwide.

On one 60-minute video, In the Tradition, Hidalgo offers viewers a private lesson in the rhythms of the bolero, danzon, charanga, and son montuno. Seated at his congas, his calloused fingers bound with Band-Aids, he speaks alternately in Spanish and English. The affable Hidalgo reviews the basic sounds of the conga (open, slap, bass, muff), shows how to tune the drums, and lays out the fundamental Latin rhythm patterns, suggesting that students practice them six or seven hours a day. "Without rushing," he cautions.

Hidalgo's six videos -- two of them featuring contemporary Cuban percussion pioneer Changuito -- are among about 50 Spanish or bilingual instructional videos produced by Warner Bros. Publications, which has been based since 1971 in a sprawling, secluded building on the border of Opa-locka. The company's popular music catalogue includes the repertoires of George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter, music by Charlie Parker and B.B. King, and Broadway musical scores and jazz arrangements for high school bands. Sheet music for hits by mainstream chart toppers such as Celine Dion and Garth Brooks is published even as the CDs hit record stores. Warner, whose print division is the largest publisher of song books and instructional materials in the world, helps fulfill the rock star fantasies of fledgling guitar players and other musicians with song books that currently include music for albums by Anthrax, Garbage, Korn, and Soul Asylum.

Catering to the whims of American youth has long been a no-brainer for the company; it recognizes that kids will play -- and buy -- the music that they like to listen to. But more recently the publishing company has begun to realize the potential of another popular market: Latin music.

"Latin American countries are a tremendous source of repertoire," says Fred Anton, president and CEO of Warner Bros. Publications. They all have rich traditions, and the American industry has never really appreciated that. Now we are." Anton cites the growing popularity of Latin music worldwide and the more stable economic situation in Latin America in recent years as reasons for the company's aggressive entry into the Latin market. Last year Warner began publishing a catalogue of its Spanish music products, including song books for albums by Gloria Estefan, Cachao, Ruben Blades, Enrique Iglesias, the Mexican rock group Mana, and Argentina's Los Fabulosos Cadillacs; compilations of tangos sung by icon Carlos Gardel; and compendiums of favorite boleros.

"None of this is rocket science," says Anton. "We're just taking advantage of something that's there. There's a hell of a lot of people down in Latin America and a hell of a lot of musicians. This is a great success story, and it's just beginning."

Raul Artiles, the company's sales manager for Latin America, has been largely responsible for the publishing company's expansion into Latin music materials, particularly with regard to the making of instructional videos. Artiles left Cuba in the Sixties and has worked for Warner for 24 years, starting out in the warehouse. A few years ago, while making his sales rounds in cities in the United States and Latin America, he began receiving requests from his customers for instructional materials for Latin music. Since popular musical traditions in Latin America have often been passed on through family members and not formally taught, few instructional materials were available. Storeowners noted that young musicians of all nationalities were interested in Latin percussion, and there was a need for lesson books and videos in Spanish for all musical styles.

A friend of Latin musicians everywhere, Artiles frequently organizes in-store workshops and helps set up endorsement deals for performers with Latin Percussion and other instrument companies. It was easy for him to identify and contact prominent Latin players to create a series of videos for Warner. The first featured Ignacio Berroa, a Cuban drummer who played with Dizzy Gillespie's band, among many others. (He now lives in Miami.) The lesson tapes by Hidalgo, Peruvian percussionist Alex Acuna, and New York-based Cuban drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez (among others) have followed. Artiles notes that the 12.5 percent royalties from the videos can help keep the musicians going between gigs. The videos come with a booklet of transcribed exercises and annotations and cost between twenty and thirty dollars. Purchasing a video is obviously cheaper than paying for lessons, and videos are more accessible. The videos are bought by seasoned Latin musicians who want tips from the masters as well as by young Latins getting down to their roots. The videos have also proved popular with American jazz, rock, and fusion players who, these days, need to have at least some knowledge of Latin rhythms.

"A lot of Americans are buying these videos because they're interested in playing Afro-Cuban music," says Artiles. "Afro-Cuban music is popular all over the world right now. It's the right moment for us to be producing these videos."

Warner has also begun to fill a gap in reference materials in an area in which there is a dearth of written resources, especially in English. The Essence of Afro-Cuban Percussion and Drum Set, by Ed Uribe, a professor of Latin American and Caribbean music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, features, in addition to lesson plans, a concise history of Latin music styles, a glossary of terms, and maps tracing the origins of Afro-Cuban rhythms to their respective regions in Africa. It is highly recommended for musicians, scholars, and anyone interested in the fundamentals of Latin dance music. Among other enlightening works, a book of Spanish children's songs and games documents an oral tradition with easy-to-play music for piano with Spanish lyrics, accompanied by English translations.

The company's massive facility houses the workspaces of editors and graphic artists, a printing plant, and a shipping warehouse. In one office during a recent visit, an editor was going over a photocopied manuscript of a book on Cuban piano technique that had been submitted by another of Artiles's contacts, a musicologist who lives in Havana. The text will be translated and published by Warner this year.

Through Artiles's contacts, Warner has become instrumental in giving musicians on this side of the strait access to Cuban music and technique. Instructional videos and books on Cuban music are particularly important since they are prohibitively expensive to produce in present-day Cuba and have not been previously available here because of the island's political isolation. Videos and books featuring Changuito, the former drummer for the venerable dance group Los Van Van, provide lessons in timbales and outline the method for playing the complex Van Van dance rhythm, songo. Another videotape, Drumset Artists of Cuba, features four young drum whizzes: Samuel Formell, Raul Pineda, Jose Manuel Sanchez, and Jimmy Branly. A song book of ballads by troubadour Pablo Milanes is also available from Warner.

These and other books and videos produced by the company have a social as well as didactic value. While the lessons on the videos would be, for the most part, boring for nonmusicians to watch, they contain segments capturing intimate performances of musicians that might not be recorded elsewhere. Carlos Santana: Influences combines a lesson by the Latin rock pioneer with historic footage of some of his mentors: innovative jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, Hungarian fusionist Gabor Szabo, and the Brazilian player Bola Sete. Hidalgo's tapes include jam sessions with some esteemed colleagues. Conga Virtuoso, for example, features two acclaimed young talents: pianist Danilo Perez and saxman David Sanchez.

Hidalgo, who says he has three more videos in the works, considers the tapes an efficient way to spread the Latin music gospel around the world. Mostly he likes to think about the import they might have for his son's generation. "We have to keep on top of things and keep it going," says the highly respected conguero. "We have to do this in order to leave a really beautiful legacy behind.

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Judy Cantor

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