As some of you may know we're former Professional Ballroom and Latin Champions who retired in 2015 and pursued the beautiful world of coffee. The legendary Tito Puente’s music was to say the least, an inspiration to all Latin dancers around the world. We’re so honored for this opportunity to interview Tito Puente Jr., who is an extremely gifted artist himself, but also a proud carrier of his father’s legacy. Join us in discovering what projects are brewing for Tito Puente Jr., his source of inspiration, and what’s in his coffee mug….
When we were dancing, practicing, social dancing, competing, in Puerto Rico, in New York, in Canada, Tito Puente’s music was and is the Bible and the main reference of inspiration for Latin dancers and anyone else who indulges in this genre of music. There’s no other Latin music that can touch your soul as Puente music.
Thank you for saying those great words. One of my father’s last quotes on this planet was “There’s no music without dancing”. My father actually was a ballroom dancer. He won a couple of contests back in the 1930s with his sister, my aunt. He became a drummer after he had a bicycle accident and hurt his ankle. That’s when he started switching over to playing percussion instruments and piano. He was a dancer at first but of course there’s no video of that from the 1930s…there are photos that I’ll be posting soon.
I thank you for that because my father really enjoyed mambo dancers from around the world dancing to his music. He would be so proud of you guys and everybody that’s inspired by his music. He passed away 20 years ago but I see so many people online dancing to Tito Puente music nowadays; it’s just amazing how his music transcends time. I’m glad that you guys were truly inspired by his music, he was really, really into mambo dancing and salsa and that was truly the essence of the Palladium and why he even made music for that matter! He just wanted the dancers to enjoy it. So thank you!
Absolutely! When “Oye Coma Va” comes on, we can’t sit down. When we were practicing, there were all kinds of Latin music we could listen to but all the coaches from all over the world wanted this to be the music they wanted us to understand. Why do you think Tito Puente music in particular effects people in this way?
I believe it’s the rhythm and of course the percussion. My father explained to me when I was growing up people dance to rhythms, they don’t dance to melodies. Melodies are songs you sing, they’re very memorable but people dance to rhythm…the conga, the timbale, the bongo, the piano, the base, those are percussion instruments that make people get up and dance. The conga is really the rhythm of most Salsa, Mambo, Cha-Cha-Cha, Rumba, Guangancó music. That’s what really drives people to get up and dance; it makes you shake. I do a lot of concerts and my father warned me where people would go to concerts and there would be an “un teatro”, a theater, of people sitting down and by the end of the night they’re all dancing. And why is that? Because of the rhythm of the conga, the timbal, the cow bell, that’s really what drives people to dance. Whether you dance on 1, dance on 2, or you dance on 9, you still get up because of the rhythm is what really drives people to dance.
And they really come up to you. Last night we were watching this video of you in Las Vegas and they felt the urge to come up to the edge of the stage and they were clapping. It seems like you feed off on that…
Absolutely. That’s really the essence of it but I want to make sure they’re all having a good time and dancing. You know, I can tell you honestly the past couple of years as I’m growing older and performing his music a lot more, I’ve come to realize that it’s not that people want to come to my concerts to see me, it’s that they want to come and hear the music. The music is what the fans want. Of course there’s that whole dimension of “Oh wow he looks like his father” but it’s the arrangement, the composition and that rhythm is why people go to see Tito Puente music. I don’t really encourage them to be watching the band. I want them to dance. I feel that more and more as I get older and perform his music more. I pick out really great songs like “El Rey del Timbal” and of course “Ran Kan Kan”, those uptempos…I love seeing people dance mambo. It’s so hard right now too with this Coronavirus not seeing people live. It hurts my heart but I’m glad that we got social media that we can see people dancing in their homes to his music.
Being a performer and always being in the spotlight, you’re always providing music and energy. What drives you constantly to give your best? Where does that constant inspiration come from?
