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Cuban Conga Master Carlos “Patato” Valdés Dies at 81

Carlos Valdés, a Cuban percussionist whose career spanned some six decades, died in Cleveland on December 4th at age 81. The cause was respiratory failure.

Valdés, whose nickname was “Patato,” made his mark playing congas for such giants as Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie, Machito and Art Blakey. An Afro-Cuban jazz pioneer, he also performed and recorded as a leader for decades, and made some high-profile film appearances, notably in the early Brigitte Bardot vehicle And God Created Woman, in which he gave the actress a mambo lesson.

Valdés was born in Havana in 1926 to a father who played the tres (a Cuban stringed instrument). “Patato” first came to prominence there as a conguero in the 1940s, as a member of the group La Sonora Matancera. One of Valdés’s early innovations was the tunable conga, an idea he helped develop in the ’40s. A pioneer of melodic percussion, he was also instrumental in shaping the instrument’s design, and an LP model conga named after him became one of the best-selling conga drums of all time.

Valdés immigrated to New York in 1955, and the city became his home for the rest of his life. Upon his arrival Mongo Santamaria recommended Valdés to Puente, who took the young percussionist into his band. That same year, Valdés was featured on trumpeter Kenny Durham’s landmark Afro-Cuban album, one of the first major fusions of jazz and Latin sounds. In 1956 Valdés joined with Machito, with whom he stayed for five years. A long stint with flutist Herbie Mann followed. Valdés’s own 1968 album Patato y Totico, with vocalist Eugenio “Totico” Arrango, is considered a classic release in the rumba genre.

Valdés later led his own band, Afrojazzia, and recorded several other albums as a leader.

Originally Published