From Cheese Balls and Jawbones to Congaheads

Photo Site of The Month:  Martin Cohen | Contact Me

Lucky us.  The Grammy Awards will be staged this month.  Rap stars who are more money-oriented than the Republicans they despise, “Auto-tuned” divas, post-Punk poseurs and other vapid characters will be feted for their contributions to the slurry of contemporary pop music.

I don’t mean to make short shrift of the Top 40’s worship celebration.  There’s a time and place for fluffy overly processed music as there is a time and place for such food.  If I’m at a party, even I don’t mind indulging a Katy Perry tune while munching on cheese balls.

And, as with food, it’s good to purge the system with that which is organic, home-cooked and having just the right amount of spice.  If you’re not familiar with the Afro-Cuban sounds of Latin Jazz or Salsa, a search on-line is sure to yield samples of Tito Puente or Celia Cruz.

Then, head on over to Martin Cohen’s “Congahead” website for his collection of mostly black-and-white photos documenting the major artists in Latin, Afro-Cuban, pop, jazz, classic and rock from the 1960s to the 1990s.  There you will find live concert shots, portraits and trade ads featuring Machito, Carlos “Patato” Valdez, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Dizzy Gillespie, George Benson and countless other musicians of the era.


Carlos "Patato" Valdez

An Excuse To Take Pictures

As a photographer, Cohen had unique access to these musicians.  That’s because Cohen’s “day job” – or as he puts it, his “excuse to take pictures” – was running Latin Percussion, the company he founded in 1964.

Born in the Bronx, Cohen’s first exposure to percussion-based music was at the famous Birdland Jazz Club in 1956.  By the 1960s, he was a full-out student of Latin music but had difficulty acquiring a set of bongos as a result of the U.S. economic embargo against Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba.  Fortunately, in addition to being a photographer, Cohen was a skilled mechanical engineer and was able to construct his own set from a photo of Johnny Pacheco’s bongos.

This experience launched his company – Latin Percussion or LP as it is also known – which included the manufacture of cowbells.  His Latin nightclub haunts provided a ready clientele of musicians that also provided constructive criticism or what we would call “market research” today.

Soon he added claves and wood blocks to his line.  But it was a special request by The Tonight Show’s drummer that resulted in Cohen’s first patent.  There is a sound common in Latin music that you’ve probably heard in countless Spaghetti Westerns.  It’s the rattling sound made by the teeth of a horse’s jawbone.  Cohen designed a much more practical version of this traditional instrument called the Vibra-Slap.  I own the Vibra-Slap along with close to a dozen other instruments made by LP.  It sure beats carrying a piece of skeleton around to gigs.

Visit February’s Photo Site of The Month:

© 2011 Xiomáro

Published by Xiomáro

Nationally exhibited artist, photographer, speaker, teacher, and curator. Author of "Weir Farm National Historic Site" (Arcadia Publishing).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: