July 8, 2020 — by Dave Perlowski
“The Buena Vista Social Club” is an important film. Not only did it win an Oscar for “Best Documentary,” and not only did it revive a worldwide interest for the 50’s music from Cuba, but it preserved the company that manufactures some of the most revered drums in the world from disappearing… Part of Moperc’s history!
Francis Mercier was a 17 year old cajón player when he discovered the soundtrack of the film produced and directed by Ry Cooder and Juan de Marcos González. He was so impressed by the rich Latin rhythms that he convinced his drummer/brother to begin studying Frank Malabe’s and Bob Weiner’s “Afro-Cuban Rhythms for Drum Set” with him. Francis says : “My Dad and my Mom always encouraged me and my brother to learn and play music. I was born listening to flamenco, rock and all kinds of good music. My Dad and my brother were my first teachers.’’ The two teenagers devoured the lessons of that book, but they knew that the ultimate way to sharpen their skills would be only by full immersion. So, with the money they had saved from working their father’s painting business, they bought plane tickets to Cuba.
Francis and his brother hadn’t been to Cuba before; they had no contacts there, but they were determined to increase their rhythmic vocabularies. “We were like two little white chickens in Havana, man” Francis said. “Fortunately, people are very helpful when they think there is business to be made,” and before long they were introduced to Armando, a batalero in the folkloric tradition who had played with Pello el Afrokán.
Francis remembers : “Armando didn’t have the best conga technique, but he introduced us to a style of drumming we never would have learned in Montreal. He took us to some Santeria things, you know, parties, rituals where I saw real batá drumming for the first time. I couldn’t even feel the downbeat sometimes and Armando was screaming at me ‘Play the clave!!! Nooo, nooo, you’re out!!!’ We also got to the weekend rumbas at Callejon de Hamel, and the more I learned, the more I wanted.”
When the two returned to Montreal, Francis immediately bought a pair of inexpensive mass-produced congas and some videos by Jose Luis Quintana Changuito and Giovanni Hidalgo, but it wasn’t long before he learned why cheap drums are so inexpensive and he set out to find instruments that sounded like actual congas. That’s when he discovered the “love-at-first-sight” quality of MOPERCs at a Montreal music store. They weren’t within Francis’ financial reach at the time, but they became his immediate goal.
Not long after his return from Cuba, Francis learned of a concert by the Afro-Cuban All Stars. Finally, the music that flamed his passion was now coming to Montreal and he quickly purchased tickets to the show for his mom and him. Francis recalls : “The day of the show I went super early and started walking around the theater and hanging out in the back, trying to see if I could see some of the guys in the band. I was looking for Miguel ‘’Anga’’ Diaz or some cats like him… After their soundcheck, they just all came out and I followed them down the street. I asked which of them played congas and Rolando Salgado told me he was on bongos that night and Adel Gonzalez was on congas. I told him that I also played and that I had been to Havana to learn and that I would like to go back if I could find a good teacher.”
“After the show I met Rolando backstage and he introduced me to Juan de Marcos and all the players. I told him again that I wanted to return to Havana to learn and he told me something that completely surprised me: that I could live with him in his home and he would give me five lessons per week!”
Francis returned to Havana by himself a few months later. He moved to the Marianao neighborhood and began studying with Rolando, at first, replacing “bad” habits with proper technique, then learning more intricate patterns. He became a regular at Afro-Cuban All Stars rehearsals at Juan de Marcos’ house and EGREM studios, which is where he met Antonio “Pacha” Portuondo. Pacha was Juan de Marco’s timbalero at the time and when he learned that Francis lived in Montreal he remembered a Cuban lady who had studied Choral Direction while both were at the Conservatory in Santiago de Cuba and who also lived in Montreal. Francis looked up Laritza Rivero Aguilar when he returned home and, long story made very short, they were married, forever cementing Francis’ ties to Cuba.
Here’s an old picture of Francis’s wife and Antonio “Pacha” Portuondo in Santiago de Cuba.
Once, during his time with Rolando, Francis mentioned the MOPERC drums that had earlier impressed him in the Montreal music store. Rolando didn’t say much about it at the time, probably thinking: “What do Canadians know about conga drums?” But when Francis returned to Montreal with a highly-developed playing skill, he went back to the shop determined to learn more about those drums and to find a way to own them.
Surprised to learn that the MOPERC shop was just 3 hours from him, Francis called (owner) Michel Ouellet to see whether he might purchase a set directly from him. Not wanting to undercut the stores that carried his product, Michel declined, but Francis pressed on. He told Michel “Yeah, but you know, I just got back from Cuba. I studied with that guy, Rolando from the Afro-Cuban All Stars for a couple months,” and that was all it took for Francis to get an appointment to see Michel, beginning a friendship that continues.
“When I got to the MOPERC shop I immediately began to play” Francis says, “I don’t remember who was working that day, but they all came over to listen, wondering where I learned my chops. I told them that I had been studying with Rolando and I also mentioned to Michel that Rolando was not endorsed by any company and I wondered if he might be interested. Michel told me that he had a bongo in Matanzas and we later made arrangements for Rolando to pick it up.”
