For the three core musicians in the local band known as El Guajiro, playing Latin music is in their DNA. All three are of Hispanic descent and were exposed to their musical heritage at an early age. The band has attracted a loyal and enthusiastic following among aficionados of Cuban and Salsa music over the last decade.
El Guajiro (the name roughly translates as “country boy” in the Cuban Spanish idiom) plays the gamut of popular music from all over Latin America, including cha cha, boleros (ballads), Latin jazz as well as different varieties of Cuban music.
The trio has played a variety of venues in the Bay Area and beyond, including clubs, restaurants, public festivals, benefits and private parties.
For the last 10 years, El Guajiro performed at Caffe D’Melanio, Ingleside’s most popular restaurant/supper club, until it closed last November.
Exposure to the famous Buena Vista Social Club band had a big impact on enhancing the popularity of Cuban Music in the United States.
The band has had different musicians over the years. The current group includes lead singer and guitarist Johnny Escobedo, percussionist and backup singer Norman Downing, and flutist and saxophonist Mario Vega.
Escobedo, 63, spent the first six years of his life in the Oriente province of Cuba where he became entranced by the sounds of Son, which has strong African roots. He would try to imitate the rhythms he heard by using a rawhide chair as a makeshift drum.
At the age of seven, Johnny’s family moved to New York, then briefly returned to Cuba during the early days of Fidel Castro’s reign. His father tried to start a small business, but his hopes were thwarted by the Cuban government. The family moved back to New York the following year.
Johnny grew up in the multicultural enclave of Manhattan known as Washington Heights, where he was exposed to a wide variety of musical styles. Like most teenagers in that era, he was influenced by “the British invasion” of rock music, most notably the Beatles. He and three of his friends were so impressed with the four lads from Liverpool that they called themselves “The Roaches” and would sing acapella on neighborhood streets. The name was also chosen because cockroaches were a problem in Washington Heights.
Although he now plays mostly Latin music, Escobedo describes his musical background as eclectic. He began to take music more seriously at age 15 when he played drums and sang in rock and roll and blues bands. He taught himself to play the guitar by reading instructional books.
In 1980, he moved to San Francisco with his wife Leigh.
“When we arrived here all of our possessions were in our 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass,” he says.
His younger son, Miles, 27, lives in San Francisco. His older son Jesse and three grandchildren reside in the Washington, D.C. area.
Johnny held a wide variety of jobs in New York and San Francisco until he was hired by the Post Office. Soon after moving to San Francisco, he reconnected with an old friend from New York who convinced him to join an eight-piece Latin band called Salsa 24.
Downing, 57, a native San Franciscan born to Nicaraguan parents, is an alumnus of Riordan High School. A musician friend encouraged him to take a drum class. The instructor immediately recognized his innate talent and encouraged him to pursue it more seriously.
“That’s when I began to see myself as a musician,” he says.
At 15, he studied music at Precita Center in the Mission District where his teacher, Jose Flores, took him under his wing. He also learned by observing and listening to other musicians. While he cannot read music, he emphasizes that as a percussionist, reading music is not a requirement.
“I’m definitely not a technician,” he says.
Downing and his wife of 35 years, Karen, live in Daly City.
Downing and Escobedo met 20 years ago and both recently retired after more than 30 years of service in the United States Postal Service. Downing also plays with a full-size Latin band in Oakland and plans to soon join a Salsa group.
“Playing with different groups is important to get a fresh outlook ,” he says. “Otherwise you stagnate musically.”
Downing stresses that forming a cohesive band is not always easy. “It’s the nature of the business for things to be fluid and for bands to form and then break up,” he says. “The financial rewards in most cases aren’t enough to keep groups together. Passion for the music and relationships between the musicians are the key factors.”
Vega, 63, is a first generation San Franciscan born to a Nicaraguan mother and Mexican father. Although he was exposed to other musical genres, he says, that while growing up he heard more music in Spanish than English.
As a high school student at Sacred Heart, he played harmonica, the saxophone and flute. After graduating, be began playing in Latin rock, salsa and Latin jazz bands. He has spent most of his working life as a horticulturist and now is employed at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park as a plant nursery specialist. Vega, who lives in Sausalito and has two adult children, played with Escobedo in a Cuban band called Ire for six years. Vega has played with various Latin rock, jazz and salsa band since the 1970s.
The mutual respect between Escobedo, Downing and Vega and their ability to blend their individual musical styles goes a long way in explaining their popularity. When they perform in venues where dancing is permitted people love to sway to their rhythms.
Downing admires Escobedo’s gifts as a bandleader and organizer. “He’s the one who keeps things running smoothly,” he says. Norm is called “el pulpo” (the octopus) because of his ability to play several instruments simultaneously while also singing backup. Escobedo says Vega is one of the best flute and sax players in the Bay Area.
“He’s our jokester,” Escobedo says. “He keeps us relaxed. He’s even been known to toss a rubber rat on stage during a performance.”
Cuban Son music is distinguished from other genres of Latin music because of the instruments it uses to produce a unique sound strongly influenced by African rhythms. Traditional Cuban musicians use a guitar known as a “tres,” because it has three sets of double strings, as opposed to a conventional guitar that has six individual strings. Other instruments used are “claves,” a pair of wooden cylindrical sticks that produce a powerful metallic sound when struck together, bongos, cowbells and marimbulas (a wooden version of a xylophone).
The group has written and recorded several tunes and produced two CD’s. They also wrote and recorded the entire soundtrack for the 1999 independent feature length film “Rum and Coke.”
In May, El Guajiro will once again have a venue to perform in when Miles Escobedo and his partners open their bar and restaurant called the Ocean Ale House at the old Caffe D’Melanio site at 1314 Ocean Ave.
This article first appeared in The Light’s May 2016 edition. It has been updated.