BY GLEN CARUBA
CATCH A FIRE!
It sounded like fun, at least at first. My assignment was to compile a list of the best conga albums ever recorded. No problem. Two seconds later, I was asking myself how the heck I was going to pull this off? Sure, I have hundreds of recordings by legendary percussionists both from the past and present. But there are also literally thousands that I don’t have. Help?
Before the letters to the editor start flowing about the CDs that didn’t make the cut, let me first explain my criteria on how I arrived at my final list. First, I wrote down some players and groups that are household names in the conga community — originators like Aguabella, Barretto, Güines, Patato, and Santamaria, as well as newer generation icons such as Allende, Conte, Flores, and of course the current king of the crop, Giovanni Hidalgo.
Since the conga drum has evolved from solely an Afro-Cuban instrument, I wanted to assemble an array of styles, not just Latin. So I added examples from the rock, jazz, and fusion world, and came up with Alias, Badrena, Figueroa, and Rekow.
Then I looked for recordings that best exemplified conga playing, and identified the ones that are still available in the United States. I also considered a mix of “old-school” recordings and more recent albums to get a real sense of the evolution of sound and techniques from our forefathers to today’s players.
And that was it. By all means, enjoy your current album collection, and please don’t be offended if I left out your favorite one, but consider fortifying your collection with these titles if you are an aficionado of the conga drum. The albums are listed chronologically according to their release date.
Tito Puente: Top Percussion (1957)
(Congas: Francisco Aguabella, Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Julito Collazo, Enrique Marti’)
Michito Sanchez called Top Percussion “the Afro-Cuban percussion bible.” Who can argue with him? Tito Puente assembled the top Afro-Cuban percussionists of that era for this classic, and the recording superbly captures that great “room sound.” Francisco Aguabella, Mongo Santamaria, and Willie Bobo are legends, and their conga playing represents the true traditional sound of the conga drums. More than half the album is authentic percussion, vocals, and chants, but in addition, the ensemble pieces are so groovin’! Listen to “Ti Mon Bo” and just try to sit still. A little side note — I know this article is about conga records, but listen to “Four By Two,” and you’ll get a great introductory dose of the greatest timbalero of all time, Tito Puente.
Cachao: Cuban Jam Sessions In Miniature: Descargas (1957)
(Congas: Tata Güines)
Released in 1957, this is a superior recording by one of the originators of mambo, Cachao. All of these short “jams” of rumba and son styles are classically awesome. Tata Güines is a pioneer of this style, and his influence has touched any conga player of serious merit today. Eddie Palmeri’s percussionist Jose Claussell put it this way: “Tata’s participation on this landmark recording, along with two other greats, Guillermo Barreto (pailas/timbales) and Rogelio ’Yeyito’ Iglesias (bongos), mark the beginning of a dramatic change in the ideas and practices concerning Afro-Caribbean percussion, especially the conga drum.”
Ray Barretto: Carnaval (original recordings 1962)
(Congas: Ray Barretto)
We’re kind of finessing it here, since Carnaval is actual two classic records on one reissue. Barretto was a pioneer of injecting the conga into American jazz. You get his early ’60s Pachanga dance style music (that he made popular with “El Watusi”) from the record Pachanga With Barretto and his more descarga/jam oriented album Latino! Both albums feature his band Charanga Moderna and showcase America’s founding father of Latin jazz.
Weather Report: Heavy Weather (1977)
(Congas: Manolo Badrena, Alex Acuña)
This was a landmark fusion record released in early 1977. Alex Acuña mainly played drum set on Heavy Weather, but lent his hands for a fast guaguanco rhythm on the famous live track “Rumba Mama.” Manolo Badrena’s pattern-less conga accompaniment on “Palladium” is flawlessly executed, and should be required study for any conga player wishing to perform in this genre of music.
Batacumbele: In Concert Live At The University Of Puerto Rico (1988)
(Congas: Giovanni Hidalgo, Richie Flores)
Giovanni shines within this legendary Afro-Cuban big band on this live album. A young Richie Flores played on some tracks that did not make the record, for the band had to make room for the extended jams on the limited 12 tracks, but they are all great and well recorded. Gio’s solo on the fourth track is another gut-check on your conga chops.
Luis Conte: Black Forest (1989)
(Congas: Luis Conte)
One of the premier studio aces for percussion, Conte released this record in 1989 and put together a “who’s who” of the recording industry at that time to back him up including a few gems on drum set: Jeff Porcaro, Carlos Vega, and Alex Acuña. The grooves are deep and pre-Pro Tools, which shows how solid of a percussionist Conte is. More or less a fusion record, all the tracks are tinged with Latin-flavoring capped with the last track, “El Solar,” which is straight up guaganco.
Los Muñequitos de Matanzas: Cantar Maravilloso (1990)
(Congas: Various – Los Muñequitos de Matanzas)
Los Muñequitos de Matanzas is arguably the most recognized Cuban rumba group. Do you want to hear a real guaganco? Listen to “Llora Como Lloré” and you’ll hear the Mantanzas version, which is unique unto itself. The abakua, “Que Dice el Abakua,” shows how the vocal chants work with the congas polyrhythmic 3 on 4. All the tracks are superb and authentic. Jesus Diaz says, “That CD has lots of info on how to improvise in clave.”
