The Conga Kings
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The Conga Kings

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The best kept secret in music


Masters of Afro-Cuban music to bring their magic to Ravinia

By Ernesto Lechner
Special to the Tribune
Published June 6, 2004

The torrid love affair that exists between percussionist Candido Camero and the rhythmic power of the almighty drum began a long time ago -- 1925, to be precise.

"I was four years old then," recalls the 83-year-old Cuban from his New York City apartment. "And I started banging on two empty cans of condensed milk, pretending they were bongos. My mother was afraid I would hurt my hands, but my grandfather told her to let me be. `He'll be famous one day,' he said."

Grandpa was right. After learning how to play the bongos, the bass and the traditional tres of his native land, Candido settled on the congas.

He began playing professionally at age 14 and enjoyed a stint at Havana's infamous Tropicana cabaret. In 1946, he moved to the U.S., where he spent the next five decades performing with artists such as Machito, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, Dinah Washington and Lena Horne. In 1958, he began working with Tony Bennett -- a collaboration that was still going on a couple of weeks ago, when Candido was invited once again to do his thing on the latest Bennett studio recording.

On Saturday, Candido will bring his conga magic to the Ravinia Festival, where he will perform as part of the Conga Kings ensemble.
The group brings Candido together with two other master congueros: Carlos "Patato" Valdes -- a fellow veteran from the Golden Age of Cuban music -- and Puerto Rican Giovanni Hidalgo, the most technically accomplished player to emerge from the younger generation of Latin percussionists.

Paying tribute
Together, the three congueros pay tribute to the '40s and '50s, when traditional Cuban dance formats collided with jazz harmonies and big band instrumentation for the creation of Latin jazz. The genre has been responsible for some of Latin music's most sensuous and fiery soundscapes.

Fittingly, the concert will include venerable standards such as the Chano Pozo/Dizzy Gillespie anthem "Manteca," the Machito classic "Asia Minor" and the Tito Puente favorite "Oye Como Va." Afro-Cuban heavy versions of "Caravan" and "A Night in Tunisia" will also be featured.

"There's a lot of improvisation involved in what we do," explains Ray Santos, who acts as the group's musical director. A Puerto Rican saxophone player, composer and arranger, Santos performed with the Machito orchestra during the band's heyday in the '50s.

"Depending on the audience reaction, we shorten or expand the jams. The important thing is that we manage to start together and end together," he says with a laugh.

Onstage, the Kings work as a nine-piece ensemble that now includes celebrated Afro-Caribbean violinist Alfredo de la Fe. There is no piano, a detail that emphasizes the crackling combination of the percussion polyrhythms with the brass section. Although it operates predominantly as a live outfit, the group recorded two albums in 2000 and 2001 for the specialty label Chesky Records.

"Latin music has gone through many changes, but the tradition of mixing big band jazz with Cuban music is still alive," points out Santos, who has also worked as an arranger for more commercial Latin crooners such as Lalo Rodriguez and Gilberto Santa Rosa. "To this day, that's the music that I enjoy playing the most."

There's no overkill
The concept of three conga virtuosos banging on the drums at the same time sounds like a deafening proposition. But the Conga Kings' radically different styles of playing save the ensemble from percussion overkill.
"We have different ways of approaching the instrument," Candido says. "It also helps that we like and respect each other."

"Of the three, Giovanni is the only one with formal training," Santos says. "He represents the new generation because he has a lot of technical skills and can play very fast. The other two are more traditional but have a phenomenal ear. Candido is one of the few congueros who has successfully adapted his percussion style to jazz. Patato is 100 percent Cuban in his playing. Maybe he can't do all the crazy things that he did when he was 20. But the swing is still there."

"You see these guys playing together and they're laughing and having a great time," says Rudy Regalado, a Los Angeles-based percussionist who has worked with all three Kings. "Giovanni is a virtuoso, but he is well aware of the fact that he's playing with the masters. Patato may not play as fast as Giovanni, but his beats are gutsy. And Candido is an elegant player, a true star."

When asked about the secret to his longevity, Candido assumes a sobering tone. "My formula has always been to get rid of anything that is unnecessary," he says in his flavorful, Cuban-accented Spanish. "I have never smoked. Never drank. Never used what I call `false inspirations.' You know, drugs. And I'm busier than ever, traveling and recording and giving workshops at age 83."

