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Published: 2007/03/22
by Glenn H Roth

Yahuba Garcias Worlds of Colors

As Yahuba Garcia taps away at his keyboard, his co-workers are unaware that his hands create joyful rhythmic sounds.

Quietly, Garcia, who enters data for a software company, has distinguished himself as one of the top percussionists in the jamband scene. On most weekends, the Lowell, Mass. resident plays with the Ryan Montbleau Band, Nate Wilson Group or Jen Kearney and the Lost Onion. “He takes your tunes and makes them better,” Montbleau said. “You don’t have to worry about what he is doing. He listens to what you’re playing and brings great positive energy to the music and the whole scene.”

Garcia began his musical journey studying the saxophone until 1994, when he enrolled at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. He sold his horn and switched to the congas and timbales – two instruments he had been playing by ear since he was a child.

“I learned how to play the congas all over again,” said the 32-year-old Garcia. “The rhythm was there, I had to work on technical things.”

Garcia inherited his musical roots from his father and uncle. Both were members of Haciendo Punto en Otro Sona a popular protest band in Puerto Rico in the 1970s. In fact, Yahuba — in the language of the Puerto Rican ancestors, the Taino Indians, — means “music” or a “strong musical scream.”

Watching Garcia play the congas is like wizardry. His hands move at such a rapid pace, it appears he has an extra set.

“You got to play all the time, you can’t let your hands get soft,” Garcia said. “and you have to find the best way to play to prevent from hurting yourself. You learn how to get the sounds. You can play as loud as you want without lifting your arm more than three inches.”

At Berklee, Garcia played in Cotton Mouth, which had a strong on-campus following. After the birth of his daughter in 1999, Garcia dropped out of school and got a steady gig with a Boston-based rhythm and blues band Michigan Black Snake. Garcia estimates that he played about 300 shows with Michigan Black Snake. Then during the summer of 2002, Garcia — who was playing with the Boston Horns at a music festival in northern New Hampshire — ran into Nate Wilson, a founding member of Percy Hill and current keyboardist for Assembly of Dust. Wilson recognized Garcia from his days of playing with Michigan Black Snake and invited him to sit in with Les Wheeler and the JV All-Stars, which featured Wilson, John Leccesse, and Adam Terrell.

“Back in the day I was a huge fan of that scene and I would go see Percy Hill and moe.,” said Garcia, who began to chuckle. “But it had been so many years since I last saw Nate, that at the time I didn’t realize it was the same Nate who played in Percy Hill that I was playing with.”

A few months passed, and his sister-in law invited him to see Assembly of Dust. He spotted Nate Wilson on stage and said to his friends, “Hey, I just played with these guys.” After the show, phone numbers were exchanged and Garcia began touring with Percy Hill.

“Percy has beautiful material,” said Garcia, who toured with New Hampshire’s most popular jamband for 2.5 years. “It’s a bummer they don’t play so much anymore. I was missing playing with them. But the Nate Wilson Group is fun because I get the chance to play Percy Hill tunes again. The lineup that we have now is tremendous.”

NWG consists of Wilson, Garcia, Leccesse, Terrell and former Uncle Sammy drummer Tom Arey. The group played a handful of gigs during the summer and two during the winter. More dates have been announced for March, April and May.

“You don’t really find a lot of percussionists like him,” Wilson said. “He has this natural feel. You’re getting the real deal, an authentic deal. He knows the language.”

Being a member of three bands and a frequent special guest of Assembly of Dust, Yahuba’s legacy is growing. He has 31 albums credits and his goal is to put out his own album. He has been compiling songs for several years.

“More and more people are shouting out my name at shows,” he said of his growing notoriety. “I think it’s someone I know but it’s not. It’s really great having strangers know who you are and that are listening to you play. I was 13 years old when I had my first paying gig. I was used to playing for people that weren’t listening they were watching the game and getting wasted. The jamband fans are really supportive and come to hear the music.”

/strong>**Hitting it with Yahuba****

Being in three bands, how do you keep track of all the different songs? And how hectic is it?

