CongaDr+ Tony's Conga Adventures: June 2011

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Afro-Cuban Rumba Cajon - an amazing Ax

The Cuban Cajon, a simply incredible instrument, has captured my artistic mind. I love the ax, and speak best through it.

It has a fascinating history, and is so representative of many things I love so much about Cuban music and culture. Prevailing winds of tradition carrying the community onward, despite the swift under-current of stiff oppression.

There is something so Cuban about making something absolutely beautiful out of an ordinary object. Something other cultures would discard as useless, to be tossed on the fire..

Often short on resources, Cubanos have learned how to get the most out of everything. And the Cajon speaks to the history and culture of the people, though us.

In the right hands, these ordinary boxs are fine instruments.

Once upon a time, I saw a short clip of Jesus Alfonso playing quinto cajon. ..clean, tight, in the pocket.. and so folkloric sounding... That's all it took for me, I was hooked!

Jesus, for me, played this instrument with such grace and purpose, the Cajon would lay down like a big lazy dog ready to have his belly scratched.

Another of my favorites, Maestro Pancho Quinto of Yoruba Andabo was one of the top Cajon player in Cuban Rumba history. He was a mentor to, and good friend of two of my teachers: Chirs Flaco Walker and Jose Barroso. He also taught some of the heaviest local traditionalists.. such as Michael Spiro, and has profoundly impacted Rumba here in California.

So, I feel close to the man, although we never met.

He had such a swinging style, love his recorded work as well, of course. he could make wood sound like butter.

Something very basic and elemental about a Cajon - simply a five sided box, often crudely built, and rightly so. Growing better sounding as it's beaten into submission, the cracked ones often have that special something we are listening for.

Such simplicity of design, so powerful to play, so heavy with significance.

The dry earthy thuds, dropping your belly from under your chest..

Bright, thick handed slaps echoing through the alleys of Havana like cracks of a baseball bat stroking a ball into left field.

The power and strength this instruments often demands, lends a heavy and serious tone to a playful Rumba.

Nothing can stand your hair on end like these instruments. Occasionally played with such force as to destroy the ax, cracking the wooden box with our hands.

Yea, you feel it, and the rhythms flow in a forceful and inevitable kind of way.

Although this post is about Rumba, Palo is also played with Cajons like these.

The serious heaviness of Palo ceremony somehow seeps into the plaing of the Cajon in Rumba, for me.. lending a fierce and powerful element that cuts through the often playful songs.

These axs were in on the development of Rumba, played on the docks where young AfroCubanos forged the Columbia..

..and this ax is well used on the cutting edge of Rumba today, by the new generation of young cats from the houses of Los Chinitos and Rumberos de Cuba, for example, in their Guarapachangueos. The instrument is here to stay.

You see, the Cajon was the instrument that helped keep Rumba alive, when it was forbidden, by government, or by economics. Rumba will survive, and the Cajon is living testament.

The fishermen down on the docks, picked up the empty Cod box's and went to town.. developing some of the fattest Columbias.. check out this clip

Ive been very fortunate to be around some great Cajon makers in the area.

The great Enrique Carreras made the best sounding Cajons Ive ever heard, and he taught both Pili Martinez, and Irish Rick McKinney how to make them.. many of the Cajons pictured were built by these three cats, including one pictured here on top of the Isla quinto that is played by the great Roman Diaz (pictured with sunglasses below w/brown hat), Bonkocero for Yoruba Andabo and high ranking Abakua. Note the slightly larger Matanzas style.. Havana style being played by Jesus at the top of this post, for example..

Chris Walker, pictured here with Mijail La Brada and Maestro Carlos Aldama checks in to say "The smaller box i am playing in the photo of me Mijail and Carlos was given to me by Pancho Quinto as a gift when he was here in 1997.
The big one that Mijail is playing in that photo was built by me. I believe Spiro owns it.

a gift from Pancho.. what an honor!

And the tradition continues here in the bay.

