Wisconsin's Uli Percussion Takes On The Art — And Science — Of Making Cowbells
The cowbell is a key instrument in salsa music. Musicians use it to keep time, by providing a steady rhythmic accent.
There are only a few people in the country who handcraft the instrument, after the famous Cali Rivera of the Bronx passed away in 2017.
One of those makers lives in southeast Wisconsin. Ulisis Santiago is using a drumstick to play a few of the brightly colored cowbells in his music studio/showroom. It’s inside his home in Caledonia, 20 minutes south of Milwaukee.
About 30 bells line the shelves along one wall — they’re different sizes and shapes to make different sounds. The bells are painted in bold reds, purples and blues, some are black or silver. Each resonates differently depending on how they’re held or struck.
Santiago explains how the sound that comes from each bell changes depending on where you hit it. “So, you gotta know how to combine all that," he says. "And different musicians have the unique style, that’s what the beautiful thing is about this instrument.”
Santiago sells his bells under the name Uli Percussion. They’ve been picked up nationally and internationally by big names like Puerto Rico’s El Gran Combo, percussionists for Mark Anthony.
“It’s a lot of, like I said, Don Perignon, [Pedro Morales Cortijo], Pedro 'Pocholo' Segundo [& Sus Boricua Legends], and Willie Rosario, it’s so many artists that are accepting my instruments and I’ve been very blessed with that," he says.
Santiago says after a lull due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his cowbells are now flying off the shelves. “It’s like every other day I’m shipping bells out,” he says.
Santiago has spent years as a steelworker. His day job is assembling and maintaining railroad equipment, and he’s a percussionist in his spare time. But about four years ago, he felt called to action after Cali Rivera, master cowbell artisan of the Bronx, New York passed away.
“That’s actually how this came because I wanted his bells so bad, and I knew I couldn’t get his bells. So well I had that feeling, I was, ‘Well, hold on, I work with steel, I’m a musician, let me attempt to try to make it,’ and it happened,” Santiago explains proudly.
Santiago set up shop in his garage, hung a large Puerto Rican flag on the wall and added signs that fit his sense of humor — like “man cave rules.” He built from scratch contraptions made out of wooden blocks, steel and old railroad bumpers to help handcraft cowbells. “Yeah, so I had to come up with all these fixtures to help make my life easier!” he laughs.
Santiago has mastered the rhythm of making a cowbell. He’s self-taught, learning by trial and error.
Here’s his method: He cleans an hourglass shaped piece of steel; bends it in half; pounds it multiple times until it forms the shape of a bell; welds the bent formation together; waits for it to cool down; grinds the metal so there’s no sharp edges; cleans it again; powder coats it with a special gun, which creates a colorful, shiny finish; and then he bakes it in a big oven in his garage.
“I put it like at 420 degrees or 400 degrees and it will be here for 30 minutes and the powder melts to the steel,” Santiago explains.
And, out comes a Uli Percussion cowbell.
On a recent afternoon, Santiago jammed with his two friends Jose Santaella and Tony Ayala. They’re part of Milwaukee’s Latin music scene. They used several different Uli Percussion bells, as well as timbales, bongos and congas, playing rhythms, like the cha cha and Mozambique.
Playing the rhythms is an art and a science, much like creating the bells themselves. So, Santiago says he’s still pushing himself to perfect his craft.
“You know, we don't have no prints or nothing, and it’s all by head, you know, until we get the right bent, the right shape, and then for the right sound,” he assesses.
Meanwhile, Uli Percussion cowbells are signposts for staying on beat — handcrafted for well-oiled salsa bands far and wide.