By Dee Dee McNeil/jazz journalist

June 1, 2019

Ramon Banda was connected to his drum set lovingly, the way he was connected to his family and his band members. The drums were an integral part of his life; his body; his career; his love. Ramon once proudly said he had played the same ride-cymbal for close to twenty years. When I first heard Ramon Banda play, I was mesmerized by his technique and spiritual connection to the music. Like Ramon, it’s always been important to me to have a spiritual connection to the music and to my band. The moment I heard Ramon play, I knew that he too had that spiritual connection to the music.

Standing at his hospital bedside on May 29, 2019, I saw a lion of a man laying quietly on his pillow, still determined and hopeful. His beautiful cousin was there, praying for his recovery and well-being. She told me someone from his family was constantly at his side. His wife, Rachel, was on the way to the hospital after attending a graduation ceremony. I was surprised when I stepped off the elevator and discovered Ramon was in the Intensive Care Unit. Still, he recognized me immediately, but I didn’t stay long. I knew he needed to rest. I didn’t want him to feel he had to host my visit. I was compelled to tell Ramon, in person, what a joy it was to work with him and to watch him perform over the years. I thanked him for his warm and giving spirit. When I was producing television promo clips for Suicide Prevention, he was one of the first jazz cats to say he would be there to participate. Ramon cared about his music, his family and his community.

Ramon Banda was raised in the Norwalk neighborhood of Los Angeles and he and his younger brother, Tony, have been playing music for over half a century. He grew up hearing his mom playing piano and his uncle playing beautifully on the tenor saxophone. Ramon’s father was a professional drummer. Young Ramon started out as a guitar player, playing in his uncle’s group. His brother, Tony, played bass. Although his uncle was a horn player and enamored with Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins’ horn talents, their little group played traditional Mexican music and Top-40. Their family group worked around the Los Angeles area. When Ramon’s cousin was drafted and sent to Vietnam, Ramon switched to the drums to take his cousin’s place. Music is a common link and was always a blessing to the Banda family.

Tony and Ramon Banda were longtime musicians in Poncho Sanchez’s Latin Jazz band. Ramon also played in Cal Tjader’s band. Ramon and his brother were the heart and soul of both those bands, but soon established their own family music group labeled The Banda Brothers. Their sextet stretched into bebop and straight-ahead jazz. With Poncho’s group, Ramon played timbales. But with the Banda Brother’s sextet, he played trap drums. Tony had a distinctive sound on double bass. Latin was their root and culture, but they played jazz just as passionately. Often times, not only in the Sanchez band but also in their own band, the two brothers would grab Shekeres, (sometimes spelled Chekeres), those percussive gourds covered in bright beads, and they would enchant the audience with their percussion skills. In fact, the Banda brothers also had a business making and selling those colorful Shekere instruments. Ramon was greatly influenced by Mongo Santamaria. He said he fell in love with the sound of the Shekere listening to Mongo’s album. The brothers had a percussion friend named Taumbu who showed them how to make the African based Shekere instrument. When work was slow and gigs were few and far between, Ramon and Tony got busy making them and selling Shekeres to pay the rent.

As teens, Poncho Sanchez was singing with Ramon’s two older cousins, who were also musicians. One unexpected afternoon, Poncho and his older brother needed a drummer and Ramon was recommended. They swung by his house and asked him to join them. He packed up his drums and the rest is history. Ramon recalls that in 1966, when they first met, Poncho Sanchez wasn’t even playing congas.

As a youngster, Ramon Banda was attracted to heavy metal music. Some of his favorites were Terrorizer & Morbid Angel. He admired Pete Sandoval who was the drummer with them and is epitomized as the founder of the so-called, ‘blast beat’. He also liked Mike Hamilton with Deeds of Flesh and was intrigued with the way Hamilton played those thunderous bass drum licks. Other drummers like Flo Mournier with Cryptopsy and Mick Harris of Napalm Death influenced Ramon’s early playing. As he branched out, he discovered jazz and drummers like Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich. He began to listen closely to Tito Puente’s band. Ramon Banda was also a master timbale player. He was inspired by and idolized the great Manny Oquendo.

All in all, Ramon was one of the most well-rounded drummers I knew. He could play it all, from rock and roll, R&B, to Pop, from bebop to straight-ahead jazz, or express himself fully with his own cultural, Latin percussion brilliance.

As his reputation proceeded him, Ramon met many great musicians and it was a young drummer named Willie Jones III who encouraged the Banda Brothers to go into the studio and record. The result was an album titled, “Acting Up!”

I enjoyed seeing Ramon Banda fire up Joey Francesco’s band. He has also been a stalwart drummer for Bill Cunliffe. Over his lifetime, Ramon Banda recorded on over 250 albums and some of them were Grammy Award winners. A partial list of those luminaries he recorded with include: Henry “the Skipper” Franklin, Mort Weiss, José Rizo, Carmen McRae, Woody Herman, Marcos Loya, Taumbu International Ensemble, Tierra, Stanley Clarke, Gary Hoey, The Jazz Crusaders, H.M.A. Salsa Jazz Orchestra, Fred Ramierez, Joey Altruda, Azar Lawrence, Theo Saunders, Dave Askren, Geoff Stradling, Papa John DeFrancesco, Juan Carlos Quintero, Scott Martin, Al McKibbon, Marilyn Fernandez, Charly, Francisco Aquabella, Phobia, Cal Tjader, Brent Lewis, Elliot Caine, Karen Hammack, Red & the Red Hots, Poncho Sanchez, Jazz on the Latin Side All Stars, Joey DeFrancesco & Bette Midler.

Ramon will be dearly missed by our jazz community, but his memory, like his music, will linger on throughout the generations. Rest in peace, my dear brother and thank you for your amazing music and loving spirit.
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  1. Jessica Taylor Says:

    A Beautiful Homage about a wonderful human, musician and friend that you obviously knew well and was close to. Prayers for his family and all those who were blessed to have the opportunity to know and loved him! Thanks for sharing this with us all! Xox

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