Carlos "Patato" Valdes
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Carlos "Patato" Valdes


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A Conga Master Whose Drum Not Only Keeps Time, It Sings, Too

Carlos Valdes, known as Patato, could be the Henny Youngman of conga drummers. He doesn't flaunt his virtuosity; most of the time he taps out structurally essential patterns that mesh with the rest of the rhythm section. But when a tune makes space, he knocks out a rhythmic volley with the timing and impact of a perfect one-liner.
Mr. Valdes performed with important Cuban groups, including Sonora Matancera and Conjunto Casino, before coming to the United States in 1954. He became a major contributor to Latin jazz, working with Kenny Dorham, Tito Puente and Herbie Mann. He is so well known among musicians that Latin Percussion makes a Patato line of conga drums.
Six Degrees Records has just issued ''The Legend of Cuban Percussion,'' a compilation of Latin jazz recordings he made in the mid-1990's, called ''Ritmo y Candela.'' Last Wednesday night at Nell's the arranger from those sessions, Enrique Fernandez, returned on flute and saxophone as part of a septet to play material from the album.
It was a suavely audacious group that grounded the tunes in dance rhythms while heading for the modernist fringes. Oriente Lopez on piano sprinkled his vamps with chromatic harmonies akin to Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock. Mr. Fernandez's solos on flute and saxophones went twittering and vaulting through their variations; Pedro Emilio Rodriguez, on trumpet and fluegelhorn, was a straightforwardly tuneful contrast.
Nicky Marrero on timbales played snappy rhythmic barrages, supported by Bill Elder's breezy trap drums and Chucho Martinez's imperturbable bass. Up from the audience, the singer Pete Rodriguez (El Conde), Pedro's father, and the trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez sat in.
Mr. Valdes used his congas for both rhythm and melody. His drums are so tightly tuned that he can produce clear tones from them, and he started the set by playing the first riff of ''Son de Patato'' on his drums. From there he merged with the ensemble, sometimes playing a melodic counterpoint, sometimes using a sharply percussive attack. Most of the time he didn't insist on being noticed because he didn't have to.
Mr. Valdes is to perform in a JVC Jazz Festival concert on Friday night at Symphony Space.

The Conguero with the Golden Hands

It's too bad that on some classic jazz albums and dictionaries the renowned "conguero" Carlos Valdes will be known as a "Potato."

But all it takes is hearing "Patato" once to realize the kick this inventive master has given to Latin music. While small in physical stature, when he steps behind those drums he ain't no french fry. From his ascension with pioneer "conjuntos" like La Sonora Matancera, Conjunto Azul, and Conjunto Casino in his native Cuba; to his stamp on countless classic jazz recordings with Herbie Mann, Bluenote Records, and others; to his landmark Grammy nominated Ritmo y Candela CD, the mighty Patato with his singing melodic tone is a cultural treasure to be honored.

Born November 4, 1926 in Barrio Los Sitios in Havana, his father was a pioneer "tres" (guitar) player with the group Los Apaches, made up of longshoremen, the group was formed in 1915 and when they broke up in 1920 split into Sexteto Habanero and Sexteto Nacional. In this musical fertile environment he learned various instruments as a child, like the "marimbula" and of course the "tres."

Around the age of twelve he began playing congas with a "compara" called "La Sultlana" and by his teens was an established "rumbero." From the beginning it was his melodic tone that set him apart and at nineteen he broke into the big time when he replaced the ailing Valentin Cane as contuero with La Sonora Matancera. He stayed a year before his boyhood friend Armando Peraza brought him into the Conjunto Kubavana of Alberto Ruiz.

"I was playing the conga in Kubavana," remembers Peraza. "Then the gongocero named Candido Requena fell out of sorts with Ruiz and left he group. Patato was playing at the Academia Martibelonia and I took him to Ruiz who said, 'fine but now I need a bongo player.' So Patato and I did a duet for him with me on bongoes, and that was it."

The group was top notch and shared in public enthusiasm alongside Arsenio Rodriguez and Conjunto Casino. Their recordings of Rumba en el patio and Sonaremo el tambo are a testament to their unparalleled youthful vigor. Then the boyhood friends left Ruiz to play with Chano Pozo in the Conjunto Azul which played at the noted Sans Souci Nightclub. This is where Pozo had gained notoriety in 1940 with a cabaret spectacular title "Congo Pantera." His fame skyrocketed not only as a drummer but as a composer and dancer as well. Pozo was also a friend of Patato's from Barrio Belen in Havana.

