CongaDr+ Tony's Conga Adventures: August 2008

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Welcome back, Valje congas, valje bongo GO RALPH!

Happy to report and pass on a cool pic of the new Valje Drums logo on this set of Valje bongo in black walnut, made by Ralph Flores, son of master congasmith Tom Flores.

Thanks Chris, for the picture, i bet they rip.

Nice to see Valje back in business!

Go Ralph!!! Way to go man...

The two sets of bongo i have played from Ralph, or Resolution drums, have been very well made, and the bloodwood set i played absolutely screamed.

You can tell the attention to detail was something Tom was sure to teach his child.

I will be posting pics of the new Valje congas soon, I have yet to see, or play them.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

John Santos Sextet Tonight at Yoshi's - $16

Our fearless leader, John Santos, will hit the stage at Yoshi's in Oakland tonight. Always a great time, and John, Saul, David and Marco... now thats a rhythm section!

  • Aug 26, 2008
  • One Show: $16

  • John Calloway - flute
    Melecio Magdaluyo - saxes
    Saul Sierra - bass
    Marco Diaz - piano
    David Flores - drumset
    John Santos - percussion


Maraca and the new collective 8/27,28 - 2 for 1

Another great show coming up at Yoshi's in Oakland....

And another two for one deal for 10pm shows: code: MARACA

One should always catch the 8pm shows at Yoshi's, if possible, as they usually let you back in for the 10pm show at no charge.

some info on Maraca, one seriously ripping flutist....

The Cuban flutist, composer and director of the group Orlando Valle Maraca is definitely a spectacle to see live, as he directs his highly talented 12-member group. Maraca, musician and director, was named a "visionary" by 'Chicago Tribune en Espanol' 2003, and is considered one of the most popular names in Latin and Afro-Cuban Music, from salsa to Latin jazz. His music is a cocktail of fusion and energy that stems from the most jazziest improvisations to the most danceable elements of Caribbean and popular Cuban music.

Bobi Cespedes with Sandy Perez Aug 29-31 - 2 for 1 deal

Check out this show at Yoshi's in Oakland, one of the best clubs around.


Bobi Cespedes 2 for one deal for Sundays, enter code: BOBI




2-for-1 10pm shows
password: BOBI


Gladys "Bobi" Cespedes is an acclaimed folkloric singer, dancer and percussionist; she is a recording artist, theatrical director, storyteller, accomplished historian, lecturer, and cultural arts teacher. She sings in three languages: English, Spanish, and Lucumi, the mother tongue of the descendants of the Yorubas of West Africa in Cuba. She makes and plays a variety of authentic folkloric percussion instruments, including the Chekere, a beautiful beaded calabash gourd. As a storyteller, she weaves the tales of the Orisas - deities of the Yoruba pantheon - in fluid word and gesture and illustrates the poetic, reverent vision of God and nature that is her ancestral heritage. As a dancer, she gives color, form and exuberant life to the intricate, polyrhythmic music of the Caribbean. As a priestess and IyanIfa in the Yoruba-Lucumi spiritual tradition, she carries unbroken the cord of spiritual tradition and inspiration which joins the past with the present. For over thirty years, Bobi has been directly involved in the preservation and teaching of Afro-Cuban culture and traditions.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sandy Perez Y Su Lade 8/31 12:30 in Oakland

Sandy and his crew will be performing at the Art and Soul festival this weekend in Oakland.

Sandy will be performing at the Latin stage, 12th Street & Jefferson, at 12:30 on Sunday the 31st.

Hope to see you all there!


Saturday, August 23, 2008

One foot in the past, one in the future

We are so fortunate, in this time, to have access to both the ancient and the modern.

Private instruction is ideal, and some would say, its essential. But one can get far with the material open to the public domain, and then continuing their studies with a master of the tradition, here, or in Cuba.

There are several transcriptions available, and a few DVD's, private and public, various sources on the net, etc. The brothers and sisters of the tradition have laid out a nice collection sources, d-bases, boards, and internet brotherhoods.

To be able to work through this material, and eventually sort out what is most true to the form(s), will be a large task. But in the end, I will need all the help i can get.

As far as building chops, Im playing to the DVD's, trying to build up endurance while learning the calls. Looks like Yaya and I will be getting together with Bob, Tito and other cats to work out the parts bi-monthly or so. I plan on eventually hitting Francisco Barroso's dance classes - they are every tuesday and thursday in SF, about an hour from where i live. Its a great place to play, in a performance like setting.. so cool that Tito Garcia always has a seat for me there. Barroso works you good, for a good hour and a half, closing with the fastest rhythms.

His style of teaching is great for the dancers, as it increases in difficulty, and you can drop out whenever it gets too difficult. But the drummers have a long haul with a big push as the class ends. I have to work into it. Last time i came home with some fat blisters - some of the bata are skinned in a way, that you have to learn each drums sweet spot, to comfortably make a sweet sound without tearing your hands up. For me, i know there is something wrong when blood starts flying around.

At my age, 40 and counting, I have to be smart about this. My goal is to end up playing these prayers for a long time to come.


Friday, August 22, 2008

On the path - a journy of learning the Oru Seco

The ancestors have called for me, and they have work for me to do.

A couple of years back, i was guided to develop a better understanding of the tradition as a whole. So, I sold my Bata and worked to become more informed and familiar; to discover my role in supporting the tradition.

I worked with Sandy and others to become a more rounded musician, and worked on becoming familiar with the many folkloric traditions of Cuba, and the culture as a whole.

I also had to reconcile some of my spiritual beliefs, and gain an understanding of how my change in awareness has reshaped what i embody.

