Writing an article on Federico Aristides Soto Alejo, aka Tata Güines, may be quite a challenge for anyone trying to summarize a rich life stretching over 77 years.
Tata, a Cuban percussionist, double bassist, and composer was born on June 18, 1930 in Güines, Cuba. As a young kid he was influenced by his father, who played the tres which is a traditional Cuban guitar with three pairs of strings.
At that early age he started making makeshift percussion instruments and played with the Rumheros of the neighborhood. With that experience he moved on to the double bass and bongo drums and played with the Ases del Ritmo and Sexteto Partagás, one of the best bands of the time, learning the basics of Cuban music.
Around 1950, Tata moves to Havana and after some odd jobs he was hired by Fajardo y sus Estrellas band.
"In those times there were many places to play. Every club had a live band playing. The pay was miserable. I played at the Montmartre with Fajardo for two shows and after 5100 a.m. we would play in another joint. l1lere was a lot of moving around", says Tata.
During this fundamental period he had the chance to play with some important bands like Orquesta Nueva America and Los Jovenes del Cayo where he not only played claves but also bongo drums, güiro, double bass, and conga drums.
In the late 1950's his first records started to appear along with important players of the time like Cachao, Frank Emilio, Guillermo Barreto, Gustavo Tamayo, and Pedro Justiz “Peruchín".
Tata toured the United States for the first time with Fajardo y sus Estrellas during a period of time that would become a turning point in his career. They played at the Palladium for two weeks with Cuban musical legend Benny Moré.
"I met Benny More in New York in I957. I was working with Fajardo. We spent some great nights and had some marvelous gigs. He was always the greatest of all. He really deserved it all. He directed his band without knowing a single musical note."
Already recognized for his extremely fast way of playing and his melodic sense, he was hired by some jazz bands and played with people like Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson, and Chico Hamilton. He lived in New York for two years and besides playing at the Palladium and the Waldorf Astoria, the press named him "Golden Hands Percussionist" and he performed with Joséphine Baker, Frank Sinatra, and Charlie Parker.
"I created all those movements. The way to place your hand on the skin of the drum and the way to play and scratch. I decided to modernize conga drum playing. I wanted to include loose beats in a song. You include those beats when your body feels they should be in a rhythm but always with respect to the soloist when playing in pairs or more. One has to follow the tune so that the soloist might feel comfortable with the clefs, with the rhythm. Playing with my nails was not so hard " says Tata with a smile. " I came up with that while playing at the Montmartre Club".
In 1959, he returned to Cuba and started as a soloist with the Cabaret of the Caribbean at the Habana Libre Hotel. in 1964, the National Symphony Orchestra invited him to play his song " Perico No Llores Más".
"It is difficult to play with such an orchestra. I think it is only possible to play conga drums with them when playing Cuban songs because I can get into the tune with basic Cuban rhythms."
In 1964, he created his band Los Tatagijinitos to play his own compositions. He played outside Cuba in France, Bulgaria, Finland, Martinique, Panama, and Switzerland.
Among his most important recordings are his first solo record in 1994, Aniversario, and his participation in Jesús Alemañy's Cubanísimo in 1995.
Since the 1990's, he has toured all over the world but mainly in Europe and the United Slates when he played with percussionists Giovanni Hidalgo and Changuito during their 2003 Tour.
About the younger generation Tata tells us: "Today's youth is thinking differently. They play a little and they think they are stars. They don't think about studying all the possible genres as we used to do. We played all kinds of styles but we had to do it for a living.
That was a hard way to learn. The bands from the 40’s and 50‘s were searching for their own styles and sounds. You used to walk the streets and listen and know instantly who was playing. Today everybody has the same sound. Vou cannot even distinguish them by their singers".
Tata can talk for hours, reminiscing about how it used to be and how it is today but the best way to understand him is by listening to his music. His individuality lives in the strength, energy, originality, and diversity of his music.