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Passion. It is the force which drives all human beings to achieve, to strive and to make their dreams come true. The story of Latin Percussion is the passion of one man. A passion which drove him to create, innovate and unmistakably change the face of percussion forever.
In 1956 a young mechanical engineer and avid photographer from the Bronx named Martin Cohen happened upon New York's famous Birdland jazz club. He walked in and was greeted by the sounds of Cal Tjader's hot Latin jazz. Cohen was so taken by the infectious music that he became a regular at the Monday night jam sessions, which were headed by flutist Herbie Mann with percussionists like Candido and Jose Mangual, Sr. It was Mangual in particular who was an inspiration to Cohen.
"Up until then, there was no role model that exemplified greatness," Cohen said. "That's what I saw in Mangual, and that's what I wanted to be, somebody who had that mastery of something."
Cohen became a student of the 1960's Latin scene, and soon wanted his own set of bongos. It was then that he learned about the politics of Latin percussion.
Because of the government-imposed trade embargo against Cuba, finding good instruments in the United States was a difficult prospect at best. This obstacle did not dull the passion of young Cohen, however, and he put his engineering skills to use and created his own set of bongos. Using photos of Johnny Pacheco's bongos, he created his first prototype. Of course, practice makes perfect, and this first attempt was not exactly flawless.
"This was the beginning of my learning," Cohen said. "I knew nothing about machining or about wood or metal working. The first wood bongo shell was cut on Friday, and by Monday it was a quarter of an inch smaller. I didn't realize it was wet wood which was cut and that it had to dry first."
Undeterred by this initial setback, Cohen was soon delivering bongos and cowbells to musicians in brown paper bags, soliciting feedback and using the Latin nightclubs as his research and development labs.
Cohen's self-described "love affair" with Latin music led to a tradition still in place at LP; the needs of performing musicians are placed ahead of everything else.
Eventually Cohen received a contract to make cowbells for Rogers Drums and continued to sell bongos on consignment. He made a set of claves for Charlie Palmieri and he designed wood blocks and sound effects for Carroll Sound.
The influence of two prominent television drummers helped to widen Cohen's focus from the dance hall to the recording studio. Cohen met Specs Powell, the drummer with the Ed Sullivan Show and staff musician for CBS. Cohen recalls Powell telling him "to get out of the Latin dance halls and into the studios where the real money was."
Powell asked Cohen to make him a pair of bongos and also to create a bongo stand so Powell could play them standing up. Cohen fashioned a mounting system without having to drill into the shell of the drum, thereby keeping the tone pure.