All roads have now led me to a comfortable and amazing place.

It reminds me of some of the experiences i have had in the woods. I love to hike, and i'm an avid naturalist. Ive been a natural history guide for years, and am at home in the mountains of California.

Several winters ago now, i was snow shoeing in the sierras in the middle of a storm. I found myself on a blind ridge, with almost whiteout conditions. So i hunkered down under some large Red Firs to wait out the flurry. Time slowly passed as i sat in the snow and listened to the wind. The storm was fierce, blowing horizontal sheets of ice laden snow through the trees.

Out of the wailing storm, a Coyote, one of my guiding spirits, started to howl.

She was to the west of me, up the ridge, hidden by the storm.

... then a second, to the east... a third to the north... followed by a fourth response just behind me. They were calling to each other to unite. I was among them, and they surrounded me with their calls.

They continued to call to eachother as they converged in a long, howling chorus of togetherness. Vibrant life proudly defying the deadly storm.

They sang much longer than i've ever heard before, a good long extended set of yipping and yapping, at times howling like wolves... and then they moved on.

I was drawn to find out what they had found, as it is often a kill, so i slowly shoed in the direction of the sound to find their tracks.

I came upon the signature path... The thin paws of the graceful animal had laid pin hole tracks in a perfectly straight line through the snow. I followed it, covering it with my shoes.

It lead up to a singular treeless knoll, overlooking the invisible Sierra's.

When i made it to the top, it was all packed down, where they had gathered to howl - no kill in sight.

There were four tracks up to the top, that all came from different directions, and after their homage, they all four headed east together.

I realized that i recognized this section of the woods. I had been there before, as a child. There i sat, and became inspired, once again.

I couldn't have designed a more perfect situation. Obatala has been kind, and i find myself among greatness.

Carlos Aldama is one of a handful of people who were guided to the sacred knowledge of playing Yoruban Bata by the great ancestor Pablo Roche Cunal: the grand master Akilakua : the singular person to bring this important facet of the tradition to Cuba from Africa.

Carlos is my guide in this journey. I will do my best to live up to my obligation.

I feel its the right time, and the right way to pay respect to the ancestors. The Orishas have opened the door for me, and given me the strength to endure whatever i must, to be a keeper of the flame.

Regino Jimenez told me once, the tradition is too important not to be passed to those who will nurture, respect and pass it on to the future of humanity. Additionally, I hope to honor his life, in my service.

I plan on documenting my experience in this quest. Its strange to think that someone in the far future, long after we are dead, might find these writings, and become inspired to continue the tradition. Who knows how long humans can keep the practice alive, in this form.


Monday, August 18, 2008

La Pena Rumba - The full moon was out in force

Man, what a wild time at La Pena.

This session included Carlos Aldama, Sandy Perez, Chris 'Flaco' Walker, Yaya, Buddha, Pili, Enrique, with the entire crew of regular "keystone kongeros" in tow.

The full moon was potent.

Most of the brothers seemed to be on edge, with some of the energy making it across the divide to create a great rumba. Other times it became bogged down and confused. Sometimes it reminds me of a scrum of ego's.

Its as very complex social situation: an open Rumba. There is often tension regarding the social 'order', and associated politics.

Within every group of people collectively creating something spontaneously, there must be a set of guidelines to keep things from becoming chaotic, thus creating nothing. Add the personal investment one has for the music their own body creates... multiply that times 15...

... and you have a complex social situation, to say the least. Its not surprising there is conflict, from time to time.

For some cats, a lack of understanding of how things work in a rumba, even if they think they are familiar with it, is a source dissatisfaction for them. Its hard to know what you don't.

There is a social order, well in place.

For example, if someone asks you to stand up and let them play, you do. Simply, in most every circumstance, no matter who you are. All the heavy players will let you have a drum right away, if you ask. seemingly, only the rookies or the less talented, say no, and keep on playing.

There are exceptions to the unofficial 'give it up' rule. For example, if a younger rumbero "taps out" an older rumbero, regardless of skill level, he has the option to say no, without a problem. But one cant repeatedly refuse to give up the drum, without bothering people slightly to moderately.

Also, one has to have timing when asking for a drum.. when a players starts to tire, when the rumba hits a lul, at the end of a song, when other drummers are rotating... for example.

Examples of the wrong time would be: when a player has just sat down, when they are all happy and on a roll, when the other players are clearly above your skill level and you may mess with their experience (one person can pull 12 cats down quickly), when everything is working well musically ( Coro is working well, dancing going on, etc), right when the Coro is coming over (unless the players is tired and wants to give it up). If you're not sure when the Coro comes over, you should be listening.

There are plenty of opportunities to play, for those who can hang. there is really no reason not to follow these simple social norms. If one does not have the skill, they need to 'wood shed': go to work and improve their skill and knowledge before playing in an open rumba - out of respect to the tradition, our ancestors, and the Gods. Its selfish to jump in on a rumba and mess up the experience of almost everyone there, player and listeners alike.

After playing the congas for over 15 years, 5 years professionally, i sat on my hands for TWO YEARS straight at La Pena. Listening and watching. Studying, learning, woodshedding! till i had something to contribute. Now i feel open to play whenever i want, with whomever i want, because i have payed my dues and given my due respect.. But in reality, its because my playing has now become good enough to contribute to the rumba every time i play.

I follow the 'guidelines' strictly, every time, as a good rumbero should. Its respectful and polite.

Not to say everyone has to do it like i did, or do, but the guidelines are in place for a reason, no one put them there to bother the people, its just how it works - but most will assuredly bump their heads against the wall till they figure it out.

