CongaDr+ Tony's Conga Adventures: April 2011

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Fat set of Oak Gon Bops Congas back among the living

Here is a restoration of a sweet set of Gon Bops, in Oak.

I just love the sound and construction of these old tubs.

It's a set of Gon Bops from the mid 70's, making it almost as experienced as I.

The owner wanted to keep the original patina, and with all the needed repairs, that was asking for a minor miracle. Every drum had multiple cracks to battle.

So, i masked everything off and went at it with fistfulls of glue and a look of determination, with a glint of ominous embarkation.

The Tumba had no less than 17 hairline cracks.. some not so hairline, but more like an airline... but somehow it came together... see the monstrosity of a fix above..

When you have so many cracks to deal with, the curing time is a big issue. With a rapid fury of binding, relentless attacks on the cracks, strangling the drum into submission with ropes and ratchets. In the end, the drum came back together, and I was drenched in sweat..

...sometimes a drum begs to die, and in my time, ive only seen one who insisted on it.

So, this fat 13+ Super Tumba came back to life joining his other four brothers in musical harmony. (one of the set of five was in perfect shape and was not brought to me)

Eventually, the set came out spectacularly well.

The owner of this set is a casual player who was having fun buying and selling Gon Bops locally for a couple of years...

...well, guess he learned a thing or two about buying drums, as this set was the best buy I have ever heard of.. he got an unbelievable deal for this set, and asked me to turn them into treasures once again. I have to say, in all the buying and selling of drums, I have yet to make such a good buy.

He wanted to skin them up, so he still owes me some final after pics when they are done.... hopefully soon ...


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Los Munequitos de Matanzas at home in San Francisco

(thanks to Casey Holtz for the photos)

Oh my word, as my grandmother would say..

.. the bay was a buzz with talk of the great Rumba troupe Munequitos de Matanzas and their pending trip to San Francisco.

All the brothers and sisters were chatting like chickens.. whispers with giddy connotations...

The great troupe, leaders of the free Rumba world, coming to our town to grace us with their fabled and legendary talents.

The fervor was almost religious, as the clouds parted and they miraculously and unbelievably dropped from the sky into our backyard after so many years.

Munequitos is staffed by the family of people here I know as family, namely Sandy and Rosita Perez, making this tour stop like a family reunion. I was unbelievably blessed to meet, play, sing and dance with new members of my extended family, including Sandy's Mother Anna and Sandy's oldest son.

The whole Latin music community was similarly stoked, and came out in force to see the grand band.

The first show on the mission, a Monday night, was totally packed at over 1500.

Seemingly every person who Ive ever met in this community was there. I think I saw just about every one ive ever played with, danced with, helped restore or re-skin a conga in this area.. I should have passed out biz cards, a mailing list or something.. missed that opportunity...

They were all lined up waiting for the door to open, and it was unbelievable how many of those 1500 Ive met. I walked down the line, feeling like a politician, kissing babies and shaking hands.

Nothing makes me feel more at home here in the bay, than to see literally hundreds of people you know sharing an amazing experience together. Our community is so thick.

Irish Rick and I showed up without tickets, as we usually figure out a way into shows, no matter how big, but this venue was like a military compound, and we couldn't find the band before the show.. so that gave me a chance to go up and down the line a couple of times looking for tickets, saying hey to everybody.

Even though this was way sold out long ago, we had no problem scoring a couple seats in the balcony, and we were too stoked about it..

The show was in this grand theater at mission high school, with very steep old school seating. The acoustics were not great in the balcony as it was so close to the stage, almost overlooking the performers.

But it was so fat to see the troupe we all dream about, there doing their thing in real time. It felt surreal, as we have all repeatedly watched videos of them, literally 100"s of times over, watching intently to learn what we can from these masters. So, when they were right in front of me, it still didn't seem real.

..and to then meet, and play Rumba with them was beyond my best dreams.

Anyway, the first show focused on the folkloric side, Dancers in costume paying homage to the Orishas. I think they played three Rumbas, short of what we were all hoping for, and it seemed like they couldn't get on a fat roll, really laying it out for us.

But we were all thrilled to see Sandy Dance a Rumba and play Quinto for a bit, his son Melik on Chekere and later dancing as well.

All in all, it left us wanting more.. and as life would have it.. we got all we had ever hoped for.

But in the mean time, we had to set up the ecstasy with some serious agony..

We had a reception for Munequitos Monday night after the first show at a local Cultural center on the Mission. A few of us were asked to perform, as tickets were $10. But the heavies were not lined up, and no-one was designated artistic director.

What was supposed to be a Rumba that inspired Munequitos to join in, ended up to be a local display of how dysfunctional and poorly practiced the scene as a whole actually is.

