Ruben "Cougar" Estrada Jr. was not only born in the back seat of a 1967 Mercury Cougar automobile; he was born into the musical family of The Estrada Brothers Latin Jazz Sextet. Cougar can remember as a young child going to see his father's band play at a wedding, sitting on the side of the stage and playing clave or cowbell along with the music set.
The Estrada Brothers started in the mid-'50s and was founded by Cougar's father Ruben, and uncles, Henry and Angel Estrada. The brothers grew up in Oxnard, California and were inspired by the jazz meets Latin music of Cal Tjader, Stan Kenton and Tito Puente. Cougar's father, Ruben who originally played trumpet and drums with the group, now plays vibes in the style of Tjader while Henry plays saxophones and flute; Angel left the band in the 1970s.
Raul Rico Jr. became the group's percussionist in 1976 and in 1986 the group solidified with the addition of the young Cougar on drums, pianist Joe Rotondi, Jr. and bassist Malcom Ian Peters. The Estrada Brothers finally made their first recording in 1995, "About Time" on their Rumba Jazz label. The success of that CD resulted in Milestone signing the Estrada Brothers and recording "Get Out of My Way" in 1997.
Over the past few years, Cougar has expanded his musical palette which includes working the last three years as the tour drummer with Los Lobos, and before that with the Latin Playboys, Los Super Seven along with some travels to Guatemala and Japan with Michael Jackson's sister Rebbie Jackson.Living in the Santa Barbara, California area, Cougar performs when he has the time as a drummer with homeboys like the Nate Birkey Quintet, Spencer The Gardener and the Wedding Band.
As a session's player the last few years, he has worked on projects with the likes of The Mennonite and Ballads, Los Lobos, The Estrada Brothers Latin Jazz Sextet, The Latin Jazz All-Stars, Rick Trevino, Raul Malo, and Rickie Lee Jones. He has also been pursuing his own creative production projects, through the formation of his own Cougar Records.
Cougar spoke to laritmo.com during a tour break from the busy Los Lobos schedule.
[Phil Reser] What kind of role model has your father, Ruben, Sr. been to you and do you consider yourself fortunate to have grown up in the Estrada family?
[Cougar Estrada] My Father has been a great role model. He has always supported me and led me to learn and advance myself in music...A lot of my ideas and musical ability's are traced back to what I have learned from my Father. I've been part of The Estrada Brothers since I was born so, yes. I feel like I am very fortunate to have grown up in The Estrada Brothers Family. I remember when I was a kid about 5 years old playing with cars and friends and listening to my Uncles rehearse in the house a lot of times. Music was always being played in my ears.
[Phil Reser] What kind of drummer would you describe yourself as and who and what may have influenced your style?
[Cougar Estrada] I consider myself a creative drummer that plays from the heart. I like all kinds of music and drumming styles. Maybe I guess I would say I'm mainly a Jazz Drummer. Frank Butler, my best friend and teacher really influenced me as a drummer and person when I was 13 years of age. He was a West Coast Jazz Drummer who played drums on recordings for John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Curtis Counce, Art Pepper, Harold Land, Dolo Coker, Kenny Drew to name a few. I still miss him very much. I would call Frank it seems like almost everyday after high school when I was studying with him back in 1983. Frank would call me his prodigy. I didn't know at the time what that meant but I knew it meant I was special and learning things that were very rare. I think he is probably the most underrated Legend Jazz Drummer of all time. And so that... I make sure I still listen to him and learn from the recordings constantly.
[Phil Reser] You play some piano and guitar also?
[Cougar Estrada] I don't really know how to play guitar but playing with Lobos has made me appreciate the instrument and I like to try and play it. Being a drummer and having some idea of how rhythm works. I like to play the guitar. Let me say now. Don't ask me what notes or chords I'm playing cause I don't know. I play by using my ear to find the sounds. Usually I'm pretty close to the right notes. I know a little bit more about piano. My Parents had a grand piano in the house so I grew up with some knowledge of how the piano works and have had some teachings on the instrument. I like to write/arrange and play jazz standards on the piano. I think every drummer should learn to play piano. Maybe in the next 5 years I'll book a drummer and bass player and go play at some hotels in Santa Barbara and play for tips.
[Phil Reser] What's your interest and participation in vocals at this point?
[Cougar Estrada] I have emotions that I want to express that don't fulfill me as a drummer. I write words all the time. Poetry maybe you would call it, but I just feel that with words I can express myself in another way. I don't think I have a good voice but I can keep some kind of pitch. So...that brings me to singing. Someone in this world will hopefully like my voice and what I have to say.