These are just social mores, and they seem to work rather well, when followed, to create a cohesive rumba. Thats the idea, right?

If one is not hanging with the part, one should respect the ear of the more experienced player, give the drum up, and happily listen to what they need to do next time. Its not personal, obviously. Its not easy, its rumba.

People act like you invented the social 'rules' of a rumba, when you ask for their drum.. One has to be patient, like with a kid... they just don't know any better.

ok, off my soap box (yea right;)

All in all, it was a ripping session. It was so nice to see Carlos Aldama there!

Unbelievably, he came bearing gifts for me. treasured, sacred gifts.. What have i done to deserve such kindness from such a Grand Master.. i was taken aback, and had to go catch my breath... He is a truly amazing person.

It was such a joy to see him singing playing and dancing like a young man! Bless him... yes, yes.

I got to play cata for Carlos, Sandy, Flaco, Enrique, Yaya, with Buddha dancing... man... that was heavy. What a great rumba, once again.

So, after some drama, and another pint, we headed to Ernie's studio for a descarga, in it's truest sense. Sandy on Traps, Toby, Trevino and I on the tumbas, Pili on Cajon, other cats on bass and piano, Mikael and Orlando singing its was too much fun... but there were not enough social mores around (eyes rolling), so i headed home early (ie, wasnt the last to leave).

As i left, Sandy and I talked about producing more shows this next year. Should be fun! We'll see. he has a show coming up on the 31st... details to come soon...


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Quartersawn VS Plainsawn Oak and its use in conga making


'If you are buying your lumber kiln dried, then you will have less to worry about. But if you are buying green or air dried, then your main concern should be on stability. The quarter sawn boards will generally have less movement (shrinkage) when drying. The way the cells are aligned will cause the quarter sawn board to shrink a little bit in width and very little in thickness. Quarter sawn boards are also much less prone to warping.

Plain sawn boards have grain in multiple directions, this will cause un-even drying and in turn cause the board to warp (cup, twist, and bow). The shrinkage rate is also much more pronounced in plain sawn boards. Due to the grain's orientation in the board, the board will shrink considerably in thickness as well as width.'

Yes, this article is about problems of warping during the drying, or curing process, but the same principals apply to the wood once its dry. Its not just warping, but how it expands and contracts, from day to night, winter to summer.. those twilight gigs near the ocean from dry to wet, or times you play in the sun... As well as how it reacts to being dropped, banged or knocked, for you bar gigging cats (i said that like i wouldn't take the gig ;)

You never know what happens... i feel a bad story coming on...

Once upon a time, I played a gig with a few other acts. We were third in the line up, with the headliner after us. We had to get our gear off the stage quickly, and the only place to put the drums was at the top of some stairs (3 of them) in front of a sliding glass door with a curtain drawn behind it. It looked like an unused room, with the light off.

So.. long a bit shorter, im watching the last band from across the way, and to my left, i see the curtain swing open quickly. I knew i was in trouble, as the drums were kind of in the dark. ... It was like slow motion... me, moving like quick sand through people to make it to my drums.. as the glass door slid smoothly open.

..a smiling dancing drunk girl squirts out of the room and simply bowling pins my drums.. all three of them (LP classics, two ply), with two tumbling down the stairs in front of a gasping audience...

... i try to put it out of my mind.. but it happens. Seriously... it was a bit traumatic. I guess my life must be easy, if i let that bug me, but to see those tubs bouncing down the stairs! ... it pains me to think about it.

Henceforth, i appreciate the durability of a conga a bit more than in the past.

These LP Classics from the mid 80's were very marked up, but solid as a rock. They are some of the best gigging drums, for your average working musician. You can easily get them for 250 each or so, on the used market.

Also, stability is a big issue in climates that go from hot to cold, humid to dry over and over. Even the Matt Smith plainsawn oak conga had cracking issues. That's why he does not like to make them that way - its was a special order against his advise.

This is one of the reasons an older Valje is so long lasting, given the relatively thin shell. These drums had very few cracks for how much they were used, and how old they are (30-40 years often, without significant cracking issues)

There was one issue, with his signature cross cuts on the inside of the belly..but man that is very thin there (a quarter inch, often) - you do see 'blow outs', or a horizontal crack on a stave from time to time at the belly. But the sound of that shape! man he pushed the wood to the edge of its structural will, to get that shape. Toms later work was not as fat bellied, for this reason, i believe.

But back to the issue...

The ideal stave is quartersawn and close continuous grain from head to toe, meaning you can follow the same age line from the top to the bottom of the stave. Matt believes, and i agree, that this continuous grain increases the sonic resonance of the shell, giving more projection, without as much ring.

There is an interesting thing to add... the warping of the wood is lessened and is more stable in quarter sawn oak, but the resonance is better, meaning the wood is more stable, and more flexible in its sonic characteristics, at the same time, if you follow me. These 'micro' movements of vibration that produce sound is not the kind of movement that would cause a well made conga to crack, usually. Wood that is not cured correctly, stress from the hardware, or warping of plainsawn staves, and dropping your conga off of a tall building will cause cracks. The Plainsawn Oak is more rigid, if not more stable, thus the ringing issues.

Virtually every crack i have seen, or fixed on a Valje has been on a stave that is not quartersawn, as some of his later LA models, or they were not continuous grain, as in this picture.

Ive seen some very very old, and very very used valjes used in dance class for over 20 years, among other duties. When i witnessed her, she was being beat with a fat stick, on the uncracked, tight continuous grained shell.. Man that Tom Flores was quite a craftsman. The more i know, the more i respect his work.


