Talking to master percussionist Luis Garay, one can almost hear the exotic birds of his native South America and beyond chirping happily in the background -- possibly because his Silver Spring home/studio is a haven for the creatures.
All fired up: Luis Garay (center) brings Afro-Latin music to BlackRock.
"I love the jungle," he admits. "I love its sound, and the sound from the birds makes me feel connected.
"I have exotic birds: lovebirds, African grays, eclectus from the Solomon Islands, cockatiels. I always liked birds."
Not that he's a country boy: Garay was born in Cordoba, Argentina's second largest city.
"My parents were born in the country," he explains. "When I was a kid, my parents took me to my grandparents, and the birds -- parrots -- were a passion there."
Also a passion: music. His parents favored Argentina's tango, but Garay says, "Some people tell me, 'You were born in a different country!'"
That's because he's passionate about percussion, especially as it manifests itself in the Afro-Latin tradition. And on Saturday night at BlackRock Center for the Arts, Garay is planning to unleash the rhythms of the carnival on the Germantown crowd.
"I chose my career as a drummer when I was 14," Garay explains.
That career spans 30 years and includes performances as a percussion soloist and as director of the Luis Garay Percussion World Ensemble plus current academic appointments at Catholic University, St. Albans School, National Cathedral School and Berman Hebrew Academy.
Back then, though, it was about rock and roll.
"My friends played guitar and bass," he remembers. "My friend said 'Luis, you have to play the drums!'"
That garage band is just a memory, but Garay was hooked on performing.
"All the magic of the music, all you can do to inspire people," he says. "It's so much fun."
For Garay, inspiration came in a combination of classical, Brazilian and jazz music. He graduated from the Cordoba State Conservatory of Music and was a professor there, as well as chairman, instructor and director of the percussion ensemble for 12 years.
"Studying classical music was good," he says. "It gave me the musicality.
"Studying Afro-Latin music gave me the creativity."
With that in mind, perhaps, Garay left his position as principal timpanist for the Cordoba Symphony Orchestra in 1992. The draw? A fellowship from philanthropist Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat to study at the Catholic University of America. There was a job offer, and a green card application, more jobs and a CD called "Sacumba."
Garay's a United States citizen now, delighted to be part of the eclectic cultural and musical scene right here in Silver Spring.
"I was attracted from the beginning to Afro-Latin rhythms," he says, "but here, I met the world!"
August isn't the traditional time of year for a Latin-flavored carnival, but percussive salsa sounds like the perfect combination for a sultry summer night.
"I'm really very happy to have the opportunity to play for people in Germantown," says Garay. "You have to feel happy to make other people happy with the music."
His music has taken him farther afield -- to Europe where, most notably, he performed for Pope John Paul II in the Vatican.
"It was very peaceful -- a blessing," he says. "It happens only one time in life, and I'm reminded of it in my heart. It inspires me to do what I am doing."
Which is to bring the joyous Afro-Latin beat to audiences.
"People are looking for inspiration, for fresh stuff, ways to use the imagination and feel good," he notes. "We'll make a carnival, with the drums and dancers and my quartet: Wilbur Wood, Leon Eynatyan and Axel Garay -- my son."
The percussion quartet (they use congas, surdos, bongos, cajons, djembes, whistles, timbales, marimbas, cuicas, bamboo chimes, and cowbells) promises a high-energy show, but Garay is coy about whether or not the audience will be compelled to dance.
"I believe in spontaneity," he says. "We're going to play exciting music with a lot of creativity."
Anything else would be for the birds.
Luis Garay performs with Afro Cuban Drummers and Dancers at 7 p.m. Saturday in the BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown. Admission is free. Call 301-528-2260.