Alex Acuña Offers His Gift


Gifts is Acuña’s latest album — and his first in 17 years as a leader.

(Photo: Von Jackson)

When Alex Acuña bought his home 37 years ago in the Lake Balboa neighborhood of Los Angeles County, the Peruvian-born maestro of drums and percussion made sure that he had a spacious, one-acre back yard for two reasons. First, he had a big family and wanted to allow for plenty of space for his children and grandchildren to play. And, second, there was the building in the back yard that he developed into “my homemade studio,” he says — the essential playground for his creative approach to igniting music with exclamations, hues, textures, passion and spirituality.

Wearing a fitted, black T-shirt advertising his workout hang, Inosanto Academy of Martial Arts in nearby Marina Del Ray, the 77-year-old Acuña gives a tour of the meticulous state-of-the-art space. He points to a piano that he only occasionally practices on and shows a vibraphone that was a gift from vibes master Emil Richards.

“He wanted me to bring him to Peru, and when he left he gave me this,” he says with a laugh. “Emil said he already had too many instruments.”

The jovial Acuña continues the tour to show off an array of drum sets as well as another area filled with multicultural percussion instruments from timbales to hand drums to wind chimes — ointments to paint his rainbows of colors and the polyrhythmic arsenal that leads to a range of expressions from outcries to grooves. This is where Acuña anoints his sound.

Given that he has been so involved in creating sounds and dynamics throughout his years in groups like Weather Report, Koinonia and The Unknowns, as well as on hundreds of film soundtracks including West Side Story and Spider-Man: No Way Home in recent years, Acuña’s drum life in his studio makes it feel like the organic gallery of a music museum.

There’s a long-ago portrait of Acuña. In many ways, with his jet-dark hair, he doesn’t seem to have aged. Prominent on the back wall are two acoustic panels decorated with Peruvian motifs.

This was the perfect setting to gather longtime friends and work on the exuberant Gifts, his latest album — and first in 17 years as a leader — for Le Coq Records. With several tunes given to him by friends, a couple originals and the brilliant refashioning of two standards he loves (Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and Herbie Hancock’s “One Finger Snap”), it’s a multifacted song fest.

Acuña recorded the sessions at Capitol Studios. “To be honest, I didn’t want to do any more albums,” he says. “Those from the past are very good sonically, but I don’t live by selling them. I don’t tour. I’ve made a lot of recordings with other people, and I do movie sessions. But Le Coq asked me and I said yes. They wanted to bring in great players from New York, but I wanted to record this with my own band — guys I’ve played with for a long time. They’re the only musicians who can play my work.”

The core band on the recording consists of Venezuelan keyboardist Otmaro Ruiz, Puerto Rican-bred bassist John Peña and Peruvian guitarist Ramón Stagnaro, who passed away in February — a victim of COVID. “Ramón was my right-hand man,” Acuña says. “I never made one of my own recordings without him. While he could sound like Van Halen, he could play all the right notes of Cuban, Brazilian, South American and South African music. He was in the hospital for 44 days before they pulled the plug of the ventilator. I prayed for him, and I cried every day.”

With songs given to him as long as 30 years ago by friends, Gifts is a repayment to their generosity.

Ricky Encarnacion offered him his Latin-tinged tune “Aletin Aletun” (Acuña’s nickname, which translates to “your tool”), which cooks with the addition of trumpeter Michael Stever. The album opens in the jazz fusion zone with “In Town,” offered many years ago by another frequent collaborator, Norwegian pianist Jan Gunnar Holf.

L.A. violinist and friend Harry Scorzo gifted Acuña with “Postlude,” and Frank Zottoli passed the reins of “Chuncho,” inspired by the Amazon jungle people in Peru that Acuña had recorded decades ago with the band Koinonia.

The lyrical beauty of the collection, “Divinia,” by Miguel Ernesto and Fajardo Figueroa, is played as a waltz with support from cellist Giovanna Clayton.

Acuña serves up a pair of originals that range in style from ambient melodic (the deep-emotion title track, “Regalo”) to balladry on “Amandote” (translated: “Loving You”).

“I love ballads,” Acuña says. “I like leaving a lot of space, which I learned from playing with Weather Report.”

Within the Peruvian atmosphere of Hancock’s “One Finger Snap,” arranged by Japanese-Peruvian bassist Osmar Okuma, Acuña has the rare the opportunity to stretch on drums and timbales toward the end with saxophones riffing in support. Another highlight is the funky, Brazilian-flavored “Melancia” with Peña’s phat bass lines.

“Alex is like a big brother and mentor to me,” Peña says. “He’s one of my heroes. I played with him in his band The Unknowns, and we all became close-knit. Alex is so strong, and he has that essential spirit. We know each other so well in the lingo of South America, Latin jazz authenticity. We understand each other’s nuances.”

Born in rural Peru, Acuña was the youngest of 11 siblings — six boys and five girls, two of whom died very early. “We were a very poor family, with no running water, no food and no house,” he says. “The only beautiful and wonderful thing we had was music. My father was a great musician, taught lessons to my brothers and formed a band. My mother was very firm in not letting me become a musician. She was probably thinking I couldn’t make it in a Bohemian life.”