"Pozo was with our 'comparsa' but was very eccentric. He mainly composed and danced. I was supposed to go to New York City with Miguelito Valdes instead of him in 1947 but my father wouldn't let me go."

Who knows what the evolution of Afro-Cuban jazz would have been if Patato had made the trip and possible joined the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra but fate dealt the young conguero another hand. Peraza left with Mongo Santamaria in 1949 for the United States and Patato was asked to join Conjunto Casion, "Los Campeones del Ritmo." Considered one of the top bands of the era, the group boasted three outstanding soneros: Robert Faz, Roberto Espi, and Augustin Ribor.

To hear Patato at his best, check out La conga del casino, where he tears up some cuero (leather) with amazing force. The great Cuban trap drummer Walfredo De Los Reyes recalls seeing Patato with Conjunto Casino at the Fausto Theater in Havana.

"Patato always stole the show when he would make like a penguin and dance El baile del pinguino, a very popular song by the conjunto. He developed a unique sound based on the way he would tuck the skins on his heads. Remember in those days there was ;no hardware and people used nails to tighten their skins. He also developed a; distinct style with his hands that became very popular. He was very inventive."

The group performed daily on one of Cuba's first television programs, Medio Dia. Two years ago when Patato teamed up with Orestes Vilato and Jose Luis Quintana "Changuito" for the recording of Ritmo y Candela on Redwood Records, Changuito recalled being on the show with Patato at age six!

"I used to always watch Patato playing on the show with the conjunto," says Changuito. "Once my mother took me and asked if I could play congas with the group. Patato gave me the drums and when he heard me he went crazy!"

"Yeah," responded Patato, "after that, Roberto Faz started ribbing me 'cuidado que hay un chamaquito alli que te va mochar (careful there's a little boy that will cut you down)."

In 1952 he visited New York City for a performance with Conjunto Casino at the Tropicana Nightclub. With all his friends there like Peraza, Mongo, Candido Camero, and other, he was impressed with the scene. The Palladium and the mambo were in full effect, not to speak of the bebop revolution sweeping jazz, and he decided to immigrate in 1954 to this country. Mongo recommended him to Tito Puente who quickly absorbed him into his orchestra.

