by Mary Bentley

“I discovered that we are the instruments.  Whenever we sit behind something, we make those instruments sound like the way we play, the way we think, and the way we feel.  I’ve been blessed that I understand different ways of feeling music.”

If you’re a fan of liner notes like I am, you know the name of Alex Acuna.  Even if you’re not, look through your music collection going back twenty, thirty years, and I’m sure a lot of your music media will contain the name Alex Acuna on drums, percussion, or both. Alex has played alongside some of the biggest names in music, representing nearly every genre.  From Elvis Presley to Weather Report, to U2 and Placido Domingo, his list of credits is varied and impressive.  He’s worked with Diana Ross, Chick Corea, Whitney Houston, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Roberta Flack, Al Jarreau, Johnny Clegg, and Lee Ritenour, just to name a few.

Alex has enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, a long and successful career because he appreciates the music on so many levels; he knows it, he loves it, he studies it, he plays it, and he respects it.  He understands the power of music.  He learned that at an early age when he began playing music as a four year old child in Peru with his father and his brothers in the family band.  As he grew, he wanted to learn more about the music he loved to play.  His desire to learn took him from Peru to Puerto Rico, and eventually, to the mainland U.S.  “My desire was always to be able to go around the world and play with musicians of every culture.  Therefore, I came and studied in Puerto Rico to really study the Latin music.” 

And he learned his craft.  Alex plays drums, congas, bongos, timbales, cajon, and most other percussion instruments.  He plays a little piano to help him compose music.  “I have an understanding of melody and harmony.  It’s good for a drummer or percussionist to know that and hear the sequence of harmonies so we know where we are, and what we play.  We can play melodically that way.”  He is often called to play both drums and percussion on his jobs.  “I really wanted to get involved in playing in the different genres, so when I go to Brazil, I can play with Brazilian musicians; when I go to Cuba, I can play with Cuban musicians; and when I go to Africa or America, same thing.” 

When asked if he prefers drums or percussion, he very simply states that he prefers making music and the instrument is relative.  Alex found his way to the states and played drums and percussion for Elvis Presley in Las Vegas, and was also the house drummer for the Hilton hotel there.  He was discovered in Vegas by percussion great Don Alias, who was impressed with his ability to alternate between drums and percussion.  He played with Don for awhile.  It was Don Alias who recommended him for Weather Report.
Acuna has been influenced by a wide variety of musicians and genres, beginning first with his father and his own family.  He says that every master musician is an influence on him, from John Coltrane in jazz, to Cuban conga players Los Papines, to Indian tabla player Swapan Chaudhuri.  Every culture has their own form of percussion, and Alex has tried to learn about all of them. 

Alex has chosen to concentrate his career more on studio work, teaching, and local gigs, as opposed to going out on tour, unless it is to perform at some of the European music festivals, or take one of his many musical trips to South America.  He never wants to be too far from his family, whom he adores.  The musical legacy that began with his father and brothers continues with his wife and his own children.  Even his grandchildren have inherited the musical talents of their other family members.  “I have a beautiful family, five children, a beautiful wife, and five grandchildren who all play music.  They’re not all professional musicians, but they all love music, and they all play music, even my grandchildren - drums, piano, sax, violin, and guitar.  They all play piano, because my wife is a piano teacher and a singer.  My daughters, they all play and sing.” 

When he goes to South America to play and to teach, it is usually a family affair.  “I go [to Peru] every two months, sometimes every three months, but I go often to share my gift and help my Peruvian people in many ways.”  Alex is a born-again Christian and works as a missionary in Peru, helping the people of the Amazon and the Andes through his music and his other good works.  His group works with the wife of the President of Peru, First Lady Pilar Nores de Garcia.  Some of their good works include donated 78,000 wheelchairs, and helping to cure stomach parasites in over 3,000,000 indigenous people.  “That’s what I do besides playing music.  I like to share the goodness of what God has done also in my spiritual life.” 

He also conducts clinics in the local LA area.  At the time of our interview, he told me of a six hour seminar he would be conducting later on that month at a jazz club called Vitello’s.  He will also be going to Berklee in September to do two clinics there.  “When somebody comes to study with me, I’m not going to teach so much technique - although technique will be inside the things that I’ll be teaching - but what I’m going to share is definitely the feel of the music.”  This is a man that has a lot to offer musically. 

In addition, Acuna has played on the scores of a number of big budget movies like Jurassic Park, Star Trek, Mission Impossible III, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Up, Madagascar, and Wolverine.  “It’s nice because it’s with an 80 piece orchestra.  It’s beautiful to hear the compositions.”  When he moved to Puerto Rico to study, he enrolled in the National Conservatory of Music and even got to play with the Puerto Rico Philharmonic.  Over the years he’s also played with the London Symphony.  Not long ago, Alex was in Daytona Beach playing Latin jazz meets symphony orchestra with Lalo Schriffin.  After every song, they received a standing ovation.

Currently, Alex is working on more of his own music.  He already has 12 of his own records, but he has two new albums in mind; one is a Latin Gospel with a big choir singing in Spanish against Latin rhythms, the other is a solo percussion album.  He’s going to do all of the work at his home studio, so this may turn out to be an Acuna family affair.

It’s been over 30 years of performing and Alex Acuna is still a very much in demand musician in all genres.  That says something about talent, character, dedication, and the love and respect of the music.  “The art of music has been so good to me, and my family, and also to my country, and to my peers and friends.  The contribution for me is to really maintain and sustain by practicing and being on top of my game, so I don’t have to sound old and living in the remembrance of what I did in the last century.” 

Alex will soon be in Lima, Peru with Kenny G.  He is the consummate teacher and encourages people to contact him through Facebook if they have any questions for him.  Look for Alex Acuna in the LA area conducting a seminar or playing a gig.