Yes I have got rhythm, but dang, every time I use the word I have to look up its spelling! Why does such a simple “thing” as a regular foot tap need to have such a weird word attached to it? Huuum. IDK. But, today I want to talk a little about this thing that I have, and so many of the world have (and yet apparently so many more probably do not have). And more than just talk about rhythm, I want to talk about the sounds I have always loved, beats with African origin, namely those of Cuba, Puerto Rico and of another variety, the samba of Brazil.
When I was about 13, my mother who loved music bought an album that had a lot of bongo playing in the score. I wish I could remember the album name. Anyway, when I heard that my hands began to move, and my mother seeing that soon got me a set of bongos. So, for the rest of my life I have played percussion in the form of bongos, congas and most recently, djembes. Frankly all this could be better described as “dabbling,” as I have never wanted to jump into the live music scene as a member of a band, especially given that I am self-taught by ear, have no understanding of sheet music, and frankly never had the time to devote to such endeavors, and I would be scared to death of making a big mistake.
I did play with a small soul combo when I was in the Air Force, me a First Lieutenant white guy, playing with enlisted black cats, and that was a blast. I never worried about making a mistake because we the band and he young audiences were too drunk for anyone to even notice. The leader of the group, a guitar player, actually was very good, and we would cover the hits of the day done by Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and other mostly Motown artists. I would be out front since single conga was not miked, just so I could be heard. I also played my bongos and conga at the same time, like “Master” Henry Gibson, who played on Curtis’ hits like “If There’s A Heaven or Hell….” I could really kill the solo part in that joint! One night at that solo I had the entire audience at my feet, a roomful of young black guys and girls airmen, clapping and dancing, and I could hear an occasional, “He sounds just like the record!” which I really liked hearing.
But one day I was driving past the enlisted barracks in the summer (this was in North Dakota, that’s why I even mention “summer”), and some black guys were outside playing congas, obviously not in a Motown vein, but rather authentic Latin style. So I rushed home, grabbed my conga and came back to “sit in” with them. They thought it pretty cool that a white lieutenant would do that, and we had some fun and good laughs for an hour or so. It was probably that one brief encounter with Latin “soul” that has stayed with me since.
While I love playing my drums to American soul music of “back in tha day,” over the years I have acquired some fairly good chops in playing Afro-Cuban and salsa styles, as well as true African styles. I absolutely love watching dancers skilled in any of these styles, especially salsa, since it is usually a couple totally in sync with one another. Unfortunately I never took the opportunity to learn salsa dance. I have no excuses really, but stuff happens, and some stuff does not happen….life.
My favorite Latin band of all times is The Fania All Stars, which at various times had virtually all the greats in it. My all time conga idol is Mongo Santamaria, who I got to meet once, but I also worship older guys like Armando Peraza. And then comes Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa, vocalist extraordinaire, who makes players play even better and harder.
So here I sit at my computer, and just a few feet away are my three djembes, my bongos and my two congas. These are like an extension of my aura. You musicians will understand. I say to you, play on, “Wepa!”