It definitely comes from the spirit of my father and how he was the driving force of Latin music, surrounding yourself with creative people, and always be encouraged. I try to figure it out each and every day why I get so into music. I have to listen to music the first thing in the morning and then when I go to bed at night. Always music, music, music, and I think that’s really the essence of it, and why the spirit that I have in continuing his legacy, pushing it forward, making sure the youth of today remembers who he was. The music of Celia Cruz, Fania All Stars, Tito Puente, Machito, they’re so instrumental and very important for people to remember and recognize for where this music comes from and how it’s embedded and created the sounds of today.
There’s so many genres of music nowadays but mambo/salsa is something that is embedded in me. I appreciate it more so now. I’m also not just understanding that he’s gone from this planet but I appreciate my father way more now than I ever did in my entire life.
That’s beautiful and it’s timeless.
It is! Very very timeless.
Tito, we love hearing how artists mentally and physically prepare for a big show. Everyone has their own thing to get in the zone or not be in the zone. Can you walk us through a typical show day of Tito Puente Jr.?
I’ll have to pick out an outfit first, but I leave the boss up to that, that’s my wife. She picks out the outfit because I gotta look good on stage. I can tell you honestly I love wearing sweatpants and shorts…so that’s the first order of business. I have to look good in the presentation and of course the hair, you gotta look fresh. She picks out the outfit and makes me look fantastic. If I had it my way, I would go on stage in an Iron Maiden shirt, it’s a heavy metal shirt…I love rock music.
I go to the concert, we get the wardrobe going, and then of course we do a sound check with the band, we go over a song or two, and then I get into the mode of appreciation. I think of my father, I think of what he would present to the public and also depending if we’re playing in a nightclub, in a big theater or stadium or whatever have you, it would always depend on that as well. Right before the shows I give a nice prayer to All Mighty Christ and think of what my father’s presentation would be like because I’ve seen him so many years of my life performing live, that I would try to emulate the best way possible how to present the music. I think about where the solos would come in…it’s a road map. When you’re doing it a lot, it kinda comes second nature to you. It’s kinda like dancing, if you’re doing the same routine over and over in a Vegas show, you make sure if you’re stepping on the right foot in this section. This goes through my mind quite a few times the night prior to the performance but I usually give a nice salute to my father, I come out on stage, the music starts, I give my wife a nice kiss for making me look good and then I hit the stage running and it feels great. The first song is usually an uptempo number, I try to make the playlist uptempo. I’ll take you on a journey and always remember there’s someone in the audience (my father taught me this) who’s a “first timer” whose never heard of Tito Puente or understands Latin music. You have to teach them in the beginning and then by the end of the concert, they’re on their feet dancing Mambo and Cha Cha Cha. That’s what I try to keep in mind that there’s someone who doesn’t understand Latin rhythms, Afro-Cuban rhythms, 3-4 clave timing. It’s a learning process really and a show for all ages…It’s Mambo 101.
Well that’s all working for you! From our own experience and for those watching your show, experiencing that kind of music for the first time, it’s only the beginning. You can’t walk away from your music. It’s an eye-opening experience.
Of course. And they’re also looking at me, maybe some of them are fans of Tito Puente and they don’t know what to expect from Jr. I try to open up that can of worms right out the box and say “Hey guys, I’m not my father but we’re going to celebrate his life, his legacy, and his music.” That’s where I bring people into the Tito Puente path of Mambo, the lineage of where it comes from, and all his greatest hits. I get this out of the way because people might be judgmental and immediately expect me to do a cartwheel, play the drums on the top of my head, or do something crazy that my father would do. Although I have my own technique and style to play, I never go away from the music part of it; I stay in my lane. I try to do that the best I can to make sure the arrangements are authentic, the way he wrote them.
When we see you perform, it’s very obvious. You do an amazing job carrying your father’s legacy but you yourself are a true artist. That’s not something that’s always inherited or maybe not of interest to everyone born into a musical family for example. Did you ever have an “AHA moment" where you thought, this is what I want to do, I want to continue to touch the hearts of those in love with this music?