JCR Congas project and review - new cow skins, less ring


This was a fun project for Norman a local player and Rumba fan. He saw a post on Craigslist when i was selling some extra gear. He emailed me about helping him reduce the ringing on some seriously hard JCR Congas. We found that we know each other from the rumba scene, and he would bring Isla's first conga made (2004) for me to restore as well.

The had JCR mule skins on them, young and in good shape, but not the right skins to make these congas sound right. Yes, its subjective, but you tell me: see video.

In fact, Norm was saying he didnt take them out of the back room, when cats would come over to play. These fine tubs, with great potential, remained virtually unplayed since purchased a few years back due to the heavy ringing.

It was so nice to see them come in, as i knew my skins would do the trick - cutting the ring, and fattening up the tone.

Norm is such good people, I knew this was going to be a fun project.

Firstly, it was a joy to take off the virtually new JCR mule skins, as people on the east coast brag about them, and I dont care for them - for most uses other than a thick piece on an oak rumba quinto, that is.

The mule skins will be nice, recycled for a set of bata, but to my ear, they were not right on this set of solid Oak congas. The ring was unbelievable.

I have to wonder.. with sets of bongo that have such legendary sound, why would JCR let these out of the shop ringing like this? Perhaps its just set up so a rookie can play them? not enough mule skin of quality? who knows. They sounded awful, but are very nice drums, built like tanks.

Built like a tank, sound like a tank? Sometimes... but i really like the sound of these tubs with thick cow on them. The hardware is immaculate, with some of the best banding ive ever seen on a conga. They have an alma, plates on the inside to disperse the load, and a rubber bottom, really nice beefy crown, lugs and sideplates. Matt Smith and JCR make the best hand made hardware ... JCR's metal bands rock like a metal band! They are as tight as i have seen on a conga.

The shells are thick and the shell is very well made. These drums are the heaviest on the market. I bet they are 50 lbs each! your average conga is 30 lbs.

Im not sure if the wood is cured correctly, as the small crack i fixed did show up early in the drums life... but this may have to do with the way the oak was cut ie plainsawn, as opposed to quartersawn like Valje congas, for example.. Perhaps they use the plainsawn to get the nice grain look, as the quartersawn is not as pretty looking to most people. (

I found out that Caly makes the shells and the hardware, and has an apprentice assemble and finish the drum.

Who ever is finishing the drums is not very experienced with wood, as there is much cross sanding... ....with the grain man... with!

All in all, they are fine drums, even at the $800 range or so.

They sounded a lot better, with the new Cow skin.

I did repair a small crack that had developed in the middle of a stave, down 6 inches from the top. It may also be due to the owner having to tune these JCR's high, just to get into their range, if you follow me.

I took a before and after video, so we can all see what im talking about regarding the ring. That is, if the sound quality works.. we'll see. Let me know if you can hear it ok. If it works, Ill do it for every restoration project from here out.

So, Norm showed up in the middle of the 'after' video taping, and was grinning ear to ear - loved the skins, and the sound of his new drums. He actually can play them now, with joy and pleasure. we ended up talking about the scene for hours. One cool cat.

After pic:

Another satisfied player, how fun it that. It's so rewarding to me.


Some notes on the video... sorry about how dark it is, will get that sorted out next time... I tuned them at the low and the high end of their range, so you can get good listen.. These tubs had a very small range, and needed to be tuned higher than i would like, for 11.75 and 12.5 drums.

I also recorded a new skin put on the Isla conga i restored for Norm as well as the El Chino 11". (they sound more similar live, not so much on the video, as you can hear)

I love the sound of Isla drums, this is the first one ever made by Mario, or so i understand. I had to mount it a bit low, as the lugs were a bit short. As i was saying, this was their first conga ever, made in July of 2004, so it was a work in progress. Isla makes great sounding drums, without a doubt.

The before and after video is funny to me, as it's obviously before and after coffee! I think i go from a bass to a tenor, as the day progresses. ;)

In response to questions..

Yea, the mule's were thin, thicker mule would sound much nicer. But i find it hard to get just the right thickness with Mule, as it can be way too thick, at times. In my experience, it takes a skilled eye, and the experience with the drum being skinned, to always get it right. Also, the hardware was not set up for beefy skins, it was a struggle to get these medium thick skins on, but im sure thats just a matter of a special order.

Like i was saying in the post, the skins will work nicely for the Machos of a set of Bata. They would also be nice on a set of bongo. Very nice that the drums were big enough, we can recycle the mule.

Player, If you watch the video again, you will see that, in the before section, i tuned them up to the top of its range.. the tape jumps to the higher tuning quickly, half way through the 'before' part.

The drums were tuned individually at the bottom, and then at the top of their individual range, not to be tuned with each other. It was meant to express the voice of each individual drum, and to be listened to one at a time. I should have played them one at a time, i hear you. As far as them being tuned high enough.. they are extremely high tuning drums, for the sizes, and you have to crank them up like a quinto to get into the sweet spot They had a limited range - probably why it was hard to see the change in tuning on the video.

They are a large conga and a tumba, keep in mind. Thats not such a bad thing, you can play this set like a quinto and a conga, if you want - lots of room on that 11.75" quinto! It does make the ringing more of an issue, however.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Zooz Dance company Performance - these dancers are all that!

My friend and fantastic Middle eastern dancer Jessica Swanson and her Zooz Dance Company will be performing with a large list of dance troups over two days, August 20 and 21st in down town SF. should be a really fun series of performances.

Orlando "Puntilla" Rios may he RIP

I was so sad to hear that Orlando "Puntilla" Rios has died - A profound loss for the tradition.

