by Rick Mattingly
Call it love at first sound. In 1956, when Latin Percussion founder Martin Cohen was 17, he wandered into the legendary New York nightclub Birdland, where vibraphonist Cal Tjader was leading a Latin-jazz band. “The music was so infectious that I have never lost my love for it,” Cohen says.
He subsequently started attending the Monday-night jam sessions at Birdland, headed up by Herbie Mann and featuring such Latin percussionists as Candido, Jose Mangual, and Chano Pozo. Although Cohen was an engineer, not a musician, he got the urge to participate.
“I wanted to get a pair of bongos,” he recalls, “because Jose Mangual had made the biggest impression on me. But I couldn’t find a pair of bongos because the U.S. had initiated an embargo of Cuba, and that’s where the good bongos, congas, and cowbells had always come from. So I decided to make my own.”
Cohen wanted to make his drums the traditional way, from a single block of wood. So he bought some blocks of mahogany from a sculpture supply store. Working from photographs he had taken of Johnny Pacheco’s bongos, Cohen took his blocks to a wood turner who machined them for him.
“That was the beginning of my learning process,” Cohen says. “He machined them on Friday, and by Monday they were a quarter of an inch smaller. I didn’t realize that you had to dry the wood first. So he had to insert a piece of wood to accommodate that quarter-inch change.”
Cohen ended up selling that pair of bongos, but he continued making bongos and putting them in stores on consignment. He maintained a day job as an engineer with a company that made medical equipment, but spent his nights and weekends making instruments and going to nightclubs to hear Latin music.
“I did my most important research in Latin dance halls in the South Bronx, where shootings were not unknown,” he recalls. “Then I would go to the after-hours clubs that began at 6:00 in the morning. I was the only non-Latino in these places that, frankly, were in the seamy side of town. A lot of people probably thought I was an undercover policeman. But I got by, primarily because I had such a love affair going with Latin music.”
As word spread about the quality of Cohen’s bongos, he was approached by Specs Powell, a CBS staff drummer. Powell wanted a pair of bongos, but he wanted them mounted on a stand. “I said, ‘You can’t play bongos on a stand,’ because nobody in the Latin scene played them on a stand,” Cohen says. “But he was insistent, so I devised a bongo mounting bracket that didn’t require drilling a hole through the bongo.”
Powell introduced Cohen to Bob Rosengarden, another prominent studio drummer. “Rosengarden told me, ‘If you want to make some money, make a jawbone that doesn’t break,’” Cohen remembers. “I had never seen a jawbone before, but I had heard one on a Cal Tjader album. I found out that it was an animal skull that you would strike, and the sound would come from the teeth rattling in the loose sockets. So I took that concept and invented the Vibraslap, which was my first patent.”
Cohen was getting increasingly frustrated with his engineering job, so he quit on a Wednesday in August, 1964, and the next day he went to Carroll Sound to show owner Carroll Bratman a woodblock he had designed. Bratman ordered a gross of woodblocks, and Cohen started making sound effects for Carroll Sound, such as popguns, anvils, and Flexatones.
At the same time, Cohen started marketing his own products under the name Latin Percussion. “The things I was making for Carroll didn’t have much of a market,” Cohen says. “How many places can you use a popgun? But by comparison, it didn’t seem that LP had a prayer, because my stuff was truly esoteric. At that time, there was no such thing as using Latin instruments in pop or rock music.”
Nevertheless, Cohen continued to expand his line by getting involved with conga drums. Although traditional congas had always been made of wood, Cohen made his drums from fiberglass. “It was a non-conventional approach to a conventional need,” Cohen says. “So it was a tough sell. I had to work extraordinarily hard against a bias that was somewhat legitimate, because there is a certain brightness to a fiberglass shell. I argued that the ring that shell produced was not detrimental to the sound because the extra volume more than offset it. And our LP conga developed a reputation for being loud at a time when there really wasn’t any amplification going on and the volume of the drum was important.
“The other thing was the durability of our fiberglass shells. There was no such thing as a flight case at that time. Most guys would carry their congas in duffle bags they bought in army/navy stores, which wasn’t much protection. Wooden drums, whatever their value was in a traditional sense, just didn’t cut it for travel. So durability was one of the sells we had. And then Patato Valdez started using my fiberglass conga, so that gave it a lot of credibility.”
The next instrument Cohen got involved with was cowbells. “There are people who still remember me as the guy who would show up in the Latin clubs carrying a paper bag full of cowbells,” he says, laughing. “I’d pull them out to get the opinions of the musicians, and then I would go back home and tailor the bells to their needs. I was the first to make black cowbells. Before that, cowbells were either copper colored or chrome plated. I was afraid the black ones would be rejected, but it created an identity.”
One of Cohen’s cowbell models, the Mambo bell, led to a deal that gave his company a big boost. The Rogers drum company contracted Cohen to make 2,000 cowbells. “That was more cowbells than I could imagine there was a need for in the whole world,” Cohen says. “Up until that point, my business had been self-financed. Any time I made a little profit, I put it back in the company. But with this order from Rogers, I negotiated my first bank loan. Also, at that time, Rogers was owned by Grossman, who was a stickler for quality. So having my cowbell associated with that company was good for our name.”