Mambo Kings: Original Soundtrack (1992)
(Congas: Juan Pepin, Milton Cardona, John Rodriguez, Luis Conte)
A modern recording capturing the classic mambo era – the soundtrack to The Mambo Kings movie features four outstanding ensembles: Mambo All-Stars, Celia Cruz Band, Tito Puente Band, and Linda Ronstadt’s band (actually Alex Acuña plays percussion with Los Lobos who has a couple cuts as well). A must have for the mambo big-band reference. All the conga performances are well recorded and very genuine in tradition.
Santana: Sacred Fire – Live In South America (1993)
(Congas: Raul Rekow, Karl Perazzo)
It’s hard to go wrong with any Santana recording, but this live 1993 release is a good mix and captures Raul Rekow’s congas extremely well. The interplay with Karl Perazzo on timbales, as well as the rest of the rhythm section, illustrates how well percussion can gel to form a tidal wave of sound. Rekow’s solo break on “Black Magic Woman” is brief but very well stated, crisp and clearly audible. Rekow and Perazzo have played together for many years, and it shows on the extended solo on “Soul Sacrifice.” Santana’s sound should be classified in its own category, but this record is a great case in point of how congas can drive a “rock” band.
Carlos “Patato” Valdes: Masterpiece (1993)
(Congas: Carlos “Patato” Valdes)
Patato is another legend with his own sound and style.Masterpiece may not be his absolute best album, but it showcases several different styles from this conga master. The straight ahead Latin-jazz track “Cute,” slow bolero “Reflexionando” or the cha-cha laced “Montuno de Patato” all have tasty solos as well as some traditional chants and bata on “Tonan Che Cabildo a Ochún.”
David Sanborn: Hearsay (1994)
(Congas: Don Alias)
Hearsay is one of David Sanborn’s funky contemporary jazz records and Alias grooves his butt off. This record has several tracks with great conga grooves. The opener, “Savanna,” is a shuffling syncopated conga pattern that mimics the bass and organ, and because his congas are tuned to the key, it percolates perfectly with the rhythm section. The triplet groove on “Little Face” is a cool laid-back in-the-pocket 6/8 feel. A great example of the use of congas in this non-Latin context.
Mongo Santamaria: Mongo Returns (1995)
(Congas: Mongo Santamaria)
There are many recordings featuring the late Mongo Santamaria, not only as a solo artist, but also as an in-demand sideman. Mongo Returns is one of his later recordings that has a few contemporary jazz tunes, but also contains some traditional Afro-Cuban Mongo magic. I like this record for the fact it showcases Mongo in a couple different styles with more modern electronic instruments, yet with a large ensemble. The opener, “Kiss In Her Glance” is a rumba-tinged Latin-jazz number, while the funk-shuffle “Slyck ’N’ Slyde” is a complete departure from tradition. All in all it is a great example of a conga legend grooving in different genres on one record.
Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum: Supralingua (1998)
(Congas: Giovanni Hidalgo)
This recording features Mickey Hart’s all-star ensemble with some serious drum and percussion jams. Anytime you can pair up Giovanni on congas with David Garibaldi on drum set you are in for a groovin’ musical journey. There are a host of awesome players lending credit to this recording, but Gio has some simply stellar conga tracks in this non-typical world music format. Check out the melodic congas on “Umayeyo,” then take a shower afterwards because you will be covered in stinky groove sauce!
Caribbean Jazz Project: The Gathering (2002)
(Congas: Richie Flores, Roberto Quintero)
Richie Flores is definitely one of the new-school freaks on congas. He showcases his blistering doubles that are seamless and effortless. “Masacoteando (In The Groove)” is the last track and one of Flores’ compositions that is quite ridiculous. Don’t try to figure it out, just make sure you have your diapers on! Not to be understated, Quintero, is also part of the newer conga generation and lays down an awesome feel on “The Path.” Needless to say this is a CD that will either inspire you to practice your congas a bit more, or just flat out sell them!
Spanish Harlem Orchestra: Across 110th Street (2004)
(Congas: Bobby Allende)
They call themselves “the world’s hottest salsa band,” and no doubt their albums prove it. Spanish Harlem Orchestra (SHO) is “dedicated to preserving the vital history of classic Latin dance orchestras while at the same time writing and arranging new music for the audience of today.” Allende lends his conga talents on “Across 110th Street” (which features Ruben Blades on vocals). The conga playing is rock solid, and precise with very creative unison rhythm section breaks that are essential for salsa. His solo on “Maestro De Rumberos” (dedicated to Ray Barretto) is classy and musical. If you are new to the world of salsa, SHO is a perfect introduction.
Sammy Figueroa: …And Sammy Walked In (2005)
(Congas: Sammy Figueroa)
Figueroa’s discography reads like the Grammy Awards’ guest list, but his own Latin Jazz Explosion is all about Sammy’s conga chops. …And Sammy Walked In is his 2005 Grammy nominated release, and is an excellent example on how congas can swing. His solo fills on the opener, “Syncopa O No” are very tasty and his congas are extremely prevalent and well recorded and mixed. The funk/Latin track “Bolivia” is a perfect illustration on how to play and equally important, when not to play congas in certain sections of a song.