Stepping into the garage-turned-workshop behind Joe Santiago’s house in West Hempstead, it becomes apparent that he moves to the beat of a different drum. There are tools galore — all perfectly organized; machines for cutting and welding; and one he created to make metal plates and hooks. But it’s the unusual building materials — barrels, goatskins, mule skins — that stand out.
They’re among the elements he needs to create a bomba drum, a popular instrument that literally puts the rhythm and soul in Puerto Rican music. Santiago, who goes by the nickname “Bomba Joe,” has been making the drums for the past 14 years, and his love for the instrument is evident in every detail. Looking at one drum made from oak that took about 40 hours to construct, what stands out is the craftsmanship that went into it. The wood has been sanded smooth and given a glossy, gleaming finish; the animal skin is drawn so tight across the top that a quarter could probably bounce off it; and the metal bands, hooks and plates have all been hand molded.
“I make each one like I’m doing it for me,” says Santiago, 70, who is retired from the aircraft industry. “When I start working on a drum, the drum takes over. It tells me when it’s done. When I finish the drum, it’s a showpiece.”
Santiago has played the drums since he was a child, but to learn how to make them, he studied in Bedford-Stuyvesant with master drum maker Jay Bereck and learned the basics of construction and repair. About 15 years ago, a friend of Santiago’s showed up with some bomba drums he had gotten from Puerto Rico that didn’t weather the move to New York very well.
“The temperature change caused the wood to shrink and the bands needed adjusting,” Santiago said. “So I fixed them, readjusted his bands, and word of mouth got around. Then one guy brought me a barrel and asked if I could make a drum out of it. So I made the drum and from there it evolved.”
Making bomba drums has blossomed into more of a hobby than a business — Santiago makes about four to five drums a year. His customers are both local and from as far as Puerto Rico. Among his customers is Grammy-nominated Latin drummer Bobby Sanabria, whose wife asked Santiago to make a drum for her husband as a birthday present. Depending on the complexity of the drum, they cost from $650 and up.
His creations can get quite complex, such as one he made with anchor-shaped hooks for a client who wanted to pay tribute to his father who had been in the Navy. For a customer who had a beloved parrot, Santiago found an image of the bird to put on the drum.
“I just charge them for the materials,” he says. “If I charged them for the labor, they couldn’t afford the barrel.”
The most labor-intensive job is prepping the barrel for painting, he says. “That’s very important to the integrity of the drum. The parts have to mesh together well and they have to be clean so that the glue can adhere,” he says. Likewise, getting the drumhead skin on smooth and level is critical to the sound of the drum.
While barrels serve as the shells for most bomba drums, Santiago has also made the instruments from logs and is designing a metal one as well. Longtime friend Eddie Rodriguez, 66, of White Plains, whom Santiago has played drums with in various bands, is designing the template for the metal version. Santiago also taught his friend to make his own drum.
“I asked him if he could make me a drum, and he said ‘You do it.’ And he showed me,” says Rodriguez, a nuclear engineer. “He’s a master teacher. He knows all the ins and outs about bending metals, welding; that the inside has to be smooth. The quality of these drums is amazing.”
Unlike a conga drum, which is traditional in Cuban music and was made popular by Desi Arnaz on the “I Love Lucy” TV series, the bomba drum, at 22 to 24 inches tall, is shorter and typically uses a goatskin for the drumhead, rather than a cow skin. The result is a more basslike sound that fits in with the festive nature of Puerto Rican music, Santiago says.
Since 2003, Santiago has made 91 drums and taught 14 people how to make their own.
Drums have always held a fascination for Santiago, who remembers falling in love with their sound as a youngster in Spanish Harlem.
“I was in kindergarten, and I remember seeing a snare drum in the back of the room. Then the teacher said, ‘It’s music time, go get an instrument. I ran straight to that drum but another kid beat me to it,” he recalls. “The teacher gave me a triangle to play. It was nice, but I really wanted that drum. I made sure I got it the next time.”
The first record album he remembers buying, back in 1957, was “Drums of Passion” by Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji. He still has it and keeps it in his workshop for inspiration.
He was still a youngster when his uncle, who had been a merchant seaman, brought him a drum from India, which Santiago said was a rough version of a conga. “My other uncle who lived in Harlem borrowed it, and I never saw it again,” he said.
Eventually Santiago got another one and he began jamming in the street and the park with his friends. Anxious to become more proficient at it, he took a class at the Johnny Colon School of Music in East Harlem. There he learned Cuban drumming (salsa, rumba), and later on took lessons in Puerto Rican drumming (bomba, plana).
His other passion when he was younger was aviation, and his dream had been to be a pilot. He was accepted to aviation school and graduated with an aviation mechanic’s license. He had considered applying to the Air Force academy, but marriage and a family came first, so instead of flying, he became an aviation mechanic at Lockheed and briefly with American Airlines. He credits his skills in metalwork, which he learned through those jobs, in helping to shape his drum-making skills.
He and his wife, Gladys, have been married for 53 years and raised four children and have six grandchildren.
Santiago became more proficient in playing bomba drums, maybe a dozen or so years ago, thanks in large part to Norka Hernández-Nadal. Santiago had participated in workshops run by Hernández-Nadal, who also founded the Puerto Rican music ensemble Bámbula. “He had been studying with other folks, and then when we met, he started drumming for my class,” says Hernández-Nadal, who was born in Puerto Rico and now lives in the Bronx. “He had never done my style, which is a western regional style. The drum is more regal aesthetically, it stands more erect, and the rhythm varies from other styles. For somebody who was born and raised in the United States, and who came into the genre very late, his playing is of extremely high quality,” she says of Santiago.
Santiago often performs with Bámbula, an ensemble of eight to 20 musicians, singers and dancers.
Hernández-Nadal isn’t just a teacher and a friend, she’s also been a client. Santiago made her a drum set from oak. “Everywhere I go and play them, someone has something to say,” she says. “The resonance is beautiful, and they’re extremely well-made.”
For Santiago, being able to make bomba drums and to do it on his home turf has been a dream. “I always wanted a shop of my own to create my own things,” he says. “And I’m happy that I’m contributing to my culture and sharing it with the next generation. And I’m giving a quality product.”