There have been many AHA moments, I still continue to have those moments every time I perform. Most of those AHA moments came from being in the presence of my father, his spirituality, his common good of Latin music, his dancing, and what he brought to the world. It was mostly when I traveled with him I felt the AHA moments. For instance, when we went to the far east we found that the people in Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam and all those places were very receptive to Tito Puente music. They would sit, listen to him and knew the lyrics! They were singing the lyrics and didn’t even know the Spanish language. Of course we didn’t know their language as well, but that’s what inspired me and made me say “Wow!” People from around the world understand the language of music. My father was an ambassador to Latin music, opening doors for Latin musicians, percussion players, and singers. He was also the first to bring the female/singer/icon/legend with him, Celia Cruz. It was really an AHA moment for me when a Cuban Black woman and a Puerto Rican boy from New York City went to Japan and played a stadium. It made me understand how these two, who came from humble beginnings, became world wide superstars.
We would love to hear what’s next for you. Do you have any upcoming projects?
I have so many great things happening! I’m doing a 20th anniversary album. It will be a complete album of my father’s music. We’ve completed the music, I’m now getting the singers involved. This year was the 20th anniversary of his passing on May 31st. The pandemic put a pause on getting this out sooner. The album is going to be called “The King and I” and we got singers and performers that worked with my father during his career. Of course we’re working with Sheila E, a fantastic drummer and my father’s goddaughter. She’s going to be on the record too! This is a nice tribute to my father, 20 songs all uptempo mambo, no ballads, you guys are going to love it. I really built it for the dancers so it’s really uptempo. I also have my brother on the album too, should be out by the end of the year.
Another project I’m working on with Mr. Edward James Olmos is a bio pic and docuseries on the life of my father. You guys are going to see exclusive footage of my father in the Christmas setting, Thanksgiving setting, home videos, really cool stuff that made Tito Puente and what drove him everyday to be the Mambo King. We’re going to go way back in time to his humble beginnings in New York City and Spanish Harlem. It was a very poor upbringing, he was getting music lessons for a quarter back in 1928. His story with historical stuff that people may have not known about Tito Puente.
I was explaining to Mr. Edward James Olmos, who happens to be a fan and friend of my father, that it would have to be a docuseries because his career was over 50 years. We have to cover the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and so on. This is very exciting and should be out by the fall of 2021. After that we’ll have a bio pic of the life story of Tito Puente…90 minutes for the big screen in 2022.
Our goal with doing the interview is trying to create a blend between the cultures of coffee and artistry, dance in particular. We have to ask you a coffee question for our coffee lovers. What kind of coffee do drink, what’s in Tito’s cup?
My father liked coffee just straight black. He was real hardcore. I used to like the typical New York style coffee but I live in south Florida now so cafe Cubano is what I sip on over here. A nice Cuban coffee but I’m not a power house coffee drinker. I’m more of just a water drinker. The Colombian coffee is really good too. My father used to drink a lot of coffee. When you would see him on stage he probably had a little too much coffee…playing that good!
Coffee definitely helps the creative juices flow! Our last question for you, being the artist that you are...If you could offer any aspiring artist a piece of advice what would it be?
I can honestly say surround yourself with creative people. What ever your creativity is, if you're a dancer, surround yourself with dancers that are experienced and can teach you moves. I say this to all the musicians. A lot of musicians ask me, drummers, parents “Hey how can I inspire my kid?” And this is what I always tell them. People that are creative feed off each other and I love that. I hangout with my musicians a lot. I’m very close with them and their families. That gives me that inspiration each and every day where I can go to my musical director…he comes up with a riff, I kick out a drum lick, and vice versa. It’s very difficult now during these tough times with the coronavirus to stay creative so I encourage everybody to look at videos. I think my father’s videos really inspire a lot of people, whether it be his music, listening to a playlist on Spotify, or what have you, be inspired and surround yourself with creative people.
As soon as this whole virus is over, we find a vaccine, and get back to a little normalcy in this world, we hope to see everyone back on the dance floor. That’s really going to inspire a lot of brand new generation dancers and possibly some coffee drinkers!