As a child growing up in Puerto Rico, Manuel “Cucho” Gonzalez’s mother introduced him to the music of the Beatles. Gonzalez knew that he wanted to make similar music one day. Gonzalez’s father, on the other hand, preferred that his son follow in the footsteps of a Harlem-based musician of Puerto Rican descent, Tito Puente, who was known widely as “The Sultan of Salsa.” In adolescence, as Gonzalez developed his own taste in music, he became a fervent fan of Carlos Santana, due to Santana’s ability to meld together many of these varying musical genres. In Gonzalez’s thirty years as a practicing musician, he has strived to hold on to the musical styles of his Puerto Rican roots, while incorporating other rhythms and instruments to develop a more worldly style of his own. “The beauty of Puerto Rico is that I grew up knowing rock music, jazz, pop, as well as Latin music,” says the drummer.
Gonzalez first came to Mississippi in 1997 to work as a coach at a gymnastics center in Flowood that is owned by his brothers. But ever since childhood, the brothers have made music together. After Gonzalez established himself in Mississippi’s local music scene, he started talking with diverse musicians that he had met in the Jackson area about forming a group and playing around town together. In 2005, they formed Latinismo. “Jackson’s never had a Latin band,” says Gonzalez. “We’re trying to bring people contemporary music—think Coldplay or U2—with a Latin twist.”
Today Latinismo performs with a rotating cast of nine, or occasionally ten, people in the band. Gonzalez plays timbales. Rick Moreira (a native of Honduras) is the lead vocalist and guitarist. Also in the band is Johnny Hubbard on bass, percussionist Rufus Mapp, drummer Steve Cook, trumpet player Jeff Reiter, keyboardist Richard Smith, trombone player Andy Pizzo, and saxophonist Sherrill Holly. While a couple of Gonzalez’s bandmates also claim Latin roots, Gonzalez is intent on teaching the others to play with an authentic Latin rhythm. Together the music they make ranges in style from jazz to salsa to contemporary pop, but it all bears a Latin twist and caters to Latin dance styles. “We really try to please the dancers,” says Gonzalez. “There are so many ballroom dancers around Jackson and many of them have never danced to Latin music, but they love what we do.”
Since Gonzalez and his bandmates launched Latinismo, they have played numerous venues in the Jackson-area bar scene (including Mardi Gras and Panino’s) as well as at various weddings and private functions. “Playing this type of music in Mississippi helps to make this place feel more like my home,” says the percussionist.