|Biography courtesy of Congahead .
Photo by Derek McCabe
When it comes to dreams, Marc Quiñones is loath to voice them. In fact, after nearly two decades of success he’s still in awe that he was able to become a professional in the music industry simply because he played Latin music.
“I always knew I wanted to be a musician, but I never thought it would be possible for me to be a professional one. Fortunately, I’m being proven wrong-and I hope I continue to be proven wrong for the rest of my musical career.” Marc adds that while he doesn’t take his success for granted, he also has never looked back since 1982 when he traded working nine-to-five for the exciting, erratic world of the music industry.
Born in the Bronx, Marc began playing drums when he was three years old. “My father and uncle played, so there were always drums in the house. I guess it was only natural that I began playing the conga.” He was nine years old when he landed one of his first professional gigs-playing in a Latin opera at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Shortly after, he started performing with Tito Puente, who introduced him to Bobby and Tito Allende, and Jose Jusino. The foursome put together a group called Los Rumberitos and did shows with Puente’s band for the next four years.
“I grew up listening to Tito’s music, so playing side-by-side with him was amazing for me as a kid. The highlight of my career was being invited to play timbale on his one-hundredth record, which is a milestone in itself. Tito has always been my idol. He’s an amazing person and an amazing musician who’s still going strong.”
Following Los Rumberitos, Marc began doing gigs around New York with local Latin groups. At age 17, he hooked up with Rafael de Jesus and for the first time began performing with a well-known salsa band. “Rafael put me on his first solo production, which was another career highlight because I was able to work with [composer and musical director] Jose Febles and Papo Pepin, who I grew up trying to emulate on the congas.”
Music is Music
Shortly after graduating high school and entering the work force full-time, Marc got the call that would change the course of his life. He was asked to fill in on congas in a rehearsal with Willie Colon, who was so impressed with Marc’s ability to sight-read music that he kept him in the band. During his five years with Colon, Marc worked his way through the band, playing every percussion instrument in turn. During the last two years, he was musical director and co-producer of one of Colon’s records.A two-year stint playing jazz festivals with Ruben Blades followed before Marc got his first taste of performing in the rock arena. More importantly, it was his first taste of being “managed.”
“I recorded a Latin-style record with David Byrne from Talking Heads, who took the show on the road for a year,” recalls Marc. “With 17 Latin musicians, it was a traveling circus.” However, Marc says he was amazed that Byrne was able to avoid the insanity simply by having management deal with any issues concerning the band. “Production assistants and a road crew handled stage and sound setups, took care of any problems, and made sure the musicians got to gigs on time-even if it meant carrying someone right out of their bed and onto a bus or plane. This was my first introduction to that side of music.”
As it turned out, the eye-opening experience of being managed in a rock band as opposed to the “craziness” of playing with unmanaged musicians proved to a pleasant change of pace for Marc. He moved on to join Spyro Gyra in 1989, this time enjoying the organized atmosphere of jazz.
“Basically, music is music. But things are run efficiently in jazz and rock, and I enjoy having everything in order. On the other hand, while salsa is disorganized in nature, the music is grooving–which makes it a pleasure to be there as well.”
Marc’s positive experience in the rock and roll arena compelled him to accept a job with the Allman Brothers Band after a chance meeting with Butch Trucks in 1991. “After watching me perform one night with Spyro Gyra, Butch came backstage and told management he was going to steal me from the band. Two months later, everything kind of fell into place.”
Marc’s Latin roots help him bring an unusual sound to the band. “I’m not really changing any sounds,” he stresses, “but rather I’m adapting the salsa I learned as a kid to fit with the band’s rock music.” For example, he will adapt a salsa tumbao into a rock and roll setting, which makes the sound a little more swinging. In some tunes, he will play six-eight rhythms, which fit with the three-four pattern of the rest of the band without any modification.
Marc is one of three percussionist drummers in the band. He explains his role is to establish a rhythm that the guitarist can play off. “It’s not like a salsa band, which has a three-man percussion team and everybody is playing. I find a little niche between Butch, who’s the timekeeper, and Jaimoe, who’s the colorist. Occasionally, Jaimoe will let me play drums, but I’m a frustrated drummer.”
Another source of frustration, according to Marc, is the unfortunate fact that Latin musicians must go outside of their realm to earn a living. “You can’t make a living playing salsa music. Aside from the disorganization, the big names are keeping all the money.”
Marc says he’s lucky his career has taken him this far, “because playing Latin music doesn’t lend itself to making someone successful unless you’re a Tito Puente, a Willie Colon, or a Ruben Blades. If you’re not the main focus, if you’re just the sideman, you’re not going to be able to survive. You would have to play as a hobby.”
Turning Dreams Into Reality
Luckily, there is a growing use of Latin percussion instruments in music other than salsa. “Latin players need to get into playing toys and branching out a little. I’m one of the fortunate ones-I was able to branch out and have some degree of success.”This “degree of success” includes performing 50 concerts plus 15 straight sold-out nights with the Allman Brothers in the last year alone. When he’s not touring with the band, he’s recording music with other Latin bands. Marc also recently recorded music for five episodes of the HBO series “Sex in the City,” as well as recorded jingles for Folgers coffee.
He attributes his steady work to two factors: the guaranteed quality of his musical contribution, and his ability to sight-read music.
“I always recommend that percussionists learn to read music if they want to enhance their career. If they can read and get a job done quickly and efficiently, they’re going to work.” He adds that his ability to read music often lands him recording work in which he plays several parts. “Because I can read music, it’s quicker and easier for me to do all three percussionist parts than to have one percussionist who reads and two who don’t.”
Marc laments, however, that there is a general lack of work for musicians that he blames on economics. “Because of financial matters, there is a real struggle to keep clubs open and filled with people, especially in New York City where rents are extremely high,” he says. “In my belief, we’ve lost a lot of good clubs, like the Village Gate, because people are more interested in making a quick buck than in investing the time and money it takes to start a club. At this point, I think there are more bands than clubs, so new talent is just falling by the wayside.”
He also notes that there are too many musicians who do recordings for whatever price is being offered. “Musicians are shortchanging themselves. If you’ve worked hard at your craft, you should be paid appropriately for your talent. In that regard, I think Bobby [Allende] and I have raised the standard for musicians when it comes to recording and playing live gigs. A salsa gig back when I was coming up would pay $40 to play from midnight to four in the morning. That’s ridiculous, and some people are trying to get away with that now.”
Marc’s credo is to always put 110 percent of his effort into any job, and not only give quality work but also ensure that all accompanying music melds with his rhythm. “If someone hires me for a performance, I try to make their music, their dream, come to reality. I don’t just play a part. I try to work things out to make the music better.”
He says the payback for his effort comes from musicians and other people who approach him to tell him they’re fans of his playing. “My reward is that my name, my playing, and my reputation are solid as far as music is concerned.”
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