How did you learn to play congas?

A place where discuss about secrets, tips and suggestions for practicing on congas and to improve your skill and technique ...

Postby bongosnotbombs » Sun Jun 24, 2007 4:23 pm

I would like to hear from some of the little more experienced player's
and others how they learnt to play.

I started off as a bongo player (still am) and just started picking up
congas a few months ago. beside practice, I am taking 2 classes

1. Is a class almost totally by feel and playing. Just a little explanation, usually in broken english and spanish.
Nothing written. Just a quick demonstration, with a few corrections
later. It's 2 hours of almost constant playing. About 10 others on the class, wide range of experience. this class is taught by a VERY famous percussionist.

2. My other class could'nt be more different. Everything is written on a board, we copy it, practice it, switch parts. Questions asked, explained. It's 2 hours, with about 50%-75% playing, never more than 5 in the class, usually about 3, everyone is same level more or less.

3. Finally I go to the Golden Gate Park drum circle about twice a month. Hey, it is what it is! But it's a fun experience.....sometimes.

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Postby JohnnyConga » Sun Jun 24, 2007 5:29 pm

I started in the streets of "DA BRONX"...until i found my first teacher Hank Fields,who was a student of Armando Peraza, so that was the first 'style" of playing i learned...Hank 'gave me' his style which i learned..until I saw Mongo Santamaria,then everything changed for me...but before him i had one more teacher his name was George "Sabu" Caldwell the 3rd....see photo below, George is playing the conga with Dizzy Gillespie circa 1955.. I met George in 1965-66...he taught me how to play for "dancers' Ballet, AFrican and Cuban...he gave me rhythms and theory....and i became a "Dance Musician" which is what I am today....among other things... still gigging after 41 years... :D "JC" Johnny Conga...

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Postby bongosnotbombs » Sun Jun 24, 2007 8:07 pm

Hey JC,
That's a great photo of Diz!
Can you explain more about playing for dancers? Sounds really interesting.
Could you please describe the different teaching methods of you instructors a bit?
I know you teach too, what is your teaching style like?...........G!

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Postby JohnnyConga » Mon Jun 25, 2007 12:41 am

Ok...first let me tell you these are the "Dance Co's" I have worked with/for...over the years...

New York City Ballet
Olatunji' Drummers and Dancers-Harlem,NYC
Chuck Davis Afro-American Dance Co-Harlem,NYC
Mattie Lascoe-Afro-Caribbean Dance Co. Los Angeles/Costa Mesa
Miami City Ballet Co.-City of Miami

Now George(in the photo with Diz) I actually met at a "dance" class of a girlfriend of mine who was taking Ballet....she got me all excited bout him cause she told me he could play 3 congas by himself, and i had never seen that before(this is around 1965-66) When i walked in there with this guy in a "diddybop" hat sweater and tie...he was playing with one hand on 2 congas and as i was to learn later "accenting" with his left, in time with the dancers on the floor.....I had never seen this done before either...Now George was from the "1st skool", he didn't give any information freely, u had to "earn it"....I can tell u now after the times i attended these dance classes with him he never let me play with him, just watch, listen and learn....I also didnt know about "odd time" which George could also play on 3 congas.....I learned that as "the" drummer it was expected of you to learn the dance routines and provided a "rhythm" for the warm ups...once the warm up was done then it was time for different dance forms/styles for him to play along to, 4/4 time 5/4 time 7/4 9/ didnt matter George could play in ANY time!...I had no clue as too what any of that was and it was years later I learned that...well George would only "allow" me to sit next to him in the class while he played thru them and while doing that "talking" to me about what he was doing and to keep time with the right hand on 2 drums while "accenting' with the quinto in his left..(telling me "watch their feet!").George could also play Classical guitar and flute as well...I then went on to perform with Olatunji at the New York Worlds Fair, spent 7 years on jimbe and congas with Chuck Davis..5 years with Mattie Lascoe and 4 years with Miami City Ballet, performing(around the world) on congas for the presentation of "Mambo @ 2am with my friend, the great "Cuban Pete" Aguilar the last of the Palladium Mambo dancers....I can accompany almost any dancer today on a is almost a lost art in itself due to electronics...but nothing beats better than a "real live drummer"....I will always be a "Dance Musician".... :D "JC" Johnny Conga.... :D
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Postby bongosnotbombs » Mon Jun 25, 2007 2:02 am

Thanks JC, I could read these kinds of posts all day!
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Postby bdrbongo » Mon Jun 25, 2007 3:01 am

I don't consider myself in near the same league as Johnny Conga, but I like how he learned early on, by watching and listening. That's how I picked up alot of what I can do. Too often, drummers are impatient and want to know how to do it "right now", but a little watching and listening can go a long way. I've never had any 'formal' training, but I've learned tons just by keeping my eyes and ears open...and reading what Johnny Conga has to say. :D :D
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Postby pavloconga » Mon Jun 25, 2007 7:35 am

I first learned on mum's pots and pans in the kitchen!
I was fascinated by drums as a kid. I remember being about 5 years old and seeing for the very first time a silver and black Pearl drum kit being played by a drummer in a Jazz group while on a riverboat trip. For some reason those drums fascinated me. So I ended up learning drum kit a few years after that.