Here is a clip of cats here locally, Irish Rick and Mejail la Brada, laying it down on a sunny spring day last month..
The last clip here is of local Cajon masters Pili Martinez and Sandy Perez at La Pena in Berkeley. Both these cats make these instruments scream like no other Ive seen. What I would give to have the technique of these cats! Their slaps are like gunshots.. so fat!

Conga restoration, Bongo restoration - repair, reskin, restore, relove

Just a sample of my work, I will add others here, as I find the pictures....

I will spare you most of the before pictures, but will add a few to give you an idea of what they look like coming into the shop.

Rare 10 lug Gon Bops set of Bongo - a restoration project

Once in a while you hear a story of some cat stumbling upon a Junior Tirado conga at a garage sale, unloved and converted into a plant stand.. purchased for a smile, taken home, restored and enjoyed for a lifetime as a family treasure.

I have heard of such stories.. but this is the first time Ive worked on one of these drums..

A friend of mine, and fellow conga geek and professional Tahitian drummer, was driving by a garage sale in Berkeley... stopped to see a Ukulala.. and out of the corner of his eye, spots this gem tucked away in the corner of the garage... hey is that bongo for sale?? sure.. how much.. not much.. done deal..

My friend walked away from that street sale with a complete gem. The most rare of Gon Bops... a ten lug set of high end bongo in Walnut.. the best instrument Gon bops ever made, in my opinion.

They were in relatively good shape, but the finish was wasted. For some reason, it had really nice skins.. looked like horse possibly..

Anyway, after being restored, this set is about as nice a set of bongo can get.

In the end.. one of the best 'finds' Ive know of... guess I should hit a few more garage sales this year!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Rumba Gig at La Pena with the Heavies! this Saturday 6/18/11

Nice to finally be called in on the upper tier of Rumba performance in the Bay Area.

This gig will be too fun, as Bass player Raul Perales has brought together some serious Rumberos and Latin jazz artists for what will be a very entertaining show.

On the bill joining Raul and his Latin Jazz combo:Keyman Colin Hogan, Flautist Even Francis; Singers Felix Samuel and Erick Barbaria; Percussionists Michael Spiro, Javier Navarette, Colin Douglas, and myself.

All these cats are wonderfully musical... they catch such thick groove with very tasty tonality, fat and timely licks... They are the hardest working cats in the local tradition, with more gigs in an average month than most have in a year.

Add the vocal talents of Felix Samuel and Erick Barbaria... please, child... You cant find better singers, for both Rumba and Popular Cuban styles. Its a complete honor to perform with them.

We will be playing a mixture of Rumba, Latin Jazz, and Popular Cuban music with a Rumba twist.

The rehearsal was fat, and these cats are serious pros.

The material reminds me of Pancho Quinto's Latin jazz work.. heavy on Rumba with a romantic and sexy combination of Latin Jazz lines blended with Popular and folkloric styles of Cuban music, accented by tasty solos... it's a very nice sound.

The instrumentation for this show: Piano, Bass, Flute, Traps, three Congeros, Cata and two singers.

Bring your brothers and sisters.. this one will be fun!


Thursday, June 2, 2011

RIP Felix 'Pupy' Insua! Maestro! Thank you for everything!

i really dont feel like writing, he was a wonderful person and an incredible talent, generous with his time and love, without agenda, totally color blind, without judgment.. and one of the best dancers this tradition has ever seen... I'm so sorry brother, safe travels, we will miss you :(

This video is a passing of the torch to his son Steve Insua, Pupy playing quinto for his son..

The video below I recorded in '06 i beleive.. Pupy dancing for Sandy Perez, Roman Diaz and Pedrito Martinez at Yerba Buena Gardens in SF.

Jesus Diaz and Michael Spiro's new Rumba project is here! Oba' Nile En Clave

Master percussionist Jesus Diaz and fellow folklorist Michael Spiro have a new Rumba project now available for download! HERE!!

How fortunate the tradition is, to have such amazing stewards in Jesus and Mike!

Band leader, percussionist, singer and Pearl artist Jesus Diaz (Jesus Diaz y su QBA) is said to be the driving force behind this project.

Jesus is a relentless force in the bay area latin scene, performing with the top tier on a regular basis, not to mention fronting one of the fattest salsa bands around, Jesus Diaz Y Su QBA.