He was truly one of the most important folklorists of our time, and i bet he will be more famous in the future than he was during his life. What a profound impact, this very gentile man with heavy hands had on players and traditionalists around the world. He was one of those special people whom, we, as a human race, were so very fortunate to live among.

The news from mentor and guiding bother in the tradition, Tito Garcia:

Orlando "Puntilla" Ros passed away this morning while hospitalized in New
York, about 1 a.m. EST due to complications following a triple-bypass heart
surgery done a few days ago. My condolences to his family and all his Anya

Tito and I were trying to get his Maestro Rios and cats out here this summer... he couldnt make it, and now i know why.

...more info from Felix Sanabria... from 'Ralph' on the conga board at

'Master traditional vocalist and Afro Cuban drummer Orlando "Puntilla" Rios has joined the ancestors on August 12th, 2008. Passing away early this morning, due to complications from heart surgery, he was a prolific musician, drummer and close friend of the Caribbean Cultural Center, African Diaspora Institute.

Click here to buy this cd

He arrived from Cuba in 1981 with the Mariel boatlift. He formed an Afro-Cuban folkloric group called Nueva Generacion (New Generation) bringing the evolution of Afro Cuban rhythms to the New York Afro Latino community that for too long had been inaccessible. An initiate in the varied Afro Cuban belief systems of Cuba, elders had trained him and passed on their knowledge of el "fundamento" (the secrets of sacred drum) so that he possessed extensive knowledge on the sacred intelligence and understanding of the rituals and sacred musical uniqueness of each tradition.

Click here to buy this DVD

Orlando "Puntilla" Rios was the consummate teacher and mentor to students and professional musicians interested in learning the history, traditional and popular rhythms that are the expressions of African traditions in Cuba. His mastery of the two-headed, sacred bata drums and teachings have left a school of master drummers that will follow his teachings. Orlando "Puntilla's" Rios performances with jazz musicians and popular artists such as Celia Cruz, Mario Bauza, Chico O'Farrill among many others has contributed to the popularization and internationalization of the sacred rhythms of Afro Cuba to the world.

The community of Lucumi's/Yoruba's in the Americas mourn the passing of Orlando "Puntilla" Rios who was the musical director for the documentary "When the Spirits Dance Mambo." As a "Padrino – Godfather" of the Caribbean Cultural Center – African Diaspora Institute the Board of Directors, Staff and Membership honor his spirit.'

more info, check out these other very sweet blogs..

Some of his fine work can be found in many places, but here is a start.. ... 856&sr=8-3 ... 921&sr=1-2

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

El Chino Congas - Mahogany beauties, rare and tasty

In response to a query for more information regarding the El Chinos congas:

The El Chinos - made by Luis 'el Chino' Martinez, a resident of Hollywood FL, used to live in Miami, of Cuban decent. Im not sure where he was born, but he is in his 80's, from what i understand.

This set has been played by many a heavy, and everyone loves them. Pili Martinez and i sat in on a straight ahead Jazz gig in Napa.. he loves the sound of the set, and how comfortable they are to play.

this is the only other one ive seen, and it was for sale before i picked up this set of two. it didnt sell, but was listed as AfroCuba de Matanzas' quinto. I have yet to show Sandy it, to confirm... one day i will ask him.

Yaya Maldonado, on of the best ears in the bay, loves the sound of them. Im in love with them, obviously.

They are made of the legendary Coaba Mahogany They are woody and fat sounding, like a gon bops Mahogany but more full and round - more mid range, and less papery. Its not 'reflective' at all, like oak or ash, for example. But it has nice projection and medium sustain with absolutely no ring, just nice woody overtones.

The design is awesome. They are set up so elegantly, with two bands, showing off the wood - the bands are from straight stock, so only a middle and bottom band (easy way to it, not to have to manufacture bands, but getting the job done. It has a high belly, like the older Cuban tubs. - I love the sound of this shape. meinl, toca, Sol used this high belly, and they all sound good. I think its an underutilized shape.

The el Chino's have a strong voice, and can be 'nailed' without washing out when you need to be powerful, and they almost play themselves at low volume, without loosing the buttery tone. very crisp and quick slaps, for the 11' size. - set up with medium thick cow hide.

The bearing edge is very very comfortable, the most comfortable design i have only encountered on one other drum: del Cielo. You can play these drums all day. For me, this is a big deal.

They are 29.5", which is an ideal height for me. They are 11 and 12" which is a very nice setup. The quinto/conga has a wide range, and holds nice sustain as a quinto or a segund.

If I could find a 10.25, id be in heaven. finding a matching quinto is the hardest find ive ever had to deal with, in years of searching for rare congas. I've seen about 20 juniors listed in the time ive seen one of these tubs listed on the web. Please do let me know if you find one. I know Im making my search more difficult by telling every one about these tubs... but i hope the Kharma comes back, in the form of a matching quinto!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Hadley's Skin on skin congas - Cherry beauties

Funny thing about this quinto, owned by Hadley Louden of Oakland - percussionist, pianist, and composer extraodinair .

You can read about Hadley and his music at

The story goes, as he tells it - 'there are rumberos around here who crank the living life out of the quinto's.. well actually, one Rumbro in particular (you would be surprised who - Maestro to be named later) would only tighten one lug.. every time he played it! So, I skinned it over the lugs so you cant get to them easily '

Hadley ended up with bent rims over this manic quintero tightening thing. In fact, another Rumbero used to bring his Bauer's regularly, 'till every single rim was bent.

