CongaDr+ Tony's Conga Adventures: Skin on skin congas - Maestro Jay Bereck

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

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Skin on skin congas - Maestro Jay Bereck

Many more to come...


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


  1. hey tony...iam a music teacher/drummer and would really like to ask you a question privately...not on a this possible? if this is possible let me know how....thanks

  2. I got a set of Bata from Jay back in late '92. They are of cherry with a clear coat and they still sound great. I have to say that Jay was really cool putting up with my pestering him about my order. I hope he is doing well. OH, AWSOME site Tony!

    1. well,it's so warm to me to hear about the drums skin on skin that they accepted to do especially for me in 1980.I was nothing but a little yiddish girl from France.I still remember the sound of when they putted my small congas(FOR ME IT WAS THE MORE STRONG BASS I COULD KEEP!) out of the steamer... they called me for this special day (as a birth).They talled me before to take my drums white because Iwas a girl.very attentive people.even if u are not too good for drumming,their congas are playing by them selves...u just have to follow the magics and strongs sounds they are singing.And u know what? even mister Ray Barreto had been kind of jealous of me in MARCIAC(FRANCE)very nice festival. just because Iwas playing a basic6/8 but... on a skin on skin!chaleureusement lucie ernst

  3. I was good friends with Jay's son David growing up in Brooklyn. As a kid I remember Jay's first shop on Smith Street before Carrol Gardens turned into a wealthy scene. They had a wood stove in their house and they would burn the scraps of ash, oak and cherry from the shop. It always smelled so great. So glad to see he is still making those beautiful instruments. Sorry to say his wife has since passed, as she was one of the warmest and most giving people I have ever met.


  4. Hi there, my name is Omar and first, i'd like to say 'great job' on this blog. I've learned a ton since i first checked it out about a few weeks ago. Anyhow, i've been playing Latin percussion for about 3 years and have recently discovered the wonders of hand made drums. I live near the Bronx and about a month ago i decided to find out where this 'JCR' place was. All I knew was that my bells (which i bought at my local Guitar Center) sounded amazing and were made in the Bronx at a place called JCR.

    Well i found them and let me tell you,,meeting the master Cali Rivera was an experience I will never forget. We spoke for hours. His shop is a veritable Latin music museum! He was warm and colorful, sold me some beautiful mule skins and some hooks for my old pair of bongos. I ran home to soak those skins, and spent the next day reskinning my drums. Wow!

    Two weeks later i convinced Cali to assemble a set of bongos for me from parts he had in his shop. He claims they are the last set he will make for a long time to come, maybe forever. Who knows? What I do know is that this set of bongos screams! They are solid shell white oak and the hardware and woodwork are amazing!

    So it just follows logic that I immediately started doing research on handmade congas, which is how I came about Jay and Matt.

    And now for my this point I've spoken to both Matt and Jay, and both were pleasant, helpful and kind. I just don't know who to place the order with. which leads me to my question; i intend on buying two drums, a tres dos and a tumba, so should i buy one drum from each of these masters??


  5. You cant go wrong with either, but Id get a whole set from the same maker.

    Have fun,


  6. Tony, is Jay Bereck still in business at the address you posted where his warehouse shop is 1678 Atlantic Ave? I was interested in purchasing a set of bongos from him. Can you help me with a phone number or contact cel phone to call him. Thanks Jorge Rosado

  7. Maestro Jay Bereck - Skin on skin drums
    1618 State Highway 41
    Afton, NY 13730
    Phone: (607) 639-2417

  8. As a young man I had the pleasure to worked side by side with Jay on Smith St Bklyn at his humble beginnings. I can say from this unique experience that he is a man of conviction and his love of the instrument truly places him above the rest. He is a true,pure artisan and cooper he has found his own. we need more like Jay.

  9. I bought 4 of Jays Oak SOS drums and 4 of Isla percussion's drums both are fabulous sets. Isla has a rich folkloric tone SOS is a pure Salsa tone.
    I can't decide which is better so I play both equally.

  10. Has anyone done business with SOS lately? Interested in a quinto.

  11. I talked to Jay in February, all was well and they are happily busy last I checked.

  12. Hello Tony, I met Jay in 1974 at his place on Smith and 9th street. He basically hand fitted and hand picked the conga and tumba for me. I put a hundred dollar deposit down($400 for the pair) and waited for the drums to be ready. Then I got very sick and I could not afford to pick them up. I called him a few years ago and told him about what happened and he said well they're $1,500 for the pair now and no you can't have your deposit back. We laughed. He's a good guy and a great craftsman.

  13. Hi, Tony! Yeah, man, I bought a quinto and an Iya fro m Jay, back in the late 70"'s, which I still have. They sound so sweet and mellow now, that it' s really sick! As I have played and endorsed TOCA drums for years, these SOS pieces have been kept as museum pieces.

  14. I really have enjoyed reading all this great history. Ever had anything near you and sort of regret not going in? I use to work in Brooklyn practically minutes away from Skin on Skins when at Atlantic ave. but at the time i was happy with the drums i had back then. Then years later i met my mentor who plays with Mana. his name is Willie Andino. He owns a pair of wich i purchased the Quinto from him. when i became interested in getting a pair for my self and went to see Jay, he was gone!all i could remember was how many times I looked inside and never approached him......como es la vida. I must say this SOS quinto is awsome, but nothing like my Tirados.

  15. My name is Freddy Gonzalez, I live in PR right now. Born and raised in NY. I was blessed to purchase a pair of your skin on skin conga drums when an acquaintance of my passed away. He had mentioned he bought two congas from some jewish guy in Brooklyn. And I quickly remembered someone mentioned you and I did visit you one day.You will not remember me. I thank you very much, for I know I own the best from the only place to buy drums from - Skin on Skin.

  16. I own Jay's first cherry wood conga! Signed!
    Bought it when the shop was on Smith St. 1982? Any advice where to get it re-skinned?


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