Don Alias was a working kind of guy. He began his career in percussion pursuing Afro-Cuban music from the black side of Harlem where there were many great players doing the Latin thing. Don gave up a career in medical science to be a musician. He has worked with musical legends such as Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Mongo Santamaria, Roberta Flack and David Sanborn.
Don stopped by the LP Photo Studio to talk about products and to get his photo taken. Afterward, he came to my home for a very insightful interview about his varied career.
Two products that caught his attention were the newly revamped line of cherry wood Valje® Congas now bearing the name of one of Don's great inspirations, Armando Peraza. Needless to say, he was ecstatic about these drums. Very much a part of Don's varied work is the clay Udu drum that LP now carries in nine different models. These are the very same drums that were developed by Frank Giorgini.
Don Alias comes from Harlem, New York City. He played percussion as a child and had the benefit of growing up in a time and a place where he could see and hear Mongo Santamaria and Art Blakey on the same Apollo Theater stage. He also speaks fondly of hearing Arsenio Rodriquez, the blind Cuban tres player (a Cuban style guitar) and a great conga drummer/guitar player perform in a bar on 125th Street. Don is basically self taught. Except for a couple of lessons from the late percussionist Sunny Morgan. He grew up playing Afro-Cuban rhythms from dance band traditions as well as African and Haitian rhythms for dance classes.
Don moved to Boston to pursue a career in medical science. While in Boston he met Afro-American conga drummer Bill Fitch and spent many nights at the Berklee College dorms. There he jammed with Bill and sometimes they were accompanied by drumset player Tony Williams, then interested in Afro-Cuban rhythms. While up in Boston, Don became part of a band called Los Muchachos, along with bass player Gene Perla. When Gene got a gig with Nina Simone, he got Don the job as the band drummer. At that time, Don had no skill on the drumset and, as he said, wasn't quite sure how to work the high hat pedal.
He got through the first job by sheer luck and, at the end of his three-year stint with Nina, he was Musical Director of the band. Nina liked Don because she said they thought alike. When he worked with Nina, Don often worked the same halls as Miles Davis. Don's rhythmic work was admired by Miles, in particular the cowbell.
When it came time to record the famous Bitches Brew album, Don was invited to join the session. A session that had people like Lenny White, Jack DeJohnette and Joe Zawinul. Don was in awe of these legends. All takes at the session were one-take affairs until it came time for the tune, Miles Runs The Voodoo Down. After a few false starts, Don stopped the band. For a young Don to have done that took immense courage. He told Miles he had been working on a rhythm that would be perfect for it. Don played it for everyone and then Miles told him to teach it to DeJohnette. When it appeared that Jack was not going to execute the rhythm as it should be, Miles told Don to get behind the drums and play the tune. It was done in one take and the rest is history.