Rolando Salgado Palacio must have had the same reaction nearly everyone has when they play a MOPERC instrument for the first time because he took that drum with him to play on his very next tour. Later, on his next trip to Matanzas, Michel brought Rolando a set of congas and he continued to support the group whenever it came to Canada by providing drums that Juan De Marcos would take back to Cuba to tour with around the world.
Over the following years, Francis and Michel became close friends. Of course, Francis also became an important customer, investing heavily into MOPERC products, but above that, the two conversed, they played music and they made conga drums. Because of the strong ties that had developed with MOPERC and the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Francis accepted an invitation to go on a eastern Canadian tour with the band. Francis says: “I had a lot of fun. It was a unique opportunity to see Juan de Marcos and his band every night for 10 days. I was on the bus tour with them, eating good food, sleeping in good hotels and I’ve learned many things watching sound checks, shows, and the way Juan de Marcos leads the band and treats his musicians. I’ll never forget it.’’
Michel had begun a small band called Habana Café that started out playing traditional Cuban music. As the band grew in numbers and its gigs became more frequent, Michel asked whether Francis would be interested in occasionally subbing for him. He did, leading to a full-time two-year seat with the group, and for Francis, it became an opportunity for him to further refine his skills through regular collaboration playing the music he loves.
Francis continued his annual trips to Cuba, learning more and soaking up as much of the culture as he could with each visit. Once, he went with the purpose of creating a series of YouTube videos of the many players he had met. At the time, Michel had little internet exposure, so Francis set out to change that situation. He knew the power of the medium, having spent countless hours watching music videos with his brother. In both Montreal and Havana, he located and videoed, among many others, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Yoruba Andabo, Rumberos de Cuba, Afro-Cuban All Stars, and some of his videos have been watched more than 100,000 times. And with that effort, the MOPERC brand began getting noticed as Francis worked to promote the name through social media, creating MOPERC page on Facebook, with almost 10,000 followers.
Every entrepreneur knows that the “highs” of owning a business are incredibly high, just as the “lows” are remarkably so. Francis and Michel talked with each other regularly and during one of those conversations Michel expressed concern that his business was not doing better. He told Francis “It’s going pretty slow, man, and I don’t know, I don’t know if I’m gonna keep it open. I don’t even know if I want to do this anymore.” But, as it often happens for many who threaten to close their businesses, the orders began coming in, largely because of Francis’ heavy promotion of the MOPERC brand to percussionists worldwide on Facebook.
However, the shine of new growth eventually wore off though, and Michel again expressed his fatigue with the trade stating he was ready to call it quits. And this time he really meant it, that is until word got out among the percussion community that he was leaving. Once again, orders for new instruments began rolling in from in-the-know players wanting one last opportunity to purchase their dream drums. He filled those orders but with the resolve that he would close the shop within a year.
Earlier, Francis had finished his studies in sound production. He learned how to record, mix and edit sound, with a good understanding of the acoustical properties of musical instruments. He had a job as a sound editor in Montreal. Francis says : “At the beginning it was pretty exciting. My first job was to edit half of the DVD ‘LUZIA’ from Cirque du Soleil, a 200 track show. However, I got a bit mad when I realized my name wasn’t listed in the credits of any project I would work on.” Call it divine intervention, or fate, or just dumb luck, but Francis lost that job, and as hard as he tried to find similar work, it just wasn’t going to happen.
Michel still had many orders to work on, so he called Francis to see whether he’d be interested in coming to work with him a few days a week since several of his employees had recently moved. Francis drove to the shop right away and after his first day of work, the two were “relaxing” and began dreaming aloud about the possibility of Francis taking over the business. That was the easy part because Francis had since married Laritza whose buy-in for any new venture was critical.
“Laritza was born in Santiago and spent most of her time in Havana” Francis says. “When she moved to Canada, she chose Montreal for its rich city life. The MOPERC shop was in St-Adrien, three hours away and in the countryside, which held no appeal for Laritza!”
The more Francis worked with Michel, though, the more impassioned he became about continuing to make hand drums under the MOPERC name. Already, the business was growing due to Francis’ marketing efforts; he just needed to come up with a way to make it all work. He certainly couldn’t spend 6 hours a day commuting, yet to move the entire operation to Montreal was financially prohibitive. Michel wanted to sell his house and shop in order to be closer to his girlfriend in Danville, but that prospect, too, was beyond Francis’ reach, plus, there were still Laritza’s considerations, though she was beginning to warm up to the thought of moving.
Then, the idea came to Francis that he would see whether he might rent the house and shop while Michel moved to Danville with his girl. Michel thought that it was a great idea. He moved out and Francis took over the MOPERC business in February 2018.
Francis doubled the previous year’s sales in just his first year with the company and the business continues to grow largely because of a growing international interest in high quality, hand-crafted drums, but moreover, the business has grown because of Francis’ reputation for being an honest, friendly and fair businessman, musician and human being.
The two years since taking over MOPERC have not been easy for Francis, though. He’s moved the operation to a larger shop in Danville. He tragically lost his brother in late 2019, and then a few months later, the world closed down to minimize the health risks of a new virus. But if adversity makes the strong stronger, it would be a safe bet to put money on Francis and MOPERC pulling through better than ever.
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”