[Phil Reser] How has your life changed since becoming a part of Los Lobos?
[Cougar Estrada] I get to see cultures. I'm traveling the world and meeting people. I have seen many things now that have made me appreciate life.
[Phil Reser] How has your dad reacted to your being a member of Los Lobos as well as to your other projects including the production company?
[Cougar Estrada] This is a good question. I should make this clear. I'm the touring drummer for Los Lobos. Lobos have been around for 30 plus years now and have done a lot of the work getting to where they are. I wouldn't call myself a member. Since I have been touring with them for a short three years now, I have been playing less with my Dad. He has reacted very excited and supported for me around all the experiences that I'm being introduced to.
I lost my Mother to breast cancer in 2000 and my Dad lost his wife. I got the gig with Los Lobos two years after, in 2002, and my Dad has been doing really well keeping his health and The Estrada Brothers band alive. As brothers and members of The Estrada Brothers have gone and went on to explore other interest through the years. My Dad has since come out with a new 2005 CD and is playing with top musicians in LA to perform with him in jazz clubs in California.
Personally when I'm out on tour with Lobos, its good to know that he's playing and doing what he loves to do. He brings me the recordings when I'm off tour of the live shows he plays and we sit and listen. His vibe playing sounds better than ever... he's in his prime right now.
As far as, producing, like I said, he's always been supportive. When I first started with my first production Conga Punks CD I'm sure he didn't know what to think cause that recording is very experimental. I'd play him some songs and he would just look like no words to say. I know he knew I was reaching out to explore different musical ideas. After that when I finished Sexy Latin Lounge Returns CD and decided to start a record label. More people got interested in what I was doing, which I think also made him trust my own ideas and what I'm am doing. So that brought me to produce The Estrada Brothers "Two For the Road."
[Phil Reser] How did your involvement with Los Lobos evolve into you becoming their drummer?
[Cougar Estrada] Jose Rizo a DJ for KJAZ 88.1 FM Long Beach also a friend of The Estrada Brothers band and Latin jazz music, connected me with Los Lobos. In 1999 Lobos drummer Louie Perez called Jose looking for a drummer to tour with Latin Playboys (side project of Los Lobos). Latin Playboys were looking for a drummer that could play rock and Latin. Jose recommended me and I did the short tour with them in 1999. After that I played drums on Los Lobos recording/CD "Good Morning Aztlan." Then I did "Good Morning Aztlan Tour 2002."
[Phil Reser] What have been and are currently, the biggest challenges in stepping in as a member of such a well-known veteran rock band?
[Cougar Estrada] You've just said it right here. "Such a well-known veteran rock band." Now you're making me nervous. That's a challenge in it's self to hear. I just try to play my best for the guys as I do in other bands. I'm always trying to give them what they are looking for. I'm constantly being reminded on what a powerful band I'm playing with through Lobos fans and musicians...I'm trying to live up to what my possibilities have to offer. I don't take Los Lobos for granted at all. I'm still learning... and it's always a constant challenge to play with them.
[Phil Reser] Your meeting, connecting and performing along side some of the long-time musical legends and friends of Los Lobos must be an extraordinary experience, what's that been like?
[Cougar Estrada] I have played with Neil Young and Robert Plant as they have sat in with Lobos, all the artists on Lobos "The Ride" CD. Bobby Womack, Elvis Costello, Ruben Blades, Mara Staples, Tom Waits... These are incredible artist to be around and record with. It is an extraordinary experience and then some... When its over, sometimes I wonder if it really happened. Good thing for recording equipment and tapers. I can listen back and know it really happened.
[Phil Reser] Are there any road experiences with Los Lobos that stand out in your mind -- either good or bad?
[Cougar Estrada] I can't think of any bad experiences. Lobos have a sense of humor, so if anything that is considered bad turns into a good thing. I can remember when I just started playing with them. I didn't know a lot of the songs. I was playing percussion at the time and in between songs David Hidalgo motioned for me to play drums on this song. I have no idea how the songs goes, so he played air drums so I can get an idea on how to play drums on this song. So I did...I ended up making up my own breaks that don't fit in the song. That was embarrassing and funny... but afterwards the guys laughed and said, "now you know it, so you're going to play it from now on." So, I guess, that situation turned into a good thing.
[Phil Reser] Is there any difference that you can think of, in your experiences playing music with older jazz and rock veterans and your own generation of musicians, as you've slipped back and forth among them in various projects?
[Cougar Estrada] That's a good one. I consider Los Lobos great musicians along side jazz musicians I have played with. The only thing I can see as a difference is when Lobos rock. They can really rock the place, which means that my playing has to be more physical. Bigger audience means bigger sounds, more energy, as opposed to small jazz club where people are eating in front of you and you have to play quiet dinner music the first hour.