So Hadley wrapped the skin around and down, taking the bata skinning technique to new heights!

by the way, this Cherry set of SOS congas were the only ones ive ever seen (out of 15 or so) that had significant cracking. In fact, one of the staves had popped completely out, but was held in by the skin, and Jay's immaculate banding. The drums still sounded great last i played it, even with several big cracks (all on the stave line). They have had a lot of use, these drums. They are probably 20 years old, at this point, played regularly by many cats and bravely taken out of the house to many a rumba.

As far as this string, I have to include Matt in on this...

Jay and Matt are amazing. They both make virtually ideal drums for those looking for clear tones and sustain from drums that will last a long time. The They can be a bit ringy, depending on the wood choice, but the right skin will make them right. The sustain is legendary.

If you know what to order, you will get what you want. The only things i dont like about SOS or Matt Smith, is they are hard to take anywhere, due to them being so bleeding perfect. Letting these tubs loose to the dogs at a rum driven rumba is like watching someone date your teenage daughter.

Really, the way these cats work with both metal and wood is inspiring. The harder woods do tend to be a bit heavy, but i love the sound of their Oak - screaming quinto's!

As far as the new SOS's, I have yet to see or play Joshua's work. im not sure how much Josh is responsibe for, or how involved Jay is in the process at this point. I'll have to update this when i find out more. I bet they will be as nice as Jay's older work. I have a feeling he wouldnt allow a drop off in quality.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The ideal conga - a dream in progress - best conga ranking

I think im in love with the search, I'm not sure what i will do, if i am able to assemble my ideal instruments.

I have found the ideal set for my Latin Jazz gigs - the Mahogany El Chino's. They are so comfortable and somewhat effortless to play, and very nice sounding at low volume.

Ive played just about every drum on the market, short of Moperc, Timba Ismials, Sonoc, Vergara and a few obscure others.

Id actually like to list the congas ive played, for my own entertainment, and to stave off Alzheimer's... Please forgive the repeated use of Congas, but it helps in the search engine rankings...

Lp Classic Congas
Lp Player series Congas
Lp Aspire Congas
Lp Caliente Congas
Lp Accents Congas
Lp Matador Congas
Lp 30th anniversary model Congas
Lp Candido Congas
Lp Potato Congas
Lp Giovanni Hidalgo Congas
Lp Valje Congas - Oak, Beech and Cherry
Cp Congas - early models
Cp Congas - later models
Meinl Floatune Congas - fiber
Meinl Congas - rubberwood
Toca Congas - Oak
Afro Congas
Junior Tirado Congas - Mahogany
Jay Bereck, Skin on skin congas, Cherry, Oak and Ash
JCR Congas - Oak
Isla Congas - Canoe ( Poplar, i believe ) Cherry
Matt Smith Congas, Ritmo Congas -Oak, African Mahogany, Honduran Mahogany
El Chino Congas - Mahogany
La Playa Congas - Mahogany/Fir
Valje Congas - La, Sf, ashiko's, bata of oak; very early mahogany 5 banded quinto
Gon Bops Congas - 50's Mahogany first 1000 series (32"ers with # stamp on the crown)
Gon Bops Congas - Mahogany and Oak, all basic series of all ages
Gon Bops Congas - California series Oak prototypes.
Gon Bops Congas - California series Oak
Sol Congas - Oak and Mahogany, various series.
Timba Congas - Oak
Mombizas Congas - solid shell
Motherland Congas - solid shell
WestCoast percussion
Fuji Congas
Slingerland Congas
Royce Congas
Ecotone Congas
King Congas
Bauer Lite Congas - Ash
Bauer Congas - Cedar
Raul Congas - Cedar
Candido Requena Congas
Del Cielo Congas
Volcano Congas - Mango
Vergara Conga
Candido Requena Conga

... I'm sure i forgot a few, but other than some rare pieces from Cuba and Mexico, thats about it.

pic is of James' old cuban Candido Requena

Point being, there were a few drums that really did it for me. Sos Cherry, Bauer Cedar, my favorite unknown Mexican Mahogany drums (pic), Matt Smith's African Mahogany, Sol oak, Valje, Gon Bops early Oak, Isla Canoe, Junior Mahogany.

Sound is subjective.. the ideal tone is in he ear of the beholder. And there are several different uses, and different sounds i want out of a set of drums.

For me, having specific sets for Rumba, Salsa, and Latin Jazz work is ideal. It might be helpful for some to know my favorite drums, and how they stack up to all the high end drums on the market.

One can always rebuild a drum, or fix a crack, so to me, the sound is what is most important. Quality of construction is important only to the point that it enables the drum to sound as good as it can for as long as it can.

Im not talking about furniture here, so if you're a fan of the most beautiful drums on the market, Volcano percussion, for example, and like to pay a million to have your drums to look like a million bucks, this is not the post to be reading. I'll leave that post up to collectors who like to look at their "congas"/conversation pieces - they can hold a beauty contest on their blogs if they like. This blog is about instruments. (yea, it's my pet peeve - i dont like the inflation in conga prices, in the middle of a recession hitting musicians disproportionately hard - the collectors need for pretty furniture drives the price up for actual players, the rich always have money... please guys, go back to collecting fine watches ;)

I only listed drums one can find, either new, or used. And this is only my opinion, and is based solely on my direct experience.

Ranked according to sound for Salsa:

Matt Smith, Sos, Junior, Isla, Timba, Valje, Sol, Bauer, Gon Bops.

