Changuito was born José Luis Quintana Fuerte in the town of Regla, near Havana, on March 18, 1948. His father, a percussionist, taught him to play, and by age eight he was working at Havana's legendary Tropicana nightclub, where he met Nat "King" Cole. He spent a year with a big band called Orquesta Habana Jazz, which introduced the batanga rhythm, then played in a quintet with his father and in a group called Cuba Mambo. After the revolution he joined a jazz band, Estrellas Docente, where he first played trap drums.
From 1964 to 1968 Changuito played congas in the Latin-jazz sextet Los Harmonicos de Felipe Dulzaides, whose drummer, Tony Valdez, encouraged his development. " He steered me towards jazz and the drum set," Changuito says.
In 1970 Changuito replaced Los Van Van's original drummer, Blas Egues, who used a kit without cymbals to invent the songo beat. But it was Changuito who brought the songo to fruition, soon restoring the cymbals and eventually adding timbales and electronic drums to his traps. He incorporated influences ranging from James Brown's drummer Clyde Stubblefield to Blood Sweat & Tears' Bobby Colomby, but his primary inspiration remains Afro-Cuban, including such obscure rhythms as the guarapachangeo.
"The guarapachangeo is a modernized, complex variation of the guaguanco," he explains. "It was created by three brothers called Los Chinitos. After that a great percussionist called Maximino, who played with Tata Güines, came along and made it more technical, with combinations on two drums. Some people say that guarapachangeo is a pachanga, but it's not-it's rumba. Not everyone can play quinto in a guarapachangeo; it is complicated. You have to know where to put the hits; you have to have good ears. Pancho Quinto created a unique styLe where he plays with batá and cajon."
After leaving Los Van Van in 1993, Changuito recorded the Grammy-nominated album Ritmo y Candela (Round World) in San Francisco with Patato and Orestes Vilató. He also made such instructional videos as The History of the Songo and Evolution of the Tumbadoras (both on DCI/Warner Bros.). "You need to study technique so that you can play more relaxed and not get tired," he advises. "You shouldn't lift the hand too high, even though the nature of percussion is to strike. You have to get love and sweetness out of it, to have a certain sonority. If you study your technique, developing good open and closed slaps, you will be able to work more comfortably. With a proper microphone you shouldn't have to mistreat the hand."
One of his tips on may strike students as bizarre, but Changuito swears by it. "My father taught me, when you wake up in the morning, to urinate on the hand and let it dry well before washing it," he says. "I have 41 years playing percussion, and look at my hands. [They are smooth, with no calluses.] My dad has these same hands. This strengthens the layers of skin beneath the outside layer of the hand."
For the future, Changuito plans to start a percussion school named after Chano Pozo, who left Cuba before Changuito was born and won fame with Dizzy Gillespie. "Chano was a person who was very creative and had many ideas," he says. "He played in a comparsa [carnival] band called Los Dandies de Belen; he was the king of the comparsa. Traditionally, the comparsa was played with three drums-salidor, rebajador and quinto-plus a snare, a bombo, a pan, a trumpet and the jimaguas, which are the little bells. You would have to tune all these drums with a candle. Now you find six drums in the comparsa."