Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


PLA, Roberto

(b '47, Barranquilla, Colombia) Timbalero, other percussion incl. vibes, vocals, bandleader; described as London's dean of Latin music. Against their father's wishes, Roberto and his five younger brothers and one sister all became professional percussionists (brother Charlie belonged to Orquesta La Protesta in the early '70s, along with future singing idol Joe Arroyo, and played with Arroyo's band La Verdad in the '80s). In bed with measles at age seven, Roberto got up to follow the drummers in a passing parade and has loved drums ever since. He studied piano at a local music school; left Barranquilla '64 to study music at the National University in Bogot , sessioning there with groups incl. Los Ocho de Colombia; left university '68 to join big band led by Lucho Berm£dez, with whom he made many albums, weekly TV appearances and tours of Latin America and USA. Moved to NYC '78, performing there with various bands incl. Orquesta La Inspiracion; married an English woman and relocated '79 to Coventry UK; got a factory job, became miserable and left for London, where he 'changed factories every week': he didn't play timbales for almost two years. His partner took him to see pioneer UK Latin-fusion group Cayenne in a pub '81; he became a fan and followed them for months and jammed with them at a gig at the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead: next day he joined the group. 'Before I started playing I didn't have a single friend in London; after I picked up the maracas I had a hundred friends.' Cayenne with Roberto supported Randy Crawford at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Oct. '81, her band directed by Argentine keyboardist Jorge Dalto (1948--87). After about a year with Cayenne, Roberto was briefly with Paz, then was founder member of Valdez '82--4, the UK's first authentic tipico salsa band, led by flautist/tenor saxophonist/arr. Stan Rivera (see his entry): 'I had the shock of my life when I heard Stan Rivera play the flute ... this Englishman playing this music with such feeling!' Pla continued as timbalero with Valdez's streamlined successor El Sonido de Londres '84--8, who became the UK's foremost salsa band; he meanwhile organized his own twelve-piece Latin Jazz Ensemble (LJE) late '87, quickly established with a varied repertoire of jazz, Afro-Cuban, Colombian and salsa rhythms, and went on to make numerous festival, radio and TV appearances, incl. UK Channel 4's Rear Window '91, which featured a brief profile on Pla's career. They issued the three-track 12]im[ Cumbia Dominique '90 with guest Cuban pianists Chucho Vald‚s and Alfredo Rodriguez, and a track on the CD Freedom From Debt '91 on WDM Records. LJE accompanied visitors incl. Paris-based Barranquilla-born percussionist/vocalist Rodolfo Pacheco '88, veteran Cuban master percussionist Carlos 'Patato' Valdez '89 and Puerto Rican sonero Adalberto Santiago '94, as well as supporting major acts like Oscar D'Leon '94. The LJE's ranks have incl. Luis Avenda¤o, vocals; Dave Pattman, percussion/coro (he also gigs with La Clave); Simon Edwards, bass (an alumnus of Dave Bitelli's Onward Internationals and El Sonido); Annie Whitehead, trombone; and Joe de Jes£s, trombone (who has worked with Rafael Cortijo and Kako, Ray Barretto, Guarar‚, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Adalberto Santiago, Daniel Ponce, Hansel and Ra£l, Los Vecinos, Camilo Azuquita, Tipica '88 and David Byrne). Pla married DJ Dominique '92 (b Dominique Roome, '62, Wegburg, Germany), a leading UK Latin club DJ; formerly music programmer for the lamented Bass Clef club ('85--92) and an occasional broadcaster, she founded Salsa Boogie Productions '92, a management and production company which handles Pla's LJE and began preparing salsa compilations for Charly Records '94. In '93 Pla's LJE did a UK tour sponsored by the Arts Council of Great Britain and in mid-'94 signed a two-album deal with Tumi Records: the first release Right On Time surfaced '96. Pla has also toured in other genres, i.e. world tours with Boney M and Gonzalez '82--84, a European tour with Joe Strummer (also appearing with him in French movie I Hired A Contract Killer), Japan and the Far East with Slim Gaillard '87; he appeared as a percussionist with Motorhead in the movie Eat The Rich '88, toured UK with soca artist Arrow '88 (with whom he appeared on BBC2's Mas' '88), USA and Europe with New Zealand pop star Sonny Southon '91--2, Europe with rap act US 3 '93. He recorded with Frank Chickens and Onward Internationals (also performing with the latter on BBC Radio 3's Jazz In Britain, Nov. '82), among others. Pla's LJE joined with soloists Azuquita, Alfredo Rodriguez, Steve Turre and Justo Almario for Salsa Legends UK tour '96.