Fast forward some years (about 15 years ago). I had never played congas before this time, knew nothing about the instrument and had no interest in playing until one night I had a powerful dream that I was playing a pair of white congas on a stage floating in the ocean, with none other than... the Santana band! In the dream somehow I knew what I was doing and it sounded amazing, my hands were just a blur. At the end of the dream I was flying high in the air above bright silver and gold lined clouds while holding a white conga in each arm.

A couple of months later I started group classes with a local conga player. A few months later, after being on the look out for some second hand congas I came across a pair of old white LP fibreglass congas... perfect.

A little later in the year my teacher brought a top conga player (Ray Periera) from interstate for some workshops. Ray began to play on some congas and I was stunned and amazed - I couldn't believe the magical sounds and melodies that he was creating with his hands! I was hooked from that point and Ray became my teacher and mentor for the next 5 years or so. Ray was a tough and demanding teacher and was big on lots of quality practice.

I remember asking Ray one day, "How can I get to be as good a player as you?"
He just said, "Look Pavlo, there are no shortcuts, you just have to practice a lot and you have to keep on learning." How true. How true.

The things that really kicked my playing up to a higher level were travelling to the source of the rhythms - Africa and Cuba. In 1998 I went with Ray and a few of his more advanced students to Ghana, West Africa where we studied in depth mainly on kpanlogo type drums with local musicians (Nii Tackie Abia, Nii Tettey Tetteh, Yaw 'Captain' Asumadu and Adotey Richter). In 2001 I went with Ray to Ghana for another study trip and in 2003 returned there on my own and got very sick (but that's another story...).

Later, I also spent several months in Havana, Cuba where I studied with a 65 year old master conguero, Sandalio 'Macho' Calderon and Mario "Chavalonga" Dreke (Macho as a boy was a student of Chava and Chava was a contemporary and good friend of Chano Pozo). Of all the conga players I have ever met, studied with or heard play live, Macho still impressed me the most and it is from him that I have learned most about the congas. A true master of the instrument and still an incredibly powerful player even at 65.

While in Cuba I also studied under Guillermo Lopez Clemente from the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional.

Before I went to Cuba I harbored a dream of somehow meeting Jose 'Changuito' Luis Quintana, though I didn't know how that was going to happen. Anyway, towards the end of my time in Cuba, after a lesson with Macho he said to me (in spanish of course), "What are you doing tomorrow? You want to come with me and meet a good friend of mine?
I said, "Sure! who is that?"
"He's a very good conguero, his name is Changuito" Bingo. Dream fulfilled!

Have worked in countless bands of many kinds, (percussion ensembles, samba, jazz, pop, salsa, funk etc) theatre, dance theatre, dance classes, workshops, etc

Like Johnny says you can learn a lot just by watching and listening to great players.


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Postby Raymond » Fri Jun 29, 2007 5:34 pm

My story is simple:

When I was a kid a played a timbales. Never got serious and quit because "rock" came in to the picture.

Pick up playing while in the Air Force becasue I friend, who is a great percussionist, needed somebody to carpool with him to Orlando... Pick up the bongo...

Got serious about the bongo, moved back to Puerto Rico, met one of my playing heroes, Albert Machuca, show me the tricks, the equipment I needed, and even recommended me to gigs. Then, I eventually found that I needed to be proficient in congas because it was expected that a bongo player did. Pick up the conga.....

Noticed that the more proficient you became in other instruments more people look for you.....Got interested in timbales and got serious about it, starting taking reading classes with Tito de Gracia....He told me my conga playing was wrong.....Back to basics...Got over the hump...Could play everything. Congas is not my best plus I do not market myself as a conga player because I hate carrying congas. (Oddly, enough I've recorded with the three instruments...but...)

Still learning....


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Postby Omelenko » Sat Jun 30, 2007 2:52 am

Mongo developed my left hand, Mongo was the best conguero but not the best teacher. With the left he told me to use heel and fingertip motion and to repeat the phrase "PURA MADURA" and play that phrase with heel-fingertip on the left. If you play PURA MADURA with your left you'll be executing the perfect tumbao pattern. He also demonstrated some palo and abakua rhythm patterns in 6/8 time that I was abel to copy by watching him. I had the privileage of seeing him on bongo' numerous times in his house, he was the ultimate bongocero, I copied a lot of fills on bongos from him, specially for son montuno and bolero. I have all of Mongo's recordings even the ones on SMC (Spanish Music Center) which was his first recording in the States from 1952. Attached Mongo and I.
Saludos, Dario :D

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Postby Omelenko » Sat Jun 30, 2007 2:57 am

Don Ramon, the ultimate influence on the skins. The greatest conguero that ever lived ! SOFRITO.
Dario :D

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Postby JohnnyConga » Sat Jun 30, 2007 4:39 pm

Dario and I are "Mongoites"...having shared this man many times and had the opportunity to "jam" with him on many occasions in Miami.....the BEST of the BEST!.....the one and only!....."JC" Johnny Conga...