Even so, when he was 10, Acuña learned about music from one of his brothers and started to play drums professionally. At 15, he left home for Lima, where he worked as a studio musician. When he was 18, he caught the attention of the Mambo King, Pérez Prado, who was looking for a simpatico drummer for his orchestra who could read music. “It was 1964, and I was going to the United States for a 10-month tour around the country,” he says. “He got me my permanent residency papers and gave me a good contract.”

Acuña only had five years of education and taught himself how to read on his own. When he was 7, he says he was told by God that he would soon start reading. After he left home, he consumed books, including stories by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and books by the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Christian writer C.S. Lewis.

When Prado left to tour Mexico, Acuña decided he needed to learn more about playing Caribbean music. With money saved from the tour, he moved to Puerto Rico after a trip home to Peru and enrolled in a prestigious conservatory of music there. He stayed in Puerto Rico for nine years, at which time he married, and in 1968 became a father. “My life changed,” he says. “I had come to the U.S., and wow! There was the freedom, the opportunities.”

Next stop: Las Vegas, where he got a job as house drummer at the International Hilton. He backed Diana Ross and Elvis Presley, who introduced the young musician to the martial arts. Another main act? Olivia Newton John. In the audience? Jazz rhythm ace Don Alias. “We became friends and he told me that I need to play jazz,” he says. “He told me all about Jaco Pastorius, who he knew before Weather Report.”

Intrigued, Acuña left Las Vegas a year later and moved to New York to jam on the scene. “Don and others recommended me to Joe Zawinul, who was looking for a percussionist to replace Alyrio Lima in Weather Report. That was like the Beatles of jazz,” he says. “Joe called me, and my life changed.”

To honor that relationship, Acuña covers Zawinul’s hit tune “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” on the new recording. “Joe gave me so much,” he says. “We became friends. I remember in the later years, Joe even called and asked me to party with him. So this funky take is to honor him.”

A drummer and percussionist on such monumental albums as 1976’s Black Market and 1977’s Heavy Weather, Acuña became close friends with Pastorius. They were roommates on the tours. “Jaco had just come onboard, and he was developing his new approach to the bass,” Acuña says. “It’s not well-known, but Jaco used to practice by playing cello books. He told me not to tell anyone about that, but I was there listening to him treating a piece of music in a new way.”

He also appreciated how he was treated. “Wayne and Joe gave us all the respect and consideration,” he says. “If they were flying first-class, all of us flew first-class, too. If they were booked into a five-star hotel, so were we. They shared.”

His drumming prowess caught the attention of aspiring artists. As a youngster living in Cuba, Dafnis Prieto says he had heard about this percussionist from Peru. But one day a friend gave him a video of his favorite band at the time, Weather Report, live in the ’70s. “That just blew my mind,” he says. “Alex was amazing. He had a sense of creating over the knowledge of tradition. He’s a great percussionist and one of the most creative. He inspired me.”

The two have only met on occasion, but Acuña is paying attention to what Prieto is doing. “Dafnis is a monster,” he says. ”I admire him as a musician. He respects the art. I went go a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, and the band was playing one of his compositions. I’m impressed.”

Acuña decided to leave Weather Report in 1978, just before the album Mr. Gone. “I wanted to stop the touring and to be a father to my children, to stay with them and raise them. It was also because in getting prepared for the new album, I felt like I was repeating myself on the drums.”

Plus, a few years earlier, Acuña reacquainted himself with religion. He had neglected his relationship with God as he became more famous. He indulged in drugs. But Acuña says God spoke to him, “Alex, I know you need me now,” and he became a Christian. He attended church, met his second wife and started a new family.

He returned to the road in a different setting with the Christian jazz fusion band Koinonia that he co-founded in 1980. The band recorded several albums and became well known in Scandinavia and in Europe. “The money was great, but I left in 1987 so I could go back to being a loving father.”

Being back in L.A. opened doors for Acuña as a go-to support for many artists. He still recorded with Shorter and Zawinul after Weather Report folded. He was also featured on U2’s Rattle And Hum. He played on several Joni Mitchell albums and he was a fundamental presence with the Yellowjackets in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Band co-founder Russell Ferrante says, “First of all, Alex is the most remarkable human being I know. He taught me so much about African and Latin rhythms. He’s passionate and excited. He helped the Yellowjackets become a fantastic team. He worked closely with our drummer Will Kennedy on different rhythm patterns.”

Around the same time, Acuña was enlisted by contemporary jazz bassist Brian Bromberg, supplying percussive support on several albums. “Alex brings humanity to the rhythm,” Bromberg says. “Some percussionists sound like machines. They may play exactly what is required, but Alex brings the spirit of the music.”

Because Acuña has the ability to read scores (a rarity for drummers in the film business), he’s been wall-to-wall busy on all kinds of movie projects, including Minions, Rise and Encanto. The payday is lucrative, allowing him to stay close to home. “I came from Peru alone, and now I have an incredible tribe,” he says.

However, he may hit the road soon, given the release of Gifts. He quit touring in 1986 and retired 20 years ago from the musicians union. But the label wants to do some record release shows, there’s a proposal to play Scandinavia and a theater in Peru wants him. Don’t be surprised if the band headlines some European festivals.

“I’ve got more Gift music than this,” Acuña says. “We may record again before I really retire.” DB

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