"I had these ideas and - Jesse Varela


1967 Patato y Totico Verve
1967 Patato y Totico Mediterraneo
1977 Ready for Freddy Latin
1984 Masterpiece Messidor
2000 Authority LP Music Group
2002 Tony Allen Eager Hands and Restless Feet: The Conga
1999 Aluminum Group Wonder Boy Plus Violin
2000 Bamboleo No Que Bueno Esta Sax (Tenor)
1992 Mario Bauza Tanga Suite Conga, Cheng, Guiro
1993 Mario Bauza/Afro-Cuban... 944 Columbus Conga
1993 Mario Bauza My Time is Now Conga
1997 Mario Bauza Messidor's Finest Conga, Guiro
1957 Art Blakey Orgy in Rhythm, Vol. 1 Percussion
1957 Art Blakey Orgy in Rhythm, Vol. 2 Percussion, Conga
1957 Art Blakey Orgy in Rhythm, Vol. 1-2 Conga
1965 Willie Bobo Spanish Grease/Uno Dos Tres 1-2-3 Conga
1965 Willie Bobo Talkin' Verve Conga
2003 Willie Bobo Willie Bobo's Finest Hour Conga
2000 Candido Camero/Carlos... Conga Kings Conga, Vocals
2001 The Conga Kings Jazz Descargas Conga
1998 Conjunto Casino En Cumbanchoa: Fondo Sonoreo de... Tumbadora
1999 Conjunto Casino Mañana Vendras Conga
1985 Jorge Dalto & The... Urban Oasis Conga, Quiro
1989 Jorge Dalto with... Rendevous Conga, Drums, Drums
1955 Kenny Dorham Afro-Cuban Conga, Continuo
1955 Kenny Dorham Kenny Dorham Octet/Sextet Conga
1955 Kenny Dorham Best of Kenny Dorham: Blue Note... Conga
1966 Don Ellis Live In 3 2/3 4 Time Bongos, Conga
1968 Don Ellis Shock Treatment Bongos, Conga
1977 Don Ellis Live at Montreux Bongos, Conga
1998 Exitos Vallenatos En House Guitar
1997 Enriquillo Fernandez & the Melodia Para Congras Conga, Maracas, Guiro
Alfonso Gerardo Ilustrado Caballero de Paris (2002) Clarinet, Sax (Tenor), Soloist
Dizzy Gillespie Dizzy's Diamonds: The Best of... (1950) Percussion
Dizzy Gillespie/Bobby... Giants/Portrait of Jenny (1996) Conga
Dizzy Gillepsie Matrix (2001) Conga
Dizzy Gillespie Have Trumpet, Will Excite!... (2001) Conga
Benny Golson Remembering Clifford (1998) Percussion
Grant Green Jazz Profile (1961) Conga
Grant Green Latin Bit (1962) Conga
Grant Green Retrospective (2002) Conga
Andrew Hamilton Jamaica by Night (1994) Percussion, Conductor
Raquel Hernández Cada Vez Mas (2002) Sax (Tenor)
Freddie Hubbard Black Angel (1969) Conga, Maracas
Elvin Jones Complete Blue Note Elvin Jones... (1968) Conga
Elvin Jones Mr. Jones (1969) Conga
Quincy Jones Jazz 'Round Midnight: Quincy Jones (1958) Percussion
Quincy Jones and His... Pure Delight: The Essence of... (1995) Percussion, Vocals
Doug Lawrence High Heel Sneakers (1999) Conga
Dave Liebman Drum Ode (1974) Conga
Mike Longo Like a Thief in the Night (1997) Percussion
Michael Longo Funkia Percussion
William Lyall Solo Casting (1976) Conductor, Conga
Johnny Lytle Swingin' at the Gate (1967) Conga
Machito Latin Soul Plus Jazz (1957) Percussion
Herbie Mann Verve Jazz Masters 56 (1957) Bongos, Conga
Herbie Mann Flautista! (1959) Percussion, Conga, Kenyan Drum
Herbie Mann Evolution of Mann: The Herbie Mann (1960) Percussion, Conga
Herbie Mann Best of Herbie Mann (1960) Conga
Herbie Mann Herbie Mann Anthology (1960) Conga
Herbie Mann Monday Night at the Village Gate (1961) Conga, Drums
Herbie Mann Right Now (1962) Conga
Herbie Mann Live at Newport (1963) Percussion
Herbie Mann Beat Goes On (1964) Conga
Herbie Mann Standing Ovation at Newport (1965) Conga
Herbie Mann Impressions of the Middle East (1966) Percussion
Herbie Mann New Mann at Newport [1966] (1966) Percussion
Herbie Mann Mississippi Gambler (1972) Conga
Herbie Mann First Light: The Family of Mann (1974) Conga
Herbie Mann Copacabana (1994) Conga
Herbie Mann Do the Bossa Nova With Herbie Mann... (1999) Percussion
Herbie Mann Beat Goes On/The Herbie Mann... (2001) Conga
Herbie Mann Right Now/Latin Fever (2001) Conga
Herbie Mann Live at the Whisky A Go Go... (2001) Conga
Herbie Mann Best of the Atlantic Years (2002) Conga
Rolo Martinez Para Bailar Mi Son (1998) Sax (Tenor)
Medicine Band Dangerous Kingdom (1993) Percussion
Melodias Del 40 Sonado a Melodias (2001) Guiro
Antonio Diaz Mena Eso Es Latin Jazz...Man (1963) Conga
Moneda Dura Cuando Duerme la Habana (2002) Saxophone
Michael Philip Mossman Orisha Suite (2003) Conga, Soloist
Chico O'Farrill Heart of a Legend (1999) Conga, Maracas
Los Originales Cuban Masters: Los Originales (2001) Percussion, Conga
Orquesta Melodias del 40 Sonado a Melodias (2001) Guiro
Patato, Changuito y... Ritmo Y Candela (1995) Conga
Duke Pearson Phantom (1968) Conga
Tito Puente Best of Tito Puente: El Rey del... (1949) Conga
Tito Puente Babarabatiri (1951) Musician
Tito Puente Cuban Carnival (1955) Percussion, Cuban Percussion
Tito Puente Puente in Percussion (1956) Performer
Tito Puente Mucho Cha Cha (1959) Bongos
Tito Puente Tambo (1960) Conga
Tito Puente/Bud