Getting a project cut like this, with all the talent from across the country, is akin to herding cats on fire... so mad props to Jesus for making this happen.

Jesus and Mike work closely together producing, : a technical breakthrough in on line music education.

.. and, we can thank Steven Hendee as well, for lending his technical prowess.. too cool to see such ancient, word of mouth traditions digitally propagated through such a professional site.

Their online Percussion school is top notch: sharing their deep knowledge with everyone in the free world.

Mike Spiro, in collaboration with Jesus for many years now, is an absolute treasure to the Afro-Cuban community; his driven quest for mastery of this tradition is inspiring to us all.

Mike and Jesus continue to pay respect by creating new projects as homage to the masters of the past.

This Cultural practice is alive and well in their knowledgeable hands, and we all benefit from the progression.

When I see how hard these cats work to nurture and enact this ancient form of culture, my mind wonders to a timeless and blissful place, where history is action and tradition is creation.

Rumberos of the future will take note, no doubt.

For this project, Jesus assembled the best of the best, from east to west..


Lazaro Galarraga-Vocals
Jesús Diaz-Tumbadora, Vocals
Sandy Pérez-Tumbadora and Bata, Vocals
Roman Díaz-Tumbadora, Vocals
Miguel Bernal-Tumbadora, Cajon, Bata, Vocals
Michael Spiro-Gua-Gua, Bata, Vocals
Bobby Wilmore-Clave, Vocals
Genesie Reynoso-Vocals

Lazaro Galarraga.. Miguel Bernal, Roman Diaz, Sandy Perez... my lord man.. can we get any better of a lineup. These cats are about as heavy as history can offer, with literally more experience and talent among them than we can conceive.

I could spend this entire post listing their credits, but want to focus on Mike's project, so feel free to google their names after you download Jesus and Mike's CD!

So, I had a listen to a track from this project, and I can tell you, the rumba is tight and clean.

This particular rumba is retro by design, paying respect to the time of Rumba's raising popularity among the working class of Cuba.

I just love how parsimonious Jesus and Roman are (segund and tumbao respectively) Kicking it up with the sweetest and fattest drops, lending power with silence. Only the top cats do this well.. and Roman can play a fatter rumba with less playing than anyone ive ever heard.

These players have mad chops, and cats like Sandy can rip it as hard as anyone on the planet.. but profound power and strength can come from unlikely sources.. often from knowledge of what not to play, the use of silence, knowing how to set expectations of the listener, toying, playing, and giving it up when they need it most... just when a beg is about to escape their lips..

The space is so dang beautiful - space to feel the rhythm, to hear the song, to create power.

For a Rumbero, silence is golden, and can make your hair stand on end when used correctly... Follow it up with a gargantuan Sandy Perez Quinto declaration, and you have yourself a serious Rumba on your hands..

It's about tension and release, expectation and realization... inspired to need, surprised with familiarity, assured by fruition.. hard to explain and way harder to play effectively. This Rumba is a perfect example of the mastery of tension release.

When you get a listen to this fine project, hear to how the Rumba breaths... lending power to each tone, each phrase..

The combination of Jesus Diaz, Roman Diaz and Sandy Perez is pure genius. Sandy, forceful and profound, playing on a backdrop of elegantly smooth and graceful conversation between Roman and Jesus.. pure heaven..

This 'less is more' style is not an easy thing to pull off with Mr. Inveto, Sandy 'el misterioso' Perez on the project. Sandy is one of the few people in the world who has the absolute right to evolve the tradition as he pleases, as he IS Rumba in action.. and the tradition has always been an evolution. Raining him in is not an easy thing to do, speaking from experience..

Serious homage is payed to traditional Rumba, here in this new project, and it must have been a specific vision Jesus had for this release. Well done man!

The survival of this amazing cultural artform depends on the work of masters like Jesus Diaz and Michael Spiro... as well as our support, financially and spiritually.

Future recording will come from the purchase of this download, so click and enjoy, knowing you're contributing in a very real and important way.

Nice to go direct to the source for your Rumba fix, no doubt!