Do The Conga
...of which the most fashionable right now must surely be the conga. Here we present facts, not fashion.
Andy Duncan lets some air into the ancient percussionist's mystery of old-logs-with-skins-over-them.
FIRST A few questions. Do you find the sound of household utensils fascinating? Are you compelled to tap rhythmically along with music on any available surface, be it trouser, tabletop or small child's head?
If you can answer "yes" to these questions you should seek immediate psychiatric help. Also you should consider a career as a percussionist and admission to a brotherhood of deviants who stretch back through history and evolution to Africa and the Dawn Of Man (before even Cliff started recording).
Assuming that you have already gathered implements laughably known as "non-conventional instruments" around you, you may yet feel the need to investigate the stuff which, over the years, has slipped through the net of acceptability to become labelled percussion. You know. The sort of gear that you can see spread liberally across the stage set of any self respecting band on tour. It's expensive, occupies the hands of backing singers/horn players, and makes all and sundry feel like Real Musicians.
But don't let all that gleaming chrome, polished wood and matt black paint fool you. The designer chic and elevated status of this gear is entirely fake and shouldn't intimidate or frighten anyone with a yen to whack it.
THE CONGA drum, cornerstone of the modem percussionist's set up, remains a modest and functional item in the African village from which it originates, where a couple of weeks of serious whittling turns your average lump of tree trunk into your average drum, ready to dignify ceremonial events, pass on the occasional message (the batteries on my personal stereo are out) or set toes tapping at the local hop.
Although the slave trader has never previously been thanked for his contribution to musical culture, it was undoubtedly due to his efforts that knowledge of the conga drum travelled to the Hispanic Caribbean islands (like Cuba and Puerto Rico). Here, poor old Kunta Kinte and his mates stopped off for a quick cough and a drag en route to North America and an appointment with several acres of cotton. The conga accompanied European instruments like the violin, accordion and tres (a South American guitar with five pairs of strings) and on each island a different musical style slowly evolved. Although you might associate names like the mambo, cha-cha-cha and rhumba with Come Dancing and a strange woman prancing around with half a pound of fruit on her head, this is where they were first used.
Much later, immigrants to the USA from these islands took their music with them and in the Barrio districts of New York they interacted with American styles to produce the hybrid now known as salsa. Here we can enjoy the most rhythmically sophisticated and exciting conga players currently laying hands on skin.
"DON'T LET ALL THAT GLEAMING CHROME, POLISHED WOOD AND MATT BLACK PAINT FOOL YOU."
These days the drums are made in four sizes. Largest is the tumbadora (the head of which is 12½ in across). Along with the conga itself (11¾in) it makes up the basic pair common to most players. Super hot shots/posers/rich kids can add a quinto (11 in) and even a super quinto (9 in) but the likes of you and I need only to listen to virtuosos such as Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaria to hear things played on two drums that defy belief.
Traditional shells are made from strips of wood (about 28 in long) which are shaped and bound in much the same way as the old fashioned beer barrel, but since the early 70s an alternative material has been employed. Fibreglass drums are both tougher and louder than wooden ones and can be produced more cheaply. Consequently, as a first-time buyer, you may find yourself looking at a pair of Allan Sharpe's Natal congas, which, being made in this country, dominate the secondhand market and offer good value for money.
Unlike kit drums, the conga skin is still made of cow or mule hide and much of the drum's tone is created by it. Make sure that any drum you are thinking of buying has a smooth, thick, flat head with no cuts or abrasions and always slacken them right down after use, or they will stretch and eventually split. This trouble you can do without.
This brings us to technique. Despite the fact that such celebrity hands as those of Howard Jones, Ian Gillan and Paul Simon have been seen to pass cosmetically over the conga, these drums are immensely subtle and expressive instruments with a broad range of sounds at your disposal and trying to create them is no laughing matter. Salsa is ideally suited for hearing, understanding and learning them. Its rhythm section is made up of congas, bongos and timbales. There's no drum kit. So the variety of essential patterns are easy to pick out. They are repetitive, which makes them good to play along with. They integrate carefully with the other instruments, an object lesson in discipline (the right beat at the right moment) and the sudden accents or gear changes demand that one's ear is always being focused on what the other musicians are doing (imperative if you want to last more than five minutes with anyone else). The conga solos burst with enough excitement and mind-bending imagination to inspire you and make you wish that you'd stuck with the spoons.
So, assuming that pro tuition is unavailable or too expensive, look out for records by artistes like Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Johnny Pacheco, Ruben Blades, Machito, Willie Colon, Larry Harlow, Orquestra Aragon, Celia Cruz, Ismael Quintana, Hector Lavoe, The Fania All Stars, and Grupo Folklorico (a brill Cuban band). The wider percussive world offers the delights of Paulinho Da Costa, Ralph Macdonald, Milton Nascimento, Irakere, Nana Vasconcelos and Gilberto Gil. Scanning inner sleeves for individual players like Airto Moreira, Carlos "Patato" Valdez, Bill Summers, Victor Pantoja, Alex Acuna, Francisco Aquabella, Dom Um Romao, Eladio Perez, and Bobby Thomas Jr will also pay off.
If you think that this is Man's Work, hold up. Sheila E (for Escovedo) is a tremendously accomplished all round percussionist and along with Bobbye Hall and Sue Hajopoulos proves that you don't need arms like Arnold Schwarzisface to conga the night away.
It's all down to skill. Listening to all this rhythm created just for some geezer to yodel away in Spanish might not seem of much use to someone who wants to add a bit of extra zip to the New Romantic revival, but mastering half of them will develop enough ability in the player to be able to find new patterns good enough to make the rest of us reach for the kilts and blankets.
Let's not get carried away, though. There's nothing to stop you from tuning and hitting a conga any way you want to. If the plastic squeaky hammer sounds just the ticket, then so be it. If the case sounds better for a particular piece so much the better. Although, like all percussion instruments, the conga has its own character and technique, there's nothing to stop you from making good use of it just because some sweating local in a vest has spent his entire life learning how to all but turn the thing inside out. Enjoy yourself and the rest will come in due course.
Feature by Andy Duncan
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