This is what keeps things fresh and interesting for me. I remember reading an interview in the Boston Globe with Vince Welnick back in 1994 where he said he had learned over 400 songs since he had started playing with the Dead. I remember thinking how cool it was to have such an extensive repertoire and wondering how does one keep all of that in the memory banks. But in retrospect, looking back at how many bands I have played with over the years and even now while I juggle 3 bands the majority of the time and manage to sneak in gigs with about four more bands here and there whose repertoire I know as well, I probably know several hundred songs myself. I think what makes it easy for me is that I’m a fan of the bands I play with, so when they send me tunes, I just dive right in and listen to their tunes continuously for days and weeks until I know them all. If you see me play with these bands, a lot of times you will probably catch me singing along with the rest of the fans.

What’s Nate like as a band leader?

Nate is very focused. He listens to what everyone is doing and it drives me to perform at my best every time I play with him. Even in rehearsal, I feel like I’m playing a gig, because I know Nate is listening and I feel like I need to play my best for him. I think everyone in the band feels this even though I’ve never discussed it with them. Everyone in that band is so into each others playing that it just feels great to play with each other every time.

What’s Ryan like as a band leader and how is he different than Nate?

Ryan is a very focused and humble individual. I think he writes some beautiful songs, I know the words to almost his entire catalogue (which I enjoy singing to him in a salsa Puerto Rican accent style which he is very fond of). Ryan always makes me feel like he feels lucky and grateful to have the band he has. And he has an amazing band. Those guys as a unit are one of the most driven, focused and hardest working bands I have ever been involved with. They get better and better every time I play with them.

For those who have not listened to Jen Kearney and the Lost Onion, how would you describe their sound?

If Stevie Wonder and Tito Puente had a baby, her name would be Jen Kearney. Jen and I were separated at birth and reunited 28 years later. When it comes to music, we have psychic connections and are able to communicate without speaking. She is completely fearless when it comes to trying out anything musically, and this quality is evident when you listen to her repertoire; there isn’t a style of music out there that Jen isn’t afraid to incorporate into one of her songs.

Do you get to take more of a leadership role in Jen’s band and if yes, do you like that?

A little, not a lot… at the end of the day, she’s the boss and she gets final say in everything. But I certainly have helped her make a lot of important decisions along the way and we have influenced each other greatly in the makings of her band. I help out with a lot of the logistical inner workings of the band, and have contributed to a lot of her compositions in regards to song and horn arrangements.

Who is the one person you would love to jam if given the opportunity and why?

Wow, that’s a tough one. I’ve had a chance to play with a few of my heroes (Los Lobos, Mike Clark formerly of the Headhunters). But realistically (and I don’t think this is too far fetched), I would really love to play music with Derek Trucks some day. I’m a huge fan and have always felt like that guy and I listened to a lot of the same music growing up.

When do you find time to write your own songs?

Every once in a while the muse just shows up and I drop whatever I’m doing and record whatever just popped in my head. Whether it’s into my home studio with a bunch of instruments or singing it into my cell phone.

When you do write your own songs, where do you draw your inspiration from?

Usually whatever it is I’ve been listening to a lot of. Other times it comes from having a car with no radio in it. My radio died over a year ago and discovered that I make up a lot of music in my car and sing or beat box for hours at a time.

What kind of musical influence have you had on your own daughter?

Well she wants to be a singer. She is really into female pop singers, but she also loves a lot of the bands I play with. She loves Ryan Montbleau and Jen Kearney and knows the lyrics to most of their songs.

Nate says he has heard rumors that you are a mean saxophone player. Do you ever see yourself playing the horn again?

Yes, but only in a soundproofed basement where no one can hear me at all. When I pick the horn up again, I’m going to need to lock myself up in a padded room for at least six months before I get the courage to play in front of people again.

Everyone says as a musician, you are the consummate team player who makes his or her music so much better, how does that make you feel, hearing such kind words?

It really makes it all worth it. I admire the musicians I play with very much; I think they are all so amazing, so to hear them compliment me like that is huge. I’m a fan of their music, just as I am a fan of the music that has inspired me my whole life. These people are the reason I love music so much and their respect and admiration means the world to me.

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