It seems th - Chicago Tribune

The Conga Kings
Chesky Records, 2000. JD 193

When the boss handed me this one I couldn't help but giggle. On the cover sit the three kings of conga, Giovanni Hidalgo, Candido, and Patato Valdes, posed around a drum just exactly how my grandfather would have asked them to. His normal set of directions: straigten that spine, slide your butt up to the edge of the seat, and just when you think you can't possibly be more uncomfortable, smile as wide as you can. Smile so hard that your eyebrows go up whether you told them to or not.

Each Conga King is labelled, which is handy since I do not know my Patato Valdez from my Patato Au Gratin. Candido and Patato appear the veterans of the group, while young Giovanni seizes the opportunity to quickly establish himself as the best-dressed conga king. The sleeve makes a special "audiophile note" informing me that Giovanni will appear in my left speaker, Candido in the middle, and Patato in the right. As a special "postmodern note" I would like to inform you that this is also the precise order in which the Conga Kings are seated on the cover. Self-reflexivity is rare in the world of music and must be acknowledged whenever present.

I press the biggest button on the CD player and wait for my butt to commence wigglin.' The Conga Kings do not disappoint. Involuntary spasms of the gluteus maximus are inevitable and highly enjoyable, if I do say so myself. At this most primal level the music of the Conga Kings will speak to anyone.

Myself, unfamiliar with the language of the conga drum, discovered that this album proved suprisingly didactic. The heart of the record is three duets, one for each King. Each duet pairs one conguero with another instrument. Giovanni is featured with a tres, Patato with a flute, and Candido with a bass. Playing off the other instruments, responding as though in conversation, the versatile, expressive nature of the conga is communicated clearly. Each duet is masterful, particularly Patato with Mauricio Smith on the flute. This is the kind of music that floods your mind with images, bringing inanimate objects to life.

Those of you who collect Chesky Records are no doubt familiar with St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Mr. Chesky's favourite recording venue. It is interesting to hear the percussion react to its surroundings, with ten separate drums all being recorded on a single microphone. Producer and liner-note-scribe Ray Santos declares the end result "a masterpiece of sound," but then again he must have also given the cover the green-light.

In closing, each time I look at the cover of my Conga Kings album, I will giggle. Each time I read the ridiculous, childish liner notes I will guffaw. And each time I press the bigest button on my CD player I will only smile, for I have been once again taught one of life's great lessons: you cannot judge a book by it's cover.
- Darryl Stenabaugh

Jazz Descargas
The Conga Kings (Chesky)

On many levels, The Conga Kings’ Jazz Descargas is authentic Afro-Cuban jazz.

For starters, Carlos “Patato” Valdes and Candido Camero have been Afro-Cuban music pioneers for decades. Patato is recognized as one of the first to tune his congas to a song’s dominant chord, which contributes harmony to the song’s melody as well as to the rhythm of a song (noteworthy because there is no piano, and therefore plenty of melodic space, on Jazz Descargas), and has played with Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie. Camero has contributed Latin punctuation to groove sessions by Gene Ammons, Kenny Burrell, and even Tony Bennett (on the unique The Beat of My Heart, which featured the singer against a backdrop consisting of only percussion with the occasional wind instrument). Partnered with Giovanni Hidalgo, an alumnus of Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra, the combined influence of these three congueros on Latin Jazz has been profound. These three really could be The Conga Kings.

Jazz Descargas also authentically cross-pollinates Afro-Cuban music with Jazz, thanks mainly to improvisations and solos from Phil Woods on also sax, Jimmy Bosch on trombone, the bittersweet trumpet player known as Chocolate, and other featured soloists, plus a set list that reads like a Latin Jazz primer: Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco” and Ellington’s “Caravan”; Dizzy’s bop classic “A Night in Tunisia” and, with a touch of Chano Pozo, “Manteca”; and “Oye Como Va,” composed by Tito Puente but known to its second generation as a scalding Carlos Santana electric guitar workout.

The empty piano chair leaves plenty of room for the congas, saxophones and guitars to dish out the against-the-beat chords that pianos normally play in Latin music to spice up the rhythms, and for the congas to explore more melodic territory than usual. Guitar lines melt into and out of melody and rhythm in “Manteca,” which also boasts some fine blowing from Bosch. “Oye Como Va” unwinds at a leisurely and relaxed tempo, yet there seems to be steam coming off the acoustic guitarists, saxophonists and these master congueros as they churn the groove – they even work overtime by chanting to goose the mid-song trumpet solos by Chocolate.

The title track presents an original tour-de-force conga jam credited to all three congueros, beginning with an introduction that’s more melody than rhythm (on congas!), and steeping for nearly eight minutes just the right mixture of interlocking virtuosity and head-bobbing, beat crazy funk.

