November 2000

Carlos “Patato” Valdes

In Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: The Jazz Version, one question might stump even the most ardent follower of the music.

Ready? For a cool million dollars: Cuban conguero Carlos “Patato” Valdés is famed for which of the following?

A) He established the now standard three-drum conga setup played by just about every Latin, jazz or rock percussionist.

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Marvin Collins

Carlos “Patato” Valdes

B) He cha cha cha-ed Brigitte Bardot down the path to ruin in the late ’50s film And God Created Woman.

C) He invented tunable conga heads.

D) He played at the Buena Vista Social Club 50 years before Ry Cooder.

E) All of the above.

The correct answer, of course, is all of the above. All of the above and much, much more.

Patato has made lasting contributions to music on all levels, from the technical side of his instrument’s construction to the way conga players around the world weave melodically in and out of even non-Latin jazz. Sadly, Patato just might be the most visible invisible figure working the scene.

Born in Havana in 1926, Patato’s father was a respected player of the tres, the driving guitar-like instrument that provides harmonic and rhythmic support to traditional Cuban sones, and that later inspired Patato to devise his innovatively pitched, multiconga approach.

In the solares (backyards) and comparsas (neighborhood carnival groups) where Patato grew up honing his chops on congas and the tres, the norm was to assign one player to each of several-sized drums, ranging from the deep tumbadora, through the midrange conga, to the high pitched quinto and higher still requinto. The drums’ skins were nailed onto wooden bodies and tension was achieved by applying heat, usually from a candle. Patato recognized the limitations of that system and devised the modern mechanism now taken for granted.

“I wanted something different and was thinking of the textures and tuning of the tres. So I had a friend make a drum with the head tucked under a rim and with tuning keys so I could, by playing three or four drums, mimic the melodic ideas I used to play on the tres.”

The Latin rhythm section has never been the same.

After stints in Cuba with Sonora Matancera, Conjunto Kubavana and some gigs at the Havana social club known as the Buena Vista, he traveled to New York with the Conjunto Casino. By 1954 he settled in the States permanently, following his friends Candido, Mongo Santamaria and Armando Peraza.

His first jazz gig was with Billy Taylor. “Candido recommended him,” Taylor recounts. “I hired him sight unseen. But he was dynamite. He forced us to think of new ways of approaching our own stuff.”

Since that debut, there has hardly been a major jazz or Latin player Patato has not worked with. His performances with luminaries such as Art Blakey, Herbie Mann, Dizzy Gillespie, Beny Moré, Quincy Jones and Cachao attest to his prowess. This is the guy Tito Puente called “the greatest conguero alive today.”

A recent spurt of activity might just finally put Patato on the map. He recorded a pair of Grammy-nominated discs recently reissued on Six Degrees as The Legend of Cuban Percussion and, in a more traditional vein, Chesky Records released The Conga Kings, which places Patato alongside his old compadre Candido and the youngblood Giovanni Hidalgo performing a more stripped down, solar-oriented sound.

Patato is nonplussed about the revived interest in Cuban music and recent exports from his homeland. “We played all that music 40 years ago, but now we’ve progressed,” he comments. “And, if you ask me, the only salsa in Cuba is Ragu!”

At 74 he won’t stop. He continues to shape music of all genres, as well as the very instruments he plays.

“I’ve influenced everybody I’ve played with,” he says—and that’s the final answer.

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