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Tito Puente Jr. shares his father’s musical legacy with a new generation of fans

Tito Puente Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps as a percussionist, playing Afro Cuban music for audiences around the world. He’ll stop at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen on Sunday, May 12, 2024.
Courtesy photo
Tito Puente Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps as a percussionist, playing Afro Cuban music for audiences around the world. He’ll stop at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen on Sunday, May 12, 2024.

Tito Puente was a legend of Latin jazz, salsa and mambo music.

He won six Grammys for his work — including a Lifetime Achievement Award — and he’s best known for a tune called “Oye Como Va.”

It was popularized by the rock band Santana, but the original recording, from 1962, was a hit in its own right. It currently has more than 50 million listens on Spotify alone.

Puente died in 2000, but his legacy continues with his son, Tito Puente Jr. The 52-year-old musician performs his father’s songs all over the world and will stop at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen on Sunday.

Reporter Kaya Williams spoke to Puente Jr. about his own musical journey — as well as his father’s legacy. This interview has been edited and condensed.

The fans are there. And I (continue to) discover more and more how much they really adored and (were) enamored with Tito Puente’s music.
Tito Puente Jr., on his father’s legacy

Kaya Williams: I’m curious, when you were growing up as a kid, did you … want to become a musician, or kind of fall into it, especially given your dad's career?

Tito Puente Jr.: Of course, you know, my father was a very big influence, but I never really cared for Latin mambo music. I was more into pop, rock, hip hop. I’m an 80s Gen X-er. So I was into, of course, Metallica, Def Leppard, Guns and Roses, all those great, great rock bands. And I still am, even still today.

But I started traveling with my father and learning about Afro Cuban music and I started just gravitating towards that. So I was probably around, maybe around 12, 13, 14 years old, right in there, where I really wanted to dive into more percussion, and following in my father's footsteps, I did so.

Williams: Would you say that you try and perform the songs as similar as they might be on a recording or you're putting your own flair into it, you know, bringing some of those influences of your own enthusiasms into the music?

Puente Jr.: Well, for full transparency, my father was known as the king of Latin music, “el rey de los timbales,” the king of timbales, which is the percussion instrument that he played. I am not the prince.

However, what I do is, I connect people with his music — the young kids who never got a chance to see Tito Puente, maybe, live or experience him in concert.

I bring the arrangements that my father wrote back in the 1940s and ‘50s and I bring them alive, again. “Puente” means bridge in Spanish, and that's what I've been doing for the past 20-plus years in bringing that new generation of Afro Cuban fans to his music.

He had such a prolific career, you know, 180-some-odd albums, Grammy Awards, television programs, movies, you might have seen him on “Sesame Street,” “The Simpsons.”

He was a household name, and I would hope that the young generation today kind of learned a little bit more about the history of Latin music in this country, with the likes of Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Fania All Stars. They’re very instrumental and very important figures in the Latin American community and of music in general.

Williams: What would you say is the reaction among this newer generation — you know, kids hearing this kind of music for the first time?

Puente Jr.: I think they love it. I think that the newer generation is catching on to it. I'm really aiming towards those fans who might not know too much about Afro Cuban music or mambo. Today, they call it salsa, salsa music.

But I'm trying to just carve a path for myself, so that way the newer generation can understand it. When you come to the concert, and if you experience it, not only am I teaching you about Afro Cuban music and the timing, and of course, the history of Mambo music and Tito Puente, it's also very interactive.

We’re going to have a big screen behind us, showing you images of Tito Puente and all the great artists that he's performed with. And of course, it’s part of a documentary series that we plan on putting out at the end of this year on the life and legacy and a story about his incredible, incredible six-decade career. So it's going to be an interactive show. And I encourage people to clap, dance, bring dancing shoes — it's very important.

And by the end of the night, I'm pretty sure you'll be out of your seat, learning more about Afro Cuban music, enjoying the music of Tito Puente, and really going home with that feeling of understanding and being inspired.

Williams: As you've been developing these shows and performing this music, has it helped you feel connected to your dad even though he's passed?

Puente Jr.: Absolutely. I wear him proudly on my shirt. I tattooed him on my body. I embody — a lot of people look at me and they say, “Wow, you look exactly like your father, just without the white hair.”

But I've been doing this for about 20-plus years now. And I have children now where I try to encourage them. They never got to meet their grandfather, but I try to encourage them to listen to more about Latin music and Afro Cuban music.

My son is Tito Puente Jr. Jr. — the third. And I'm trying to get him to play a little bit and learn a little bit more about his grandfather's music and how much it meant to people.

I travel around the planet in perpetuity keeping his music alive.

And every country that I've been to, my father has worked those stages before.

My father was around a very long time. And he's shared a lot of different places with me, and I traveled with him, where they weren't really conducive to mambo music. I'm talking about different countries like the Far East, Indonesia, Jakarta, Japan. They don't know English or Spanish, but they understand one thing, and that was the language of Afro Cuban music. And that's what my father did: He was an ambassador of music around the world.

Williams: And as you've been performing this music, studying this music, developing these slideshows, all of this, have you learned anything that really surprised you, either about the music itself, or your father's history or anything like that?

Puente Jr.: Many things. I've learned, mostly, that my father's spirit lives on within his fans. Not only does he have fans in America, but he has fans around this planet. I didn't realize that until I started traveling a lot more and deeper into this country, where I've seen there's a lot of the Latin Hispanic community and American community that really enjoy his music — with the thanks, of course, to Carlos Santana, who remade one of my father's greatest hits, “Oye Como Va.” It became a worldwide hit. And that brings a whole new generation of rock fans that enjoy Tito Puente music, too.

So I'm discovering new things every time I perform and I learn more and more, each and every day.

And my father told me, it's never a good show if you're not nervous. So I am kind of nervous before I go on stage and (am) presenting his music.

But the fans, the fans are there. And I discover more and more how much they really adored and (were) enamored with Tito Puente’s music and loved him and I think that's the greatest part about it.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.