Baritone saxophonist Mario Rivera plays meaty Latin bop in “Tumbao De Tamborito,” though it’s tough to compete with its rhythmic underpinnings of congas, bells and other percussion, all hung upon a cycling bassline, that slice with power through the mix. Woods is simply a revelation throughout the hard-driving “Un Poco Loco” and especially “A Night in Tunisia,” where he assumes the solo spotlight and swings so momentously that, at a mid-song break, he almost wails with joy!

Jazz Descargas also boasts a comfortable feeling of a soulful session with musicians communing and in love with the music, perhaps because it was recorded live at St. Peter’s Church in New York City with no overdubs or even any overly experimental or complicated material. It’s just a good old-fashioned set of Latin soul.
- Chris M. Slawecki


They call themselves The Conga Kings, and Candido Camero, Carlos Patato Valdez and Milton Cardona are most assuredly that.

But based on their combined history and experience, they have just as much right to proclaim themselves The Rhythmic Essence of Latin Jazz and Salsa.

At Scullers Friday night, their staggering exchanges celebrated the roots in all their raw, pure glory.

The three congueros have literally played with anyone who's anyone in jazz and Latin music, from Dizzy Gillespie to Tito Puente.

At 82, Cuban native Candido is the group's showman and elder, and the acknowledged pioneer of playing multiple percussion instruments at once. He told the crowd that arthritis made him feel like 100, but "when I'm playing three congas I feel like I'm 20 years old."

Patato, also from Cuba and in his late 70s, was a more low-key personality, but a drumming marvel. Using a clave stick in his right hand and his bare hand, he was the trio's melody master.

Fifty-eight-year-old Cardona is a star in his own right, yet deferred to his elders with subtle, quick-witted accompaniment.

With a band that included two singers, a flutist and tres master Nelson Gonzalez, they paid tribute to Puente and Chano Pozo, blazed through a pair of rumbas and took a trip on the easy tropical side with Relax and Mambo.

It was a polyrhythmic party from the islands, a cooling antidote to a hot summer night in the city.
- Bob Young


The Conga Kings (Chesky Records) 2000

Jazz Descargas (Chesky Records) 2001



They've been called the Holy Trinity of percussion. Three living legends of Afro-Cuban percussion — Candido Camero, Carlos “Patato” Valdes, and Giovanni Hidalgo — join forces for a barrage of rhythmic firepower that showcases “the nuanced interplay of this unrivaled percussive triumvirate” (Rhythm). Renowned for their distinctive styles and blending of Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz beats, the three legendary congueros embody the living history of Latin jazz. Hailed for “the exact grooves, the subtleties of touch and phrasing” on 2001’s Jazz Descargas, Down Beat also praised the peerless congueros for “the different approaches — Hidalgo lightning fast, Candido still rock solid and muscular, “Patato” a minimalist with an unerring ear for the beat between the beats.”

Elder statesmen Candido and “Patato” arrived in the States in 1945 and 1954 respectively and brought with them a musical vision that changed the perception of the conga in Latin American music and helped to create a style that led to the assimilation of Afro-Cuban rhythms into jazz. Havana-born Candido has appeared on hundreds of albums, and boasts more than 50 as a bandleader. After working with Cuban legend Machito, Candido unveiled his dazzling skills in the States and became the first musician to play two congas simultaneously, revealing an astonishing technique of steady rhythm in one hand and dynamic improvisation with the other. Candido has worked with many jazz legends, including Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Lionel Hampton, Tito Puente, and Mongo Santamaria.

Fusing melody and rhythm with “an unparalleled tonal perception,” notes jazz critic Chuy Varela, “Patato” is “a great innovator” combining technical voracity with superb showmanship. “Patato” first worked on the American scene with Billy Taylor and his recording debut came with Kenny Dorham on Afro-Blue. Heralded for his revolutionary invention of the conga that can be tuned, thus enabling musicians to produce a range of pitches and tones, “Patato” was deemed by Tito Puente as “the greatest conguero alive today.”

Puerto Rican-born Giovanni Hidalgo, the Conga Kings’ youngest conguero, became known as a prodigious talent as a teenager. He traveled to Cuba, where he was mentored by Changuito, considered by many the father of modern Afro-Cuban percussion. He was discovered by Dizzy Gillespie, with whom he toured internationally. Since then, Hidalgo has collaborated with the likes of Art Blakey, Ruben Blades, Tito Puente, Carlos Santana, and Paul Simon, and counts four records as a bandleader, including the 1997 Grammy®-nominee, Hands of Rhythm.