Sound rank for Rumba:

Isla, Gon Bops, Bauer, Valje, Sol, Matt Smith, SOS, Junior

Sound rank for latin Jazz:

Junior, Isla, Bauer, Valje, Sos, Matt Smith

Ranked according to quality of construction and durability:

Matt Smith, Sos, Valje, Sol, Junior, Bauer, Isla, Gon bops, Timba

JCR needs an honorable mention as one of the best on the market, but their hardwood drums are super heavy, and need heavy skins to manage the ring. They are great sounding drums with the right skins. They are built like tanks and will last for several generations to come. The hardware is fantastic.

I you are looking for one set of all purpose congas, i would recommend the following congas with the best value:

at $1000+ each, i can't recommend anyone

at $750+ Matt Smith

at $450+ Isla Percussion

at $300+ Gon Bops - used market

at $200+ Lp Matador's - used market

at $100+ Cp older traditional models, Toca traditionals - used market

Some of my favorite less expensive drums:

Lp Matador congas
Toca traditional oak
Meinl Rubberwood, traditional rims
older CP oak
Lp Classics

Other medium priced recommendations: Lp Giovanni's, Meinl Floatune

Im looking forward to further searching, and a long awaited set of Matt Smith Black Walnut will somehow make its way to me, at some point.


Monday, August 4, 2008

La Pena rumba 8.03.08 - Avotcja's birthday performance

The rumba at La Pena was ripping, as always, with Yaya, Flaco, Santos, Barroso and Javier leading the charge. Orlando brought some of his Cuban friends, to sing and play with a real street sound... streets of Havana, that is. Not that they seemed to be very talented singers, but it was fun anyway.

At one point Barroso let loose on the dance floor.... and he wasn't doing the hustle...

What a master dancer this cat is. He is amazing. He is Rumba.

We had a blast playing and singing... but we did miss Rick's set of Isla's we usually get to play. He'll be back in town soon, and we will all rejoice.

He is so kind to virtually always bring his gear. Hauling gear to the rumba is a pain in the ars, and a thankless job for the most part. Your gear gets worked, misstuned, over cranked, dropped, broken, spilled on, etc. But the trade off... it gets played by several masters of their traditions. What more can a drum ask for.

The rumbas, although usually called the La Pena rumba, is actually at the cafe' next door, Cafe' Valpariso. Its serves Chilean/Peruvian fair, and carries some nice brew by my favorite brewery, Moonlight brewing, some of the best beer around. Ive actually been to Valpariso, a town on the coast of Chile outside of Santiago. Beautiful place... gotta try the Machas... but I digress...

So, the La Pena theater, a small 60 seat venue next door, was holding a celebration to commemorate the birth of Avotcja, a local performer and community leader.

Yaya asked if I would join him in playing a Yambu or two with the crew. It was the first time Ive played at La Pena, to a mostly packed house... it was great.

Caroline Brandy opened it up with a nice, all female, Guadapachangueo, with Caroline ripping on Quinto - speaking the language. She is one of the preeminent female percussionist in the country, and she's studied from the best, here and in Cuba. She knows her craft.

So, we hit the stage after some spoken word, and, after a nice introduction of the band, and plug for this blog, Yaya led us in a Yambu.

the line up - Enrique Carrao, Yaya Maldonado, Javier Navarrette, Trevino Leon, Butch Haynes, Tony D and myself - in full tie die regalia! go Berkeley! ;)

We had fun playing some rumba - the crowd loved it. It was really nice to perform with these cats. It was like an 'Ive come a long way in a short time' moment... time stopped back stage... a moment to reflect on the last few years.

For 5 years now, I've been on the quest to gain a general understanding of the AfroCuban tradition. I feel like Im making progress, and need to work harder to see it through, before the end of my life.

I've begun to play Bata again. And I feel the time is right for me to advance my understanding.

I thank my inspirations, of whom there are many.

Here is the bill for the gig, from

Music & Spoken Word

Avotcja's Birthday Bash!

Sunday August 03, 2008 $10-$20 sliding scale - 7pm

A night of music, dance & spoken word with Avotcja & Modupue, Lady Bianca-Oakland Blues Diva & La Familia Govea. Poetry by Adam David Miller, Genny Lim, Charles & Topaz Dubois, Eric Aviles, Leslie Simon, Raymond Nat Turner & Ziggy Lowenberg, MamaCoatl, and Alejandra Mojica. Plus Carolyn Brandy, Manny Martinez, and Ian Dogle. Wheelchair accessible and all ages welcome.

Poet, playwright, multi-percussionist, photographer and teacher, Avotcja has been published in English & Spanish in the USA, Mexico and Europe. She is an award winning Poet & multi-instrumentalist.

So... after the gig, I packed up a set of JCR Conga, a JCR Tumba, and an Isla Conga, to be reskinned for the gracious and kind Norman, owner of many flowery shirts and bright colors that reflect his effervescent demeanor. He is one of the people im always glad to see at a rumba, with a broad smile and a positive outlook.

anyway, this time, Ill post a before and after video! so ya'll can see the change in sound, and why we reskin all our drums. It will be posted in the next week or so.


jcr congas, jcr percussion, isla percussion, isla congas, conga skins, conga skin, Mule skin, cow hide,

Friday, August 1, 2008

Dos 4 Los Mios, aka Saoco - Cuban dance party at La Pena 8/9

Check out this ripping Reggaeton band at La Pena August 9th.

My good friend and seriously heavy folkloric singer Mejael Labrada sings and plays percussion along with heavy, and grand inspiration Colin Douglas on timbs and traps, i believe.

more info at

Antióquia with Abdoulaye Diakate at Ashkenaz 8/8

I have yet to see this band, but my good friend Maria knows them well, and insures a good time. There is some kind of a drum workshop for beginners, by Drummm, a commmpany that does percusssion workshops for alll people...

