African American Studies


Ray Mantilla is a widely known Latin and jazz percussionist. He was born on 920 Prospect Avenue in 1934. He was not allowed into kindergarten because he didn’t speak English but quickly learned it from observing other children. His father was an electrical engineer and is Peruvian, while his mother is Puerto Rican. As a kid he loved to play baseball and was on a semi-professional team. He attended Clark Junior High School and School of Industrial Art for high school. While in high school, he and his mother lived in the back of a women’s clothing store they owned.

When he was 18, he first heard the Machito band and Tito Rodriguez. He heard most of the music he liked on the radio. While he was in high school he used to ditch class to go to the paramount theater next door to hear the bands play. Eventually one of his friends took him to the Bronx Y on Freeman Street. There was a piano and a group of his friends would go down and rehearse. He feels that his involvement at the Y helped him to stay away from drugs. His attitude on life was to always have a positive mental attitude. He started playing percussion on a tin can and eventually got a conga drum. Benny Bonilla was instrumental in teaching him how to play.

He goes into detail about the various bands that were popular at the time, like Machito and Dizzy Gillespie. While he was still learning how to play, he was in Machito’s orchestra. He claims he was very lucky. One of the famous clubs he played at was the Tropicana Club. He shifted away from Latin music and got involved with Jazz because of Ray Barretto. Consequently, he ended up playing mostly Latin jazz.

He has appeared on over 200 recordings. His first professional job was with Ertha Kitt when he was 21. Through his associations with Ray Barretto he got to play in the Herbie Mann group, which played mostly Latin Jazz. Barretto wanted to start a different band that played mostly Charanga Moderna, so he persuaded Ray Mantilla to leave Herbie Mann. A big hit for their group was “The Watusi”. The style of music they played was Charanga, but in a Bronx style.

A big source of inspiration for them was Cuban music. He took a trip to Cuba to play on a cruise ship when he was playing with Dizzy Gillespie. He also served as a translator for Dizzy on this trip. He tells a story of Dizzy meeting and hearing African drummers in Cuba. While in Cuba they held a concert at the Hotel Milla in Havana.

He also goes into detail about some of the styles of music he played that may not be familiar to current musicians, like the Charanga. He also demonstrates some of the 68 rhythms he played.

Mantilla, Ray.mp3 (107337 kB)

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Mantilla, Ray.mp3 (107337 kB)