AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY
MASTER OF PHILOSOPHY IN MUSIC THESIS INTERVIEWS
DAVID ‘LA MOLE’ ORTIZ
Puerto Rican master drummer David Ortiz became known as ‘quinto mayor’ (“master of the quinto drum”) after his experience as a member of Rafael Cortijo Y Su Combo. He has performed with an array of artists including Eddie Palmieri and with his own ensemble The Omega Drums Project. He conducts workshops and clinics worldwide and his former students include Giovanni Hidalgo, Richie Flores, Anthony Carrillo and Jimmie Morales.
The following interview with David Ortiz was especially conducted for my Master of Philosophy in Music [By Research] thesis titled The Conga Drum: Development, Technique, Styles, Improvisations and the contribution of Master Drummer Ramon ‘Mongo’ Santamaria which I completed in 2008 at the ANU in Canberra. The thesis documents the conga drum’s historical development, investigates basic hand techniques and current technical hand developments, as well as the enormous contribution of master drummer Ramon 'Mongo' Santamaria, arguably the most influential player in the history of the instrument, exploring his percussive output as well as his ensemble, composition and arranging proficiency. I conducted this interview with David Ortiz via telephone.
PERTOUT: How did you start playing in Puerto Rico?
ORTIZ: I learned to play with my family since everybody knew how to play the congas, we use always have a rumba close to where we lived, but when I joined Rafael Cortijo Y Su Combo, that is where I really learned to play, to accompany big bands and to play in a conjunto.
PERTOUT: You have a wonderful reputation as a teacher as well.
ORTIZ: I have dedicated myself more at teaching in the last few decades. Since, I have been always aware of the developments of the Cuban players and of course in what takes place here with the Puerto Rican players, I realised that we have arrived at two diverse styles. The manner in which the Cubans and the Puerto Ricans play the conga are very different and I teach these differences to my students. I have a list of great students who are practicing professional musicians and I am in the process of featuring all of them with me in short films that I have been putting together here in Puerto Rico and that I have put on the internet at youtube.com.
PERTOUT: You possess wonderful technique, I wanted to ask you how you developed it? How and when did you decide to incorporate the drum rudiments on congas?
ORTIZ: My first student was a young Anthony Carrillo whom I was teaching as I was playing in a band with his dad. Then Anthony brought his nine year old friend with him, this was Giovanni Hidalgo. I use to watch young Giovanni incorporating all the drum rudiments which were originally intended for snare drum on congas. So my style developed very much like his because I spent so many years teaching, practising and playing together practically every day.
PERTOUT: So a young Giovanni was already developing the drum rudiments on congas?
ORTIZ: Yes he was already there. It was a natural progression for him. The majority of people who play the conga have taken a look at each rudiment and practiced hard to develop them. I noticed that, with Giovanni, it seemed more like a very natural development, almost an easy flow. I ended up following him in this quest as well and unconsciously developed the drum rudiments on congas. Later I would analyse the diverse sticking and was able to break them down and see a paradiddle, a double stroke roll and other rudiments giving me the ability to teach the techniques to my students.
PERTOUT: And so how do you see the technical side of congas which has now developed?
ORTIZ: When I analyse it, I realised that only a handful of Cuban players incorporate the drum rudiments in their playing. I know Changuito for example does not incorporate this on congas and apparently does not like it either. This was stated also in an educational video where Giovanni and Changuito were talking about this very subject and Changuito said he did not like to use these rudiments. But I really enjoy this new area of conga playing. I really like to incorporate them in my playing, for me they are like the soul, a beautiful complement. And I do teach this to my students. If I do a clinic somewhere and the students are at an advance level I always explain this to them, and we do use them all, flam, doubles, paradiddles, ruffs.
PERTOUT: How do you teach congas, what is the development you incorporate?
ORTIZ: The method of teaching I use starts with the basics, incorporating sounds, then patterns, then how to accompany, then I look at the diverse styles such as bomba, plena, rumba, if I see that the individual is quite advanced, like the students that you see on my youtube.com videos, then I go into the drum rudiments and show how to develop double strokes in an easier form. I always make sure to tell them though that they need to develop the drum rudiments but that they are not everything in conga playing. The conga is like a telephone, it's made up of many golpes but it is important to conversar or play the conga in a melodic manner. The drum rudiments are used when you need those extra bullets. I have to tell you in the 1980s I didn't use the drum rudiments. I realised slowly that I was developing them unconsciously. People use to point them out to me, they use to say "you seem to be using doubles," when I heard that I decided to seriously develop them.
PERTOUT: When did the method of achieving open double tones by using the ‘palm-fingers' technique develop? Who do you feel was responsible for that?
ORTIZ: I can tell you Alex truthfully, that extra-terrestrial being of our local history here is Giovanni Hidalgo. At three years of age he was already playing. With me he developed because we use to play every day, from Monday to Sunday. It was a really serious development time. This is when the method was born, while we were playing. But more and more talented individuals are coming up.
PERTOUT: When did Giovanni meet with Changuito?
ORTIZ: I believe he met Changuito when he went to Cuba in 1981 with the band Batacumbele, Giovanni would have been around eighteen years old as he is now forty-four. Now Changuito is a drummer but does not use drum rudiments on the conga drum, he has said he does not like the incorporation of them, but I feel that it is up to the player to look at what to incorporate. Look at Richie Flores he is a little younger then Giovanni and Anthony, but Anthony showed Richie the drum rudiments, Giovanni use to also show Richie little tricks. You know Alex one thing, I always told my students that if they were interested in competitions that they should go to the hippodrome and run with the horses. Here we don't do that, we are blessed with a touch from god and we develop this with time.
PERTOUT: How do you see the older generation of players?
ORTIZ: I admire all the Cuban players. The first time I heard Los Papines I said this is my group, they play rumba and do it beautifully. Mongo Santamaria and others of that style I feel that they played in a simpler style. Us, Puerto Ricans are the ones responsible with the development of new techniques on congas, ‘the modern sound’. Of the younger generation in Cuba I would have to say Miguel 'Anga' Diaz, may he rest in peace, use to possess quite a bit of technique. Now the young modern Cubans coming up are also incorporating these new techniques, the older generation didn't. Here in Puerto Rico we all use this, I know the Newyoricans use it and so do the players in California.
Telephone Interview. 3 July 2007.
© Alex Pertout. All rights reserved. No part of this article
may be reproduced without prior written permission from the author. This article forms part of the thesis ‘The Conga Drum: Development, Technique, Styles, Improvisations and the contribution of Master Drummer Ramon ‘Mongo’ Santamaria’ which was submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Philosophy in Music [by Research] Faculty of Arts, Australian National University.