I looked into mr Diakate, and he looks HEAVY... hope he gets some time to shine, with all that's going on that night... man, will the band even get to voice a plug for the new CD??


"Local Afro-Colombian rock fusion band Antióquia celebrates the release of its debut CD, “Gringolandia,” on a special date: 08/08/08. Guest performers include soul-Latin-funk-jazz-dance band Last Legal Magic; Senegalese djembe drum master Abdoulaye Diakate; San Francisco-based Mexican activist and vocalist MamaCoAtl; guitarist-trumpeter Joe Balestreri, founder of The Flux; live painting by Nathan Hiatt; face painting by “Gringolandia” album cover artist Tobias Greene; and, starting the celebration at 8:30 p.m., Drummm, an interactive drum and percussion workshop (with drums provided)!"

More info:

Homenagem Brasileira with Celso Alberti and David Belove 8/7 Yerba buena at 12pm

"Sandy Cressman and Homenagem Brasileira

Date: August 7, 2008

Time: 12:30 pm - 1:30 pm

Location: Esplanade

Homenagem Brasileira, featuring vocalist Sandy Cressman, is a musical journey through the world of Brazilian jazz. Cressman and her critically acclaimed band pay tribute to the great Brazilian composers Ivan Lins, Dori Caymmi, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Toninho Horta and many others, by interpreting their music in the way it was intended: intimate and melodic, or fiercely rhythmic. Please visit Homenagem Brasileira's website for more information."

This should be a ripping rhythm section, as the bio's will tell. I know Belove is a monster Bass man. This is one of the styles of music that was ubiquitous in my household, growing up. Its due to the influence of Brazilian music on Jazz that had me, in my youth, wanting to put down the sax and pick up a pair of sticks.

info on the band:

Celso Alberti (Drums)

Celso Alberti was born in Curitiba in the south of Brazil and moved to New York City in 1982. After establishing himself on the New York jazz and Brazilian scene, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1984 to play with Terra Sul. Beginning in 1986, Celso joined Flora Purim and Airto for a series of tours in Europe, the U.S. and Brazil. Celso also recorded two CD’s with Flora and Airto, "The Magicians" and "Queen of the Night" for Concord Crossover Records. Celso has also recorded and toured with Herbie Mann, Sergio Mendez, Marcos Silva and Jose Neto.

David Belove (Bass)

Kansas City native David Belove relocated to California in the early 1980’s and became the Bay Area’s most prominent Latin and Brazilian bassist. He has recorded and toured with Pete and Sheila Escovedo, Tito Puente, the Machete Ensemble, Rebeca Mauleon-Santana, Claudia Villela, and Oscar Castro-Neves. David has also worked with Jazz artists Joe Henderson, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie and many others. David is also an excellent photographer, whose photos of Sandy Cressman and her band are featured on the Homenagem Brasileira CD jacket.

Marcos Silva (Keyboards)

Rio-native Marcos Silva established himself in Brazil at a young age as keyboardist, arranger and musical director for such artists as vocalists Leny Andrade, Emilio Santiago and trumpeter Marcio Montarroyos. In 1979, Marcos settled in New York City, where he performed with Jon Lucien and Claudio Roditi, and then was spotted playing with his own group "Steps of Imagination" by vocalist Flora Purim. Flora signed the group to be her back-up band, and Marcos soon relocated to Santa Barbara, California, where he wrote arrangements for and toured with Flora Purim and Airto. Marcos has recorded and toured with such notable artists as Toninho Horta, Ricardo Silveira, Bud Shank and Paquito d’Rivera. Marcos recorded two CD’s with his group "Intersection" for Concord Records, "White and Black" and "Here We Go", and is working on a new recording to be released in 1999.

Harvey Wainapel (Saxophones)

Multi-saxophonist Harvey Wainapel concentrates equally on the soprano, alto and tenor saxophones. Harvey has performed with McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, Ray Charles, Benny Carter, and Joe Lovano. Besides his extensive jazz background, Harvey is also heavily involved with the music of Brazil, including performances with Manfredo Fest, Weber Drummond and Mike Marshall’s "Choro Famoso", which spotlights Wainapel’s clarinet prowess. Harvey’s two CD releases, "At Home/On the Road (JazzMission Records) and "Ambrosia: The Music of Kenny Barron"(A Records), have received high critical acclaim in publications such as Down Beat, Jazz Times and Jazz Life. Harvey will be releasing a new CD in December 1998, "The Hang"(Spirit Nectar Records).

Orquestra Borinquen - free at the Cove in Alameda 8/8

My friend Ricky Gomez playes in one of the most prolific Salsa Bands of the bay area, Orquestra Borinquen.

They will be playing a free show at the Cove in Alameda 8/8 at 5pm, info below.

You can check out their myspace site for a couple of tracks of their material, schedule and fotos etc.

Concerts at the Cove

Event Info:
(510) 523-5955

Fri 8/8/2008
5:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.

fee/admission: Free

Crab Cove Visitor Center
1252 McKay St.
Alameda, CA 94501
(510) 521-6887

With Orquesta Borinquen.

Here is Ricky ripping it up at a show in Sf.

We met when he and his friend Victor came by to have me take a look at an old set of gon bops bongo. They were in bad shape, but i was willing to give it a go... but when we discovered a missing piece to the macho, the set was read its last rights, unfortunately.

A simlar set went for sale on ebay at less than 250 the other day, so they wont be worth the cash to send it out to Matt Smith, who is the only one i know who can bring it back to life... sad story... yet another vintage mahogany gon bops set to disintegrate into history.

Lets morn the set in the classic island way... with some dancing at Rickys show August 8th! see you there.