MOVING TO A DIFFERENT BEAT CONGA-MAKER DRUMS UP BIZ IN B'KLYN By ROBERTO SANTIAGO DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER Tuesday, August 31th 1999, 2:11AM
Don't tell anybody, but many practitioners of Santeria, the West African religion, purchase their batas (Nigerian two-headed drums) from a Jewish artisan in Crown Heights.
"It's almost sacrilegious to reveal that, but, yes, I make the ceremonial drums," said Jay Bereck, who has been handmaking congas from scratch for some of the world's greatest Latin jazz percussionists for most of his 61 years. "And I didn't have to leave Brooklyn to do it."
Born in Williamsburg and raised in Borough Park, Bereck never imagined that his hobby would become a full-time career. Back in the '50s, he imagined he would spend the rest of his life toiling as a sheet-metal worker, manufacturing congas in his spare time, and playing his creations in his East Village mambo band.
"The only Hispanic thing about me is my wife," said Bereck, who recently celebrated 38 years of marriage to Maria Migenes, a nurse of Puerto Rican descent. "It was unusual to see a Jewish guy into Afro-Cuban rhythms, but that was the only kind of music that meant anything to me."
Bereck got into making congas because he didn't like the quality of the congas that were out there. And he learned how to make them by the book literally.
"I studied history books, examined their construction, experimented, took them apart, fixed them," he said. "Then in the '70s, while there was a lapse in the construction trade, I started to take on lots of orders to make congas, bongos, batas and before I knew it, I was doing it full-time."
Short, stocky and covered head to toe with sawdust, the chain-smoking Bereck is reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway with his white beard and love of Cuban culture.
"I'm a meticulous slob," said Bereck, pointing out his file system: a steel door with the names and phone numbers of his clients scrawled in black marker. Bereck's list ranges from Afro-Cuban legend Mongo Santamaria to lesser-known artists from Switzerland, Nigeria, Japan, Greece and Sweden.
Bereck's door is one of the many things that adds to the atmosphere of his funky workshop, Skin on Skin, which takes up the entire top floor of a warehouse at 1678 Atlantic Ave.
Everywhere you step and look are planks of ash and folds of rawhide ready to be cut, stretched, hammered, screwed, fitted, sanded and polished into congas, batas, and bongos.
"People think I'm making a fortune here. Ha! Check this out," Bereck said, jerking his thumb at a tattered price list taped to the wall: congas range from $320 to $385; batas from $295 to $335.
Sunset Park's Willie Martinez, a percussionist for the Ray Santos Orchestra, has purchased congas from Bereck for the last 20 years.
Martinez calls Bereck the Stradivarius of the conga.
"Jay's congas produce voices that you cannot get from mass-produced congas," said Martinez. "With Jay's congas, when you strike the center skin, it produces a rich bottom sound a deep bass moan that sounds just like the handmade congas made in Cuba."
Bereck said that he and his assistant, Amilcar, make at least three congas per week.
"I want to raise my prices, but conga players remember their poverty for too long," said Bereck, who said that if it wasn't for his wife's income, he would have had to close his workshop 25 years ago.
"Congeros are not violinists. They don't pay thousands of dollars for their instruments nor would they if they could," Bereck said with a laugh.
Maestro Jay Bereck - Skin on skin drums 1618 State Highway 41 Afton, NY 13730 Phone: (607) 639-2417