We put on an truly embarrassing display of Rumba, about as weak as it gets. I hope anyone reading this who was up on stage realizes just how bad it was.

For some reason, a bunch of rookies, or wannabes ran up on stage,and what ensued was no less than a disgrace. People up there crossing clave, playing the wrong parts, racing, not listening, dropping out of rhythm, just making up things as if this was a hippy drum circle.... with the audience of 50 people walking out, Munequitos sitting politely through it, starring blankly.

Eddie Espinosa Alfonso, the master Quintero that occupies the seat of the legendary Jesus Alfonso since his passing, joined in to try to lend support. I played cata for him, but the tumbao faltered, with cats playing who had absolutely no idea what they were doing.

What on earth people... it takes only one to mess up a Rumba. We had several.

Security!! lol...

I spent hours fielding calls the next day: serious local Rumberos complaining vigorously about how bad it was. One serious master of our tradition said he would no longer participate in public rumbas because of what happened at the reception.

These cats think that playing Rumba is about hearing and enjoying your own groove, fat licks and variations, like this is a rock and roll gig.

Instead, brothers, it is actually about what you can contribute to the Rumba, how well you listen to the other musicians, where you are in relation the the progression of the song, the phrasing of the singers, conversations with the other players, what the dancers are doing.

And how your playing makes the whole sound of the rumba more complete, inspiring people to dance and sing Coro.

When you are not contributing to the Rumba in this way, its best, being humble, to not play, sit, watch, listen and learn, get lessons from one of the many masters in the area, and practice at home by yourself. If not, its easy to mess up a Rumba for everyone, and the actual Rumberos are not interested in playing, or even showing up.

When I started, ten years ago or so, for two years straight, I sat on my hands, listened and watched. I was a professional for 15yrs at that point.

I watched and listened for over 50 rumbas!! not laying hands on a stick or drum out of respect for this incredible art form, and awareness of my lack of ability to contribute to it.

However... as luck would have it.. after the reception, we were outside hanging. I had the most amazing experience...

... and all of a sudden, I found myself clapping clave, vocalizing and singing with no less than Isrial Berriel and Eddie Espinosa Alfonso.. 2 minutes of complete and unexpected bliss.

I always enjoy this kind of Rumba best.. no instruments, just cats clapping and singing, vocalizing the drum parts.. that is what Rumba is all about for me.. the inextinguishable nature of the tradition, persisting regardless of stick, drum or government oppression for that matter.

I also had the chance to meet Sandy's Mother Anna Perez, as she was leaving. So great to meet the extended family.. looking forward to visiting them in Cuba one day.

So, the second show was more intimate, with about 500 in a basketball gym... usually gyms have the worst sound, but with all the people, it was ok. This show was billed as a Rumba, and we got it, in full.

Munequitos was on fire, all comfortable and loose. They were smiling and laughing, having as much fun as Ive seen any performers enjoy. It was contagious, and they played beautifully, with fat Guadapachangueos to fill our hearts. I cant believe I forgot my camera, but thanks to youtube and GuichoCubano:

The singing was simply incredible. They had 6 or seven singers, so the harmonies were fat and full, classic songs we all love. We were in heaven.

The bill also mentioned local talent would join in, and the last song of the first set, John Santos, our fearless leader, took the stage with a couple other local cats, and they played well. Nice to have a multi-ghrammy nominee up there representing the bay with force and grace. Sandy was to join them on this gig, but as it worked out, a Bembe was being held in honor of Muniquitos, only to have this second show added the day of the Bembe. The Bembe must go on for the Orishas, so Sandy started the Bembe in Oakland, as the second show raged on without him in SF.

So, back to the show... between the first and second set, I see the Quintero Eddie Espinosa Alfonso, who asks me if I would like to join them in the second set.. OMG... Yea, I say cooly.. I guess Im getting too old to be nervous, but my heart started racing.

But as it played out, two minutes was thrown to one local quintero at the end of the second set, and a local Cubano Gerardo jumped up, nabbing the spot. My timing and positioning was off..

..its too funny, sometimes its just like grabbing a rebound in basketball.. you have to be waiting in the right position, and spring to action without hesitation when the opportunity arises. I was distracted by the incredible singers, should have been staring at Eddie during the last song, and in a better position to jump up.

As it turned out, it was a good thing, in hind sight. A few of the more experienced players around here wouldn't have been too stoked to see me up playing quinto with the masters.. as Im still a student of this tradition. Fortunately, I had plenty of opportunity to play with the Grand Troupe later that night.

After the second show, my lovely woman Unity, Irish Rick and I headed over to Sandy's cousin Rosita's house for the end of the Bembe. When we got there Munequitos had already taken over the drums, playing and singing the daylights out of it with a couple of the local masters.

