Congas are the heartbeat that weaves a rhythm throughout my life, opening the pathway for many beautiful things.
During a summer I spent in Michigan in 1978, I stayed with my high school buddy David Eli Harris. He had a pair of congas, and I loved to listen to Santana records and try to play along. Growing up in Miami, I had heard some Cuban music, but it was Santana that got me hooked on that hypnotic sound that I later learned was based on Cuban rumba. When I returned to the University of Miami in the fall, I bought a pair of Gon Bop congas. Two great Cuban congueros, Cookie Lopez and the late Oscar Salas were kind and patient enough to show me some things. I soon realized I was probably not destined to be a conguero, but at least I could play some stuff without destroying my hands.
I soon joined a band called Feather with some of my UM friends, including Scott Gartner on keyboards. I was playing congas and singing some lead vocals. This was the disco era, so we were playing lots of funky music, which I loved. We gigged enough to keep it interesting for a while, and I learned a lot. The instrument I was studying at the time was the French horn, and when Union horn gigs started coming my way, I focused on that and my desire to write songs. As a broke college student, I ended up selling the congas one summer when money was tight. But I never lost my fascination with the magic of “los tambores” – the drums.
A few years later I made the switch to keyboards and got my Masters degree in music writing and production. After playing and singing in cover bands and funk groups, I started playing piano with El Grupo Alma. One thing led to another, and I got my first big break, co-producing an album with Willy Chirino and directing his band. I was thrilled to find out his percussion section included master conguero Tany Gil. Tany became a great friend, and my unofficial maestro on congas. I spent countless hours jamming on the tumbadoras with him in “la oficina”, soaking up as much as I could. It was there that my understanding of the drums and rhythms started becoming more internalized and innate. This knowledge has informed my music ever since.
When I formed PALO! in 2003, I was lucky to include two of the world’s greatest Cuban percussionists: Philbert Armenteros and Raymer Olalde. I learn from these master drummers every time we work together. They are largely responsible for the unique percussion sound of the band, which seems to be one of the aspects of PALO! that attracts many fans.
One of our biggest fans was a wonderful gentleman named Noly Perez. Noly was also a percussion aficionado, and loved playing congas at parties and get-togethers. Sadly, Noly passed away recently after a short illness. Of course, his family and friends were devastated. I felt helpless; I suppose dedicating a PALO! song to his memory was a nice gesture but it felt very small when compared to the huge gap that was left in the lives of his loved ones.
A couple of months ago I was contacted by his widow, the beautiful Lillian Queral Hernandez. She wanted me to have Noly’s congas; of course I accepted this incredible gift. I’ve wanted to have some congas in my studio for years, but I guess I was waiting for these drums. As I met with the gracious Lillian, she gave me some information about the congas and we chatted about Noly. I’m not sure if I made it clear to her how much it meant to me that she wanted me to have the congas, but I consider it a huge honor.
I began to do some research into the congas. I soon got in touch with Noly’s best friend, Dario Rosendo; they were both “Pedro Pan” kids. Dario is a fine percussionist and expert in percussion and Cuban music. Dario had owned these congas at one time, and knew most of their history. They are Gon Bops, manufactured in the late 1970s, originally purchased by Fermin Goytisolo, the great conguero for K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Dario was also a close friend to the legendary conga innovator Mongo Santamaria, who would sometimes use these drums when he had gigs in Miami. Apparently Ray Barretto, another one of my heroes, played them as well on a concert in Miami. But just as important to me was the fact that Noly spent years enjoying these drums in joyful moments of his life.
Unfortunately, due to some botched repair jobs over the years, all three drums were in desperate need of restoration. I was introduced to Enrique “Pachá” Navarro, who agreed to take on the job of returning the drums to a playable state, and bringing out their physical beauty. Pachá patiently accepted the challenge, fixing cracks, refinishing hardware, replacing skins, and restoring the wood. With the care of a museum curator, he put in many hours of planning and work, thoughtfully respecting the integrity of the drums and protecting their legacy.
These drums have great meaning to me. They will remain in my studio, a reminder of the power of music. May their resonance bring happiness and beauty to our future music.
This post is dedicated to Lillian Queral Hernandez in the memory of Noly Perez.