I've also noticed the swing of how my generation plays as opposed to older generation musicians. Musicians nowadays play too marked. As if they are machines. There's very few musicians that understand what the word swing means in any style of music.
[Phil Reser] When did you start composing and arranging music and what gives you the most satisfaction out of that creative venture?
[Cougar Estrada] I think I started playing thirds on the white keys of the piano when I was a kid. Didn't know much about what I was doing but I remember playing a song for my sister over the phone and she was impressed. It wasn't much of a song but for some reason I could do it. I think I may have been around 10 or 11. I remember that it was just expression and it made me feel like I tapped into something that I could get better at doing. I love standards and I have a good sense of melody and chord changes being brought up with music. The most satisfaction I get from the songwriting process is that someone likes the song. Recently my productions have been getting airplay and I would say is the most satisfaction. I just want people to hear my music, lyrics and hopefully have an open mind to get something out of it. It's nice to read reviews negative and positive about my productions. Either way... it keeps me interested in doing it.
[Phil Reser] How did you begin your interest in music production and what did it take to get your own record label going?
[Cougar Estrada] My interest first began as I put the Conga Punks band together and financed the CD on my own. When the Conga Punks CDs were delivered to my house and it was all done. I realized what I had accomplished and that I have grown and that I can do it.
My Dad and I have always produced our own music. The Estrada Brothers musical ideas and decisions are mainly my Dad and I. We arranged everything and decided what's best to use. I was just too young to know the business side of it. Now, as I get older and wiser, I know what it takes to do a record and make sure credit goes to the correct credentials. The Estrada Brothers had a deal with Fantasy Records/Milestone back in 1995. I remember stepping out of the room at one point and left the rest of the band to record. A friend of mine (Kevin Vazquez) was in the control booth and told me everyone didn't know what to do until I got back. So they waited for me... That made me think and make me want to follow up on producing. As far as what it takes... it takes a lot of work. Just like anything, you have to believe and not want payback. I'm just doing Cougar Records CDs just as a hobby, much like it was, when I first started playing drums. I'm just doing it for fun and enjoyment.
[Phil Reser] What do you want the listener to get out of any music you compose, perform, record or produce?
[Cougar Estrada] I hope the listener will first of all really listen. Listen to the lyrics, listen to the music, listen to the sounds, get a sense of difference, and appreciate what I'm presenting.
[Phil Reser] Among your collaborative projects with your musical friends has been ConGa Punks and it's CD, which you produced. Can you describe how you selected the musicians and the general overlay of musical mix that the band represents?
[Cougar Estrada] Conga Punks started, I believe in 1998 or 1999. With friends of mine that wouldn't laugh at me or my ideas. I contacted my friend and great guitar player Dan Zimmerman, who is an amazing jazz fusion, electric rock, versatile etc. to play. Also I recruited an amazing young guitar player named Gabe Lackner, who has incredible rhythm and great tone. My friend Kevin Vazquez who has a strong vocal sound and educated in Latin rhythms along with a clever way to put words together. Ian Peters from The Estrada Brothers band who I have known since I was 14 years old. Just guys I felt comfortable with. Guys that wouldn't laugh like I said, even though they laughed when I first started singing in front of them. So we put together rehearsals, songs and everyone was collaborating. Latin Playboys and Ozomatli influenced me and I thought... I like this music and I want to put something together like it, but something more like I want to do. Conga Punks is your iPod on shuffle. Lots of different ideas put together to make the listener move your head to the beat. I came up with the name Conga Punks cause there is Latin influence and crazy punk experiments, that break rules.
[Phil Reser] What is your commitment and plans around both of your Santa Barbara collective projects, ConGa Punks and Spencer and the Gardener?
[Cougar Estrada] I've been contemplating on doing another Conga Punks CD and have mentioned it on my web site to see if there is any interest. So far, nothing... so, I'm not sure if I will do another Conga Punks CD. Spencer The Gardener is talking about doing another CD. This one is going to be in Spanish. So as soon as Spencer The Gardener gets back from touring Mexico we will probably start on that next year.
[Phil Reser] Do you still find time to play with The Estrada Brothers?
[Cougar Estrada] Yes, right now its the holiday season and Lobos are off tour for a bit. I will be playing at Steamers Cafe in Fullerton CD. and Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, California in November and December.
[Phil Reser] Where would you like to be with your music and recording work in say, ten years?
[Cougar Estrada] In ten years, hopefully, I can still produce and play music because I want to, not because I have to.