José Caridad Hernández Pérez (better known as "Perico" Hernández) was born in 1938 in San Vicente, a village near the Cuyaguateje River in Pinar del Río, Cuba's westernmost province. At the age of 12, his family moved to the outskirts of the Havanese neighborhood of El Cerro, where he was known to hang out with Lazaro Cinco-Tumbas, Platanito (Patato's cousin) and other legendary tumbadores (conga players) at El 23, a musically rich solar(1) located next to Havana's former 7-Up factory. Inspired by the televised performances of Carlos "Patato" Valdés and Armando Peraza in the early 1950s, Perico decided to become a percussionist. Back then, he never imagined that a few years later he would occupy the historic position previously held by Patato and Jabuco in the influential Conjunto Casino.
A resident of L.A. since the early 1970s, Perico is currently the leader/tumbador/lead vocalist of Charangoa, one of the top charanga ensembles north of Key West. Unlike most charangas, Charangoa's string section consists of three violins, a cello and a viola. And unlike any other charanga, Charangoa's charts were mostly handwritten by the preeminent Cuban flutist Richard Egües.
Although it appears that Perico has been recently working on a long-awaited solo recording (featuring such phenomenal Cuban guest artists as Jesús "Chucho" Valdés, Orlando "Maraca" Valle, Miguel "Angá" Díaz and Pío Leyva), he did not wish to talk about said project during the following interview. Instead, emphasis was placed on various chapters of this musical warrior's existence, from the 1950s conjunto wars to the 1990s charanga battles...
LUIS TAMARGO: Are there any musicians in your family?
PERICO HERNANDEZ: There was a maternal uncle, Luis "El Chino" Machado, who was a tremendous bongosero. That's how the African groove was filtered into the family's bloodstream. You know how it is in Cuba, where one is either part Congo or Carabalí, part Mandingo or part Lucumí (LAUGHTER). Back then, El Chino had to use tire to tune his gigantic bongó, which was made in the midst of the tropical forest by some hicks (LAUGHTER).
LT: You were barely a teenager when your family moved to El Cerro, Chucho Valdés neighborhood. No wonder you're such good friends.
PH: Yes. Chucho told me not too long ago, "You know, Perico, when my sister Caridad and I sit on our front porch, sometimes I tell her: 'Caridad, it seems that I just saw Perico walking around that corner' "(LAUGHTER). My sister América lived a few doors away from the house occupied by Bebo and Chucho Valdés.
LT: When did you decide to become a musician?
PH: There was a television program in the early 1950s (El Show del Mediodía) which featured the conjuntos Kubavana and Casino. I was inspired to become a percussionist when I saw Peraza on television. Patato made a revolutionary change in Cuba, when he introduced two tumbadoras to the music scene. Patato was the tumbadora King. You can hear it in the boleros, where he implemented that symphonic double tempo. Nowadays, one finds many young tumbadores who can play faster, but they lack the skills needed to seduce the dancers.
LT: Describe your first musical instrument.
PH: My first instrument was a cardboard tumbadora. A similar one is now made by a well-known drum manufacturing company, so it's fair to say that I was a pioneer in that field...