Meanwhile, Cohen continued to create new products. Rosengarden was so happy with the Vibraslap that he asked Cohen to come up with a cabasa that didn’t break. “At that time,” Cohen says, “cabasas were made of coconut shells with a lattice of wire around them. After a while, the wire would become brittle, and it would invariably break during a take in recording. I had noticed some textured material on the insides of elevators, so I got some of that, cut it, rolled it into cylinders, wrapped bead chain around it, put a handle on it, and the rest is history. My Afuch /Cabasa has been one of my most successful patents in terms of sales.”
In addition to designing products, Cohen was also making them himself, with limited equipment. “I learned how to make hardware and how to weld,” he remembers. “But I never had electric welding; it was acetylene welding. I did all the work in my garage, which was separate from my house, so there was no heat. I remember being out there wearing two coats and a hooded sweatshirt, welding for hours on end to make bongo rims and side plates for congas.
“I often had to do things that I was told were impossible,” he continues. “I didn’t have an engine lathe at the time, and I had to produce threads for tuning lugs. I was told that there was no way it could be done on a drill press, but that’s all I owned, so I devised a technique for producing threads on a drill press that worked wonderfully.”
Eventually Cohen’s neighbors complained that he was running a manufacturing operation in a residential district, and after a visit from a building inspector, Cohen moved his business to Palisades Park, New Jersey. A few years later, the company moved to a larger facility in Garfield, New Jersey, where the administrative offices remain today.
Cohen eventually moved much of the product manufacturing to Thailand (although LP cowbells are still made in New Jersey). One factor in the change was economic, but there was another reason as well. “In America, the natural reaction to a problem seemed to be ‘We can’t do it,’” Cohen explains. “But my business was founded on a ‘can do’ attitude, just like when I was told I couldn’t turn a thread on a drill press. I couldn’t take no for an answer. I had to do it, so I did. In Thailand, I found that same attitude, which was in keeping with the philosophy I had in the early days of my business.”
As the business grew, Cohen strove to have as complete an inventory of Latin-based products as possible, even if some of them had limited sales potential. One example is LP’s line of Bata drums. Not only are they not in the mainstream, but Cohen actually incurred hostility from some people for making them. “A religion surrounds Bata drums,” he explains. “And there is an ongoing resentment to my involvement with the drums. Some people feel I am trying to commercialize something that they hold as sacred and secret. But when I went to Cuba in 1979, I went to the home of the now-deceased grand Bata master, Jesus Perez. He opened a closet containing his sacred drums and let me look at them. He and his son played for me, and he invited me to record it. But in America, there is all this secrecy, and I’ve met with resistance on the part of practitioners.
“There is absolutely no commercial value in making Bata drums, but we offer them just to be complete. If I made a better Bata drum, it would hardly be worthwhile, but I will keep trying because I want to be complete and I want to be authentic. And I think this is what keeps a company vital. Not everything you do is going to be bottom-line oriented, but it makes a complete package.”
As much as Cohen has always striven for authenticity, he is quite willing to break the “traditional” rules to make a better product, as he did with his fiberglass congas. Another example is the LP Jam Block. “I designed that for Marc Quinones, this small, skinny guy who broke every woodblock we made for him because in Latin dance halls they really pound them,” Cohen explains.“ So the Jam Block is essentially a woodblock made of plastic. All of our market research told us they should be black, but we made them in red and blue. That way, they got recognition from the audience. It still amazes me that I was able to get Puerto Rican timbale players to stick a red piece of plastic on their drums, because Latinos are some of the most conservative people I’ve ever met when it comes to trying new things. It’s only by virtue of the sound being so correctly tuned to their needs that they will buy into it.”
As though designing and building instruments wasn’t enough, for many years Cohen did all of the photography for LP catalogs and ads. The Garfield offices include a state-of-the-art photo studio, and Cohen is still involved in shooting and supervising LP photos. Literally thousands of Cohen’s photos can be viewed at his personal website, www.congahead.com.
In October 2002, Kaman Music Corporation purchased Latin Percussion. “With this great company behind us, we will be able to pursue product development and line expansions that would otherwise have taken years to achieve,” stated Cohen at the time of the purchase.
But Cohen is still overseeing LP and doing a lot of what he did at the very beginning of LP’s history: going to the Latin and jazz clubs in New York City, getting feedback from the musicians about the instruments they play, seeing where the trends in music are going and how the musicians are using the instruments, and bringing that information back to the company for use in product development, marketing, and artist relations. He’s also very active in the LP recording studio that is in the Garfield facility, where musicians record projects for the LP website and for LP educational CDs and DVDs.
And Cohen’s name is still on LP logo badges, as it has been since the beginning. “I saw David Brown’s name on the label of an Astin Martin car, and that told me someone named David Brown designed that car and put his name on it to be accountable,” Cohen says. “So I put my name on the LP labels for the same reason--so somebody would always know who to complain to if the product failed.”