A Latin Vibe

Sarah Murphy
October 31, 2002
Victor Mendoza
Victor Mendoza takes a solo during a concert in the Berklee Performance Center in 2000.
Photo by Liz Linder
Photo by Kim Grant

For almost as long as there has been music, there have been music teachers—brave souls who have struggled to explain how music is supposed to sound, break it down into parts, and devise systems for reproducing those sounds. It is a challenge that has gotten the better of some fine musicians, who would rather play music than talk about it.

Professor of Percussion Victor Mendoza's goal as an educator has been to find exactly the right words to teach the ineffable charms and subtleties of Latin music. It is an arduous task that he describes thusly: "It's sort of like dissecting a frog and then putting it back together."

Explaining the rhythms and harmonies of Latin music, and Latin jazz in particular, is not easy. To illustrate this point, Mendoza shared a story about an early visit to Berklee by the great Cuban woodwind player Paquito D'Rivera.

"When Paquito was here several years ago, someone asked him about the concept of clave, [the syncopated rhythmic construction that forms the basis of Afro-Cuban music]. And he turned around and said to me, 'Would you explain it to them?' And I said, 'Why? I'm not Cuban, I'm Mexican.'"

D'Rivera is one of the very best musicians in the world, Latin or otherwise, yet he could not put the clave into words. "It's unbelievable what you guys do here, to be a teacher," D'Rivera told Mendoza. "I couldn't teach this stuff."

Mendoza understands just how big a compliment this is. Since he joined the faculty in 1983, he has taught many students with a strong affinity for Latin music, but little experience actually playing it.

"They know they like it. But they don't know how to go about it. That's my job, to try to guide them, tell them what to listen for, give them some methods for how to study it," he says.

Mendoza's approach is methodical and analytical - and at the same time, filled with the passion, liveliness, and sheer fun of the music itself. But it is his analytical bent that has made him such a valuable resource in helping to forge a Latin music curriculum at Berklee. Over the past several decades, he and other accomplished Latino faculty members have come up with an innovative and comprehensive collection of courses that is unmatched in U.S. music schools.

"There is a misconception that you take one course in Latin music, therefore you know it all," Mendoza says. "That'd be like saying you studied one Bach prelude, therefore you understand Baroque music. When it comes to Latin music and Latin jazz, it goes very deep."

Understanding those deep musical traditions, appreciating their significance, and utilizing them properly is essential, Mendoza believes. Because sometimes a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

"I've always said giving a cowbell to someone with poor time is like giving a loaded gun to a monkey," he says with a knowing laugh. "In the musical context the power of the cowbell is very strong."

Mendoza wants his students to approach Latin music with a reverence equal to that of a jazz player studying bebop or a pop songwriter examining the Beatles. But make no mistake, his classroom is no place for buttoned-down academics. Mendoza has a sense of humor—something he makes obvious the minute his students step through the door.

"You're rushing," he tells his Latin jazz ensemble, as they finish up the Chucho Valdes tune "Mambo Influenciado." "[The ending] should feel like you fell on your behind, walking across the dance floor."

It's a funny metaphor, but it is perfectly apt. The end of this particular song is supposed to sound as though the band was following the tempo of the dancers, who had tired themselves out and fallen on the floor.

On the next tune, "Tin Tin Deo," the group again has trouble nailing an ending. "One of the most obvious mistakes of young bands is when they don't know how to finish a fade," he tells them. "It's like a relationship. If you're going to end it, end it. This never-ending goodbye is for the birds."

Mendoza's Latin jazz ensemble course is a demanding musical workout, with something to challenge every player. For the students who have played lots of traditional jazz, the Latin rhythms can be confounding. And for the Latin American students already familiar with the rhythms but not with jazz, the harmonies can prove difficult.

Mendoza's own playing and composing deftly combine the two traditions, while drawing on a strong background of classical technique and theory. As a child, he studied flute, then switched to drumming. Meanwhile, his parents introduced him to a wide range of Latin music, including various Caribbean and Brazilian styles.

At the first college he attended, in Arizona, Mendoza studied orchestral percussion. While this helped him develop technique, he found the experience unsatisfying. "I didn't like the idea of counting 300 measures and hitting a triangle," he said. "And then if you miss it, there goes your glory."

Vibraphonist Milt Jackson's album Sunflower provided a revelatory experience, turning Mendoza onto jazz and inspiring him to become a vibes player. He devoted himself to mastering the instrument, eventually earning a scholarship to Berklee. As he pursued his new love of jazz, he blended it with elements of his first love, Latin music.

Mendoza has released three acclaimed CDs of mostly original tunes, and a fourth is in the works. His most recent recording, Black Bean Blues, was named one of the best Latin jazz recordings of the year by Modern Drummer magazine. Reviews in Jazziz called him "the genre's leading practitioner" and "one of today's most resourceful composers." In addition to his solo work, he has performed and recorded with Paquito D'Rivera, Danilo Perez, and Claudio Roditi, among others.

His upcoming CD will feature a jazz quartet composed of Berklee faculty member Fernando Huergo on bass, alumnus Pablo Bencid on drums, and Rafael Alcala on piano. Mendoza also is working on a Latin jazz instructional book for Berklee Press.

Mendoza's teaching is anchored in traditions that go back hundreds of years. He encourages his students to explore the roots of Latin music, including the traditional drumming of the Yoruba religion, which originated in West Africa and migrated to the Caribbean with the slave trade. Then, he recommends students work their way up to 20th century greats like Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Mario Bauza, and Chico O'Farrill. He also reminds students that not all Latin music comes from the Caribbean. Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Argentina—every country in Latin America has made important contributions to the genre.

Only after students have a firm grasp of where this music comes from, can they take it in new directions.

"I'm a strong believer in tradition, but at the same time the idea is that the tradition evolves into something. It develops," he says. "You study bebop not to play like Charlie Parker, but to incorporate it into your music. You learn Tito Puente solos to incorporate it into your playing, into something a little more uniquely you.

"A friend of my father's—he's a very famous painter in Mexico—used to say there are three stages. One is that you learn what the master teaches you. Then you master what the maestro taught you. Then you do whatever you want with it."

Mendoza is doing exactly what he wants with it—and luckily for his students, what he wants to do is teach.

Victor Mendoza's Top Five Records of All Time
Sunflower-Milt Jackson
Kind of Blue-Miles Davis
40 Anniversario 1962-2002-El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico
The Köln Concert-Keith Jarrett
Azucar Pa'ti-Eddie Palmieri