My dear friend and high master Carlos Aldama was there, having a great time seeing old friends and family from the island. It was so fun to hear him telling grand and amazing stories heavily fortified by exaggerated gestures and facial expressions..

Its so hard for me still to understand these Cubanos.. I get about half of it.. But being part Italian, the body language is universal.

After the Bembe, the cats are hanging out telling stories and I lean over to Sandy and say.. "Poco Rumbita?", Sandy says, "tiene tumbas", "no, pero tengo cajones".. "'ta bien." .. it was on...

Irish Rick, the smart cat he is, brought gear to the show, knowing that we would probably get ourselves involved in a Rumba.

Rarely does he need to bring gear back without being used, so now a full set of Rumba gear is always with us... too funny.

Rick and I have been good friends and fellow Rumba wannabes for 10 years now, hitting just about every Rumba possible together. We have a good partnership; he brings gear and drives, I know where everything is happening and give directions.... and we've played next to eachother in dance classes and performance for years, cutting our chops together. We always discuss how things went, and it's been nice to have a good friend to whine to when you have a setback.. and to share those 'can you believe that' moments.. someone who's been in the trenches and understands what its like. And thanks to Yagbe and Sandy, he plays well and has a solid Cata that is super handy to have around.

Anyway, we get the gear up to Rositas living room, where the Bembe had just been... and I start playing on a Cajon... Lazel picks up Cata, another cat on Quinto, and its rolling... the place erupted in song and dance and I found myself and two others playing functional Rumba for the best troupe in the world! They were digging it, and didnt look my way for a good while, watching the singers and dancers.. always a great sign things are well... then Sandy's son asked for the Cajon, I jumped on Quinto for a good while and then Cata as others joined in... I was totally in heaven, and I cant believe how well it went. Here is a short clip, yo on quinto.

It's incredible that the east bay scene is so fat as to prepare us to play functionally next to the best players in the world. We are so lucky to live here.

Times like these cause me to reflect on the journey that has led to such incredible heights.

Its been literally 10 years, almost to the month, when I played clave for the first time. Since then, its been a very long and arduous struggle, mixed with moment of shear blissful validation.. testing the endurance of body and mind to the point of wanting to give up on a regular basis, then dragging yourself back for more punishment, trying to be satisfied with the slow and unsteady progress.

I didnt plan on making this post about my quest, but I realized that, the dream I had ten years ago when I got into this tradition, has come to fruition with this magical visit from Los Munequitos de Matanzas.

All I've ever wanted to do was functionally perform with the best players in the world. I could have never imagined that was actually possible, but here we are.

...and a week later, I'm all ready developing a new dream. A Rumba troupe of our own, here in the bay... .. already booked our first gig: Los Rumberos de la Bahia Oriental! (as of this moment, the worlds newest Rumba troupe! ;)

...for those who dont know Munequitos de Matanzas (the worlds best Rumba troupe), here is a blerb about the event:

San Francisco International Arts Festival is proud to present the legendary Cuban ensemble, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. The performance will mark the company’s return to San Francisco after an absence of 19 years since their now legendary night back in 1992. This performance is part of a 16-city US Tour and San Francisco will be their second stop and only California performance.

Hailed as the "reigning regents of rumba" by the San Francisco Chronicle, "the essence of Cuba's musical soul" by the San Diego Union Tribune and "truly keepers of a sacred flame" by Latin Beat, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas are amongst the highest regarded percussionists in the world and masters of Afro-Cuban ritual and rumba music and dance. Founded in 1952, the group currently spans three generations of an extended family of musicians, singers and dancers.

The music of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas keeps alive 500 years of drumming, chanting and dance, preserving the vibrant culture of the African Diaspora intrinsic to Cuba's living legacy. While sustaining these cultural traditions, the group's choreography and new musical compositions continue to innovate from the African roots of Cuban culture. In one evening's concert, Los Muñequitos may play the rhythms and drumming of the Santeria religion which originated with the Yoruba tribe; the songs of the Abakuá, a secret fraternal organization originally from Nigeria; and contemporary Cuban rumba in its varied and ever evolving forms.

Los Muñequitos has performed in more than 50 cities across the U.S., from intimate (and packed!) shows in community centers and dance & music clubs to full-scale theatrical productions in grand concert halls. Whatever the setting, their complex drumming, captivating vocals and spectacular dancing transport audiences to the vital streets of Matanzas and the soul of Cuba.

There will be a Post Rumba Party after the show at the Mission Cultural Center, 2868 Mission St, San Francisco. Tix sold separately or included with $50 orchestra seats.