Thanks to the popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club on records and on film, Cuban music is enjoying a renaissance in the United States. Patato:The Legend of Cuban Percussion offers a 21st century audience the chance to meet one of the musicians who first made Cuban music such an important part of the American music scene in the mid-20th century. Now in his 70s and still going strong, Carlos "Patato" Valdes is considered one of the greatest conga players ever to tap the skins. He has played with most of the great figures in the Latin Jazz movement of the 1950s, including a lengthy stint with Herbie Mann's groundbreaking septet and multiple recordings with Tito Puente. Like Niccolo Paganini with the violin or Jimi Hendrix with the electric guitar, Patato revolutionized the way people hear his instrument. Patato invented a more easily tuned conga that became the standard for Latin Percussion, the most famous conga manufacturer. His melodic approach to the conga makes the drum sing, and his fingers seem as nimble today as they were in the days when he was playing with Arsenio Rodriguez in New York, helping to blaze the trail that led to the musical style known as salsa. This album features recordings made in the 1990s with some of Patato's many musical godchildren.

Virtually any percussionist who's played salsa, or Cuban son, or Latin jazz in the past thirty years owes a debt to Patato. Here, musicians like Orestes Vilato and Jose Luis "Changuito" Quintana (the former drummer of the Cuban supergroup Los Van Van who defined the "songo" rhythm) join Patato. But the album is full of surprises too: West African singer Samba Mapangala and kora player Abdou M'Boup join an impressive roster of guest musicians. The result is a collection that explores musical connections between generations and between continents. Part jazz, part world music, part son, Patato: The Legend of Cuban Percussion features cool flutes, hot salsa horn choirs, heavenly vocals, and a deep, relentless groove.

Born to a musical family in Havana in 1926, Patato grew up playing the Cuban guitar known as tres, as well as the African thumb piano and numerous other instruments. By the time he was a teenager, he was already considered one of the hottest conga players in Cuba, and at a time when American high society regularly vacationed in Havana, Patato became one of the featured players in the country's famed Conjunto Casino. He also played with Chano Pozo, who helped create the Latin jazz movement with Dizzy Gillespie, and with Mongo Santamaria. Like them, he immigrated to the United States to take advantage of the burgeoning jazz scene, and has lived in New York since 1954. There, he immediately found himself in demand. First hired by Tito Puente, Patato went on to play with the great Machito and Kenny Dorham. Then he hooked up with Herbie Mann, in a musical partnership that would last nearly a decade.

"A wild personality and a funny cat, he's exciting and pixie-ish at the same time," Mann was quoted as saying on the 1965 Atlantic release Standing Ovation At Newport. And indeed Patato made a name for himself as a character as well as a musician. Whether jumping on top of his congas barefoot or appearing on television (including "The Bill Cosby Show"), Patato's image was that of a man who knew how to have a good time - and didn't mind sharing that knowledge. In fact, Patato's most famous moment was probably his appearance in the 1956 film And God Created Woman where he gives Brigitte Bardot an onscreen mambo lesson.

After leaving Herbie Mann in the mid 1960s, Patato teamed up with the singer Totíco, a boyhood friend from Havana, on the 1967 Verve album Patato y Totíco, This record documented the vitality of an increasingly important rumba scene that was emerging in NYC and included such giants as Israel "Cachao" Lopez on bass and Arsenio Rodriguez on tres.

In the following years, Patato recorded and toured with virtually all of the world's leading Latin Jazz artists, including Cachao and Machito. In 1995, he recorded the first of two albums in the series Ritmo y Candela, with the second volume coming a year later. Both albums received Grammy nominations in the newly appointed Latin Jazz category. Patato: The Legend of Cuban Percussion is compiled from those two recordings, and even on a record with several world-class drummers, there's no mistaking Patato's playing. The congas leap out of the music, chattering and throbbing, and propelling the band through a dizzying series of musical changes bursting with musical surprises. The sounds of American swing, jazz, and West African music echo through songs like "Señor Blues/Mbuka Enoka." And you can practically hear Patato's infectious grin in the song "Yo Tengo Ritmo" - a rollicking Cuban-style arrangement of Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm."

Young Cuban jazz stars like Omar Sosa, Yosvany Terry, and Ivan "Melon" Gonsalez join in the fun. Their collaboration with Carlos "Patato" Valde