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Postby zumbi » Sun Jul 01, 2007 8:18 pm

much respect, jc, for what you wrote about drumming for dancers: in no way a computer will ever be able to replace skin on skin. judging from today's tendency in programmed dance music it seems humanity has been dancing only in the past couple of decades since the drum machine/computer hit the scene :(
sorry for digressing...
i 've been playing drumset for 20+ years and got on the conga (one quinto) only in the past two or three years learning some basics from videos and a lot of listening and just exploring things in a natural way.
it's amazing how my drumset playing benefits from working the hand drum (today i get the most inspiration from congueros, people like mongo, patato and anga').
eternal life to drums and drummers from generation to generation.
one love,
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Postby deadhead » Mon Jul 02, 2007 7:53 pm

I first started playing/studying percussion when I joined the middle school band in 7th grade. I started playing drumset soon after that. When I got into high school I kinda got bored with drumset, as all my friends were drummers as well, 4 drumset players doesn't make a band, or atleast not a very good one. My dad got a Vhs of Santana live in Mexico for his birthday one year and when I saw it, I was hooked on latin percussion. I liked the idea of the "percussionist" as opposed to the drummer, it was different, more unique and looked way more fun to me. While the drumset player laid down the groove the percussionist got to solo and add all the cool sound effects, thats the job I wanted. So I started studying latin percussion, bought a few books and a vhs or 2 and just sortta learned on my own. I had a pretty slick little timbale setup with all the bells and whistles.

After I graduated high school I didn't really persue drumming as much and got rid of all my gear. I found myself drumming with my hands on everything I could find, tables, buckets, paint cans, my tummy etc., and realized how much I missed playing. So I went down to the local guitar center with $200 to find a new toy. I didn't really have anything in mind that I wanted, I just knew I needed something. I ended up buying a Remo Ashiko. I played the hell outta that thing! Took it everywhere I went, it was always in my back seat. I didn't know how to play it correctly, but i developed my own style and I was having fun (isn't that what counts?). I eventually got more into hand drumming and acquired a few other toys: djembe, talking drum, bongos, darbuka, etc.

Only about a year ago I decided to give the congas a go. I traded my neighbor a set of bongos and my ashiko for her Toca Player series conga set. They sure were a pile, but they got they got the job done and I was able to learn the basics just fine. I posted an ad on craigslist looking for a percussion teacher, and found a guy who taught at a school literally a block away from me. He was a fantastic teacher and an amazing drummer, but he was more into the west african stuff and mainly a djembe player. He taught me the basics and helped me develop my different strokes. He ended up leaving the school to pursue another job and the other percussion instructor at the school took over. Although I hated to loose Greg, the new guy John was geared much more towards what I was wanting to learn. John turned out to be the best thing ever for my drumming. Congas being his main focus, he was able to help really advance my playing. He also teaches me bata, which is an amazing experience in its own. I continue to take lessons from John and just recently joined his drum ensemble which means free lessons :D.
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Postby conguero_blanco » Tue Jul 03, 2007 4:13 pm

I grew up in the South Bronx. On hot summer nights, there would be a conga line of five or six PRs, DRs and others playing on and on to the break of dawn. I didn't learn to play then (damned shame), but it did get into my head and in my blood.

Last year I was helping a trap drummer friend pack in and out while he recovered from back surgery. I'd noticed one day that he had a sorry-looking pair of LP Aspires. I pulled them out and we jammed for a few minutes. I'd never done that before: It was just by feel. He'd liked what he'd heard enough to invite me to come to a rehearsal and subsequently to play on stage. I was with them for about a month before...

We had a falling out.

I got on craigslist and found an Aspire conga. Then I went to Guitar Center and picked up an LP Classic II quinto (with the lava red finish). Still, I played like crap. I finally decided to round out my set with a nice conga and tumba (LP Performer Series, sunburst finish). Before buying them, I sold the Aspire. That's when I learned to play; when I had only one drum. I got on You Tube and found a wealth of resources and practice material, along with several humbling reminders of how much I have to practice...

Today, I'm looking to put together a staright-up Salsa band (Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Ruben Blades kind of stuff).
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Postby zaragenca » Tue Jul 03, 2007 5:41 pm

Both of my brothers Dario and JC,... I love Mongo as much as anybody would do...but I could not agree with the statement of mongo been the best of the best,(I would be doing a major damage to the cuban congeros pantheon and galaxy),and with full knowledge with in my case it would be worse...Dr. Zaragemca
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